I have been helping out on dormouse box checks for several years now, and for the last few years I have been working towards my license. Dormice are protected by law, and to disturb them in any way you need a license from Natural England. To get this you have to have been trained and have experience of handling dormice of all ages. This can take a while to accumulate if, like me, you mainly do sites with few dormice. Anyway, I now have the necessary experience, but needed to show one of my referees what I am like at handling dormice. I went on a check with him last month, but there were no dormice, so this month I had to try again.
The two sites I visited this month were ones I hadn’t done before. This added an element of treasure hunting / letterboxing / geocaching without gps to the process, trying to find inconspicuous wooden boxes in dense, tangled woodland. Just as well I like a challenge!
The first site was on the edge of a golf course. As well keeping out of the way of golf balls, we also had nettles as tall as my shoulders, brambles and dense, unforgiving blackthorn. The place wasn’t brimming with dormice, so it was a relief when Dave found one sitting on top of its nest in a box. We took the box off the tree, putting it into a large rubble sack. By the time we got the lid of the box off again, the dormouse had disappeared into its nest.
Cautiously I put my fingers into the cavity of the nest, to try to gently coax the mouse out. The nest was wonderfully warm, especially as it was quite a chilly morning, and the mouse was not keen to come out. I could feel some other warm, tiny bodies, and we realised there were young babies (pinkies who had not yet grown fur) with their mum. We didn’t want to disturb them anymore, so quickly and quietly put the box back on the tree and left them to it.
It was lovely finding a young family, but it did mean I still hadn’t had a chance to demonstrate my handling skills. We found no further dormice at that site, although I did come across a nest with three woodmice sitting on top.
So, I had to hope we would find some dormice at the next site. The chances were slim, as last month’s check had found none.
The second site started with some excitement, as the first box contained a pygmy shrew. These are tiny insectivores (smaller than the first joint of my thumb) with long, mobile, Womble-like noses. They have a very fast metabolism which means they need to eat more or less constantly. It’s not the first time I have found them in dormice boxes. In fact, dormice boxes seem to attract a lot of wildlife, including mice, birds and insects. We often find moths, millipedes, slugs and other invertebrates in them, which is probably what attracts the pygmy shrews.
Most birds have finished nesting now, so dormice have less competition for boxes. Sometimes they build their nests on top of disused bird nests, and sometimes they just make use of the bird’s nest without much alteration. They seem to particularly like wrens’ nests, and who can blame them. Wrens fill the boxes up with moss, creating a large square cavity in the middle, not too dissimilar to a dormouse’s nest (although dormice tend to weave their nests out of strips of honeysuckle bark, leaves and other locally available materials). Wrens also keep their nests much cleaner than other birds (messy bluetits for example). So when I came across a wren’s nest with what looked like mouse droppings on top, I thought it was worth further exploration.
I was right. The nest contained a very lively male, who gave me a perfect opportunity to demonstrate my skills, catching him, sexing and weighing him, then returning him safely to his nest. It’s only my second dormouse of the year, so I was relieved to find I wasn’t too rusty. My referee was happy with how I did, so now I just need to fill in the paperwork!