The rare and elusive dormouse
The Hazel Dormouse is familiar to many people as a character from Alice in Wonderland, but is one of Britain’s rarest indigenous mammals. It used to be present in the Derwent Valley in the 19th and mid-20th centuries, though there have been no verified records in Tyne & Wear or Durham for decades and the nearest site is at Allenbanks near Hexham. This is despite the presence of suitable habitats in a number of places. However, because it is a shy and nocturnal animal, it is extremely difficult to observe, so a lack of sightings does not necessarily mean that it is extinct from the area.
However, a concerted effort is being made to survey local woods for any signs of the dormouse through a multi-partner project involving Land of Oak & Iron, Durham Wildlife Trust and Friends of Chopwell Wood. Specially-made nest boxes have been put in some sites very close to Chopwell Wood and are monitored two or three times a year. There have been no positive results yet, but the next stage is to try and obtain footprints of any rodent, using a new customised nest box design, developed in the South of England for dormouse surveys.
Without looking, we will never know whether the dormouse is still native to our part of the Derwent Valley, but it has to be done meticulously and scientifically to have any chance of success. Through partnership between local agencies, this is possible and there is even the possibility of re-introduction of the species at some time in the future.
Join the Woodland Conservation Volunteers in February when they go out to clean the nest boxes in preparation for the upcoming survey season.