Once a month, from May to October, I get to spend a day wandering about in the woods looking for dormice. Having been a Fingle Volunteer for a while, when the opportunity arose last spring to take part in dormouse surveys I jumped at the chance. Dormice are a protected species, and a licence is required to handle and monitor them. There are a group of seven of us who are currently training to be licensed dormouse handlers in Fingle Woods, under the tutelage of Chief Dormouser Matt Parkins.
There are 100 boxes in Fingle, spread over two monitoring sites, and each one has to be checked. A cloth is used to block up the entrance to the box so that the dormice can’t escape; then the lid is slowly slid off until the person checking can peer in to look for any signs of dormice. The boxes are never entirely empty; slugs, millipedes and woodlice are the most common inhabitants. Birds are very common in the spring ‒ blue tits especially ‒ and mammals can include wood mice and shrews, and even the odd bat. If a nest is present in a box, the shape and the material used will usually indicate whether it is the work of a dormouse or not; green leaves and honeysuckle bark are tell-tale signs.
If a dormouse or a promising nest is in the box, we carefully take the box off the tree and place it in a large plastic bag. We then remove the lid and gently look through the nest material to see if there is anyone at home. If a dormouse is present we need to catch it quickly so as not to cause too much stress to the animal. We then record its weight, age and breeding condition. They can be very lively so it takes a lot of practice to be able to handle them confidently. When our checks are complete, we put the dormouse back in the box and return it to the tree.
The data we collect is added to the National Dormouse Monitoring Project database; the results from across the country are analysed, and any changes in numbers and behaviour are noted so that efforts can be made to protect the woodland habitat which is vital for the conservation of this species. The project has shown that dormouse numbers are declining nationally, with the latest analysis indicating a decline of around 70% since 1993. However there is a good population here in Devon, and with the restoration of Fingle Woods we have the opportunity to monitor the population while that work is ongoing, and to ensure that we safeguard this dormouse habitat for the future. It is a real privilege to learn about, monitor and handle these endearing little creatures.
by Emma Kelly
photos: Martin Rogers, Emma Kelly, Matt Parkins