You would be hard-pressed to find a more vibrant display of natural life than a family of dormice launching themselves, as if spring-loaded, out of their nesting box. This isn’t an uncommon sight when checking the nesting boxes that have been nestled away in the hazel coppice within Hisley Woods. At peak nesting season in September an impressive eighteen dormice were observed in one days monitoring, with two boxes hosting entire families numbering five and six individuals!
After being weighed, aged, sexed and checked for good health they are returned to the warm sanctuary of their beautifully woven nest within the monitoring box
The dormice appeared to be breeding well and the majority were lively and healthy; many weighing in slightly above what is expected, suggesting they’re having no trouble finding food (such as hazelnuts and blackberries). This is good news, as September’s the time of year for frantic foraging as the dormice ensure they have enough fat reserves to make it through their long winter sleep.
The high numbers of dormice observed is encouraging, especially considering that last year a report showed that Britain’s dormice have declined by a third since 2000 due to loss and fragmentation of their woodland habitat, changes in land management and a warmer climate which disrupts their hibernation patterns. This highlights how valuable the woodland that spans the Bovey Valley is, not just as a sanctuary/stronghold for dormice populations, but also because it provides a connected expanse of woodland leading towards the cooler uplands that could provide resilience for dormice in the face of climate change.
A series of boxes and tubes have been placed throughout the Bovey Valley and are checked monthly during the warmer months when the dormice are active before they hibernate from October/November to April/May. As well as allowing us to track the health and abundance of dormice, the monitoring serves to inform management decisions. For example in the Bovey Valley conifer stands are currently being managed to make way for broadleaf woodland, and the monitoring helps inform where the dormice are, and what time of year the felling should take place in order to minimise negative impacts and disturbance.
Dormouse monitoring and tracking has revealed that whilst the dormice are still active they remain relatively undisturbed by nearby felling activity. They have even been recorded exploring and foraging felling sites at night after the machinery has been at work earlier in the day. However, they are vulnerable whilst hibernating as they do so at ground level amongst leaf litter. Therefore the felling of larch next to the hazel coppice in Hisley takes place before the hibernation season.
The dormice require mixed woodland habitats that are underpinned by a robust web of ecology, which can be complemented by human activities such as coppicing – a traditional practice that provides varying structures of woodland. Hazel coppice as shown below provides great nesting opportunities amongst the stools, as well as ample food in the form of hazel nuts. A revival of traditional practices such as coppicing would help increase and stabilise dormouse populations.
It’s very encouraging to find such healthy populations throughout the Bovey Valley, however it’s important to consider the wider context; the hazel dormouse has been lost from 17 English counties since 1885. Hopefully monitoring schemes like this will inform management to be more sensitive towards dormice and also promote regeneration and reconnection of our native woodland habitats to help recover populations of this charismatic creature.
Please do not tamper with or check any boxes you see! Only qualified dormouse handlers are allowed to handle dormice and at least a month is left between monitoring to reduce disturbance – Thank you.
Written by Eric Swithinbank, MTMTE/NE Conservation Assistant