The Dormice of Bedford Purlieus

The Dormice of Bedford Purlieus - Wildlife and photography articles
Bedford Purlieus wood, near Wansford, has become one of the country’s top ten breeding locations for the dormouse, as local photographer Dan Waters explains.

With their little round bodies, dainty pink hands and eyes like spheres of ebony, dormice are very easy to love. But they need some help to survive the pressures of life in modern Britain. The project to create a breeding programme locally was organised by Natural England and the People’s Trust for
Endangered Species in 2001. They started by releasing 21 pairs of dormice that had been reared in captivity into Bedford Purlieus woods.

To give the dormice the best chance of success, they were well fed for ten days before their release. In addition, 180 nest boxes were installed by a team of 20 people, including Forestry Commission staff and volunteers supervised by the Chief Wildlife Ranger, Jim Alexander. Jim has been retired for three years, but continues to monitor the dormice as a volunteer. Jim kindly walked me round the reserve while he and his team monitored the nest boxes. It was clear his devotion to the cause hasn’t dimmed over the years and his words echo that sentiment.

“I’m just as excited now about the dormouse reintroduction in Bedford
Purlieus wood as I was nine years ago when we first released captive bred dormice into the wood. Not only are they still present in the wood, but their numbers are still on the increase with more litters of young still occurring this year. As dormice are nocturnal and spend most of their life in shrubs and trees they are very rarely seen during daylight hours, but are still just as important to our countryside as the more commonly seen red kites which were also reintroduced in our area. Looking to the future, I would hope to see dormice spreading naturally to other woods and become as ‘common’ as the
common dormouse used to be.”

Houses for mouses
The nest boxes are similar in design to bird boxes, except the entrance hole faces the trunk of the tree. The best dormouse habitat is a dense layer of mature shrubs under large, well spaced native broadleaf trees.

The Forestry Commission monitor the boxes four times a year, twice in both spring and autumn. They leave the dormice alone during their winter hibernation and throughout the summer breeding season. Dormouse nests are made of leaves and stripped bark, round in shape and slightly bigger than a cricket ball.

Why choose Bedford Purlieus?
This ancient woodland has had time to flourish over hundreds of years and as it has matured, a rich array of plant and animal life has earned it the status of ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ (SSSI). The trees are well
spaced which allows plenty of light onto the woodland floor nourishing a wide variety of plants. This is important to the success of the dormouse because their diet consists of nutritious foods like flowers, fruit and insects.

As these foods are available at different times of the year, dormice must select habitats rich in all these food sources. This also means dormice need to move roughly twice a year, so building corridors between separate areas of suitable habitat is essential in allowing them to spread.

There are even plans to introduce dormice bridges across rivers and roads and to maintain or reinstate hedgerows along which dormice can travel and naturally relocate to new breeding areas!

Although up to 50 dormice can be seen during a nest survey Jim explains that there are likely to be hundreds more nesting in trees and shrubs. Sadly, I didn’t get to see any of the dormice on my visit, as all the occupied nests were discovered in an earlier session. I resisted the temptation to go back and take a peek and risk disturbing the furry jewels a second time, as they are likely to abandon the nest. Every single one is precious and they’re particularly precious about their sleep!
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