Monday, 7 November 2011

Nuts to dormice

Stuck for something to do this autumn? Why not spend a couple of hours scrabbling around on the forest floor, searching for chewed nuts? Not just any forest floor - you need to be under the canopy of a mature hazel coppice - and the nut you seek is a hollow hazelnut with a perfectly round signature hole. 

 This hazelnut is the holy grail of dormouse conservation. You'd be amazed how much you can tell from the marks on its shell.

Squirrels insert a sharp incisor and crack the nut apart. Woodmice like to hoard their nuts in secret stashes for the lean times in winter. Like bank voles, they leave distinctive bite marks on the shell. But the golden hazelnut hidden under leaf litter bears an almost perfectly round hole on its side with a smooth inner rim and tooth marks at a 45 degree angle to the hole.

a dormouse nut

Why so much fuss about a discarded, chewed nut? It's the only way to find out if dormice are living in the wood, without going to a lot of trouble and expense. These sleepiest of British mice are nocturnal and they scuttle around in the tree canopy. You are extremely unlikely to see one in the wild or find its nest. If you do find the remains of its dinner, you feel justified in putting up wooden nest boxes which at least some of the population will probably use.

Only then will you come face to face with the cutest critter in the woods and be able to weigh it, sex it and find out how many offspring it has.

 A few days ago we found seven dormouse nuts among hundreds of squirrelled shells on the floor of a hazel copse in Surrey, suggesting there is a viable population in the wood. On hands and knees, we sifted through damp leaf litter, disturbing spiders and woodlice and revealing buried fungi. Foxes must have wondered who had scraped so many patches of earth clean when they emerged into the wood that night. 

torpid dormouse
 Very soon now, the hazel dormouse will be curling up in a ball of leaves for its long winter sleep. It doesn't depend on hazel nuts to survive, so long as it has plenty of food from April to October: nectar, bugs, fruits and nuts. But it does need a connected habitat of woods and hedges and hazel coppice seems to suit it very well.

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