The great sleeper

Devon Life - - Outdoors -

Work­ing in con­ser­va­tion, there are mo­ments of sheer lifeaf­firm­ing joy and cor­re­spond­ing times when you feel so woe­fully un­able to af­fect the change which is so bla­tantly needed.

Feel­ing like some key species are slip­ping through your fingers is hor­ri­fy­ing. This year our monthly dor­mouse checks had proven fruit­less and, by late au­tumn, I was be­gin­ning to feel con­cerned.

Dormice are af­forded high lev­els of pro­tec­tion thanks to do­mes­tic and Euro­pean Law, and yet since 2000 the pop­u­la­tion of this charm­ing wood­land mouse has halved. Once com­mon, num­bers started to tum­ble in the mid 19th cen­tury and ac­cel­er­ated up to the mid eight­ies when they be­came a pro­tected species thanks to the Wildlife and Coun­try­side Act.

To dis­turb a dor­mouse or its nest, ei­ther know­ingly or reck­lessly, is a crime pun­ish­able with sub­stan­tial fines. All ecol­o­gists who work with dormice are li­censed and my li­cence cov­ers me to carry out monthly sur­veys of wood­land in East Devon as part of the Na­tional Dor­mouse Mon­i­tor­ing Scheme.

A grid of 50 wooden nest boxes is dis­trib­uted through a wood­land and a set pro­to­col of mon­i­tor­ing feeds into the na­tional scheme which has been run­ning for over 25 years.

Each month I in­spect the boxes, care­fully open­ing each to check for num­ber, sex, re­pro­duc­tive sta­tus of any dormice within. We reg­u­larly find other an­i­mals doss­ing in the dormice boxes and so we col­lect records of any wood­mice, shrews or bats. Nest­ing birds are pro­cessed into the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy ring­ing scheme and hor­nets are given re­spect­ful dis­tance!

In Oc­to­ber our penul­ti­mate sur­vey of the year was be­ing un­der­taken and we found a record num­ber of dormice in the boxes than ever in the 12-year his­tory of the sur­vey here - ten mice with four of them large and healthy young­sters!

Well, this is the fes­tive col­umn - I couldn’t bring you down with a sad story now, could I?

What is it though which makes dormice so com­pelling and so in need of pro­tect­ing? Last one first - the steep de­cline of the species is what makes in­ter­ven­tion in both pro­tec­tion and plan­ning con­di­tions so im­por­tant.

Habi­tat loss and frag­men­ta­tion is a ma­jor cause of the species de­cline and so it is ap­pro­pri­ate that when dor­mouse habi­tat is threat­ened by a de­vel­op­ment, it should be pro­tected or mit­i­ga­tion made for its loss.

As for the first point, why are they so flip­ping adorable?! Beauty, as we know, is in the eye of the be­holder and, while fab­u­lous crea­tures such as grass snakes or mud shrimp are a hard sell to the ma­jor­ity of non-na­ture-nuts, a gin­ger fluffy mouse is uni­ver­sally ap­peal­ing.

They are al­most ex­clu­sively ar­bo­real, with a life in the tree canopy giv­ing some rea­son why their pop­u­la­tions are usu­ally un­der-recorded. Where they live is very hard for us to ac­cess. Dur­ing the sum­mer months they clam­ber about in the branches, feast­ing on a va­ri­ety of in­sects and fruit while by mid au­tumn they will stuff them­selves full of ripe hazel­nuts, rich in oils, to lay down fat for their win­ter sleep.

The huge eyes which add so much to that aes­thetic are an adap­ta­tion to a noc­tur­nal life­style, and the fluffy gin­ger tail serves two pur­poses: it is pre­hen­sile and can grip branches in the tree­tops and is a win­ter snug­gler within which it wraps its face to sleep.

Dormice are prodi­gious sleep­ers and can put even the most ar­dent teenager to shame. If you are read­ing this edi­tion hot off the presses, our Devon dormice will have nev­er­the­less been asleep for six to eight weeks al­ready and will have no in­ten­tion of wak­en­ing un­til at least early April!

The rea­son for this mam­moth win­ter sleep is a lack of food. While other mice such as wood­mice will re­main ac­tive through the win­ter months, ek­ing out an ex­is­tence on the barest morsel of veg­e­ta­tion, dormice re­quire a diet high in car­bo­hy­drate and pro­tein which is easy to di­gest, so win­ter is a bar­ren time for them.

Their hind gut is miss­ing a sec­tion known as the cae­cum which is used by other ro­dents to di­gest cel­lu­lose. With­out this bit of tummy, they need a more spe­cialised diet which is ab­sent through late au­tumn, win­ter and early spring and so they have adapted to meet the chal­lenge.

This month we snug­gle in our cosy homes, decked to the rafters with fes­tive trim­mings and brace our­selves for a mid-win­ter feast which far pre­dates Christianity and marks an in­stinc­tive cel­e­bra­tion of sur­vival through lean times.

Spare a thought for our lit­tle dor­mouse, out there in the win­ter world, in a wo­ven nest of leaves with its fluffy tail wrapped over its nose, snor­ing gen­tly un­til the warmth of spring, stirs it from its se­ri­ous slum­ber. [email protected]


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