Looking for dormice

This is a piece, again for the Suffolk Magazine, looking for dormice in an ancient woodland. The surveying was carried out under licence. Many thanks to Hamish, Alison and Dave for being such patient hosts.

The nest is tiny. Intricate strips of straw-thin bark, possibly honeysuckle, woven carefully into a ball slightly bigger than a child’s fist. A hazel leaf, still damp and impossibly green, is draped like a duvet over an end already decorated with a swag of freshly plucked sedge. I gently place my finger inside the nest’s opening, feeling its softness, the tight structure and the lingering warmth from the just-departed hazel dormouse.

I hand it back to David, part of a Suffolk Wildlife Trust team that has been monitoring the 50 nest tubes in this woodland site since March – recording everything from signs of breeding to the animal’s weight.  Unless, of course, the dormice spot the surveyor first. David explains, with some frustration, how he saw this one leave, rocketing off in a caramel-coloured blur before he could block the nest tube’s entrance with his wodge of kitchen sponge.

To add insult to injury she – I’m told the tidiness of the nest suggests the dormouse is female – didn’t go far, perching out of reach in the higher branches of the coppice and watching David’s movements through rain-soaked undergrowth with dark, unblinking eyes.

But to be honest, to get even this close to a dormouse feels like a victory. A creature of the woodland edge and understorey, dormice are shy, nocturnal and largely arboreal, going to ground in the autumn to hibernate. Once relatively common, a decline in traditional woodland management techniques has left them without vital habitat and under real threat of extinction.

In this Suffolk woodland – I’m not allowed to say which one due to previous problems with illegal disturbance – they now seem to be doing well. The long-established coppicing regime has allowed dense scrub to develop beneath the hazel stools, creating infinite routes for dormice (who rarely roam further than 100m) to forage for the pollen, berries, occasional insect and hazelnuts that make up their diet.

I leave David making notes on sodden paper that threatens to disintegrate under his pen and walk up the path to where I can see Hamish and Alison are taking it in turns to dive into thick cover. Hoods-up and protected by waterproofs they are still drenched from rain that clings to whipping branches and dribbles from leaves. Seeds spatter the fronts of their jackets and trousers.

Alison, an ecologist with the Trust, pauses to tease burrs from her hair – the result of a head-long search for a nest tube in a particularly dense thicket. She sees me watching and laughs. “It’s a glamorous job isn’t it? Unfortunately what is good habitat for dormice is not quite so good for surveyors.”

She wades back into the scrub to look for one of the last tubes, number 49, passing it carefully to Hamish. He lowers it into a plastic bag and starts to remove the sponge stopper.  “Feels heavy”, he says smiling. Before I can answer the dormouse is out and jumping; a tiny, almost unbearably cute bolt of ginger lightning, perfect tiny pads scrabbling against the grip-free surface. Once weighed, Hamish reaches into the bag and carefully scoops the dormouse up, allowing the pink, twitching nose and fan of dark whiskers to poke through his cupped fingers. He expertly flips the dormouse over and the team leans in to get a view of the nether regions and dexterous tail.

“Male”, says Alison, “and look, he’s been breeding.” She soberly points to grey patches of skin where the golden fur has been worn away and explains it is the result of prolonged amorous activity. I try not to grin. It seems it is not just the Trust that is working hard to protect dormouse populations.

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