A partnership between the Woodland Trust and the National Trust

What’s in the Box?

The hazel dormouse is one of those woodland animals that, just by its presence in the woods, gives us an indication of where the healthy habitats are. As a tree dwelling species, dormice need unbroken woodland cover to move around; foraging and finding a mate. They need a succession of food sources to keep them nourished and a selection of different nesting materials to protect them, and their offspring, from the elements and woodland predators. When all these factors come together, either through natural processes or careful woodland management, we may welcome this endearing little mammal to live among the trees and scrub of Fingle Woods but, how do we know where they are? The dormouse is also named the ‘common dormouse’ as, at one time, people living in the rural landscape were well acquainted with these little bundles of fur, but now, this not-so-common dormouse has become quite rare and we need to keep a careful eye on them to make sure we don’t lose them altogether.

Hazel dormice: charismatic animals with characteristic features

Being involved in the licenced monitoring of dormice can be a great pleasure. Getting close enough to individual creatures that, when the nest boxes are visited each spring, summer and autumn, you can recognise many of them that you have seen before, is a real privilege. The nest box checks follow a strict routine which minimises the level of intervention and disturbance, leaving them to go about their business, but this once-in-a-while insight only provides us with a snapshot of their lives. If we knew more about them, perhaps we could change what we do to increase their perilous chances of survival.

So, this summer, some of the Fingle dormice have been helping to trial some newly developed nest box cameras. A set of recording equipment that was designed by local expert Susan Young and assembled by ‘Techie’ Tom Williams has been field tested. The kit, housed in a waterproof box, comprises a digital video recorder, a rechargeable battery and a small screen all wired up to a tiny camera, looking inside the nest box.

After a few months of trials, we have recorded some fascinating behaviour. Firstly, we were concerned about whether the small infra-red camera would interfere with the natural behaviour of the dormice … but it appeared not. Once they had investigated the lens, protruding through the nest box lid, they settled down to do what dormice do, and this is what we found.

Back in June and July, with the summer heatwave in full swing, the dormice didn’t appear to be building nests in the boxes. And, why would they? In the wild, they would probably just hunker down in a crack in a tree or settle to rest in a clump of ivy; the insulation of a leafy nest wasn’t required. In normal circumstances, a dormouse nest box check might reveal “no dormice present” and we would move on. But, taking a closer look with a mini camera revealed at whole lot more.

Then, after a few weeks of hot, dry weather, the forecast suggested a night of rain. This, we thought, was an opportunity to capture some footage of a nest being built. Finding a box with a few leaves in it, we positioned the camera and crossed our fingers. When we returned after the very welcome rain we were excited to see what we had found. During the night, one soggy little dormouse brought in some leaves and spent a few hours creating a cosy nest. Seeing the deftness of their ability to roll up a large leaf, carry it through the tree canopy and unfurl it in the nest box was a real first.

With the lens now obscured, we moved the camera to another box. This time we were fortunate enough to find a very protective mother dormouse rearing two young. Her caring commitment to her twins was quite spellbinding. The way she preened them, protected them and fed them was, again, something that is not often witnessed in the wild. As the two young dormice grew, the mother moved out and left them to make the move into adulthood. With plenty of time for play, they weren’t in any particular hurry to move out.

But, and it can be a big ‘but’, the time to move out always comes. In the case of the two juvenile dormice, the big day came with the arrival of a large wood mouse that aggressively evicted them and took over their nest. After a ferocious battle, the young dormice escaped. Again, this is something that is rarely seen in the usual routine of monitoring dormice and quite a learning experience for the young dormice in their fight for survival.

So, what have we learned from two months of developing this prototype? We usually have to rely on the dormice building nests and leaving us clues as to their whereabouts, but this camera kit can provide us with a lot more than that. We can find out about how they construct their nests and manage our woods to favour their behaviour. We can also learn about their infant care and understand the threats from competitors and predators. Not a bad start for beginners!

The study will continue for a while and we may even attempt to record some of their high frequency communication and calls so, keep watching!

by Matt Parkins

Camera concept design: Susan Young

Electronic wizardry: Tom Williams

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