A group of Fingle Woods volunteers has had a successful year learning how to monitor a vulnerable and declining woodland species. The hazel dormouse is one of the treasured creatures of our woods and, to help us to understand more about the wildlife of Fingle, a few sets of nest boxes have been strategically positioned in parts of the wood. The presence of dormice can be an indicator of good quality habitat which is a helpful way to measure the progress of the ancient woodland restoration.
As dormice are protected by European and UK legislation including the Wildlife and Countryside Act, a licence is required to handle and monitor them and the first of the group to complete the training is Jess Smallcombe who is also an Assistant Ecologist at Acorn Ecology based in Exeter. Over the last two years she has committed time each month to check the nest boxes and learn the skills to carefully handle and record information about each dormouse found. Fitting this training in around her other wildlife monitoring work, Jess has become an experienced small mammal surveyor. After many long nights counting bats in and out of their roosts she found the time to join the volunteers for daytime training in the woods. Commitment has been key to her success and, with a Level 1 Class Licence to handle dormice she will be able to use her skills in her professional life.
They might be some of the most endearing animals in the woods but there’s some serious science behind the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme. With a national repository of information, the patterns of dormouse behaviour across the country are recorded and analysed. Any population trends or shifts in their behaviour can be spotted, then targeted remedial action can be taken to protect habitats and conserve the species. In general, the species is in decline but we know that Devon is one of the strongholds for the dormouse and woodland restoration projects such as at Fingle Woods will play an important role in maintaining this position. Woodland managers can learn a lot about the local populations of any wildlife by studying them regularly over a long period and this is where a team of skilled volunteers comes in. Once they have their handling licence they will be able to survey the nest boxes around Fingle Woods every month through the spring, summer and autumn, leaving the dormice to hibernate through the winter. Their results will provide an indication of the numbers of dormice present in each part of the wood and their needs can be considered when planning the next action to be taken in the woodland restoration programme.
As the rest of the group build up their monitoring skills over the coming year they will continue to gain the experienced needed to become licenced monitors and enjoy the privilege it is to get so close to nature.
by Matt Parkins
Photos of the volunteers in action by Martin Rogers