What you can do to help dormice in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire
PUBLISHED: 14:59 12 December 2016 | UPDATED: 14:59 12 December 2016
Quiet, please! It's time for the dormice to nap their way through winter, so Sue Bromley's tiptoed up to the nest boxes
Consider yourself lucky if you’ve seen a hazel dormouse, not only because they are usually only active at night, searching for food in the likes of the tops of hawthorn, crab apple and naturally hazel trees, but because this is a threatened species vulnerable to extinction.
A priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, they are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. While some make nests in undergrowth or just below ground, many more rely on boxes provided by wildlife groups and you actually need a licence to look in one of these ‘homes’, demonstrating how important the fight to save the species is.
There are monitored nest boxes in Berkshire and the Berkshire Mammal Group, set up at the end of 2010, has made surveying dormice a priority. It’s been a mixed bag of results – in keeping with studies across Southern England and Wales where the hazel dormice are now still found, having once covered much of Britain.
Across both counties old records of the sites of dormice communities have been checked, often now revealing no signs of activity, such as the way they chew and open hazel nut shells.
In Buckinghamshire there are communities of dormice, such as the ones living in Little Linford Wood near Milton Keynes, a perfect choice of residence as beneath the oaks and ash giants in this ancient woodland can be found hazel and other fruit and berry trees much loved by dormice.
It’s important not to confuse our native dormice with the introduced species of glis-glis that have become a nuisance in the Chilterns – it won’t be the shy hazel dormouse keeping you awake at night with its tapping and chewing in the attic.
Little Linford was taken over by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust in the early 1980s and it’s been a long term project to restore it as a haven for species including woodpeckers and nuthatches.
The exact number of hazel dormice in the UK is unknown, but a recent survey suggests the population may have declined by as much as a third since the start of this century. This year’s State of Nature report records how dormice have been successfully re-established at five sites, but with limited success in dispersal to new nesting areas, and re-introductions at some other sites appear to have failed.
There are several reasons for this. Developments and roads can cut off dormice from their favourite feeding spots – they don’t tend to travel more than 70m or so from ‘base’ and so it’s easy for communities to die out, particularly as they are ‘slow breeders’ over a lifespan of around four years.
Then there’s the fact that they only tend to thrive in old woodland, so newer planting may be good for us as a whole, but of no benefit to the hazel dormouse. Woodland management hasn’t always taken into account their need for undergrowth, so clearance in the past may have destroyed their preferred habitat. Similarly, cutting of hedgerows before they produce berries, or their actual removal, may keep everything looking neat and tidy but leaves the dormice starving – another way a community that never travels far can die out within a few years.
It seems that once dormice disappear from an area it’s very difficult to bring them back. Let’s do our best not to make the survival of these tiny creatures any more difficult.
How you can help
Become a volunteer at one of our local wildlife groups. If you have hedgerows, hazel or other fruit and nut trees on your land, think carefully about their management – other native species will also benefit.