Somerset wildlife: the Dormouse
PUBLISHED: 10:47 31 January 2020
© Richard Austin
Pauline Kidner, founder of Somerset animal charity Secret World, talks all things wildlife with us - this month, we've been finding out about some very cute creatures that are currently hibernating...
Common dormouse (muscardinus avellanarius); it's such a big name for a little mouse. Often called the hazel dormouse, it is a golden colour with large black eyes and is the only mouse with a furry tail.
It hibernates through the winter from October through to May. By fitting dormice with tiny radio collars, it has been discovered they wake up in January and take pollen from catkins before going back to sleep. When they wake in May the dormice feed on blossom in trees, changing to fruit and berries in the autumn. The hazelnuts are taken when they are green and soft. They eat the nuts in a way that can be recognised from the shells found on the ground.
They are arboreal, living in the branches of coppiced hazel, and it is the lack of this habitat that is putting them at risk. In order to move around freely they are able to move their paws from right to left as well as up and down, which their fellow mice on the ground are unable to do. Being in branches they are rarely predated and because they only breed once a year, they find it difficult to maintain their numbers with loss of habitat. Dormice are therefore considered to be vulnerable as a species.
Dormice triple their body weight in the month before going in to hibernation. Their hibernaculum is made out of moss and leaves, making a tight circular ball, which is based at the bottom of the hedge. The common dormouse is found mainly in the south and south west.
There is also a larger edible dormouse (glis glis) that was introduced originally by the Romans, who did indeed keep them in pots until they reached a size to be eaten (hence the name). Glis are grey with black eyes and look very much like chinchillas. They were again re-introduced by Lord Rothschild in the early 20th century in the Tring area where there are a lot of beech trees and where they rely on mast seeds of the tree in order to survive.
Each year we have at least one common dormouse brought in to us having had their round shaped hibernaculum pulled out by dogs that think they have found a ball. Broken open, the dormouse is found sound asleep curled tightly with its tail around its body. The disturbance usually wakes the dormouse up and once taken in as a casualty, as long as they are uninjured, we can put them into a cage. This is placed in a cold area and the dormouse will go back to sleep in the bedding given to them in a nest box. We leave water, peanuts and sunflower seeds in the cage and check once the spring has arrived to see if anything has been eaten. Once they have come out of hibernation, the dormouse is checked over and then taken back to where it was found and released.
We have also reared orphans, which is difficult because of the varied diet that they would have as they wean. The dormice love honeysuckle and as well as eating the pollen and the nectar, they strip the bark from honeysuckle to weave into beautiful balls around the branches for day nests.
It is worth the care and attention they need to be able to release them back to the wild.