Eye in the Wood

Yesterday, I nearly overtook a stubbornly tinkling ice cream van while walking down a lane feathered with shed leaves. And today it rained from a clear-ish sky before the west was underlit with pink as if the clouds were full of rosewater. Windy? Sunny? Puddles? The seasons seem uncertain where they are heading, like so many of the people wandering beneath them.

I’ve got a couple of trail cams out at the moment, and they too are having unpredictable times. As the temperature drops, so does the activity of our summer specialists: bats, hedgehogs, and above all dormice. I don’t know what kind of summer dormice have had; covid put paid to the nestbox surveys. This one at least looks well fed and ready for a good winter’s hibernation.

I catch footage of dormice every now and again, but it’s not easy. Not only are they a nationally threatened species that exists at low numbers even in the best habitat, but they also tend to keep high in the trees. This one was relatively low down on a fallen trunk, possibly searching for a hibernation spot. They weave winter nests at ground level where the temperature stays steadier.

At the other end of the size scale, this ghost of a deer.

Fallow deer. I did a double take but no, it’s a definitely a fallow deer, of what’s called the ‘menil’ colour type. Fallows can in fact be almost white, almost black, or (more commonly) sandy-brown with white spots, but they are very rare visitors to my part of the hills. A mature buck sports massive palmate antlers but this is only a ‘teenager’, and he’s probably on his way out of the valley by now. 

Not to be outdone, kingdom bird offered a woodcock in the fallow’s wake. This desperately shy woodland wader is another species that I stumble across only rarely. Like dormice, they are mostly active at night, and like fallow deer, they are on the move; this one probably flew in from the continent. 

Tawny owls, however, stay put.

Snapshot_1

As the trees grow bare and the foxes start courting, owl cries echo in the night – they search for mates from autumn onwards. 

Nature tries to keep to some of its old patterns, even as we wonder about ours.

 

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.

Ray of Hope

Springtime is a tenuous thing. Hard to judge, if you’re a dormouse. Today there are blue skies and misty lanes; this time last year, we were being freeze-dried by bitter snow. To sleep or to wake? My guess is that some of our dormice are awake.

Dormouse photo2

Hazel dormice have a message about the British countryside: about woods and hedgerows, flowers and fruits. Do we want to hear what these exquisite little creatures are telling us?

Perhaps not. For all their gold-plated national and international legal protection, dormice continue to slide towards extinction in Britain. We’ve pulled the rug away by wrecking the hedgerows that support them, and isolating and ruining woodland. Flaying, over-cutting and removing hedgerows where dormice are present is dangerously close to a criminal offence – and there is no legal defence for killing a dormouse of ‘incidental result of a lawful operation’. To my local district council and everyone else who manages Surrey’s surviving hedges: please note.

But there is a ray of hope.

Dormice can survive us. My village proves it. We thought we were preserving our historic landscape by turning our wooded lanes into a conservation area, but we accidentally saved our dormice too. This road is home to dormice – and people.

Light beams lane 23 Feb 19

Thick, wide hedgerows, trees with branches that provide bridges over roads, ancient woodland with a jumbled understorey of hazel and bramble – they’re all things that dormice need.

I’ll be looking for them again in the spring. For nests like this, bound with hazel leaves and honeysuckle.

Dormouse nest 28 Nov 2017

And maybe – just maybe – some of these.

Dormouse6

Let’s keep hold of the hope. Surrey must always remain good enough for dormice.

All dormice in this post handled under licence. It is against the law to disturb, handle or harm dormice without a licence in the UK.

Life at Mouse-Height

Every field is a jungle when you stand two inches tall.

Short tailed field vole 23 Oct 2017

Short-tailed field voles are more common than people in the UK, but far harder to spot because they spend their lives within dense grass. They are placid, peaceable, incomparably scruffy little creatures. They are also a crucial component of the UK’s ecosystems and support foxes, owls and many other wild carnivores.

When the vole is hiding, its grass-tunnels remain.

Small mammal run 111013

It’s often a question of looking for fieldsign when you’re trying to study rodents. I’ve been using ink tunnels in various projects over the last year – tubes designed to capture tiny footprints.

Ink tunnel tracks

These footprints belong to a mouse, probably a yellow-necked mouse. They’re a larger species than the familiar wood mouse and can be distinguished by a yellow band on their throat.

They are also obsessively fond of birdfood!

YN mouse 150406

But sometimes – just sometimes – the ink tunnels strike gold.

Tracks from Tunnel5 220916

Three upside-down triangles equals a hazel dormouse!

Dormouse photo2

I’ve recorded dormice in three sites within my parish and consider us extremely fortunate to still have them. There’s no doubt that their UK population is in real trouble, mostly due to habitat loss. They are one of our most tree-dependent mammals, as well as the sleepiest; they can easily spend six months snoozing.

This is a dormouse nest. Unlike the chaotic nest of a yellow-necked mouse, dormice will weave honeysuckle bark into a very tight ball with a cozy chamber at the centre.

DSCN1728

They hibernate at ground level, however. The temperatures have dropped steeply in the last few days and I expect most of my local dormice are now dozing. I hope they have a peaceful winter.