Hazel Dormice are slow breeders and poor dispersers and unfortunately their numbers and range are both in long term decline, badly affected by fragmentation and reduced management of woodland. The National Dormouse Monitoring Programme was started in 1990 to get detailed information on the situation in order to work out how best to reverse the declines. Across the country there are hundreds of monitoring sites, each with fifty or more nest boxes and all these boxes are regularly checked by Dormouse Disturbance Licence holders.
This year, our wood and a neighbouring wood – making up a total of twenty acres – are enrolling as a Dormouse monitoring site on the programme.
Dormice live in low densities, are nocturnal and spend most of the summer up in the tree tops so it can be tricky to discover if they are present in a woodland. But we have found them as we cleared bird nest boxes in the autumn:
The typical population density is only 2.2 animals per hectare in the spring, although rising to 3-5 per hectare in optimal habitat such as our wood. However, there will be more than this in the autumn with numbers boosted by that year’s young. They are eaten by owls and squirrels and also taken by badgers when they are hibernating at ground level, but the biggest threat to an individual Dormouse is survival through the winter weather.
Not holding Dormouse licences ourselves, we are very lucky that a licensed handler will be working with us to check our Dormouse boxes from May to September each year. This week she visited us in the wood to start getting the boxes up.
Thirty boxes are going up in a grid formation in our eleven acres of woodland and twenty boxes in our neighbours’ wood. The grid formation does mean that some boxes are sited away from the prime hazel coppice habitat, such as this one in amongst the cherry trees. Dormice do eat cherry stones as well as hazelnuts, though, so it will be interesting to see if this box gets used:
We also have ten of these cheaper but less long-lasting nest tubes that we will put up in the wood in addition to the thirty wooden boxes:
Hopefully, after two years of covid-related delays, I will begin my own training this year to qualify for a Dormouse Disturbance Licence. It will take two to three years but will eventually mean that I can monitor our boxes myself.
I have only recently learned about the terrible trouble rabbits are in – their population has fallen by 43% countrywide in the decade to 2018 with no sign of this decline slowing. Although rabbits are not native to the UK, they have been here for a very long time, probably having been introduced by the Romans. They are ecosystem engineers since their burrowing creates mini mosaic habitats of warm, bare earth which help seeds germinate as well as being very beneficial for many invertebrates and reptiles. They are also selective grazers, keeping grasses at bay which benefits wildflowers.
Myxomatosis, introduced in the 1950s, reduced our rabbit population by 99% and this also led to the extinction of many invertebrate species that required warm, close-cropped grassland such as the Large Blue Butterfly (happily now reintroduced). Since then, rabbit numbers have risen again as resistance developed to the disease. But now they are facing a new threat – rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus type 2 – which emerged from commercial rabbit farms in northern France in 2010 and has now devastated populations throughout the UK. In fact, in Scotland, numbers have dropped by 83% between 1996 and 2018 because of this virus.
We only occasionally see rabbits in the meadows, but there does seem to be a good population in the wood, although until now I have paid them scant attention. I will definitely be appreciating them much more from now on.
The February frog-spawning spectacle in the meadows always feels like the inaugural event of the wildlife year:
Until abruptly stopped by the high winds, the waters of the ponds have been churning this week as groups of hormonal males clamber over each other to claim pole positions to meet and greet the females as they arrive at the pond.
Lots of lovely spawn has now been laid:
Mackenzie, our scarecrow and the mainstay of our anti-heron initiative, is on duty in his ‘staying alive’ pose overlooking the spawn at the edge of the pond:
For the last three Februarys, his presence has meant that not a single heron has gone near the pond, despite the extreme provocation of large gatherings of frogs. But unfortunately, yesterday, a heron was not fooled by him and paid two visits to hunt over the spawn:
The dog is extremely interested in the new badger hole that has recently been dug in the meadows and she is unable to walk past it without a detailed inspection:
I now have a camera on the hole to view the comings and goings:
This tunnel entrance is some distance from the other sett entrances that we are aware of – perhaps the sett is more extensive than we imagined, or is this hole part of a different system of tunnels? I will keep the camera on the hole and see if we can work out what’s going on.
Magpie nest building has now entered its fourth week….
…although there was evidence in the last couple of days that the building work might be entering the soft furnishing stage:
A Sparrowhawk jumps into the pond:
And a Kestrel cleans her talons:
It has been quite a week of tempestuous weather. Storm Eunice dramatically smashed her way across the country on Friday, carrying with her a rare red weather warning for much of the south of England.
When ferocious south-westerly winds blow here, ferries shelter alongside the meadows. On Friday, we had three of them:
Down in the village, at one end of the scale, a beach hut got blown some way off its foundations….
…and at the other end of the scale, a pigeon egg flew off a nest and smashed onto the ground:
There were a few trees that had fallen down in the wood but it could have been so much worse:
Can I once again mention how much I am looking forward to spring?