Discover our county's dormice
PUBLISHED: 20:09 22 July 2014 | UPDATED: 20:09 22 July 2014
Writtle College lecturer Alan Roscoe shares his fascination with one of our smallest mammals and explains why our county has a very important role to play in its survival
I have never heard Essex described as, ‘God’s own county’ — apparently somewhere else lays claim to that title — but to my mind it could easily be described as such.
With a wealth of historic wooded landscapes, beautiful villages and the longest and most fascinating coastline in Britain, we are spoiled in terms of the variety and extent of the county’s habitats and this diversity is reflected in the wide range of wild animals that call Essex home. Within this huge range of species, some of which are rare or threatened, the dormouse must surely be the most charismatic.
The dormouse, or more accurately the hazel dormouse, is a species which very few people have seen, but which readers may have found described in the pages of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You may recall that the Mad Hatter tips the dormouse into a teapot, irritated by its constant sleepiness. And therein, lies the name.
The dormouse spends at least four months of the year in hibernation and it is thought that the French for ‘to sleep’ (dormir) may possibly be the root of its name. Even during the summer months it may slip into a state of torpor, should food become less available. Add to that its habit of slumbering during the day and we have an animal which appreciates its beauty sleep.
A native, nocturnal species, the dormouse was formerly widespread across most of England and Wales. It is now confined predominantly to the southern counties of England, with particular strongholds south of the Thames. In Essex it is clustered around centres of population in the Southend area, near Chelmsford and Stock, and in the northeast around Colchester. Our hazel dormouse should not to be confused with the edible dormouse, a non-native species more akin to a squirrel, which is mostly found in the Chilterns.
Unfortunately, the dormouse has seen one of its preferred habitats, coppiced woodland, become more and more fragmented due to a national decline in coppice management. Between 1900 and 1970 there was a drastic reduction in the extent of actively managed coppice, perhaps by as much as 90% nationally. This put enormous strain on some populations of dormouse and the almost complete abandonment of coppicing in northern counties almost certainly accounted for the dormouse’s disappearance from those areas. Over the past 20 years, the species has continued to decline nationally and, while the total population is difficult to estimate, it may now be as low as 45,000 animals. As a result, not only is the dormouse now a UK Biodiversity Framework Priority Species, it is also legally protected under both European and domestic legislation.
Where it is still found in Essex however, it now attracts a great deal of effort from conservationists, including the Essex & Suffolk Dormouse Group and the Essex Biodiversity Project, which are both aiming to arrest its decline and, where possible, boost populations. Much of this effort goes towards providing habitat for the animals by way of nest boxes. Where boxes are provided, they are monitored by volunteers throughout the summer to establish breeding success and the results reported back to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species. Monitoring usually involves a long day in the field, weighing and sexing all the animals found and returning them safely to the boxes. The best areas also have a wide range of plants which can help provide food right through the summer. Towards the end of the season, a dormouse will fatten itself in readiness for hibernation, using hazelnuts where they are available.
While monitoring a site can be tiring, it is also immensely enjoyable. Dormice are well-mannered, in that they very rarely bite, but they provide a handling challenge as their feet possess sticky pads which allow them to cling to hands, arms and fleeces, thus aiding a quick getaway.
They are also very delicate animals and extreme care is needed when handling them. For example, their fluffy tails, which are used for balancing high in the tree canopy, can be easily stripped of their fur by a careless handler. For these reasons, monitoring can only be carried out by individuals holding a Natural England licence.
While populations tend to be centred on woodlands, one habitat we may need to consider in the future is our hedgerows. In the past two years I have used dormouse tubes to survey hedgelines on two farms south-west of Chelmsford and both had dormice, and plenty of them. While this was a pleasant surprise, both to me and the landowners, it shows how we might have been missing a trick in our efforts to conserve the species.
In fact, it is hard to believe that between the end of World War II and the mid 1970s, farming was responsible for removing a quarter of Britain’s hedgerows at the rate of 4,500 miles a year. Sadly, this is probably exactly where many of our dormice were surviving following the slump in coppice management. While there have been initiatives since then to restore lost hedgelines, notably by Essex Wildlife Trust in recent years, these will inevitably take time to develop both the structural complexity and species richness which dormice need. We also need to allow flowering species in hedgerows a chance to provide food and a hedge which is cut every year will not have a chance to flower and set seed. As far as the dormouse is concerned, many of our hedgerows are over-managed, being cut back both too severely and too often, and it was perhaps significant that the hedges where I have found them recently were very pleasantly unmanaged.
We have a wider responsibility to look after our wildlife and, if I am honest, it is very easy to rally to the cause of the cute and fluffy dormouse. For me though, there is more to it than that. The dormouse is not only part of our natural heritage, but it also reflects the history of coppicing in woodlands, thus linking us to our county’s cultural past. And with more sympathetic management of our woodlands and hedgerows, the Essex dormouse still stands a good chance of bouncing back. n
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A partner of the University of Essex, Writtle College is a specialist provider of higher education and further education courses covering horticulture, design, equine and animal management, sport, agriculture and conservation. Founded in 1893 the college has trained generations of graduates who have made significant contributions to enhancing the environment and landscape. Today, the college combines its heritage with a cutting edge training approach to prepare its students for the future challenges in the specialist areas in which it operates. For further information, please visit www.writtle.ac.uk