Tag Archives: Woodland

Election focus: protecting nature

For my second election focus, I’ve chosen the issue of protecting nature. Looking through the manifestos was a lot quicker for this topic than climate change, as the parties had a lot less to say. I’ve grouped what they have to say into the following topics:

  • wildlife legislation
  • protected areas (NB. I’ll do a separate post on marine conservation areas, so haven’t included that here)
  • international wildlife protection
  • fox hunting
  • the badger cull
  • neonicotinoids
  • woodland
  • other wildlife issues

Remember, this is just based on what they say in their manifestos (some of which had lots more detail than others) – I’ve kept my own thoughts out of the table. Click on the image to see it at full size.

What the parties have to say on wildlife legislation, protected areas, international wildlife protection and fox hunting
What the parties have to say on wildlife legislation, protected areas, international wildlife protection and fox hunting
What the parties have to say on the badger cull, neonicotinoids, woodland, and other wildlife issues
What the parties have to say on the badger cull, neonicotinoids, woodland, and other wildlife issues

My reflections

  • The Lib Dems had the most to say on these issues, and generally it looked pretty good to me. I particularly like their promise to set legally binding natural capital targets.  I’m disappointed they didn’t come out and say they would keep the fox hunting ban. Their phrasing on the issue of bovine TB is obviously carefully selected not to upset anyone, but I find it’s lack of a direct statement on where they stand on the badger cull unsettling. The badger cull isn’t  effective, humane and evidence-based, but the current government is fond of saying it is.
  • I was surprised how many of the parties had things to say on woodland – they obviously think there are votes in protecting trees rather than bees or badgers. The Tory promise to “continue  to ensure that public forests and woodland are kept in trust for the nation” made me laugh, given their previous (failed) attempt to sell off publically owned forests. They must think voters have very short memories.
  • Once again the Tories make bold claims (“We pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it”) withour providing any information on how they will achieve it. But they say they will produce a 25 Year Environment Plan. We’ll just have to imagine what might be in that plan.
  • The Greens have surprisingly little to say on this topic – maybe they feel it goes without saying.
  • UKIP don’t have a huge amount to say on this topic, but what they do say doesn’t look too bad.
  • SNP and Plaid Cymru don’t have a huge amount to say on this topic either.
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Dormouse box check, May 2016: unlikely nests

After April’s soggy box check, it came as a relief to set out in the dry in May. The woods were decked out in their best – more species of wildflower than I can name, in all the colours of the rainbow. And the dormice were co-operating too.

The check got off to a good start – in one of the first boxes we checked one of the volunteers called my attention to a small pile of dead leaves at the bottom of the box. That immediately made me think that an apodemus mouse (wood mouse or yellow-necked mouse) had started to build a nest there. That’s not something to particularly get excited about – if an apodemus mouse is using a box, that means it’s one less box available for dormice. And, unlike dormice, they’re not house-proud. They happily urinate and defecate in their nests. And an apodemus mouse is much more likely to bite you than a dormouse is. (Having said that, I’ve never been bitten by an apodemus mouse, but have been bitten twice by dormice…)

So, when I came to have a look at the box, I wasn’t expecting much. There weren’t enough leaves for it to be a proper nest, and there was no structure to it. But I investigated it gently, and as one of the leaves from the top of the pile shifted, I caught a glimpse of gold – the gold of a dormouse, rather than the dull brown of an apodemus.

The dormouse was torpid, so it was an easy job to get the mouse out and weigh it. It was a 16g female, which is about usual for this time of year. We managed to weigh, sex and put the dormouse back in its unconventional nest without waking it, which is always satisfying.

16g dormouse found in May
16g dormouse found in May

Obviously it’s always a delight to find a dormouse. But this was particularly special, as it’s the first dormouse we’ve found in the new boxes we put up last year. It’s good to know that we work we put in then is now benefiting at least one little dormouse. And it’s also encouraging to know that dormice are active that side of the footpath.

Many of the boxes we checked had birds nests in – mostly bluetit nests, generally with eggs being incubated, although one nest had chicks. They seem to be a little behind compared to previous years. There are also more wren’s nests around this year. Wrens build lovely nests – loads of moss, with a big chamber, and they keep them clean (unlike bluetits). Dormice will quite often move in to these.

We found another dormouse somewhere we weren’t expecting to. At the last few checks a shrew has been using an old dormouse nest, which by now has broken down and got smelly. If it had been unoccupied this month, we’d have cleaned the box out. But a dormouse had moved back in – obviously too lazy to build its own nest. This was a 14g male, who was also torpid, but showed signs of waking, so we dealt with it as quickly as possible before returning it to the dilapidated nest. Hence the lack of photos of this dormouse.

Two of the nicer dormouse nests from previous checks had been taken over by bumblebees. As you probably know, bumblebees are having a tough time at the moment, so it’s hard to begrudge them a couple of nest boxes. But they do pose a hazard for whoever’s checking the nest box, as they are prepared to sting if disturbed. Luckily we escaped unscathed, and will tread cautiously round those boxes until the bees leave the nest (probably in a couple of months time – they go into hibernation even earlier than dormice!).

So, a successful box check this month. Further encouragement that dormice are using the whole box check area, and a reminder to never assume dormice aren’t present in an unlikely looking nest.

August dormousing: a new nest

August is firmly into dormouse breeding season, so it’s always an exciting month to check boxes. Added to the usual suspense of will there be a sweet dormouse in this box, is the added possibility of even sweeter baby dormice. So, on a sunny morning trekking through the woods in search of dormice is a rather pleasant occupation.

The woods are much quieter in August – the birds have finished breeding, and are quietly focused on food rather than defending territory or attracting mates with their song. And, while we saw deer prints, we didn’t see or hear any actual deer.

It was a lovely warm morning – a good one to be scrambling about the woods. This was the 6th box check I’ve led at this site, so I’m getting better at knowing where all the boxes are (except the elusive box 27, which is hidden in a hazel under a fallen yew).

For this month’s check I was assisted by Dr C, a couple of volunteers plus a 10 year old girl. So what did we find? Well, the birds have long ago finished nesting, so there were plenty of smelly old nests to be cleaned out. There were no signs of wood mice or yellow necked mice, but there were signs of dormice. In addition to the adapted bird nest we found a dormouse in back in June, there was a new nest, made with very fresh, green hazel leaves on top of an old bird nest. It was in the last box we checked – I’ve done so many box checks where we find dormice in the final box, I was very hopeful when found this.

I’m confident that it’s a dormouse nest – apodemus mice tend to use brown leaves, and don’t weave it together neatly like this one was. But it didn’t use any honeysuckle bark, which dormice in Surrey often do. We explored the nest carefully, especially since it’s so fresh – the leaves looked like they’d only just been picked off the trees. But sadly the dormouse who made it wasn’t at home.

Dormousing isn’t the ideal wildlife activity for a child – most of the boxes were too high for her to see into, but at least she got a chance to have a look at a couple of dormice nests when we took the boxes off the tree and into the bag for exploration. Plus there were deer prints to spot, wood sorrel to taste and old birds nests to remove. So hopefully there was enough of interest not to put her off. And she was good at looking for the boxes (which reminds me a bit of letterboxing on Dartmoor).

So, I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to see any dormice, but pleased that there are signs of fresh dormouse activities. Hopefully September will bring us better luck.

My new dormouse site

Now spring is here, my thoughts have turned to dormice. While it’ll probably be a while yet before they emerge, it’s time to make sure everything is ready for them. I got my dormouse licence at the end of last year, so this is my first season with a site of my own.

In preparation for the annual box clean, I visited my site last week, to work out where it is, and check I can find the boxes. The site is part of an estate owned by the National Trust. There are 30 boxes up at the moment (most dormouse monitoring sites have 50), but there’s only been one box check so far, in early December last year, where several active dormice were found.

My new dormouse site

Apart from dormice, they also get several types of deer (including red deer), foxes, badgers and other woodland mammals. On my recce I saw a woodpecker. The wood is still wearing its winter mourning, so it’s hard to tell what it will be like once the plants begin to wake up again.

A fallen tree marks the edge of my dormouse site
A fallen tree marks the edge of my dormouse site

I am excited, but also a bit nervous about being responsible for a dormouse site. With it being a new site, I’m not sure what to expect. Will there be stinging nettles as tall as me in the summer? Will lots of bumblebees decide dormouse boxes are a great place to nest? Do they get yellow necked mice or just woodmice? Will I see an elusive red deer? What about bluebells and blue tits? I’m looking forward to finding out.

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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Dormouse handling

I have been helping out on dormouse box checks for several years now, and for the last few years I have been working towards my license. Dormice are protected by law, and to disturb them in any way you need a license from Natural England. To get this you have to have been trained and have experience of handling dormice of all ages. This can take a while to accumulate if, like me, you mainly do sites with few dormice. Anyway, I now have the necessary experience, but needed to show one of my referees what I am like at handling dormice. I went on a check with him last month, but there were no dormice, so this month I had to try again.

The two sites I visited this month were ones I hadn’t done before. This added an element of treasure hunting / letterboxing / geocaching without gps to the process, trying to find inconspicuous wooden boxes in dense, tangled woodland. Just as well I like a challenge!

The first site was on the edge of a golf course. As well keeping out of the way of golf balls, we also had nettles as tall as my shoulders, brambles and dense, unforgiving blackthorn. The place wasn’t brimming with dormice, so it was a relief when Dave found one sitting on top of its nest in a box. We took the box off the tree, putting it into a large rubble sack. By the time we got the lid of the box off again, the dormouse had disappeared into its nest.

Cautiously I put my fingers into the cavity of the nest, to try to gently coax the mouse out. The nest was wonderfully warm, especially as it was quite a chilly morning, and the mouse was not keen to come out. I could feel some other warm, tiny bodies, and we realised there were young babies (pinkies who had not yet grown fur) with their mum. We didn’t want to disturb them anymore, so quickly and quietly put the box back on the tree and left them to it.

It was lovely finding a young family, but it did mean I still hadn’t had a chance to demonstrate my handling skills. We found no further dormice at that site, although I did come across a nest with three woodmice sitting on top.

So, I had to hope we would find some dormice at the next site. The chances were slim, as last month’s check had found none.

The second site started with some excitement, as the first box contained a pygmy shrew. These are tiny insectivores (smaller than the first joint of my thumb) with long, mobile, Womble-like noses. They have a very fast metabolism which means they need to eat more or less constantly.  It’s not the first time I have found them in dormice boxes. In fact, dormice boxes seem to attract a lot of wildlife, including mice, birds and insects. We often find moths, millipedes, slugs and other invertebrates in them, which is probably what attracts the pygmy shrews.

Most birds have finished nesting now, so dormice have less competition for boxes. Sometimes they build their nests on top of disused bird nests, and sometimes they just make use of the bird’s nest without much alteration. They seem to particularly like wrens’ nests, and who can blame them. Wrens fill the boxes up with moss, creating a large square cavity in the middle, not too dissimilar to a dormouse’s nest (although dormice tend to weave their nests out of strips of honeysuckle bark, leaves and other locally available materials). Wrens also keep their nests much cleaner than other birds (messy bluetits for example). So when I came across a wren’s nest with what looked like mouse droppings on top, I thought it was worth further exploration.

I was right. The nest contained a very lively male, who gave me a perfect opportunity to demonstrate my skills, catching him, sexing and weighing him, then returning him safely to his nest. It’s only my second dormouse of the year, so I was relieved to find I wasn’t too rusty. My referee was happy with how I did, so now I just need to fill in the paperwork!

Surely chopping down trees can’t be good for nature?

It’s counter-intuitive, chopping down healthy trees in the name of woodland conservation. Walking around the woods, and stumbling across a new clearing surrounded by 6ft high-visibility plastic fencing doesn’t exactly give you a glow of seeing nature at its best. So I can understand why the grumpy dog-walker was so upset by the work the Wildlife Trust had done in one of the woods I regularly visit. But despite appearances, this work is vital for the wildlife that lives in the wood.

While we think of our woodlands as wild places, humans have played a big role in making them what they are. When the need for wood as fuel, or for ship-building, was greater, many of our woodlands would have been managed in some way, for example coppicing. Coppicing is where every few years trees and shrubs are cut down to ground level, to allow vigorous regrowth. Coppicing can help trees live longer, and crucially allow light into woodlands.

Without management of some kind our woods would soon go from beautiful wildlife havens filled with birdsong and bluebells in spring, to deep, dark, silent places reminiscent of troubling fairy tales. When trees grow too big, they prevent light reaching the understory (lower-growing plants), so these plants disappear, along with the insects, birds and animals that depend on them for food (like the dormouse).

So that explains why the trees were cut down. But why the ugly fencing? The fencing is needed to keep deer and bunnies out. Deer have a voracious appetite, and would quickly eat the new shoots coming from the coppiced trees, preventing them from re-growing properly. Once the coppiced trees are big enough, the fences can come down to let everything wander freely through the coppiced area.

So chopping down some trees (done not too much, nor to frequently) can help to ensure our woods remain how we like to think of them, bursting with life of many kinds. While the work might not be pretty in the short term, it’s essential.