The Simple Things

Magical creatures


- Words: LARA DUNN

AsI st roll oh-so-quietly through the fields and woods, I take care to listen for a whisper of rustling in foliage, perhaps the faint patter of paws on a branch overhead, or hope to spot a flash of golden-brown fur scuttling under leaf litter – a precious sighting of the elusive dormouse. The only small British mammal to possess a furry tail, a tail well-employed as a pillow in times of need, the Hazel dormouse lives up to its name by favouring hazel trees as both a larder and dormitory. It also has a reputation for torpor – as the drowsy dormouse at the famous tea party in Alice in Wonderland remarks “You might just as well say that I breathe when I sleep is the same thing as I sleep when I breathe.” It’s true that the nocturnal dormouse spends half of its year in hibernatio­n and snoozes for a good chunk of its supposedly active season, but it’s believed this contribute­s to its unusually long lifespan. Even its name is thought to stem from the Latin word for sleep.

But the diminutive dormouse is far from lazy, sensibly conserving its energy for summer, when a cosy thistle down lined bower is carefully constructe­d in a tree or hedge for a single litter of around four young, born in July or August. Mid-autumn brings a bounty of hazelnuts which, alongside plentiful blackberri­es and chestnuts, fattens up the family for the long, lean months of winter sleep.

Traditiona­lly coppiced woodlands and hedgerows are their preferred abode, with agile, long-toed feet making the dormouse well-suited to life above ground and keeping safely away from predators. The dormouse is currently in decline in southern England and Wales, with a population drop of over 70% since 1993. However, over the past decade the species has unexpected­ly begun to thrive in County Kildare – historical­ly, Ireland had no native dormice – where hedgerows are still maintained using traditiona­l low impact methods compared to the often machine-cut hedgerows of England.

Although arboreal in its day-to-day habits (or should that be night-to-night?), this big-eyed, tiny-bodied creature hibernates on the ground, in a nest woven just below the surface among branches, logs and leaf litter. Over the winter months, the dormouse’s pulse and breathing rate slow by 90% and its body temperatur­e drops to that of its surroundin­gs, allowing it to use as little energy as possible. Upon waking in full spring

(so, just about now), the ravenous rodent makes a beeline for the pollen-rich blossom of hawthorn and oak trees, moving on to honeysuckl­e flowers, caterpilla­rs and insects as the weather gets warmer.

Being mostly nocturnal as well as increasing­ly rare and naturally elusive, sadly the closest I’ve ever come to a dormouse sighting is trace evidence from a woodland supper – the telltale nibbled green hazelnuts scattered on the ground. But it’s enough to know these charming creatures are out there somewhere, sleeping soundly. However, they’re more easily spottable in the delightful­ly intricate pen and ink dormouse studies by Beatrix Potter, several of which are on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum. In common with many Victorian children, the writer and illustrato­r had her own pet dormouse, which she named Xarifa. Not the most dynamic of companions I imagine, but undeniably cute.

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