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Volunteer blog- the dormouse reintroduction

Join local volunteer Oliver as he gives us the latest news and update from the Back On Our Map dormouse reintroduction.

The latest update

It’s a tiny bit frustrating, hazel dormouse introduction. The little blighters will insist on living a private life – sleeping half the year and indeed dozing half of every day when they’re not hibernating. If only they’d check in with their minders (sorry, enthusiastic conservationists) at regular intervals for weighing and measuring, sign up for Council Tax and register all their new offspring at birth, we’d know exactly how well they’re taking to their new homes. And although they are microchipped before arrival (don’t worry, it’s a very small chip and they really don’t mind), which means the First Colonists can all be identified if they are ever seen again, they don’t even have the consideration to bring their babies in for the same treatment.

And that, dear reader, partly explains why eager volunteers spent the spring months of 2021 at Site A, and again in 2022 at site B, installing 200 brand new nest boxes each time, carefully designed to attract a newly-wed couple intent on Family Formation, as the demographers call it. You might have thought this was done out of kindness, providing warm and cosy housing for refugees deported from southern climes to our chilly northern woods. But really, it’s a plot so that the scientists can try and figure out how well the introduction is going. (Step forward, Debs, and Ellie, who actually confessed at the 2022 induction to loving a nice set of statistical data even more (really? did I mishear?) than a nest of cuddly hazel dormice.) You might think that dormice have managed without nest boxes for millennia, and so they have – up to a point, since although they were happily living in the AONB many years ago they had undeniably disappeared: so every little helps. But, to be clear, the boxes, while undoubtedly providing a safe and sheltered haven, also mean that Grade 1 Volunteers (those with their hard-earned ‘handling’ licences) can regularly inspect every box over the summer months, and if they find any resident dormice they can check for microchips, say ‘Hello Kevin’ if Kevin’s chip comes up, weigh them (a rather undignified process involving a plastic bag – plenty of air inside, don’t worry) and check them for wear and tear like alopecia (hair loss to you and me) which can be a sign of stress. And the resulting data, as well as giving satisfaction to Ellie and Debs, should hopefully provide reassurance to funders and sponsors, and the all-important PTES (People’s Trust for Endangered Species) who supply the pioneer colonists, that all is well.

But why do 30 dormice (2021) and – hopefully, if it’s been a good captive breeding year – 40 dormice due to arrive in 2022 need no less than 400 boxes? Surely that’s a bit extravagant? Not that the volunteers were heard to complain (or so I’m led to believe): in fact the main complaint this year was that they were so efficient that one of the scheduled box-installation sessions wasn’t needed and had to be cancelled, disappointing people who haven’t had enough of scrambling about in the woods, looking for suitable places to attach them. Site B turns out to be … interesting: as reported in my last, advance publicity was that it was a ‘much easier’ site than Site A last year. Your arthritic reporter, who prudently decided not to test the team’s first aid or even emergency evacuation skills to the limit, relies on second-hand reports from surviving volunteers, and I’ve been warmly congratulated on my decision: ‘This site is lethal’, says one correspondent, and another reports that Fiona got a boot completely stuck in a gryke and had to be rescued. I’m not sure what happened to the boot, but it sounds as if Fiona made it out in one piece, thank goodness.

But I digress: why 400 boxes for 70 dormice? Well, time and space have run out. Tune in to my next report for the answer(s).

April update

The volunteer [re-]induction day on April 5 was a happy reunion for many of us. Around 25 volunteers – 20-odd old hands and some new recruits – gathered to be reminded or told what it was all about by the leaders from the BOOM team and the MBP staff. Assembling in the woods at Site B*, and gathered in a large circle around an insouciant robin which clearly believed it was all about him, we were talked through some highlights of 2021, updated on risk assessments, and invited to refresh our varied GPS skills before starting on the first of the 2021 routines.

I’ll save the 2021 highlights for another report, because news is still coming in as the Site A dormice wake up and re-establish themselves after their winter slumbers. However, the risk assessment session deserves a mention: it was quite lively, possibly to the surprise of Debs from the BOOM team, who apologised in advance for boring us with it. After going through her apparently comprehensive list of risks (and mitigations, of course) she asked for comments, which prompted a deluge of anecdotes about near-disasters narrowly averted (or not, in one case), and just how they had come about. The basic problem is that while Sites A and B are perfectly safe walking country for everyone who sticks to established footpaths, the dormice release sites and nest boxes have to be installed at precisely located points determined by a geometric grid superimposed on the map, regardless of the terrain. Everyone was keen to emphasise the dangers of the inevitable cross-country movement: slippery limestone, hidden as well as visible grykes, sudden drops, projecting and sometimes lethally sharp branches at any level from feet to eyes, trip hazards from almost any vegetation but especially brambles, and so on. Oh yes, and ticks. The presence of volunteer Ray, whose glasses had been softly (apparently) flicked off last September by some kind of liana which had gone on to gently scratch his eye, resulting in months of treatment at Liverpool Eye Hospital with a very uncertain outcome at first, was thoroughly sobering, even though it was wonderful to see him back and still enthusiastic, with sight fully restored. To be clear, no blame should attach to the leaders, who took every precaution possible last year and had done an equally thorough risk assessment – and even handed out free emergency survival blankets just in case the worst happened and someone broke a limb (they didn’t – last year, anyway). The one possible criticism is their innocent assertion that whereas Site A was a bit hazardous, Site B would turn out to be ‘much easier’. (Spoiler: it isn’t.)

That was all quite cathartic and then it was time to brush up our GPS skills. Split into groups of five, each with our own GPS reference to find, we were sent off into the woods and promised that we’d find a set of five chocolate Easter bunnies at the correct spot. Your correspondent’s group caused some consternation by trying to climb a cliff, the only way to reach their point, to shouts of ‘you’re going completely the wrong direction!’ We carried on, defiantly confident, reached the spot confirmed by our GPS: no bunnies! The organiser held her hands up and said ‘Oh, I did wonder if my GPS was working when I noted down that reference’, helped us down and led us to the ‘correct’ spot a few hundred metres away. It’s a hard way to earn a mouthful of chocolate, but it was very good quality.

After a sociable lunch we started on the day’s proper work: installing the first 30 [?] nest boxes at Site B. Keen volunteers, including the aforementioned Ray, have been constructing these for weeks. They’re quite like bird boxes, but with a hole at the back instead of the front: handy for tree-climbing dormice and, you’d think, discouraging to birds, but if so, you don’t know what an obstinate blue tit or a wren is capable of. As previously mentioned, these are placed at 20-metre intervals (presumably nesting dormice like to be able to wave at their neighbours but also keep their distance) and one challenge in early April was to choose each spot while imagining what the wood would look like in high summer when the new dormouse intake arrive. They can certainly find the boxes in thick undergrowth, but could the box-checking volunteers? And then there was the terrain. Just possibly, when viewed from the air, it is a little ‘easier’. Though equally possibly not. But whereas Site A, with all its hazardous humps and bumps, was basically level, Site B is mostly located on a steep hillside. Enough said… Anyway, the first 30 boxes were installed, all returning volunteers were accounted for (and in one piece) and everyone returned home happy.

Since then, the full quota of 200 boxes has been manufactured and installed, so efficiently that one installation session was cancelled because there was nothing left to do. The box-checkers (an elite group who, after much training, are licensed to actually come within touching distance of a dormouse) have been out at Site A to find out what has become of last year’s introductions and their offspring, and I’ll bring that up to date in a later report.