Until last Thursday my husband had never seen a dormouse, which is why, when my May survey was due, I decided it was about time I took him with me instead of one of my usual assistants.
Things didn’t bode well on the day when I was woken in the early hours by torrential rain rattling on the roof. I lay listening for what seemed like an age, and by the time I finally fell asleep I had resigned myself to postponement and a mountain of paperwork. I’m not worried about getting wet, but dormice fur isn’t particularly waterproof, and if they escape and get soaked with rain it can lead to hypothermia.
Miraculously, by the time we had eaten breakfast there was a window in the weather, so we were able to go ahead. I survey two sites for the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme. Towerhouse Wood, behind my house, where it all started, and Jubilee Stone Wood in nearby Backwell. We went to Backwell as the dormice in Towerhouse Wood rarely turn up in boxes until late summer. Towerhouse was pencilled in for the following day.
Dormouse boxes look very much like standard bird boxes, but the hole is in the back and wooden battens separate it from the trunk of the tree so the dormouse can slip in easily.
If the design was intended to keep birds out it is singularly ineffective. Every year about a third of my boxes are occupied by blue tits or great tits, wrens seem to like them too, and I have even seen one used by a nuthatch. I love the idea that they support birds as well as dormice, and it doesn’t seem to matter, as the dormice move in once the birds have moved out.
The boxes are fixed at chest hight, for the benefit of the surveyors rather than the dormice. Checking dozens of boxes every month from April to October with ladders would be very time consuming, and a health and safety nightmare! The checking procedure is to approach the box very quietly and carefully block the hole with a duster. The lid is then opened a crack, and if there is any nesting material the box is taken down and opened inside a large plastic bag. As dormice are fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, this requires a licence which involves quite a high level of training.
The first box we opened contained two wood mice, which was a promising start. A few boxes later I thought we had found some more. I could see the brown leaves typical of a wood mouse nest, but when I put the box in a plastic bag and removed the lid there were a few fresh green ones as well. Underneath the leaves was a beautiful woven structure a bit smaller than a tennis ball. This was a dormouse nest, and it was occupied.
The dormouse was curled up into a ball, so still you could scarcely see it breathing, and surprisingly cool to the touch. It was in a deep, energy conserving, sleep called torpor. Dormice can go into torpor at any time of year, not just during hibernation, and in this sleepy state, they are nothing short of delightful.
Most people think of dormice as being permanently dozy, but when they are wide awake they are the personification of ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed’ and can move like quicksilver. Torpid dormice are much easier to handle, until it comes to determining their sex. I always feel I am subjecting them to a gross indignity as I gently try to move the tail and unwrap them enough to see the relevant parts (not easy at the best of times, especially when you need new glasses). This lovely creature stirred slightly, got a good grip on my thumb and settled down comfortably to continue her nap. It resulted in the type of photograph that makes the dormouse, although rarely seen, one of the most beloved of British mammals.
During the course of the morning we found another torpid dormouse covered in a thin layer of green leaves. I joked that it must be a boy because it was too lazy to make a proper nest, it was!
In addition to the wood mice, and dormice, we found ten yellow-necked mice. There were two boxes with two in each, and one with six youngsters which exploded out like little rockets, and took several minutes to calm down enough for me to count them.
Although they have an unfortunate reputation for biting the unwary I have a soft spot for yellow-necks. They are handsome, slightly larger, relatives of the wood mouse distinguished by a yellow band across their neck and chest. I love them for their feistiness and their glossy chestnut coats.
It’s over five years since I earned my dormouse licence and I still feel enormously privileged to work with these beautiful animals. It is always a pleasure to give someone their first glimpse, and it was particularly special to share this most successful of dormouse days with my husband.