Ground Level Research in the Woods

As we descend into the depths of winter us humans may be thinking of how to keep ourselves warm. At home, we possibly have the option of turning up the heating or putting another log on the fire. If we are venturing out, we might put on a pair of gloves or perhaps dig out that Christmas jumper from last year; other suitably fashionable options are available.

If you are setting off for a winter walk in the woods, you’ll probably be wrapped up warm but spare a thought for the wild creatures that live there all the year round. Rain or shine, night or day, icy cold winds or infrequent Dartmoor warmth, each day and night they must find a way to cope. They have to adapt, to find shelter and enough food to stay alive. Each species has its own strategy for survival; some are well documented but others we know little about. We can educate ourselves by picking up a book or searching the internet, but even the experts don’t know it all. This is where research comes in and, in the woods around Dartmoor, some new work is going on this winter to find out more about hibernating dormice.

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Dormouse populations of the UK are under threat

Wearing tiny radio transmitters, a selection of dormice is being tracked into their hibernation nests where a team from the University of Exeter will learn more about their survival techniques during winter. We already know that dormice hibernate at ground level but our knowledge of exactly how, where and why is limited. Woodland managers and conservationists will benefit from this research as a hibernating dormouse is not easy to find among the leaf litter on the woodland floor. They are at great risk down there from predation and accidental damage and, being able to protect them will go a long way to ensuring the long term safeguarding of an icon of Devon’s wildlife.

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Joining the team of human researchers is one particularly talented dog. Charlie Brown, a chocolate Labrador, has previously been working with the University of Exeter Biosciences department to locate bats but is now deploying his skills to sniff out nests of hibernating dormice. Honing his skills in the Bovey Valley, Fingle Woods and other woods around Dartmoor he spent a few days in December with his handler Katharine, searching to find more nests than the radio tracking would otherwise reveal. He has a difficult task as the leaf litter on the woodland floor is crisscrossed with tracks used by a multitude of small mammals. Wood mice, bank voles and shrews will all leave their individual scents but Charlie Brown enjoys his challenge and is rewarded with his favorite squeaky blue ball when he finds a nest.

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By the time this research is over, woodland managers around the country will hopefully be able to identify areas where dormice are likely to be hibernating and protect them, conserve them and maintain dormouse numbers in our woods.

The People’s Trust for Endangered Species spend their time and energy protecting rare and endangered animals around the globe. Here in the UK they focus their efforts on species like the red squirrel and the hedgehog but one of their main areas of expertise is the protection the dormouse, a real woodland favourite. If you would like to find out more about Charlie Brown and his colleagues and the work of PTES please visit their website.

by Matt Parkins

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