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Page last updated at 17:17 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009
The dormice counter
By Laura Joint
BBC Devon

Janet Chapman and Jeremy Sabel
Janet Chapman checks a dormouse box with volunteer Jeremy Sabel

Janet Chapman sticks her hand into a dormice nest box. "It looks a bit manky," she says. "I don't think there'll be anything in it."

She's right - like 29 of the other 30 boxes at Lady's Wood today, it's empty - the inhabitants have left their summer homes for winter hibernation.

It's late November 2009, and this is exactly what Janet had expected.

She has been a volunteer with the Devon Wildlife Trust for several years and one of her jobs is to survey dormice.

Once a month between April and November, she heads off into the woods at Lady's Wood near South Brent and Andrew's Wood near Loddiswell.

Armed with small plastic containers and a tiny weighing machine, Janet inspects every single one of the trust's dormice boxes at the two woodlands, which are managed with the creatures in mind.

Empty nest
No-one home in this nest

This year, 2009, has been a good one for dormice in these woods with plenty of them about: "One month, we counted 15 and we've had several litters," said Janet.

Today though, there is just one left at Lady's Wood - all the others have literally gone to ground for the winter.

Janet has been a member of Devon Wildlife Trust for some 20 years and spends about 20 hours a months on her voluntary work. She loves the dormice surveys.

"They are so cute but you don't want to do them any damage," said Janet.

"So we don't count them when it's raining because we don't want them to get wet. And they are tiny - when they are born, they are the size of a peanut. They curl up in your hand, but you have to be very gentle with them."

Janet has a dormice handling licence - a legal requirement for handling this protected species - and today, she is training three more volunteers so they too can qualify for a licence.

We meet up at 9am on a grey, wintry morning. "We only come out when it's dry and we start this early because it fits in with the dormice's sleeping patterns.

"But that doesn't always work - sometimes they're out and about.

"Most people don't do surveys in November but this time last year when we came with a view to cleaning out the boxes, we found three of them. So you never know - we might find some again today."

We head up towards the hazel trees where the nest boxes are placed, wading through a muddy quagmire on the way.

We come across some badger holes - a bad sign for dormice as they prey on them.

A dormice
Handle with care

The first dormice box we check is empty - and very wet inside because the drainage holes have become clogged up.

It's a similar story of deserted homes up until mid morning, when finally, in went a hand and out came a tiny dormouse.

"Some do hibernate later when the weather is mild," explained Janet.

As well as the monthly checks during the dormice's waking hours, Janet is also helping a scientific study by collecting dormice hair to get a better picture of DNA spread.

In October, there were lots of dormice about - all of them fattening up on nuts, insects and berries in readiness for their winter snooze.

But when the 'vacant' signs go up, others move in. A blue tit was found in one of the boxes today, and Janet expects to find more when she returns for her next count in April 2010.

"There will be quite a few blue tits in the boxes by then," she said.

And bluebells, too. While dormice generally use honeysuckle bark and hazel leaves for their nests, they make good use of the abundance of the bluebells in spring.

Until then, Janet can put away her counting paraphernalia - but she'll be back: "My work is very rewarding - it's lovely to come out into the woods and do this."




SEE ALSO
Dormouse blog
02 Oct 09 |  Nature & Outdoors
Lady's Wood - a des res for dormice
01 Oct 09 |  Nature & Outdoors
A haven for dormice
01 Oct 09 |  Nature & Outdoors

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