Tag Archives: survey

Dormouse license!

After four years of volunteering at box checks, scrambling over and under fallen trees, battling holly and brambles, and being stung by nettles and bees, I now have my dormouse license! Dormice are a protected species in the UK (as there are so few of them), so to do anything that may disturb them you need a license from Natural England. To get the license you need to prove that you are capable of handling dormice safely, and have considerable experience of doing so under the supervision of license holders.

When I started volunteering at box checks I didn’t really have ambitions to be a license holder – it was just a pleasant way of spending a Saturday morning, and seeing adorable little animals. But I kinda got hooked, and Surrey Dormouse Group supported to pursue my interest further. At the time they were running an excellent training scheme, having clear requirements for what I needed to have experience of before putting in for my license. This included courses of dormice ecology, surveying and handling. I needed to know how to do a nut hunt, maintain nest boxes (a bit of DIY), set up a new site, record data, use a map to find boxes, give directions to volunteers, deal with other box occupants (like woodmice, birds, bees and shrews), and of course handle dormice at all stages of development.

Hazel dormouse

By Björn Schulz (= User Bjoernschulz on de.wikipedia) (selbst fotografiert von Björn Schulz) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s taken me a while to build up the necessary experience (mainly because the sites I usually volunteer at don’t have many dormice). As part of my training I’ve had the privilege of learning from many experienced license holders, as well as other volunteers with wide-ranging knowledge of nature.

Torpid dormouse
Dormouse found during regular monitoring by Surrey Dormouse Group

I’ve been on checks where it’s so cold my fingers have got too numb to undo the wire catches to the boxes, and others in the steaming heat of summer. I’ve had a few war wounds (bee stings, nettle stings, and been bitten by a dormouse – quite a rare occurance) and tripped over once or twice. I’ve seen many bluetit nests with chicks, and dormice from tiny pinkies to obese adults ready for hibernation. I’ve also witnessed a few tragedies – the dormouse who shed its tail (like lizards they can do that if they’re stressed), and nests of dead chicks or dormice. But overall the experience has been a joy –  even if we don’t find any dormice on a check, it’s a pleasant way of spending the morning. And having a torpid dormouse snuggle up to your thumb is just adorable…

So, now I’ve got my license, what does that mean? Sadly it doesn’t allow me to hibernate all winter (my employer would have something to say about that…). It does mean I can lead box checks. I’m hoping to get a site of my own to run next year, but if not I will help out when other site leaders in Surrey Dormouse Group can’t do a monthly check. It’s a big responsibility, looking after the wellbeing of those lovely little mice, but I think it will be rewarding.

 

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Looking for harvest mice at an airport

6.10am on a chilly November morning. It will be almost another hour before the sun rises, and a mist clings to the ground in the pre-dawn gloom. Most sensible people are still in bed, but I’m at Gatwick Airport. Not catching a flight to somewhere warm, nor waiting to welcome a loved one home. I’m here to see some wildlife.

An airport seems an unlikely place to see any exciting animals. Acres of tarmac, deafening noise, light and air pollution. I was intrigued, which is partly what brought me there so early in the morning. That and the hope of seeing a harvest mouse.

Beyond the public areas of the airport there are some pockets rich in wildlife. They have Bechsteins bats, the rare long-horned bee and great crested newts. But it was harvest mice I was interested in.

Chilly morning at Gatwick airportThe previous night Jim Jones from Surrey Wildlife Trust and Rachel Bicker, an ecologist at Gatwick, had set out 60 small mammal traps, and we were here to see what had been caught.

Jim showed us how to check the traps, and if occupied, how to weigh and sex the animal, then reset the trap with fresh bait. Our first occupant was a male field vole. Jim clipped his fur (so we could tell if we catch him again) and released him into the long grass. Voles are quite laid back creatures compared to mice – their response to danger is to stay still in the hope of not being seen, which makes them relatively easy to handle. The woodmice we found in some of the other traps were a bit more challenging.

Jim the trap-happy field vole
Jim the trap-happy field vole

So, nothing more exciting than a field vole from the first check. Time to go home and try to warm up.

The traps need to be checked three times a day, so I still had a couple more opportunities to see a harvest mouse. I returned at lunchtime, and the whole scene had transformed. The mist had disappeared, and the sun warmed us as we worked. The vole we had caught and released that morning had found his way back into a trap. The next occupied box we found gave us a surprise. It felt like it was buzzing when I picked it up, and I expected a very angry mouse to bounce out, but it turned out to be a disgruntled wren, who flew off to safety. That was our lunchtime haul, but we were also treated to views of a kingfisher and a sparrowhawk.

wrenThe evening check felt very different again. The planes seemed bigger and closer in the dark, and we had to rely on torch light to see the traps. The same vole had found his way back into a trap. Having seen him three times in one day, we decided he needed a name, and settled on Jim. No wrens this time, but another woodmouse or two.

Sadly no harvest mice showed up for me. The traps stayed out the rest of the week. Rachel and a team of dedicated volunteers checked them three times a day, come rain or come shine. But no harvest mice turned up.

It was a worthwhile experience. I’ve seen a field vole and learnt how to distinguish it from a bank vole. I’ve learnt how to use three types of small mammal traps, and seen a kingfisher. And I’ve had a fascinating glimpse into the wildlife of Gatwick Airport. You can read more about biodiversity at the UK’s second busiest airport on the Biodiversity Gatwick blog.

Hedgehog pawprints

A while ago I shared the results of using a black plastic tunnel, inkpads, paper and some tasty mealworms to find out who visits my garden at night. Researchers using this method on a rather larger scale have recently shared results for the UK as a whole.

It turns out that my garden is the exception, rather than the rule. While hedgehogs are regular visitors to my patch, they were found in only 39% of sites surveyed. This is a lower proportion than expected, and is further evidence of the decline in hedgehogs.

The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species are now running an even bigger survey using this method, and are looking for volunteers. It’s quick and simple to set up, and can provide some fascinating insights into your nocturnal visitors – why not sign up? Evidence from this larger study may help us to understand why hedgehog numbers are declining, and how we can help them. Go on, give a hog a hand!