As quiet as a dor­mouse

David Pro­fumo takes a closer look at the crea­ture that spends a mere quar­ter of its life awake

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

The com­mon dor­mouse isn’t re­ally a mouse, nor is it nowa­days par­tic­u­larly com­mon. This strangely en­dear­ing lit­tle ro­dent is sel­dom seen—be­ing both noc­tur­nal and ar­bo­real—and is a by­word for som­no­lence, spend­ing up to three-quar­ters of its life asleep.

Our two Bri­tish species are markedly dif­fer­ent. The smaller, na­tive com­mon or ‘hazel’ dor­mouse (Mus­cardi­nus avel­la­narius) is more murine in ap­pearence, whereas the much larger ‘ed­i­ble’ va­ri­ety (My­oxus glis— once fat­tened in earth­en­ware jars as an an­cient etr­uscan del­i­cacy) is bushier tailed and some­what re­sem­bles a young grey squir­rel. Orig­i­nally in­tro­duced by Wal­ter Roth­schild at Tring Park in 1902, the lat­ter’s pop­u­la­tion is largely con­fined to the Chilterns, where they can be a house­hold pest, gnaw­ing at ca­bles and even bit­ing hu­mans.

The com­mon dor­mouse is widely dis­trib­uted across europe and Asia Mi­nor, but, here, its pres­ence is patchy, with heart­lands re­main­ing in Sur­rey, Devon, Kent and cen­tral Wales. It has sel­dom been found north of Durham and is ab­sent from Scot­land and Ire­land. It was once more wide­spread and, in Vic­to­rian times, was of­ten tamed as a pet; Beatrix Pot­ter kept one and the nat­u­ral­ist Thor­burn had a doz­ing-mouse that es­tab­lished its dor­mi­tory in his can­vas sketch­ing um­brella.

With a body mea­sur­ing 3in and a tail of sim­i­lar length, he’s a natty lit­tle fel­low with a pointed face, prom­i­nent dark eyes and lively vib­ris­sae. The soft pelage varies from a de­mer­ara-sugar hue to red­dish or even black, but it’s not wa­ter­proof, mak­ing misty morn­ings or damp sum­mers a mis­ery. The long, feath­ery tail (one in 10 of which is white-tipped) is cov­ered in such del­i­cate skin that it will eas­ily peel off—a way of elud­ing the grasp of such preda­tors as bad­gers and tawny owls. Folk­lore as­serts that the lit­tle golden der­ry­mouse is im­mune to the venom of vipers.

Dormice (the plu­ral some­how sounds es­pe­cially pleas­ing) fre­quent the fringes of de­cid­u­ous wood­lands—a sim­i­lar habi­tat to nightin­gales—with a pref­er­ence for sec­ond­growth ch­est­nut, beech and hazel. They sel­dom de­scend to ground level, but are ag­ile aloft in the canopy of branches and, be­ing dou­ble-jointed, can run down trunks head­first. A de­cline in the prac­tice of ro­ta­tion cop­pic­ing—once vi­tal for char­coal and wattle-pole pro­duc­tion—has re­duced dor­mouse num­bers, which have shrunk by some 38% since 2000. The cur­rent UK es­ti­mate is about 45,000.

When they emerge in May from their five months of hi­ber­na­tion, dormice first feed on hawthorn pollen, then on honey­suckle nec­tar. Their diet is sea­sonal and in­cludes aphids and cater­pil­lars in sum­mer, then the berry har­vest of au­tumn. Pos­sess­ing no cae­cum, they can’t di­gest the cel­lu­lose con­tent of most leaves. hazel­nuts are their chief de­light, which they tackle while they’re still soft and green on the bough; the pro­tein-rich ker­nels are ex­tracted by nib­bling a cav­ity that leaves tell­tale chis­el­marks in­side its rim. By the end of Oc­to­ber, the dor­mouse must dou­ble the re­serves of its body fat in prepa­ra­tion for win­ter.

Al­though the ori­gin of its english name is ob­scure, I’ve al­ways liked the idea that it de­rives from dormeuse (a type of night­cap). Gen­er­ally slug­gish by day, the dor­mouse ad­di­tion­ally en­ters pe­ri­ods of ex­tended tor­por in sum­mer—a state of aes­ti­va­tion that can render it vul­ner­a­ble. It may be found in three dif­fer­ent types of nest. The spher­i­cal sum­mer nest is grapefruit-sized, usu­ally lo­cated sev­eral feet off the ground and of­ten fash­ioned from honey­suckle bark. The breed­ing nest— be­ing pre­pared in June—is larger and lined with this­tle­down (they’re no­tably clean crea­tures). The hi­ber­nac­u­lum is con­structed on or be­low ground, fre­quently in leaf lit­ter.

From Oc­to­ber un­til late spring, the ‘sev­ensleeper’ slum­bers be­neath tree stumps or in haystacks, tail swept around its face, wheez­ing gen­tly. Its heart­beat drops to one tenth of the nor­mal rate to min­imise con­sump­tion of en­ergy. Mild win­ters don’t suit the dor­mouse, as any awak­en­ings ex­pend pre­cious bod­ily re­serves. Cli­mate change is not prov­ing kind to them.

Un­usu­ally for a small mam­mal, the hazel mouse pro­duces a sin­gle, late lit­ter (wood mice can man­age six lit­ters a year). Breed­ing peaks in June, but lit­tle is known of its love life. Per­haps be­cause it spends just a quar­ter of its life­span awake, the dor­mouse is blessed with longevity, liv­ing up to four years (the vole has a life ex­pectancy of just six months).

The most cel­e­brated lit­er­ary dor­mouse ap­pears in the Mad hat­ter’s Tea Party, where it’s be­ing used as a cush­ion and speaks of trea­cle wells. Some­what im­prob­a­bly, be­cause of the hal­lu­cino­genic as­so­ci­a­tions of Won­der­land’s hookah-suck­ing cater­pil­lar, this scene fea­tures in the nar­colyrics of Jef­fer­son Air­plane’s song White

Rab­bit, which ends: ‘Re­mem­ber what the dor­mouse said/ Feed your head, feed your head.’

Carroll’s cre­ation more en­dear­ingly main­tains: ‘I wasn’t asleep… I heard ev­ery word you fel­lows were say­ing.’

‘The most cel­e­brated dor­mouse ap­pears in the Mad Hat­ter’s Tea Party

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