Amongst all the rare and interesting species that can be found at West Dean Woods, there are several species that are rarely ever seen. Of these, one of the best known and loved is the dormouse. This fascinating, small mammal is mainly nocturnal and is of course famous for its long winter hibernation, often sleeping from October through to April.
At West Dean Woods, the Sussex Wildlife Trust has been monitoring dormice populations in and around the coppice woodlands since 2006. They hope that the data from this on-going survey will give some indication of the health, distribution and needs of the dormice living there and enable them to provide the optimum habitats for these wonderful mammals.
Much of the survey work is carried out by a team of dedicated volunteers without whom they would not be able to compile the necessary data vital to ensuring this species continues to thrive. Leading the volunteers is husband and wife team Maria and Rodney Wildman who also run the Trust’s Chichester members group.
Dormouse Hunters volunteers Maria and Rodney Wildman’s story
“About ten years ago, Mark Monk-Terry (Sussex Wildlife Trust Reserve Manager for West Dean Woods) suggested this might be a good site for dormice but volunteers would be needed to carry out the monitoring. We thought, why not give it a go? We underwent training to obtain our dormouse handling licences, which involved accompanying licenced handlers to gain experience and then, when they thought we were competent enough, being given references to apply for our own licences to Natural England (then English Nature.)
So training done and licences obtained, the next step was boxes. We approached a couple of DIY outlets who very generously gave us a few sheets of suitable ply wood, enough for our project. Then, we had to build them; Rodney had a pattern and cut the wood to the required size and then he and another volunteer, John Herring, spent a very cold February morning in our garage on the ‘dormouse box assembly line’. I also contacted two local schools – West Dean Primary School and Singleton CE Primary School and both head teachers very kindly invited us along to meet the children and get them involved. We spent a delightful day overseeing the youngsters as they helped construct yet more boxes, a task they took to with great enjoyment and enthusiasm.
We then put the boxes in place and organised a rota to check them regularly. In March and April we found they had been used by birds which was encouraging as it meant they were suitable for wildlife. Once the chicks fledged we started to find dormice in the boxes. Some will readily take over old nests; others prefer a box of their own. During checks, the dormice are carefully taken from the boxes, given a quick health and sex check and weighed before returning to their boxes. Monthly monitoring carries on well into November.
Other than birds and dormice, we may also find shrews, bats, hornets and the far more aggressive tree bumblebees in our boxes, but they all deserve their place in their natural environments, so we do not unnecessarily disturb them. Finding a dormouse in a box is still a delight and being able to hold one in your hand a privilege especially if still in torpor and audibly snoring. Yes they do snore, a very light wheezy noise.
We both feel very lucky to be able to be involved in such a project not only in West Dean Woods but also at the Trust’s nature reserves at Levin Down and Ebernoe Common.”
If you are interested in volunteering with the Sussex Wildlife Trust please visit: www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/volunteering