by ANTONY CLAY
IT may look incredibly cute but the humble hazel dormouse certainly isn’t sitting pretty.
The tiny rodent has seen its numbers plummet by more than 50 per cent since the year 2000, according to a new report.
Loss of quality woodland habitat has been highlighted as a major factor in the shocking population decline.
The report says that woodland management is critical to halting the disappearance of this charismatic species.
The new report has been published by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and shows that Britain’s population of hazel dormice has declined by 51 per cent since the millennium, decreasing on average by 3.8 per cent each year.
The State of Britain’s Dormice 2019 report underlines the importance of providing the right habitat for dormice, and maintaining such habitats through correct woodland management practices is the key to bringing this endangered species back from the brink.
In Britain, dormice – known for their endearing appearance with soft caramel fur, furry tail and big black eyes – are threatened and are considered to be vulnerable to extinction.
Sadly hazel dormice are already extinct from 17 counties in England and the areas where they are still known to exist are almost all entirely south of a line between Shropshire and Suffolk.
Ian White, dormouse and training officer at PTES, said: “The decline in dormouse numbers is due to the loss and fragmentation of their natural woodland and hedgerow habitats, as well as climate change.
“In particular, it is the loss of habitat quality that is of real concern.
“Sympathetic woodland management is essential for the recovery of dormice. Whether woodlands are managed for timber or public access, shrubby areas should be created beneath the tree canopy. These provide dormice, and many other species, with areas to nest and feed in while also being able to access the mature trees.
“It is this variety of woodland habitats required to help dormice survive.”
Hazel dormice prefer structurally diverse habitats. They utilise tree holes to nest in, dense woodland understorey to raise their young and feed in, and hedgerows and bramble banks to disperse through.
But the way in which woodlands are managed has changed with traditional management practices such as coppicing, glade creation and small-scale tree felling – which once created mosaic habitats – becoming less common.
This means that many of the woodlands that can be seen today simply aren’t suitable for dormice.
These factors, combined with unseasonable or extreme weather, can be detrimental to dormice survival.
Despite this there are some areas where dormice numbers are increasing. At 96 of 336 sites analysed for the new report, populations were stable or going up.
Also, at 28 of these sites the average annual increase was five per cent or more per year.
But there is still lots of conservation work to do to help the vulnerable rodent.
PTES is trying to ensure that dormice can thrive once again in the countryside.
It manages the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme (NDMP) – the longest-running small terrestrial mammal monitoring programme in the world.
Since NDMP began in 1990, hundreds of volunteers across England and Wales have collected more than 120,000 records, providing a significant data set which indicates how dormouse populations are faring. It is this data that has been used in the State of Britain’s Dormice 2019 report.
In addition, over the last 26 years, PTES has managed 30 reintroductions at 24 sites, releasing almost 1,000 captive-bred dormice to create new populations or improve genetic diversity at existing ones.
These reintroductions play an important role in the long-term conservation of the species, returning dormice to 12 counties in England where they have been lost.
PTES also provides training and guidance for woodland managers, encouraging them to adopt appropriate land management practices.
PTES is working to improve people’s understanding of dormouse ecology and to improve the problem of habitat fragmentation.
The conservation charity is funding research into hibernation when dormice can be very vulnerable.
It has recently launched the Great British Hedgerow Survey, whereby farmers and landowners are being asked to assess the condition of their hedgerows and PTES are working with the ecological consultancy Animex to create dormouse bridges to improve accessibility between habitats.
Ian said: “Although the State of Britain’s 2019 report shows a severe decline has taken place over the last 18 years, the good news is that in some areas dormice are doing well.
“We can help bring this species back if we alter the way we manage our landscape. By providing enough of the right habitat, which is well-connected and managed correctly, dormice, as well as a huge amount of other wildlife, can thrive once again across the country.”