The reputation of the dormouse is a drowsy, dozy little creature that spends half its life asleep but, while this is partly true, when the dormice of Fingle Woods are active, they are very lively. During the spring, summer and autumn they are super-agile, bustling around the woods, foraging in the trees and raising the next generation before settling down to hibernate through the winter. The Fingle volunteers-in-training mirror this get-up-and-go through the warmer months with a flurry of activity, checking nest boxes and recording their observations of our local dormouse population. But, as the end of the year approaches and before the winter is fully underway, a final check of the nest boxes needs to take place – then it’s time for us all to take a break.
During the final check and nest box tidy-up, the chances of finding a plump, hibernating dormouse are slim as, by December, they should all be in their hibernation nests down among the leaves at ground level. After each busy season, with all the ins-and-outs of various birds, insects, slugs and spiders, the nest boxes can tell all sorts of stories of the previous months’ activities among the trees; stories that are only revealed when clearing out the old nesting material at the end of the year.
The story this winter …
This is also a good time to reflect on how the trainees have been getting on and how their monitoring skills and ecological knowledge has developed through the year. There are two main dormouse monitoring areas at Fingle Woods, though other nest boxes are used to keep an eye on their movements in other areas. The first set of boxes, down by the river revealed that there were lower numbers of dormice than in previous years but, by the autumn, there were quite a few active nests. This low rate of sightings is not necessarily a bad thing because, in all probability, the dormice are using natural nest sites. At least one of the dormice found there was a juvenile, indicating another successful breeding year.Higher up the hill on the road to Mardon Down, the nest box checks told a very different story. The dormice in this area have been very busy this year, starting in May with some adults in breeding condition. All through the summer a number of juveniles were found then, as autumn progressed, they showed the weight gain in preparation for hibernation. Dormice can easily increase their weight by 50% in the weeks before hibernation and they are sometimes found in a state of torpor during the autumn.
So, the dormice have had a good year but, how have the volunteers fared? During the monthly check from May to October they have worked hard and learned a lot. Combining the Fingle surveys with the experience from monitoring some sites around Okehampton, three of the team have become competent enough to go it alone. They have reached a standard to gain their own handling licence – all monitoring of protected species is regulated by Natural England. Now they can either monitor dormice as volunteers or use their skills in a career in ecology or landscape management advice.
As a group they have bonded and created an enjoyable learning environment. They have a much greater understanding of the species now, though they haven’t yet started to curl up in a ball in a nest but will perhaps make a little weight gain over the festive period before the spring time activity starts again.
by Matt Parkins
Please note: Dormouse Squad is made up of a group of people who commit a day and a half per month for at least two years to work towards becoming a licensed dormouse monitor. There will be some spaces available in the group from Spring 2018 and we are looking for local volunteers who are interested in woodland ecology and who would like to help with monitoring the Fingle dormice in the longer term.