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.
One of two young Dormice seen in Fineshade in 2014
About the project
In early 2020 plans were made to work out the distribution of Dormice in the Fineshade. Which parts of the wood do they prefer? What are the 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 been 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 pad and leaves 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 footprint tunnels in the wood in 2020. We hoped to run the scheme in different areas in the following years.
Footprint tunnel kit - thanks to those who donated
Inking the pads at the entrance to the tunnels
A footprint tunnel ready and open for visitors
2020: the project started .... and stopped
Before the lockdown caused by the Corona-virus, a team of volunteers had been formed who would erect and check the tunnels for footprints regularly during the summer months. A crowdfunding appeal had also enabled us to buy 50 tunnels and equipment.
But with the restriction on travel, our plans had to be scaled back but Fineshade residents 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 went off for analysis but unfortunately they proved to be inconclusive.
On 28 May 2020 we learned that some emerging research suggested 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 applied to those who were doing Footprint Tunnel Checking where the risk of transmission was thought to be 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 were 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 in 2020.
2022: project revived and footprints found
Covid-related restrictions continued, through the 2021 season making the planned monitoring difficult or impossible. The 50 plastic tunnels remained in place and we were able finally able to re-start the project in the summer of 2022.
50 tunnels with inked pads were set out in June a central area of Fineshade Wood, reviving the project which, because of Covid, had been put on hold since 2020. The tunnels were checked every 10 or 11 days by a team of about six people.
On the very first check, possible footprints were found in just one tunnel. We were 90% sure that they had been left by a Dormouse but the tracks were not very distinct and could have been produced by a Wood Mouse. This find raised our hopes but subsequent checks through the rest of June and July were no more conclusive.
Then on 6 August everything changed. The team of seven checking the tunnels began to find clear un-mistakable Dormouse footprints. By the end of the morning three tunnels had produced rock-solid evidence and another five had possible/probable tracks too.
Rather surprisingly, the clearest footprints were in an area of unmanaged conifer plantation rather than in what seems to us more likely Dormouse habitat, with deciduous trees and plenty of bramble. Why were we suddenly finding them today rather than earlier in the season? We don’t know for sure, but It would be nice to think that there has been been breeding and these were the tracks of youngsters dispersing and exploring their surroundings.
What next? This success enthuses the team to look for tracks n other areas of Fineshade Wood next summer, or perhaps even other parts of the wider Rockingham Forest
Part of the volunteer team of monitors:
Jemma, Paul, Sandra, Holly, Anne and Brenda
Jemma, Carolyn and Hugh checking tunnels in 2022
The individual pads of Dormouse feed are said to resemble the "cheeses" in Trivial Pursuits
To all those who helped us crowd-fund the purchase of the tunnel kit
To the team of volunteers who monitored the tunnels during the summer
To Forestry England, in particular Scott Martin, for encouraging us and allowing the project to take place.
To the Wildlife Trust BCN for advice and insurance.
If you would like to help out with this project in the future. Please get in touch by email: