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Thursday, October 14, 1999 Published at 07:59 GMT 08:59 UK


Rescue plan for sleepy dormouse

Sleepy, shy and seldom seen: The dormouse needs help

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

What is orange-brown in colour, weighs about as much as three pound coins, and spends two thirds of its life asleep?

The BBC's Linda Duffin: "The dormouse has all but died out in Scotland"
The answer is the dormouse, a tiny mammal that over the last century has been in steady retreat across the United Kingdom.

In that time it has vanished entirely from seven counties, and has all but disappeared from northern Britain. The straggling remnants are now clinging on in Wales and southern England, in the teeth of continuing habitat loss.

Dormice are also susceptible to changes in climate which may affect their habitat or interrupt their hibernation. They are reluctant to cross open country if the woodlands they prefer become too small to support them, and can become isolated and locally extinct.

Elusive tree-dwellers

Now the Wildlife Trusts, the national liaison body for the 46 county trusts, are launching a dormouse protection project, designed to improve understanding of the species and to provide suitable habitats.

[ image: Better management should provide habitats]
Better management should provide habitats
One problem is that the creature is so shy that nobody knows just how many still survive, so part of the project involves surveying places where they have been sighted.

Their nocturnal habits, and their tendency to sleep for eight months of the year, mean not many are spotted. The commonest sign of their presence is a neatly nibbled hazelnut.

They also rely on honeysuckle, bramble and oak trees for food, so they need somewhere with a variety of tree and shrub species.

To complicate matters further, dormice spend most of their time climbing in trees and hedges, and seldom descend to the ground.

Encouraging coppicing

[ image: Dormice need to double their body weight to prepare for winter]
Dormice need to double their body weight to prepare for winter
The Trusts' programme will involve managing woodlands and hedgerows, linking dormice habitats, and installing nesting boxes.

Woodland management entails coppicing, a practice in which only small areas are felled at any one time, with long intervals between successive fellings.

This thinning out lets in light and air, which encourages the growth of spring flowers and the summer variety of fruiting and flowering plants the dormice need in order to double their body weight before hibernation.

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