Forty Winks

It’s easy to get distracted by meadows in spring. They are decked out in a shimmering cloak of buttercups and yellow-rattle, and birds are warbling from every bush. The contrast with the muddy vistas of November is as great as a caterpillar and a butterfly – and plenty of those are about too, come to think of it.

HV1 26 May 2019

But not to be outdone, the woods are changing too. Our rarest local mammal is awake – well, nearly.

Dormouse 25 May 19

Hazel dormouse, handled under licence at one of the local monitoring sites. Not quite out of torpor, the state of reduced activity that hibernating animals return to in conditions such as cold nights. In fact, this particular nesting box held two half-dozing dormice.

Dormouse2 25 May 19

A dormouse monitoring site consists of 50 nest boxes, which are very like bird boxes except they are set up with the entrance hole facing the tree. It is illegal to open them without a licence because dormice are given the highest level of protection under our laws, sadly for good reason – while no one would harm a dormouse on purpose, their numbers nationally continue to decline, mostly due to loss of habitat.

Setup DM3

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, we’ve managed to retain that habitat in my part of the North Downs more by accident than intent. Dormice like woodland with a dense understorey, as well as hedgerows that are thick and tall and not cut every year.

For a variety of reasons, these simple conditions are now hard to come by in the wider UK countryside. We are changing the environment at a rate wholly out of pace with nature’s capacity to adapt. But just sometimes, you stumble across something which reminds you of the depth of years that are within our forests, and the antiquity that deserves respect.

Giant tree2 Mortimer Forest May 19

This is probably the largest tree that I’ve ever seen outside of the tropics. It is a beech in the wilds of Shropshire, with limbs as thick as a normal tree’s trunk.

Giant tree Mortimer Forest May 19

It is tempting to wonder how many dormice have hibernated in its shadow over the centuries.

15 thoughts on “Forty Winks

    1. Thanks Pete. That tree astonished me. And what also surprised me is that I cannot find any information about it on the internet – one would have thought that veteran tree groups would be promoting it as a first class example but there’s almost no mention of it online at all. It was a long way from the road, but, still.

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      1. You are welcome. I would have thought so too. I have known of veteran beeches locally which have been promoted, but they were in parkland. I love the size and shape of some of these beeches. They are amazing trees to behold and can make you feel quite small 🙂

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    1. Thank you Eliza. I’ve been told that it can take ten years for dormice to move into nest boxes, but they accepted these ones in a matter of weeks, so all is going very well so far 🙂

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  1. That beech is reminding me on oak that still exists in center of Belgrade – European or English oak (Quercus Robur), about 200 years old. There is also a platanus, about 180 years old in one of Belgrade’s suburbs. Trees that old are unfortunately rare and people are still cutting them down. There was an outrage in Serbia last year when an 600 year old oak was cut to make space of new freeway…. I think there is only one more left, somewhere near Kraljevo, about 400 years old. Over here in Canada, I’ve seen few giants, probably the most famous one is in Cathedral Grove park on Vancouver Island, about 800 years old Douglas Fir. I can just imagine what Canadian forests looked like 2 or 3 hundred years ago.

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    1. Very sad to hear that a tree that old was cut in the name of Progress. We have a lot of publicity about ‘veteran trees’ in the UK these days, but there’s still more to be done.

      There is nothing quite like old growth forests. Ancient trees have so many stories.

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  2. Old trees do connect us to times past and also are a sobering reminder of what has been lost and what we are losing. Hopefully they energise more of us to try to protect and provide habitat and to protect wild creatures. The good work going on in your area is heartening.

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    1. Surrey is the most biodiversity-rich inland part of the UK, but to the north is London, and it puts constant pressure on us to concrete our countryside for the benefit of London’s economy. We are more or less protected by a mish-mash of laws but it’s an ongoing battle. The large wild area north of my village is due to become a National Nature Reserve later this year – which basically is, in British meaning, what the rest of the world calls a National Park. So that should help keep dormice and ancient trees on our hills.

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      1. I hadn’t thought about London spreading its tentacles so wide. It sounds to be good news about the National Nature Reserve, though I expect that ongoing vigilance is always necessary,

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