The great sleeper
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]