Tracking Fineshade's Dormice
The Hazel Dormouse is probably Fineshade's most special resident. The species is now so rare that it is vulnerable to extinction in the UK and has the very highest levels of protection.
In early 2020 plans were made to work out the distribution of Dormice in the wood. Which parts of the wood do they prefer? What are the Fineshade habitat types that suit them best? Woodland management is necessary for the production of timber, but how can that be planned in a way to benefit this vulnerable and rare species?
A new monitoring technique for Dormice had been developed and the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire (WTBCN) had trialling it in one of their nature reserves in 2019. Rather than providing nest boxes, this method uses what are known as "footprint tunnels". A covered platform is suspended in the branches with inkpads and a sheet of cardboard inside. If a dormouse passes through, it walks over the ink leaving its footprints on the card. These cards are collected regularly and the footprints examined: Dormice leave a distinctive print with triangular shaped pads and out-turned toes. The tunnels have an advantage over conventional boxes and tubes as they only require the animal to visit, rather than to build a nest. Nor does checking the tunnels require a licence, since no animals are disturbed.
Friends of Fineshade working with WTBCN and Forestry England, decided to erect 100 footprint tunnels in two parts of the wood in 2020. We hoped to run the scheme in different areas in the following years.
Before the lockdown caused by the Corona-virus, a team of volunteers was formed who would erect and check the tunnels for footprints regularly during the summer months. A crowdfunding appeal enabled us to buy 50 tunnels and equipment, while another 50 were suppled by Forestry England. With the restriction on travel our plans have had to be scaled back but Fineshade residents have still managed to get 50 tunnels in place, during their daily exercise periods. On 7th May, cards were stuck inside, pads were inked and fingers crossed that Dormice would find the tunnels and wander through leaving their footprints behind.
By 20th May it was clear that at least 3 of the boxes had had animals inside them. But were they Dormice? The smudged tracks have gone off for analysis but really didn't look conclusive.
One of two young Dormice seen in Fineshade in 2014
Footprint tunnel kit - thanks to those who donated
Latest. Checking now stopped
On 28 May we learned that some emerging research suggests that there is a very small chance that the Covid-19 virus could be transferred from humans to some other mammals including dormice. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), who regulate national Dormouse Monitoring issued new advice, primarily aimed at those checking nest boxes and handling live Dormice. But the advice also applies to those who are doing Footprint Tunnel Checking where the risk of transmission is even lower.
We gave this a lot of thought and looked in detail at the PTES research. The advised measures to minimise risks include obvious things like not doing fieldwork if showing any signs of Covid-19 and carrying out strict social distancing between field workers. But also recommended are the use of face-masks, gloves, sanitiser etc. Such additional measures would make checking the tunnels even more difficult but possible.
But we had to ask ourselves whether the benefits of the monitoring would outweigh the very, very low risk that we could be passing the virus on to the Dormice themselves. If Dormice are still present in Fineshade, it is likely to be at best a struggling and vulnerable population.
Accordingly, and with great regret, we could not justify continuing with the checking. Perhaps we'll be able to get the project going again later in the summer, or perhaps next year.
Inking the pads at the entrance to the tunnels
A footprint tunnel ready and open for visitors