A ranger's day on the Quantocks
The work of a ranger in the Somerset countryside can be different every day. A day spent checking on the state of our wildlife, especially an endangered species like the dormouse, is an important one in the calendar, but is especially rewarding when the results are positive.
I hug the nest box tightly to my chest as I remove it from the tree. My spirits are already soaring because I know it’s occupied, and the hand I’m using to block the entrance hole is being tickled by whiskers.
I lower the box into a large bag so that we can safely weigh, sex and check the occupants inside. As the lid is lifted they emerge, clambering deftly up the wooden walls of their home, and leaping with splayed pink toes in an effort to grab my arm. If they were to succeed, they’d have clambered onto my head and escaped before I could react!
Luckily, the dormouse misses, and lands in the bottom of the bag, staring up at me with eyes like tiny black marbles. You have to admit, it’s a bit cute. However, the goggle-eyed adorability of the dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) belies its status as a valuable indicator species.
The dormouse is unusual in that it mainly lives in the trees. They aren't able to digest rough plant material, so rely largely on flowers, berries and nuts for their diet. Because of this, the most suitable habitat for dormice is not the open meadows preferred by voles, nor mature, closed canopy woodland, but a mixture of woodland in different stages of development, often with lower level plants including bramble, hazel and honeysuckle. Sadly, this type of woodland is not as widespread as it once was.
On the Quantocks, we create this habitat by coppicing: a process where trees are cut down and allowed to regrow, producing many long, straight stems in the process. Historically, this form of woodland management was used to provide wood for all sorts of reasons, including charcoal, fences and building materials. Coppice management declined as the world industrialised, as did the management of hedgerows, another of the dormouse’s habitats.
By coppicing at various sites across the Quantock Hills, we create a diverse woodland structure, which benefits not only the dormice, but a host of other species adapted to using this habitat, including many butterflies and birds. Dormice provide a useful indication of the health of the woodland. If the dormice disappear, the habitat quality is dropping. This is why dormice are so important and, this is why my spirits soared when I felt the whiskers.
The name dormouse comes from the French ‘dormir’, meaning sleep, which is no understatement. The mice can hibernate or remain in a state of dormancy known as torpor for more than seven months of the year. When they do wake up, food needs to be available. The late snows of March seemed to hurt our population, with a distinct lack of animals or nest building activity in the nest boxes in the early part of the year. However, the mice that attempted to use my forearm as a ladder to freedom had greyish fur, and were small, indicating that they were juveniles. This means the population successfully bred this year, and the woodland has provided enough food for them to continue expanding.
A success for dormice, and a success for woodland conservation.