Tag Archives: ecology

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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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.