Rare hazel dormice released into Warwickshire woods in effort to boost wild population

Hazel dormice were being introduced into the Warwickshire population at a secret location on Tuesday. MHLC-20-06-17 hazel dormice NNL-170620-221618009
Hazel dormice were being introduced into the Warwickshire population at a secret location on Tuesday. MHLC-20-06-17 hazel dormice NNL-170620-221618009

A secluded wood in Warwickshire was the scene for the reintroduction of an endangered species yesterday (Tuesday June 21).

19 breeding pairs of rare hazel dormice were released into woodland in a secret location by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) on Tuesday June 20 in an effort to boost their numbers.

Ian White, Dormouse Officer for Peoples Trust for Endangered Species, with a hazel dormouse NNL-170620-221644009

Ian White, Dormouse Officer for Peoples Trust for Endangered Species, with a hazel dormouse NNL-170620-221644009

The exact location cannot be disclosed because the dormice need to be undisturbed for the reintroduction to be successful.

Numbers of wild hazel dormice have been in steady decline since, and is likely due to the loss of their preferred hedgerow habitat.

As a result, the charismatic animals identifiable by their caramel-coloured fur, furry tail and large black eyes have become extinct from 17 English counties since the end of the 19th century.

But Gina Rowe, living landscapes manager at Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, was positive the reintroduction would be successful.

Volunteers carry the dormice to their new homes. NNL-170620-221529009

Volunteers carry the dormice to their new homes. NNL-170620-221529009

She said: “We are delighted and excited to welcome hazel dormice back to the area. They have been absent for too long.

“This is an historic start of re-establishing the hazel dormouse in the Princethorpe Woodlands Living Landscape area in Warwickshire, in the greatest concentration of ancient woodlands of high wildlife value in the county.

“This is the culmination of over four years of planning and surveying.

“We know these woodlands have the ideal mix of habitat and food plant species for hazel dormice and they should settle in well.”

Dormouse breeder Neil Bennent chats with volunteers about the best locations for the boxes.
MHLC-20-06-17 hazel dormice NNL-170620-221721009

Dormouse breeder Neil Bennent chats with volunteers about the best locations for the boxes. MHLC-20-06-17 hazel dormice NNL-170620-221721009

The dormice were brought to the site and released within their own nest box following a health check undertaken at Paignton Zoo in Devon.

The boxes are fitted inside a mesh cage secured to trees. The mesh cages, filled with food and water, help the dormice acclimatise to their new home in the wild.

After about 10 days, the cages are opened to allow the dormice to venture out into their new woodland home and are eventually removed once the animals have settled.

Dr Peter Brotherton, of Natural England said: “We have seen great success in reintroducing hazel dormice to Warwickshire though our Species Recovery Programme, and this release will mean their numbers can grow.

“This project will also help to restore woodlands and link habitats by planting new hedgerows which will allow our dormouse communities to breed and create a healthier population.”

The reintroduction marks the culmination of weeks of work by partners PTES, Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, Natural England, Zoological Society of London, Paignton Zoo and the Common Dormouse Captive Breeders Group, who were all involved in different stages in the lead-up to the big day.

It follows an earlier successful release at Windmill Naps in Warwickshire back in 2009, where 46 hazel dormice were returned to the wood.

And a future release of dormice is also planned at a woodland near the 2017 release site, aiming to link the hedgerows between the two hazel dormouse hotspots.

This will hopefully encourage the populations to mix and interbreed.

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Hazel dormice are described as ‘without question one of Britain’s most endearing mammals’ by charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES).

But new research from the University of Exeter published today (Wednesday June 21) in scientific journal Mammal Review suggests the population has declined by more than 70 per cent over the last 20 years.

Zoologists reached the alarming figure after studying 17,000 nest boxes across 400 woods.

The causes of the decline are not well understood, and the research team is calling for an urgent review of dormouse conservation.

Habitat loss and climate change are likely to be important factors, but woodland management could also be important. One possibility is that more woodland management may be needed, not less.

Whatever the causes, PTES’s work aims to reverse the decline.

The group’s work focuses on three things: monitoring hazel dormice populations nationwide, reintroducing dormice to suitable habitats, and training woodland managers to look after hedgerow habitats correctly so dormice can thrive.