Tag Archives: conservation

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.

Advertisements

Seabird Recovery Programme

Britain has internationally important breeding sites for some seabirds, particularly Manx Shearwaters and Storm Petrels. Well, I say Britain, but actually it’s much more specific than that. These birds are quite particular in their choice of breeding sites, and our crowded mainland doesn’t really tick the right boxes. It’s the small islands with few humans (if any) that stand out at the seabird estate agents. Like the Isles of Scilly. But numbers of breeding seabirds have been declining even on these idyllic islands, falling by 25% between 1983 and 2006. Something needed to be done.

The Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Programme was set up to reverse this trend. It’s a partnership between various groups, including the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust and the RSPB. One of the factors in the decline was the presence of rats on the island. Rats prey on the eggs and young of breeding seabirds, and can have a huge affect on breeding success. Lundy, a small island in the Bristol Channel, saw a big increase in seabirds breeding resulting from their rat elimination programme. So one of the aims of the Isles of Scilly programme is to eliminate rats from the uninhabited islands, and St Agnes and Gugh.

Looking from St Agnes to the Gugh
Looking from St Agnes to the Gugh

After lots of consultation and preparation, intensive rat culling started in 2013, on St Agnes. Bait stations with poison were placed all over the island. Now they think all the rats have gone, they’re in a period of monitoring, using chocolate flavoured blocks of wax to check for rat teeth marks. There’s been lots of communication with island residents and visitors, and people are encouraged to report any possible rat sightings (to rat on a rat). The island has to be free from signs of rats for two years before it can officially be declared that rats have been eliminated. If all goes well, that landmark will be reached next year.

They’ve already seen benefits from the reduction in rats. In 2014 Manx Shearwaters have been breeding successfully on St Agnes, and this year storm petrel chicks were seen on St Agnes, both for the first time in living memory. Other  ground nesting birds are also likely to benefit, and Scilly shrew numbers have also increased.

Puffins landing gracefully(!)
Puffins landing gracefully(!)
Oyster catcher
Oyster catcher

This project is a good example of conservation groups working together with a whole community to have a big impact. It wouldn’t be possible to eliminate rats without the support of the community. Lots of work has gone into communicating about the programme, and about the importance of seabirds, to both tourists and locals. That work is now paying off. Well done to all involved.

International Tiger Day

Happy International Tiger Day! International Tiger Day was founded five years ago to raise awareness of tigers, and their plight. I’ve already written about how amazing tigers are, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, here are a few photos I’ve taken of tigers. I think they speak for themselves.

Bengal tiger100 years ago there were 100,000 tigers in the world. The current estimate is 3,000. They are threatened by poaching (for Chinese medicine and souvenirs for the rich), habitat destruction, conflict with local communities, and climate change. They need a large territory, as they require lots of food – they can eat 21kg of meat in a single night. Do have a look at the links below to see how you can help tigers.

Bengal tigerAlmost 10 years ago I was lucky enough to see tigers in the wild, in India’s Ranthambore National Park. One of the tigers I saw (pictured in the first photo in this post) was Machli, who was a rather famous tiger. I was delighted the other day to spot that the BBC had a repeat of their documentary about her and her cubs available on iPlayer. It’s available for the  so do check it out if you can access iPlayer.

In the meantime, I’m off to celebrate Internation Tiger Day with a bottle of my favourite big-cat branded lager.

Tiger eyes
Tiger eyes

Dormouse ecology (or how I got back into wildlife)

I’ve always loved wildlife, and being out in nature. But during my first few years of adult life, as a student living in big towns, I didn’t really act on that love. I’d go for country walks, and spend my holidays back in the beauty of Devon. I was always pleased to see exciting wildlife, like birds of prey, reptiles or even just bunny rabbits. But that was as far as it went.

Then, in 2006, newly married and living in the outskirts of London, it all changed. I had signed up to become a member of my local wildlife trust. One day their ‘what’s on’ brochure landed on my doormat, and, lured by a cute picture, I signed up for a one-day dormouse ecology course (the first of many courses I’ve done, and the beginning of a love affair with dormice).

Why do a dormouse ecology course

torpid dormouse
Torpid dormouse

My reasons for doing the course were pretty feeble – I knew practically nothing about dormice, apart from how cute they looked. I thought it would be an interesting way of spending a day off. That’s about it.

I was right. It was an interesting way to spend a day off. I did get to see lots of cute pictures of dormice. I even got a go at handling a couple. And I had my first experience of checking dormouse boxes.

One of the things that really struck me from the course (apart from how adorable dormice are) was that normal people, like me, could help with wildlife conservation. That there was still so much scientists don’t know about British animals, and that amateurs could help to fill those gaps. That was a bit of a revelation for me.

Dormice are fascinating creatures (as well as being undeniably sweet). They’re arboreal and nocturnal, so you’re not likely to bump into them, and they are rare in the UK. Add to that the fact that they spend several months a year hibernating – you could easily live within a few metres of a dormice and never see one.

There are other, more practical reasons for doing a dormouse ecology course, besides curiosity and liking cute pictures. Dormice are protected by law, meaning you need a licence to disturb them in any way. Doing a dormouse ecology course is an essential step towards getting your license, so is useful for professional ecologists and keen volunteers who want to contribute to dormouse monitoring.

Surrey Dormouse Group Ecology Course: 22 August 2015

Surrey Dormouse Group are running a dormouse ecology course on 22 August in Guildford. It’s a full day with classroom work in the morning, followed by a box check in the afternoon. There will be a charge for the day and you’ll need to bring lunch. It does not include dormouse handling, this is a separate course, but hopefully should include seeing dormice during the box check. You will receive a certificate of attendance at the end of the afternoon. There are only 20 places on the course, going fast, so if you would like to find out more, or would like a registration form, please email info@surreydormousegroup.org.uk for full details.

The course will be led by David Williams, a dormouse expert with years of practical experience, and the man who first introduced me to the delights of these beautiful animals.

The dormouse course I did, almost ten years ago, was the start of me getting serious about wildlife – realising how much there is to learn, and that I could get involved with studying and protecting it. Who knows, this year’s course may be the start (or another step towards) something special for you.

Grrrreat tiger news!

It’s January, so (if you live in the Northern hemisphere) I’m sure you could do with some good news to cheer you up. You’re in luck! Figures released this week show that the tiger population in India has gone up by 30% in the last 4 years.

Tigers are an endangered species, and their numbers have plummeted by 95% over the last century. They now live in just 7% of their original range. Habitat loss and poaching are the main reasons behind this decline. India is home to around 70% world’s remaining wild tigers, so an increase here is very encouraging.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to see tigers in the wild in India. It was an amazing experience. Tigers have to be my favourite animal – they’re so powerful. And stripy. Stripes just look great on any animal (that’s why zebra are cooler than other antelopes), but in burning amber and forest black on a tiger they’re hypnotic.

Bengal tiger

While in India we saw 5 individual tigers (two mothers, and 3 almost fully-grown cubs). That came to about 0.2% of the world’s population of tigers. 5 individuals should not make up that large a proportion of any animal species.

With numbers that low, it’s easy to assume the tiger’s time is up. But the latest news from India is not the only good tiger news there’s been recently. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the number of tigers in Nepal has increased by 60% since 2009. These two success stories show that, with enough political will, effort and funding, the decline can be reversed. They’re not a reason to be complacent – the population is still fragile, but all is not lost yet. It’s not inevitable that tigers will become extinct. We need to do more to protect these wonderful cats.

Bengal tiger