Warwickshire Wildlife Trust’s Fundraising and Events Officer, Kirsty Evans, volunteers for the Dunsmore Living Landscape’s Hazel Dormouse reintroduction project. She shares her experience here:
Dormice, known for their somewhat sleepy nature, are mammals adored by all. They used to roam UK woodlands freely, however they’re now sadly more likely to be found within the pages of a Beatrix Potter book. This sorry state of affairs is something the Dunsmore Living Landscapes team at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust is working to change.
Dormice are a threatened species and their numbers are in decline, with populations falling by a third since the end of the 20th century. One of the biggest causes of the decline is habitat loss and fragmentation. Dormice move around connected trees and shrubs, however lack of proper management and the removal of shrubs is leaving dormice isolated in small populations and unable to breed. In addition to this, the reduction in coppicing (cutting of tress to stumps to encourage and maintain new plant growth) as a woodland management technique is leading to less understorey growth, and fewer areas for dormice to use for feeding and nesting sites. They also have to contend with an ever-changing climate and increased competition for resources and food.
On the 14th June 2018, Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, along with the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), ZSL London, and Paignton Zoo, released 39 dormice into a secret woodland location in Warwickshire. To begin with, a number of nest boxes were installed into trees, to provide safe homes for the future woodland dwellers. The mice were bred by ZSL London and Paignton Zoo, and after a period of quarantine and a number of health checks to make sure they were fighting fit for their new life in the forest, they were brought to Warwickshire. Of course we couldn’t set the dormice free and leave them to their own devices immediately. We started by placing them into ‘soft-release cages’; large mesh cages attached into the trees. There they were fed a diet of grains and fruit every day for 10 days, whilst they acclimatised to their new surroundings. Their food and water intake was monitored and all was going well. That was until one of the cages appeared not to have used any food for 3 days…
We were concerned about what may have happened to the dormice in the cage, so it was time to open it up and see what has happened. Into the forest we walked, unsure what we would find. We got to the cage and all seemed quiet. We opened it up, checked inside the nest boxes and were very relieved to find 3 healthy, living dormice! They were weighed, scanned and returned to their cosy beds.
After 10 days of comfort, small holes in their soft-release cages were opened, and the dormice were able to leave and explore the woods as they pleased. During this time, they had the opportunity to go out and find new nesting sites and food sources, whilst still being able to return to the comfort of their cages. We still return every 3 days to feed them, top up their water and monitor them.
At the end of summer, the cages will be taken down and the dormice will be left alone. So where does this leave the future of the dormouse in Warwickshire? The hope is that they will form breeding pairs and reproduce. It is also hoped that they will connect with another nearby population of dormice which have been previously reintroduced. However, this isn’t the end of their struggle. We need to raise awareness of dormouse-friendly land management and ensure the dormice have the best chance to increase their numbers into the future.