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Suffolk Wildlife Trust dormouse detectives on the right track to help mini-mammal

PUBLISHED: 09:00 04 November 2017

A hazel dormouse - a new survey technique pioneered by Suffolk Wildlife Trust will help the conservation of the species. Picture: DAVID KJAER

A hazel dormouse - a new survey technique pioneered by Suffolk Wildlife Trust will help the conservation of the species. Picture: DAVID KJAER

2008

A trailblazing Suffolk Wildlife Trust project appears to be on the right track when it comes to the urgently needed conservation of one of Britain’s rarest and most secretive mammals.

A hazel dormouse curls up and goes to sleep. Picture:  PEOPLES' TRUST FOR ENDANGERED SPECIESA hazel dormouse curls up and goes to sleep. Picture: PEOPLES' TRUST FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES

The hazel dormouse is undoubtedly endearing - but it is also seriously endangered. Conservationists need to know as much as possible about the rarely seen animal if efforts to halt its worrying recent decline are to be successful, but studying such an unobtrusive creature presents real difficulties.

Now the trust is hopeful that it has made a significant breakthrough in its research into the mammal’s remnant population that is clinging on in the Ipswich area. Dormouse detectives are literally on the trail of the tiny mammals - thanks to an ingenious way of establishing their presence by recording their footprints.

The trust’s senior conservation manager Dr Simone Bullion - one of Britain’s leading mammal specialists - reported the advances made in dormouse footprint recording to members attending the charity’s recent Conservation Day and annual meeting, at Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club.

Suffering a “pretty shocking” 72% UK population decline in the last 22 years, the hazel dormouse was “not only vulnerable, it is moving towards being critically endangered,” said Dr Bullion.

Hazel dormouse specialists Alison Looser, left, and Dr Simone Bullion carry out research into the rare and secretive species. Picture: CONTRIBUTEDHazel dormouse specialists Alison Looser, left, and Dr Simone Bullion carry out research into the rare and secretive species. Picture: CONTRIBUTED

Established survey methods had limitations and so the trust-linked Suffolk and Essex Dormouse Group had investigated using tubes in which footprints could be recorded. It was a method employed successfully in hedgehog populations studies and had been used in other dormouse research, but on a smaller scale and with tunnels of a different design to the work now being carried out in Suffolk.

The Suffolk study made use of tunnels of “our own design”, said Dr Bullion. Downpipes 65mm wide were cut into sections, card and “ink pads” that utilised a harmless mix of charcoal powder and olive oil were used and they contained no bait in a bid to discourage grey squirrels and wood mice from entering them.

In a trial study funded by the Peoples’ Trust for Endangered Species, the tunnels had been positioned at 50 sampling sites at each of 12 locations south, west and north-west of Ipswich, with group member and dormouse specialist Alison Looser carrying out detailed monitoring since April. The method appeared to have “enormous potential”, with few drawbacks, although it was labour intensive and there had been practical difficulties that had been encountered in wet weather.

It offered major benefits, however. It was “more sensitive” than other forms of detection and delivered easily recognisable field signs as dormice had such a distinctive footpad pattern. A major advantage was that surveyors using the method did not need survey licences as there was no handling of the dormice and it could also be used in areas where there was “higher public disturbance.”

Dr Bullion added: “There has been national and international interest in this project and we are sharing information about it across Europe because it is a bit of a trailblazer. Next year we hope that 600 footprint tunnels will be available for people to try out the method on their own land and we have funding for a microchip project in Bradfield Woods that will help us find out about seasonal movements, longevity and survival rates.

“There are a lot of questions about the ecology of dormice that we really do not know the answers to but if we can get them those answers will inform our management and our use of resources, and the advice we can give to other people about dormouse conservation.”

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