As the group climbed over the stile following John and Ruth, landowners and our hosts, we left the grassy field behind us and headed down into the woods. The woodland floor was covered with a mass of bluebells and coppiced tree stumps. It was damp due to the previous day's heavy rain but today the sun was shining. Our task was to check 50 dormouse boxes and record our findings as part of the monthly national dormouse monitoring programme from April until October for the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES.org).
As we headed into more dense woodland the ferns replaced the bluebells. We continued along the path until John informed us that there were two badger setts ahead of us, and we were required to pass quietly so as not to disturb the sleeping badgers. At some of the openings you could clearly see newly scraped earth (a positive sign of an active sett).
Our first box came into sight and on first glance you would think it was a small nesting box for birds, except the opening was missing from the front. At the rear, up against the trunk of the tree, was a small hole providing just enough space for the dormouse to gain entry. Each box was numbered and fixed with a piece of wire about 4ft up the tree. The removable lid was held in place with a chain and wire because without these security precautions squirrels could, and would, destroy the contents or eat whatever they found within.
John stopped us a few feet away from the first box; he approached alone. In his hand he held a piece of cloth with his name embroidered on it. He called it a ‘stuffer’ and the name describes its use: to fill the opening and stop anything from escaping. John pushed it into the opening, unlocked the lid and lifted it slightly in order to check the contents; this one was empty. With the lid securely replaced, the stuffer rag removed and the details recorded, we moved on to check another. Each member of the group was given the chance to perform this process whilst checking all 50 boxes.
There are no signs on approach of what to expect; only when you look inside will you know if there is any chance of discovering a dormouse. Some were completely empty, others contained slugs or just the odd leaf, but when we did come across one with filled with leaves or moss then our hopes were raised as this is a sign of potential activity. At least a third of the boxes contained nesting blue or great tits, some with un-hatched eggs, others with their young screaming and their beaks gaping!
It wasn’t too long before we came across our first dormouse. To the untrained eye it was nothing more than a ball of moss. The lid was replaced and the whole box was removed from the tree and placed into a large clear plastic bag. John removed the lid again and carefully felt the content of the moss. He lifted his hand, and there in his palm was a small golden dormouse with its tail curled between its legs; so cute. They are a nocturnal mammal and at this time of year they are in a torpid state which allowed us about 20 minutes to weigh and sex the little creature before it would awake. It was then carefully tucked into its mossy ball, put back into the box and secured onto the tree trunk as if nothing had been touched.
We continued throughout the woods until every box had been checked and the findings recorded.
Below is a link to a short video I took which shows how we checked the boxes:
I decided not to take my camera equipment on this occasion as I wanted to be part of the experience, but if you are fond of all things small and furry you can look at and buy harvest mice pictures from my Animal Gallery.