Dormice in Fineshade
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.
Dormice are a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This means that they are strictly protected by law and may not be intentionally killed, injured or disturbed in their nests. They may not be collected, trapped or sold except under licence.
Surveys show that dormice declined in Britain during the 20th century and then by a further 40% since the year 2000. Loss and fragmentation of ancient woodlands, climatic difficulties and suspension of traditional coppicing were all probably connected with this.
They now occur mainly in southern counties, especially in Devon, Somerset, Sussex and Kent. In the East Midlands, there are no recent records of wild dormice in any of the counties of Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Rutland or Cambridgeshire (though there has been a re-introduction programme in Brampton Woods). It is this that makes the recent records of wild Dormice in Fineshade so very important. The Rockingham Forest population, more specifically the natural population in Fineshade, is the most northerly in the region.
One of two young Dormice seen in Fineshade in 2014
Previous monitoring in Fineshade
There are historical records of Dormice in Fineshade from the 1990s when a thorough monitoring programme was carried out by Richard Eckton, the FC Wildlife Ranger, who worked with staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire. Boxes were erected and the animals recorded, not just in deciduous woodland area, but also on low conifer plantations and scrub. Those boxes gradually fell into disrepair and monitoring effectively ceased after 1999.
Rediscovery in 2014
In August 2014, with Forest Holidays’ application to develop a large part of the wood as a holiday resort, their ecological consultants, Collins Environmental Consultancy Ltd, carried out a search for hazelnuts chewed and opened by Dormice. Collins reported:
A fresh characteristically chewed hazelnut found approximately 480m east of the eastern edge of the proposed development confirmed the continued presence of dormice within Fineshade woodlands. Dormice are highly likely to be present throughout the woodland, as there are no significant barriers to dormouse dispersal, though their abundance in different parts of the woodland will vary depending on habitat quality.
A month later, the presence of dormice was confirmed when two young dormice were seen and photographed alongside one of the vehicle tracks that pass through the wood. There is an area of good coppiced hazel nearby and they seemed to be eating, or at least nibbling the grass stems. They were thought to be youngsters and their fur was the same colour as the dead brown leaves that were starting to show. They were extremely approachable and one of them posed beautifully for the picture at the top of this page.
"Dormice are highly likely to be present throughout the woodland"
FH's consultant ecologist
Confirmation in 2015-17
Since 2015, considerable efforts have been made to locate further Dormice.
Having gained approval from the Forestry Commission, staff and volunteers working for the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, erected Dormouse nest boxes or tubes in different locations in the wood. The boxes are checked monthly by volunteers with the appropriate experience and Dormouse licence, and in October 2015 an adult female was found using one of the nest boxes not far from the 2014 sighting.
This and the 2014 records proved that Dormice have certainly survived in the north-eastern part of Fineshade Wood.
The same month, signs of Dormouse use were found in a tube that had been positioned in thick undergrowth on the other side of the wood, about 2km from the female. The picture below shows a partially built Dormouse nest with woven grass filling the tube. This location was close to where a small orange-coloured mammal with a thick tail had been reported crossing a forest track a few days previously. This is not typical Dormouse behaviour so it was not a confirmed sighting but, together with the partially built nest, it did seem likely that there may be Dormice using the south-western part of the wood too.
In 2016 Wildlife Trust volunteers replaced the tubes by boxes and more were erected in 2017 bringing the total to well over 70 nest boxes. They are checked monthly during the summer months. In August 2016 a probable nest was found in yet another part of the wood but no live Dormice were located that year. Another complete, but unoccupied, nest was found in May 2017.
Adult female Dormouse 2015
Picture: Henry Stanier
A typical nest box, possible nesting material, and a partially built nest in a monitoring tube
Forest Holidays' secret survey
There is continuing secrecy surrounding the survey carried out for Forest Holidays in the 2015 season, when a different firm of ecological surveyors were employed to survey the central part of the wood. This location was directly between the two groups of records described above. We reported on this survey here but the results have still not been made public. It seems that the Forestry Commission were not informed and, by May 2017, we believe they have made no attempt to find out the results of the survey carried out by their partners. (Details here.)
Why have the results of the Forest Holidays survey still not been published?
And why does the Forestry Commission avoid asking for the survey results?
The answers to these questions may well be explained by the fact that the European protection for Dormice would effectively prevent any Forest Holidays development. If any European Protected Species is present there must be "an overriding public interest for the plan or project to proceed". This argument was ably set out by Mark Avery in his objection to the previous Forest Holidays application and you can read it in more detail here.
If Forest Holidays's surveyors actually found evidence of Dormice in the middle of their proposed development area the company would certainly face insurmountable problems.
The future for Dormice in Fineshade
It does seem very likely that Forest Holidays’ own consultant was correct when she wrote in 2014 that “Dormice are highly likely to be present throughout the woodland, as there are no significant barriers to dormouse dispersal”.
However, there may now be barriers in place. We have described here the widening of rides that took place place during winter 2015-16 in Westhay Wood. Unlike previous years, the scale of this work was widespread with almost every ride in Westhay now devoid of vegetative cover. For several years, until the vegetation re-establishes, these wide open spaces will hinder dormouse dispersal in the southern part of the wood.
For the sake of the dormice and other threatened wildlife it is essential that the Forestry Commission do not extend this work further into the northern part of the wood and that they resist Forest Holiday’s pressure to create the new roads that are an integral part of the proposed holiday development.
Widened rides like this in Westhay Wood present real barriers for Dormice dispersal