County Durham’s Elusive Dormouse.
A connection between opera and dormice is not one that readily springs to mind, but in 2014 a connection was made when opera company D’Oyley Carte generously gave Durham Wildlife Trust a grant of £3000 to train volunteers, not only to put up dormice boxes and tubes, but to also monitor these for signs of occupation as well as understanding the ecology and habitats of dormice.
In Victorian times dormice in County Durham were fairly common along the Derwent Valley. Indeed when people were intimately connected to the land in their everyday work, coppicing, walling, hand sowing and harvesting, dormice were regularly recorded. Changing land use, as well as a loss of this intimate connection with the land, has resulted in very few recent records of dormice. Even in parts of the country where they are common, few people have seen them. Nationally, numbers of dormice have declined. In the north, records are few, confined to areas of Cumbria and Yorkshire but a small population is believed to be still residing at Staward Gorge in Northumberland.
By training volunteers and publicising their aims, Durham Wildlife Trust hoped to gather evidence that there may be dormice in County Durham. Working with local groups, the Small Mammal Society, Forestry Commission, Durham County Council and Natural England, over 200 nest boxes and tubes were put up at various locations and monitored over the course of several years.
The Land of Oak & Iron Woodland Volunteers got involved with the project in the Spring of 2017. After attending a training course at Chopwell Wood they had the knowledge and skills to join the search. Under the guidance of Anne Porter from the Durham Wildlife Trust, the volunteers put up tubes in Forestry Commission Woodland at High Strother Hill, and began monitoring them on a regular basis for two years.
Over the years of monitoring the boxes a great deal was learnt, blue tits love the dormice boxes, their nests are safe from predators (the boxes are erected at chest height with the entrance hole against the tree). This meant the monitoring regime had to be altered to avoid the nesting period.
Autumn brought some exciting discoveries in the form of seed and nut caches as well as a lot of unidentifiable droppings in abundance. These deposits were intriguing, what small mammals were using the boxes and tubes?
With no confirmed dormouse sightings following several years of monitoring, the next phase of the project emerged. An article in a People’s Trust for Endangered Species publication produced some new ideas and one that might help in identifying the users of the tubes. The purchase of 6 meters of brown drainage pipe and with some sawing and drilling, tracking tubes were produced. The tubes, with a paper insert on which a band of ink was applied, aimed to record the footprint of the mammals entering. These tracking tubes were placed in woodland areas at chest height. From the footprint it was hoped that a species could be confirmed.
A lure of hazelnut butter placed in the middle of the tracking tubes, proved to be too popular in attracting small mammals, the free food brought with it such a high footfall through the tube that deciphering a single footprint was immensely difficult. In consultation with a PhD student, working with similar tracking tubes in Cheshire to determine the abundance of dormice in woodlands, our generosity ended. The tubes would no longer offer free nourishment!
The study in Cheshire also provided valuable images of identified mammal footprints including the unique prints of a dormouse. So now the search continues in County Durham for that elusive dormouse, tracking tubes at the ready!
Although no dormice have yet been found, the volunteers have developed an affinity with the woodlands they have been visiting, and a sense of comradery has developed, quite a lot of cheese scones have been consumed during survey debriefing sessions too!
Find our more about this project with Durham Wildlife Trust