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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK
Great dormouse hunt under way
Dormouse English Nature/Natural History Pictures by John Robinson
Dormice are in decline as their habitat vanishes
By environment correspondent Tim Hirsch

The British public is being invited to take part in the largest-ever survey of one of Britain's rarest creatures, the hazel dormouse.

As fans of the Lewis Carroll classic Alice in Wonderland will know, spotting a dormouse is not easy, as the main daytime pursuit of the tiny mammals is sleeping.

So the survey, being organised by groups including English Nature and the Mammals Trust, is taking the form of a nut hunt.

Sleeping dormouse
Dormice are not easy to find as they spend most of their time sleeping
Participants in the survey, running from now until next March, will search their local woodlands and hedgerows for hazelnuts, which have been nibbled in the distinctive manner favoured by dormice.

They gnaw a neat round hole to open the shells, and leave characteristic toothmarks around the edge.

Suspect nuts will then be sent in to experts to check whether they are indeed evidence of the elusive creatures.

It is hoped that the largest-ever national survey of dormice in Europe will help to establish just how many are left, and where they are concentrated, so that measures can be taken to save them from extinction.

Dormice are a bright golden colour with a thick furry tail and big black eyes. They are only around 70 millimetres (2.7 inches) long, with a tail of similar length.

Close-up of nibbled hazelnut
Participants will hunt hazelnuts which have been nibbled in the distinctive manner
Previous research has indicated that they have disappeared from more than half of their previous habitats because of the loss of ancient woodlands and hedgerows.

The Great Nut Hunt was launched on Wednesday at a country park in Kent, by the countryside minister Elliott Morley and the wildlife enthusiast and comedian Bill Oddie.

Mr Oddie said: "This is a wonderful chance to get involved in an important scientific survey which will provide valuable information and help conserve one of our most shy and beautiful mammals.

"Dormice are a vital part of our woodland and hedgerow biodiversity, and we need to do everything we can to ensure a happier future for them."

The BBC's Sue Nelson
"Results of the survey... will be published in the spring"
See also:

04 Jul 01 | Sci/Tech
Dormice head back to the woods
27 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Dormice in danger
24 May 00 | Sci/Tech
Dormice take to the tube
14 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Rescue plan for sleepy dormouse
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