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Sunday night and I’m sat in a plush B&B in Tetbury, Gloucestershire with the rain lashing at the windows.  It hasn’t stopped to day- it was even a tough choice to decide on whether to drive up the M4 or sail! Tomorrow I’m leading another Hedgerows for Dormice Hedge Management Workshop this time at Duchy Home Farm courtesy of HRH Prince of Wales. Right now though I’m contemplating that song lyric – what a difference a day makes!

Yesterday was a beautiful day. I had a group of 7 volunteers out preparing a hedge line for planting on a farm in Haslemere; a stretch of hazel coppice on the farm is where the Surrey Dormice Group (SDG) have been monitoring a population of dormice for a number of years now for the National Dormice Monitoring Programme (NDMP). We were here doing what the HfD project is all about: connecting up known dormice sites to each other and to new woodlands across open, mostly farmed landscapes. We were clearing the fence line of bracken, bramble and cutting back grass to prepare for a new hedge that will connect up the NDMP site in the east with a large block of woodland in the west, across open fields.

The hedge will provide valuable new habitat for dormice and a new linkage to allow animals to move from one wood to the other across hostile open ground-something dormice, having evolved for an arboreal existence, are on the whole reluctant to do.

The morning sun had  evaded capture by the clouds that sought to take it prisoner and quickly warmed us up as we got to work. Soon skylarks were singing in the fields around us and two buzzards were drifting through the air calling out to each other.

The landscape here, as everywhere, owes much to past intervention by man. We are in fields that once were managed as a massive deer park, with connections going all the way back to King Harold. To the west , a mixture of broadleaved woodland and coniferous plantation drape the slopes around Gibbet Hill, at 272m (892ft) the second highest point in Surrey after Leith Hill. On a clear day it is possible to see London’s skyline 38 miles (61 km) away. On the summit of Gibbet Hill stands a Celtic cross that was erected there in the 19th century. In one account the cross was erected in 1851 by Sir William Erle to dispel the fears of the local residents about evil spirits. The area was one of disrepute due to the activities of highwaymen and robbers, the corpses of three of whom were formerly displayed there on a gibbet as punishment for their crimes. The general area is one of heathland and gorse, and was originally an area of the broomsquire, who would harvest the heather, broom, and birch branches to make brooms. As such it was often thought to be a pagan or heathen area. Much of the heathland area was replanted with conifers and  some deciduous woodland has naturally recolonised, although the National Trust have been doing a good job in clearing the top of Gibbet allowing the heathland to return. The land is owned by the National Trust, Forestry Commission and private landowners like those we are working with today. The broadleaved woodland includes some big areas in a commercial chestnut coppice rotation which featured on BBC Countryfile before Christmas.

I had built a fire to burn off the bracken and bramble but, looking for a dry patch amongst the wet flushes of the neighbouring field, I set the fire going on a site upwind of the volunteers, and they were all soon working in billowing smoke! They temporarily moved upwind until the breeze died down a little toward midday.

Work was necessarily slow because the vegetation needed to be hand checked for the dormice or their nests to insure none would be harmed by strimmer or slasher. At this time of year dormice would be hibernating on or beneath the ground. Dormice have been found in soggy piles of leaves beneath hedgerows but more commonly in a hazel stool. The temperature at ground level is much more stable over the winter allowing the dormice to hibernate without expending too much energy in temperature regulating in a shifting environment. Earlier this year I had out  15 nest tubes along the fence line and a neighbouring overgrown hedge- 3 sides of this field) and three dormice nests plus a live dormouse had been found by Ben and his SDG  survey team.

 We made excellent progress, clearing nearly 2/3 of the fence line ready for planting on 6th March. I have ordered a conservation mix hedge- so predominantly hawthorn with a few extras including wild plum. We already have a few trees along the fence line including some old hawthorns, a young oak and a chestnut but I will put in a few more- about 1 every 20m. There is a dearth of juvenile trees in the UK and we need to plant or recruit more if we are going to see mature trees in hedgerows in the future, and they are SO important for a host of species. For moths and bats they are probably more important than the hedgerows themselves. Where we found honeysuckle in the bramble we have kept it intact-it’s an excellent plant to have in a hedgerow providing both a nectar source and nesting material for dormice.

I was pleased with the turn-out today. Ben from the SDG had turned up and soon was making short work of the brambles. Marion and Paul are both training for their dormice licences and also members of SDG. Mel was looking to get back into conservation and had come up from Sussex, keeping her eye open for some land to buy to keep her horse on. Jenny and Mick came down for the morning- Jenny already has a horse, stabled in the field at bottom of our garden- they had both been out with me last year coppicing a hedge on the other side of Gibbet Hill. We were joined after lunch by Jasmin the landowner and her land-manager Susay.

Completely unexpectedly Jasmin offered us lunch- a wonderful chicken curry, with popadoms made by Susay’s wife. It was the real deal! Wow! It was hard to get back to work after that.

In the warm sunshine of the afternoon, I felt like I had travelled back 150 years, working with my team on the  land. I had a quick chat with Jasmin and Brian about the woodland on their land. Having recently taken over the property, they have been concentrating on renovating the farm buildings. They have been kind and interested enough to give permission for regular monitoring of the dormice in woodland to the east of their land but the western part remains untouched. This patch of woodland is actually continuous with the Forestry Commission owned wood on Gibbet which has had dormice records from it but Ben has been refused permission to monitor in these woods because it gets in the way of forestry operations (more on this soon…). A section of it has just recently been clear cut. The FC don’t always get it right with forest management for biodiversity because of the commercial pressure they are under. I had mentioned to the owners the possibility of getting an FC woodland grant to manage the woods and they have just tasked me with setting up a meeting with Richard Edwards from the FC (or at least he was when I last spoke to him) and so we can get the ball rolling.

It seems the Hedgerows for Dormice project is acheiving what it set out to do, just as we reach the end of our funding. But it was too nice a day to think about future uncertainties, and I was content to bask in the glow of a good days work, a job on the way to being done, and happy volunteers. And one day soon very happy and well fed dormice.

More pictures and an update once the hedge is planted on 6th March. If anyone is in the area and fancies a day out- I can’t promise a lunchtime curry but you never know!!

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