25. Saving the dozy dormouse by Kevin O'Hara
Wednesday 13th April 2011
© Tom Chalmers
I’m going to stick with the woodland theme again this week, as I have recently had the opportunity to contribute to the management and ecology of one of our Trust’s woodland reserves. We are very fortunate at the Trust to get some great sponsorship from the People’s Postcode Lottery that enables us to implement a variety of vital conservation work that we would not easily be able to carry out otherwise.
Briarwood Banks is not in the Blyth-Morpeth vicinity, but it does share some very similar characteristics with the woodland of the two valleys, not least of which is the possibility of hosting one of the country’s smallest, rarest and most enigmatic creatures present in the north-east of England, the rather ironically-named Common or Hazel dormouse.
There is only one native species of dormouse in Britain, whose basic biology is very different from that of ordinary ‘mice’. The hazel dormouse is a distinctive native mammal that is infrequently seen owing to its rarity and nocturnal habits. It is rarely caught in traps or by predators such as cats and owls, so it is easily overlooked even when present.
Moreover, it spends most of its active time high off the ground and passes at least a third of the year in profound hibernation, again making it unlikely to be seen by the casual observer. Dormice hibernate on or under the ground, from around October until March or April. The dormouse was often commonly found by woodland workers during coppicing and hedge-laying operations, who would often take these attractive animals home to show to their children. The dormouse is therefore a familiar species, despite being rarely encountered in the wild.
The most northerly populations are in and around our site near Hexham, which begs the question ‘why?’. Well, again it is down to lack of traditional and appropriate woodland practices, poor management and reduction of hedgerows, and a general paucity of woodland in the north. Dormice were, however, more widespread just over a hundred years ago, with records from the main Wansbeck valley and river Font valleys.
We only know of their presence in Briarwood Banks because we have found their characteristic feeding signs; the last live one to be actually seen was over two years ago on neighbouring land. Through grants by the Forestry Commission we have been able to increase our woodland management to favour dormice, and with the assistance of the Postcode Lottery funding, I was assisted by some very helpful volunteers in erecting 25 dormouse nest-boxes on site to support our monitoring programme.
It got me thinking though, of the past locations dormice had been recorded in and whether they might still be there. The main reason dormice continued to live in the present location was because the woodland survived; even after WWI there were still substantial woodland areas left, due to the difficulty of removing the timber. Perhaps this explains why the woodlands along the Wansbeck still survive today too?
So if the woodlands are the same why are no dormice still present? Well, that answer is simple: we really don’t know, because of the difficulties outlined in finding the species. Another reason is that the woodlands of Briarwood, along with adjacent lands, have been in conservation management for a number of years, and have been specifically monitored and surveyed significantly more than other woodlands might be. These creatures may still be in existence along the river Font, as there are plenty of hazel and honeysuckle plants (two of the dormice’s favourites), but this truly is an enigmatic creature and without really looking very hard for signs, we really will not know.
So here is a challenge for all you budding wildlife detectives: go looking for gnawed hazel nuts, or stripped honeysuckle fronds. The hole left by a dormouse in a hazel nut is very characteristic, with a very smooth circular hole without teeth marks on the outside of the shell. In addition, if anybody has records of a dormouse, no matter how old, that would be useful too, so drop me a line. You never know, they may still be out there.