An Ecosystem of Boxes

Everything in nature is in orbit around something: foxes around rabbits, rabbits tugged by sandy soil, sand towards – well, wherever the ferocious Pleistocene winds heaped it back in the days when ice sheets were driving East Anglia’s climate. Ecologists, too, can be found where their favoured species live, usually being attacked by thorn-laced vegetation while tracking their target.

Dormice like bramble and low tangled branches. Surveys are seldom painless. But it is always worth it.

Dormouse2 15 Aug 21

I went back to Surrey last weekend to join the monthly box check. The nest boxes are basically backwards-facing bird boxes, usually fifty per site, and checked under licence due to the dormouse’s strict legal protections. Results for August: three adults, including two mothers with very young litters – an excellent total of ten dormice.

They are put briefly in bags to be weighed before being returned to their nests.

Dormouse1 15 Aug 21

Hazel leaves and strips of honeysuckle bark are a dormouse’s favoured materials; the birds that sometimes take over the nest boxes are bolder in their experiments. This long-abandoned nest is woven with moss, feathers and badger fur!

Bird nest Aug 21

But birds and dormice are far from the only woodland creatures that take an interest in the boxes. Despite their name, dormice are not ‘mice’ at all, but distant relations of squirrels. Real mice, such as wood mice, have hairless tails.

Wood mouse 15 Aug 21

Also unlike dormice, wood mice are lively and inclined to nip, although less so than the yellow-necked mouse, their large cousin, also in the boxes this month.

Yellow necked mouse 15 Aug 21

Shrews, toads and even snakes have been found in dormouse boxes on occasion. But mostly it is about the ones that they are put out for, raising their families and sleeping in honeysuckle bark until winter brings hibernation.

Dormouse3 15 Aug 21

Hopefully many of this month’s babies will enjoying the blackberries and hazelnuts soon.

18 thoughts on “An Ecosystem of Boxes

    1. Yes, dormice have full legal protection because their population has nose-dived in recent decades, mostly due to habitat loss. Hopefully these ones indicate that it’s been a good summer for them.

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    1. These surveys are under the supervision of a licenced ecologist. It takes years to train for a licence to handle dormice and making sure that stress is reduced to a minimum is a big part of that. For example, two of the dormice we found were nursing mothers, so we put them straight back in the box and left them alone.

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  1. When I went on a mammal trapping event with the local wildlife trust a few years ago I was thrilled to get up close and personal with Wood Mice and Bank Voles, but sadly no dormice (I don’t think we have them here). What a wonderful privilege for you to see them, and with babies too. A treasured memory, I’m sure.

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    1. That’s great. Bank voles are such interesting little characters. I occasionally get involved in Longworth trapping of small mammals, always with its surprises, e.g. hunting through dense undergrowth at 5am to locate an (empty) trap after a badger smelt the peanut butter bait and ran off with it!

      Liked by 1 person

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