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Hazel Dormouse. Credit: Susannah Penn
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Hope for the hazel dormouse?

July 8th, 2013

Lorna Griffiths

Wildlife charity volunteer Lorna Griffiths reports on a highly successful national reintroduction programme of a once extinct dormouse.....

Over the last 50 years 60% of some 3,148 UK species have declined

Most people's first memory of a hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) is of the adorable little balls of fur, sat torpid in their hands, but not mine. It was September 2011, and I had popped along to a dormouse monitoring session at a local reintroduction site on a whim. Little did I know that on that very day I would lose my heart to such an unassuming little creature.

Having been shown by one of the resident licensed handlers how to correctly check the dormouse nest-boxes, I gingerly felt within the box to see if anyone was home. I traced my fingers along the inside edge of the nest, expecting to feel the motionless form of a torpid dormouse, but boy was I in for a surprise. Mum, dad and four very active juveniles made their bid for freedom and utter chaos ensued. There were dormice everywhere, and it took four of us to safely round them all up ready for their monthly health checks..... all, that is apart from the one cheeky little boy who decided the inside of my trouser leg was a much better place to be......

I am sure that many of us have fond memories of similar events, wonderful experiences that will remain with us throughout our lives and shape the way we view our wildlife. However, for future generations, those times may be over. Our natural world is in a state of flux, and unless much more can be done to stop the loss and to restore the biodiversity of our countryside to the levels of riches past, the declines are sure to continue.

Fragmentation and degradation of habitat is considered one of the main drivers behind the decline of much of Britain's biodiversity. Species that were once a frequent sight throughout the country are for many of us now sadly a distant memory. Alarmingly, over the last 50 years 60% of some 3,148 UK species have declined.

The delightful hazel dormouse, one of Britain's most iconic yet rarely seen native small mammals, is amongst the many species considered by conservationists to be decreasing in numbers. This shy, unassuming creature spends much of its active life high up in the canopy of trees foraging for food. Owing to its sequential diet, the dormouse requires a species rich habitat capable of supplying food throughout the year. Not only is the loss of woodland having a detrimental effect on the dormouse but so too is the loss of traditional management practices such as coppicing.

Changes in management practices have caused many of our woodlands to become over-shaded and aged, reducing the ground flora and preventing many of the trees from fruiting. Also, the increase in intensively managed hedgerows or indeed the loss of hedgerows inhibits the dormouse's movements between sites. In the context of the nation's biodiversity action plan commitment to maintain the existence of dormouse populations were they occur, and more recently to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2020 in line with the global ‘Aichi' targets, this is not a good sign.

However, there is hope. In 1993 a systematic national reintroduction programme was initiated by the People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) with the aim of returning captive bred dormice to parts of the British countryside from which it has been lost. This year marks the 19th dormouse reintroduction, and in June, 17 pairs of dormice were released into woodland in Nottinghamshire, a county where dormice were once native.

The reintroduction programme carried out by PTES has proved highly successful. Data gathered from the long-term monitoring of the dormice as part of the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme indicate that survival rates are extremely high. This can be attributed to a number of factors - the high standard of care provided by the captive breeders at both Paignton Zoo and the Zoological Society of London, the stringent veterinary-led health checks prior to release and the on-going woodland management and monitoring carried out post-release by committed volunteers.

A recent study carried out at Chambers Farm Wood in Lincolnshire, the site of a previous reintroduction has revealed a healthy, sustainable dormouse population. This highlights just one of a number of successful dormouse reintroductions carried out by PTES and is an encouraging example of what can be achieved through the determination of conservation organisations and vital public support.

Ian White of PTES said: "Dormice became extinct over half of their former range in Britain over the course of a century; that they have been restored in part in some counties is a testament to a unified conservation effort that will require continuing commitment". The conservation of any rare species within a habitat requires careful planning and appropriate woodland management. For the dormouse this involves maintaining the coppice rotation, conserving the rich diversity of floral species and implementing a sympathetic management regime within the various woodland sections.

Regular post-monitoring of the dormice is also a vital part of a reintroduction. Monthly nest-box checks, carried out by volunteers and overseen by licenced handlers allows PTES to monitor the health of the dormice as well as map their dispersal through the woodland. With many of the reintroduction sites accommodating 200+ purpose-built dormouse nest-boxes, such an undertaking would not be possible without the hard work and longstanding support given by the volunteers.

Therefore, it seems the unsung heroes of the dormouse reintroductions are the many ardent followers - people like you and me from all walks of life - who work together to enhance the dormouse reintroduction success, having lost their heart to this sleeping beauty.

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