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Always falling asleep and small enough to fit into a teapot

Was Lewis Carroll’s interpretation of the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland right? Dr Alex Pollard, Principal Ecologist, discovers the facts.

Introduction

Muscardinus avellanarius, hazel dormouse, common dormouse, dory mouse, dozing mouse, chestle crumb, sleep mouse and derry mouse – all names for a small, golden, furry-tailed, arboreal rodent which spends a proportion of the year in hibernation.

In the UK, there are two dormouse species present – the non-native edible dormouse and the native hazel dormouse. The edible dormouse is regarded as a delicacy in some countries and the population in the UK originates from escapees from the Rothschild collection at Tring Park in 1902. The native dormouse is thought to have colonised the UK around 12,000 years ago when there was a land-bridge connecting the UK with mainland Europe. The oldest UK fossil found is for a specimen 9,000 years old.

As a species well adapted for climbing trees, dormouse are not often seen on the ground, although they are known to cross roads and gaps in hedges. They eat a wide variety of food when available throughout the year, including hazelnuts, catkins, flowers, leaf buds, caterpillars, blackberries, yew fruits, aphids and seeds. They make woven nests using whatever materials are available to them locally, preferentially honeysuckle bark and whole leaves, although other materials are known to be used including tumble dryer lint! In summer nests are made at height and are used for breeding. When the temperatures drop tightly woven nests are made low down beneath the leaf litter layer, often in well insulated spots such as within coppice stools or tree roots.

Why are dormice protected?

In the UK the hazel dormouse has suffered high declines, with a reduction of 72% in 21 years, and a marked retraction in their northern range, not seen in European populations. A combination of factors are attributed to this decline – habitat loss and fragmentation; climate change; incorrect/insufficient woodland management; and woodland, tree diversity and successional habitat loss. Because of this decline, and to prevent further decline, this species is well protected in UK law. The hazel dormouse is a European Protected Species listed under Annex IV of the European Commission Habitats Directive (1992), and the UK Habitats Regulations (1994 and 2010).

How can we help them?

We can help these animals by protecting and maintaining existing woodlands; increasing the size of existing woodland areas; linking woodland parcels up with species-rich hedges, planning conservation measures on a landscape scale; and managing woodland edges to encourage bramble, honeysuckle, yew, birch, hazel and willow in layers of 5 – 10m.

As there is legal protection in place for dormice landowners may not undertake much needed woodland management for fear of breaking the law or directly impacting dormice. Provision of support for landowners to aid their woodland management is, therefore, vital. In many cases woodland management is required to optimise habitat for dormice and without it the dormouse population may fall even further. Call us now to see how we can help you find out if you have dormice.

‘You might just as well say’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, ‘that I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’ – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland