Importance of amateurs in improving our understanding of dormice

It’s not often that my day job links, even tangentially, with my enthusiasm for wildlife (see this post on the badger cull for a rare exception to this). But I spent the other morning teaching undergraduates the importance of involving patients and the public in clinical trials. As we discussed the different sorts of impact this involvement can have, it reminded me of a recent talk I heard about dormice by Pat Morris.

OK, the link isn’t obvious, but bear with me. Pat Morris is one of the country’s leading experts on dormice. His talk wasn’t so much about the natural history of dormice, as the (surprisingly short) history of the study of hazel dormice. What really struck me was the importance of amateurs in that history.

When Pat turned his attention to hazel dormice (having decided to move on from hedgehogs) very little was known about them. By the early 1980s there were only three scientific papers on hazel dormice. This dearth of knowledge was because they are so difficult to study. They don’t go into traps like other small mammals. And being nocturnal arboreal mammals, you won’t see any if you go out looking for them. So how, apart from chance encounters, could scientists study them?

It was amateur wildlife enthusiasts that discovered two of the key ways that we now use to search for or monitor dormice populations.

  1. nibbled nuts: as the name suggests, Hazel dormice are partial to
    Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.
    Nut nibbled by a dormouse. Note the smooth inner surface of the hole, and the scratches outside the hole.

    hazel nuts. A sharp-eyed amateur noticed that it’s possible to distinguish between a nutshell that’s been opened by a dormouse and one opened by other small mammals (see How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts). If you can find a nutshell that’s been nibbled by a dormouse, you know there must be dormice present in your wood, even if no-one ever sets eyes on one.

  2. dormouse boxes: Doug Woods, a keen
    A newly installed dormouse box (Chateau Dormouse, as the child who helped make it called it)
    A newly installed dormouse box (Chateau Dormouse, as the child who helped make it called it)

    birder who monitored woodland bird breeding noticed that dormice would sometimes build nests in bird boxes. By adapting bird boxes to discourage birds and encourage dormice (putting the entrance hole at the back of the box, next to the trunk), he developed a monitoring tool that allows us to see and measure dormice.

 

The amateur contribution to the study of dormice didn’t stop at discovering the research tools. Hundreds of volunteers have helped to collect data about dormice using these tools.

The Great Nut Hunt of 1993 was a pivotal moment in the study of dormice in the UK. Volunteers across the country got on their hands and knees in woodlands, searching for dormouse nibbled nuts. They found 300,000 nuts, which showed that during the 20th century dormice had disappeared from half their range (based on where historical observations had been recorded).

The important contribution of amateurs continues to this day. Many of the people who volunteer to check dormouse boxes each month for the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme are, like me, amateur enthusiasts. The programme now has around 400 sites, and dormice are the only terrestrial mammal being monitored nationally every year in the UK.

This talk encouraged me – even as a volunteer giving a few hours each month, I can help to increase our knowledge about our native wildlife, which will hopefully mean we can get better at protecting it. At work I have seen some striking examples of people who aren’t medical professionals or scientists making vital contributions to our research. It seems to be the same in conservation. We ignore the insight of people with a passion at our peril.

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Hedgehogs are back!

The bluetits have started nesting. I saw my first dormouse of the year on Saturday. And the hedgehogs are out of hibernation, active and hungry. Spring is here!

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I’m also feeling that urge to get outside and do stuff. Hopefully the long weekend will give me a chance to work on a couple of projects I have been planning.

Dormouse box cleaning March 2016

After the long, dull months of winter, it was a relief to get back out in the woods, checking dormouse boxes. We always start the dormousing year by cleaning out the boxes, ready for the dormice as they emerge from hibernation. This year we also had some new nest boxes to install, bringing my site up to 50 boxes.

It was cold and overcast when we met on Saturday morning, but the stroll from the car park to the site warmed me up a bit, and after that I was too absorbed by the task in hand to notice the chill. I had a good team of volunteers helping me, so we got the new boxes up efficiently. We’ll find out next month if my mapping is good enough to help me find the new boxes again.

A newly installed dormouse box (Chateau Dormouse, as the child who helped make it called it)
A newly installed dormouse box (Chateau Dormouse, as the child who helped make it called it)

Dormice aren’t usually up and about in March, but this winter has been unusually mild. I’d heard several reports of dormice being found at other sites in Surrey already, so we approached all the established boxes with care. This paid off when we found a shrew in an old nest. Some of the old nests had deteriorated over winter, and had got damp or were messy from other temporary box visitors. These we cleaned out. Other dormouse nests appear to have been improved since our previous visit in November. These we left. A couple of boxes were showing early signs of new birds nests being built, so we left these as well.

Even better, we found a torpid dormouse in one of last year’s nests! This was a real treat, as the earliest dormouse I found at my site last year was not til June. It was very tightly curled, which made it difficult to sex. But it was a very healthy post-hibernation weight: 18g. After the winter break it’s always nice to start off with an easy to handle torpid dormouse.

Torpid dormouse asleep in a nest box
Torpid dormouse asleep in a nest box

 

Torpid dormouse being weighed
Torpid dormouse being weighed

So, a good start to the dormousing year. Let’s hope it continues that way, and the dormice enjoy their new boxes.

Bluetits have started nesting!

After last year’s no-show for birds nesting in our camera bird-box, I was very excited earlier this week when I got home to find a bluetit roosting in it, who had clearly been bringing in nesting materials.

Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box
Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box

I’m trying not to count my chickens (bluetits) before they hatch, as I know that sometimes they’ll start building nests in several places, before settling on one. But it’s still a positive sign.

Of course, it was only once the bluetits had started using the box that I realised that I’ve misplaced the adapter that lets me plug the camera into my computer. So for now I’m having to make do with taking photos of the TV screen. But I’ll try to rectify that in the next few days so I can get some better images and some video.

There’s been a bluetit roosting in the box every night since that first evening, and they seem to have been particularly busy at bringing in nesting material this morning.

Progress with nest building
Progress with nest building

I’m glad it’s bluetits nesting in there this year. The year before last we had house sparrows, which was great, except their nest covered the camera, so we could only hear and not see what was going on until the chicks were big enough to have flattened the nest. Bluetits have more open-top nests, so hopefully we’ll have a better view.

The only time bluetit chicks hatched in that box previously one of the adults disappeared soon after they hatched, and we had to watch while another chick died each day, until there were none left. I’m hoping for a more successful outcome this year. I’ll keep you informed!

How to attract insects to shady corners of your garden

One of my wildlife garden priorities this year was to make the garden more insect friendly by providing more food sources. This means more flowers, blooming for a larger proportion of the year. Our garden is small, so squeezing more flowers in requires some innovation.

There’s a strip of my garden that had no value for wildlife. A narrow passage 3-4m long, it runs between the fence and the wall of our extension. It’s almost completely in the shade, and is mostly decked, with an even narrower strip of gravel. How could I make this more wildlife friendly, short of knocking down the extension and landscaping it?

While most flowers need some direct sunshine to thrive, there are some that are used to deep shade – mostly flowers you’d find in woodland. A planter full of shade loving plants was the answer.

Identifying which flowers to go for took some time. I decided that I wanted shade-dwelling wildflowers that are native to Britain, good for pollinators, and between them bloomed for a large proportion of the year. I also wanted a variety of colours and flower shapes, as different pollinators are attracted to different flowers. They also needed to be quite compact, as I didn’t have much space.

I worked my way through the list suggested in the Surrey Wildlife Trust Wildlife Gardening Guide I got as part of my prize. I compiled a shortlist that fulfilled my criteria (and that I could buy seeds or plugs from a reputable wildflower supplier). From that, I picked 5 species that would hopefully ensure nectar between February and October once the bed was established, and placed my order. The species I chose were:

  • Snowdrops
  • Primroses
  • Foxglove
  • Common dog violet
  • Wood forget-me-not

To hold the plants, I chose a micro manger from Harrod Horticultural, as it fitted the space, and I have been pleased with the quality of the raised bed we bought from them years ago. It was quite straightforward to put together, with the aid of Dr C and an electric screwdriver.

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The primroses and snowdrops I ordered as plants; plugs in the case of primroses, as their seeds need the cold of winter to germinate, and I am impatient, and snowdrops in the green, as they don’t do well if moved once their leaves have died off. The rest I ordered as seeds, which I will plant once I have built my new mini greenhouse.

The plants turned up early last week, so I have planted the snowdrops in the planter (and in the lawn and the meadow – there were lots of them!) and potted the primrose plugs into small pots to grow on a bit. The snowdrops have already flowered for the year before they arrived, so I won’t get to see the results until next year.

Snowdrops in the green planted in a shady bit of the lawn
Snowdrops in the green planted in a shady bit of the lawn
Primrose plug plants potted on into small pots
Primrose plug plants potted on into small pots

At the moment the planter is pretty empty (although not as empty as in the photo of it above!). Tempting as it was to fill it with snowdrops, I had to leave space for the other flowers that will hopefully germinate in a month or two. It’s still a work in progress, but hopefully by next year it will turn a dark, neglected corner of the garden into a useful pitstop for insects, as well as brightening the place up.

Trail camera footage from Cornwall

One of the first things I did when I arrived at the holiday cottage a few weeks ago was to make a tour of the garden, looking for signs of wildlife. The signs were promising.

Behind an old barn was an area of, what looks from the map to be old orchard gone wild. Running through it was an animal path. On and by the path were snuffle holes, and the remains of spring flowers with the bulbs bitten off and eaten. It looked badgery to me, so I set up my trail cam in the hope of catching some footage of them passing through.

For the first few days, when the camera was set to record only at night, I didn’t get many triggers at all. I changed the setting to 24 hours, to see if anything interesting was visiting during the day (we’d spotted deer across the field). I got plenty of triggers then. All of one particular creature, but sadly not the one I was hoping for…

I’m not the world’s biggest pheasant fan. They’re strikingly handsome, but incredibly stupid, inclined to forget they can fly when faced by a car. They’re a danger to reptiles, but heavily protected by the hunting estates that release millions each into the UK wild each year for rich people to shoot.

I still think the path looked badgery, and maybe badgers do use it sometimes, just not the week I happened to stay there. Pheasants are pretty omnivorous, so it may well have been them eating the bulbs. But I’m not sure they’d make such a distinct path (whereas badgers are creatures of habit, and will follow the same path even when the obstacle it skirts around has been removed). Do pheasants make paths? Or was I just unlucky to miss whatever did make the path?

Bird nerd part 14: ready for spring

March is here, and with it, blue skies, green shoots and birdsong. Fed up with winter, everything seems keen to get on with life. I’ve noticed birds in the garden hanging round in pairs, so it was high time I got ready for the bird breeding season as well.

The nest boxes were already clean, so all that remained to be done was to reinstall the camera in the box at the front of our house. Dr C, chivalrous as always, climbed the ladder, while I hung out of the upstairs window to pass him the cable.

That done, we’re ready for spring. Each day we can check the camera to see if there’s been any progress. I love the feeling of suspense as I wait for the telly to warm up and reveal any changes.

House sparrow about to fledge
House sparrow about to fledge (2014)

In previous years we’ve had bluetits and house sparrows nest there (not at the same time), although last year, for the first time, nothing showed any inclination to nest there. Still, the lengthening days make me an optimist, so I am hopeful we’ll have our own springwatch again this year. I will let you know how we get on!

Pilgrimage to the River and the Wild Woods

I spent last week following in the (fictional) footsteps of my heroes: the Mole, the Rat, the Otter and the Badger. I suspect The Wind in the Willows is one of the reasons that, as a child, I first fell in love with wildlife. So imagine my excitement when I realised that the holiday cottage I’d booked was half a mile away from the river that (is said to have) inspired Kenneth Grahame’s classic.

I couldn’t resist spending some of my holiday re-reading The Wind in the Willows. I’d forgotten how lyrical some of the writing about the countryside was, and the strong thread of melancholy that runs through the book, behind the more boisterous adventures of Mr Toad.

The village of Lerryn nestles on a fork of the creek that joins up with the Fowey River. From the village to the next branch of the creek, the river is bound on both sides by woodland.

Lerryn (don't ignore the signs!)
Lerryn (don’t ignore the signs!)

The river itself doesn’t look very water vole-y: the daily inundation of salt water means there’s not a lot of plantlife in the water. But it’s definitely suitable for messing about in boats on, and there are some good hidden picnic spots along the river.

While the river isn’t very suitable for Ratty, it looked perfect for the Otter. I spent my walks along the river looking for confirmation of this hunch – spraint on stones or tree trunks sticking above the edge of the river, or pawprints in the mud. I didn’t find any signs, but it just felt like there must be otters using that stretch of river – it would be a waste not to.

Further inland there were signs of Badger. A well-used animal path even went through the garden of the cottage where we stayed, so I set up my trail camera – more on what footage I caught in a few days…

It was a beautiful place to spend some time, and, once winter is over I’m sure it would be wonderful for messing about in boats (I agree with Ratty on the subject of boats). While I didn’t have as many wildlife encounters as I was hoping for, it felt like there was plenty of wildlife around, hiding in the shadows. I’m sure I’ll be back.