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After a busy week of hedgerows, harvest mice and River’s Week planning, time to relax…with a Dormouse Box Check!
9am in the woods at Furnace Place Estate (FPE), I met with Margaret, Wendy, Alan Mary and Nigel from the Haslemere Natural History Society (HNHS) who have been checking the boxes with me for the last two years. They were very patient through year one when we caught absolutely nothing vertebrate- not even a wood mouse! We’ve been rewarded this year with four individual dormice –two each male/female. We caught a pair in May, snoozing in their bracken and birch-leaf nest. We hoped they would breed but no sign yet. In June we picked up another male and July another female. We are able to identify individuals by giving them an individual fur-clip (requires L2 licence from Natural England).
I’m back from the site now where we found one individual but unfortunately it was too quick for the surveyor. We use a “stuffer”-a duster- which goes in the hole in the box to prevent its occupants fleeing before it’s taken from the tree for processing. This sharp-eared dormouse must have heard us coming and was out before stuffer was..er…stuffed. Still, good to know the animals are still about even if we can’t know which of our animals that was.
The Hazel Dormouse Muscardinus avellanarius is afforded the highest legal protection because of its declining UK population. It status as a European Protected Species (EPS) means that a licence is needed in order to survey and handle them. A Level 2 licence is needed to fur clip animals as part of a scientific study. Fur clipping helps us to identify individual animals and learn about their survival, breeding and dispersal (movement habits). This site will be registered as part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme run by Peoples Trust for Endangered Species so that our data can be used to keep track of the UK conservation status of these species.
49 dormice boxes at FPE set up in a grid pattern. By chance rather than by design the north-east tip of the grid eases out into more open habitat on Forestry Commission land (with their approval of course) which is regenerating woodland clear-fell. Of particular interest at this site is that all animals are being discovered in this habitat where birch, bramble and bracken dominates on very acid soils, and not in the oak-ash-hazel coppice woodland where the bulk of the boxes are. In fact we have caught nothing in two years in this habitat, not even a solitary wood-mouse. I’ve never come across this before in other sites I have monitored. Perhaps the dormice are hiding way up in the canopy and amongst the cavities and rot-holes in some rather splendid, rather tall oaks. Laughing.
<Pic of birch/bracken scrub to follow (5 boxes, 4 dormice)<
My own feeling is that the dark interior of this woodland provides less foraging opportunities than the scrub beyond. Studies from Europe show how Dormice respond very well to woodland management opening up the canopy and letting light into encourage understory growth of brambles and shrubs (e.g. Ramakers_etal_2014; Juskaitis2008_CommonDormouse_pp90-93 ; Juskaitis2008_CommonDormouse_pp18-25). I don’t have the data to support this from our site however, and there continues to be a dearth of published studies in the UK since Morris/ Bright’s in the 1990s and therefore strong differences in opinion in what constitutes good woodland management with dormice in mind. Following the Forestry Commission’s Best Practice Guidelines is the current standard.
In the meantime however here are some pictures of dormice nests composed of bracken and birch leaves without a bit of honeysuckle in sight.
I’m very grateful to the The Barlow’s who own Furnace Place Estate for allowing Surrey Wildlife Trust to monitor these woods for Dormice in collaboration with NHNS who through their members Wendy and Allan Novelle, also dormice monitors, supplied the FPE project with boxes. Landowners, Communities and organisations like Surrey Wildlife Trust working together for the benefit of wildlife is an essential part of SWTs Living Landscape vision. Chris Packham claimed dormice were a “conservation con” a few years back to the outrage of the monitoring community, although I recall he was really just bemoaning the improbability of discovering one of these fascinating mammals in the normal process of being a naturalist. Its my hope that where schemes like these give people the chance to discover these sleepy characters in their own local woods along with other natural gems, a sense of value and pride can be fostered in local natural places, and a plan to invest in retaining them into the future can be drawn up.