One of the advantages of surveying for dormice is that usually the weather’s pretty good. Dormice hibernate all winter, so we don’t check the boxes during the coldest months. And dormice don’t have very waterproof fur, so we don’t tend to check when it’s chucking down with rain, to avoid them getting cold and wet if they get disturbed by us and run up a tree. So yesterday’s check was unusual in its unpleasantness.
The forecast had said that yesterday would be dry and cloudy. The first drops of light rain were falling as we gathered at the meeting point. But not enough to make me think twice about checking – usually the trees provide some cover , so you hardly notice light rain once you’re in the woods.
It’s a bit of a stroll from the meeting point to the start of the site. As we walked, the rain didn’t ease off, but still wasn’t enough to make me consider turning back. As we checked the first ten boxes, the rain got heavier, but we’d come that far already, were armed with an umbrella (for the dormice, not for us – have you tried walking through a wood with a brolly?), and it was cold enough that I was expecting any dormice we found to be torpid, so unlikely to dash up a tree at our approach. I decided that we should continue.
Now the site has 50 boxes up, surveys take a bit longer than usual. We got wetter, and colder, and more dispirited as we went. For the first 25 boxes we found nothing apart from the start of a few bird nests. About halfway through we found a common shrew, which was a brief moment of excitement, but given the weather we didn’t want to disturb it more than necessary, so we moved swiftly on.
Then we got to the few dormice nests we’d left in the boxes from last year. To check them properly we took them off the trees, and, with one person holding a brolly over the bag, someone else had to strip off coats and jumpers to have bare arms for checking the nest (dormice are excellent climbers, and clothing makes it too easy for them to run up an arm). The first nest was empty, but in good condition. The next, where we’d found a dormouse last month, look like it had been flattened by a mouse jumping up and down on it like a trampoline. Nothing in that box.
It wasn’t until we’d got to our 46th box that we finally struck gold. A torpid 16g male dormouse in one of last year’s nests. By that time the rain had almost stopped, and suddenly the whole soggy check seemed worthwhile. If you’ve ever seen any of the ‘making of’ bits at the end of BBC wildlife documentaries, you’ll know that a lot of wildlife watching is about perseverance in the face of uncomfortable conditions. I felt like the team of volunteers who carried out the check yesterday really earned seeing that dormouse. We collected the necessary data as quickly as possible, and tucked the dormouse back up in his nest.
I didn’t take any photos of the check (it wasn’t right weather or light for it), so you’ll have to make do with a photo of last month’s dormouse instead.
My dusters and bag have just about dried out now, and I was very glad of a hot drink and change of clothing when I got home. I woke this morning to glorious sunshine – I picked the wrong day for the box check this month! I must confess, when I heard that the box check this morning at a nearby site had found no dormice, I felt slightly better about my choice of days.