The search for the elusive dormouse continues

A group of volunteers with both Durham Wildlife Trust’s Heart of Durham Project and the Land of Oak and Iron had an invitation they could not refuse! They were giving  the opportunity to help in a dormouse survey in the largest area of ancient woodland in Northumberland. Owned by the National Trust, dormouse monitoring has been carried out by National Trust rangers at Allen Banks and the Staward gorge woodlands since 1994, with 5-10 individuals being found a year up until 2004. Sadly since then only 1 dormouse has been found in 2006, but nests are being found yearly.

Everyone secretly had all fingers and toes crossed that this would be the survey a dormouse would be found!!

……….but it was not to be.

However much was gleaned from the day.

Looking like a mass of dried leaves volunteers, reverently, had a chance to hold a dormouse nest, woven from wood rush leaves. This nest was found last year (2017) in an old brash pile on the estate in an area where rangers had actually not been actively looking for nests or dormice.

The National Trust rangers have put up over 300 nesting boxes and a large amount of nesting tubes at various places within this large area of woodland.

Krys Stenhouse volunteer with the Heart of Durham checks a dormouse tube
New VRO Freddie McKendrick, checks a dormouse nesting box
Boxes, where previously dormouse had been found, are sited on steep woodland sides, with large drops and large amounts of moss covered rocks.

The important question everyone took away with them was –

Do our woodlands have a sufficient woodland under-storey for dormice?

Dormice require a well established woodland under-storey, full of flowering shrubs that provide nectar in the spring  and fruit later in the season. They require nesting material to weave their nests such as honeysuckle and woodrush. Once the nectar source has gone, caterpillars and insects found high in the canopy are the next food source. By autumn they need to turn to high calorific nuts such as hazel to build up sufficient weight for hibernation.

The National Trust rangers in order to provide this valuable understorey have enclosed areas. This was  interesting to Heart of Durham volunteers who have recently completed two such areas within the nature reserve at Derwent reservoir.

Volunteers saw the positive effects of excluding deer and rabbits on the establishment of the understorey.
Ten years on a well established understorey.
An interesting day but sadly no dormice, just three bats, loads of mammal droppings and an old blue tit nest.

Providing the right kind of habitat is one thing but……..

“Climate change is a very real threat to creatures like the hazel dormouse posing dietary challenges” said Chris Johnson ranger for Allen Banks, “Warmer winters and wetter springs bring dormice out of hibernation too soon. Wetter and cooler summers also are not good as they spend these cold periods in torpor when they should be feeding”

It is ever hopeful that the rangers will find a dormouse, but finding evidence that they are around is just as good.

Dormice surveys continue in County Durham with volunteers from both projects. The Land of Oak and Iron Project is working with private landowners looking at their woods and offering advice.