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 and a re-introduced population in Bedford Purlieus, are the most northerly in the region.
One of two young Dormice seen in Fineshade in 2014
Status in Rockingham Forest in 2020
In 2020 Wildlife Trust volunteer, Judy Stroud, produced a report on the status of Dormice across the wider Rockingham Forest area. The report points to the need to establish suitable hedgerow and woodland corridors to connect remnant natural populations, such as Fineshade's, with the slowly expanding re-introduced population in Bedford Purlieus to the east.
Download "The status of the hazel dormouse in Rockingham Forest", by Judy Stroud, January 2020
Historic 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 when development threatened
In August 2014, Forest Holidays’ were applying to develop a large part of the wood as a holiday resort, and 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 was 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.
Forest Holidays carried out further surveys in the 2015 season, when a different firm of ecological surveyors were employed to survey the central part of the wood, the part where they planned to site roads, cabins, a sewage facility etc. For years the results were kept secret despite continual pressure from Friends of Fineshade, but eventually, in 2019, the company sent their records to the Northants Biological Records Centre. And yes, that survey carried out using plastic nest tubes revealed the presence of Dormice: in 2015 the animals were indeed nesting right in the middle of the wood, at least a kilometre from the 2014 sighting.
Why were Forest Holidays so reluctant to reveal their positive results? European protection for Dormice would effectively prevent any holiday camp 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 Forest Holidays planning application and you can read it in more detail here. Since Forest Holidays' surveyors had found evidence of Dormice in the middle of their proposed development area the company would certainly face insurmountable problems.
"Dormice are highly likely to be present throughout the woodland"
FH's consultant ecologist
Plastic nest box used for the 2015 survey
Monitoring in 2015-20
Since 2015, considerable efforts have been made to locate further Dormice.
Having gained Forestry Commission approval, staff and volunteers working for the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire, erected Dormouse nest boxes or tubes in different locations in outlying areas of the wood. But the FC permission was not for the central area in which, until 2019, Forest Holidays continued to show an interest, and in which they had secretly discovered breeding Dormice.
The boxes in outlying area have been 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.
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. 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 but little further evidence of nestbox occupation was discovered in the summers of 2018 and 2019.
Then, in August 2020 after a gap of 5 years, an adult male Dormouse was found using a nest in a box, close to the area of the 2014 and 2015 sightings.
Adult female Dormouse 2015
Picture: Henry Stanier
A typical nest box, possible nesting material, and a partially built nest in a monitoring tube
2020 - Keeping track of Fineshade's Dormice
A project is now under way to work out the distribution of Dormice in the wood using a new monitoring technique that the Wildlife Trust have used on one of their nature reserves.
A joint project has been put together by Friends of Fineshade, the Wildlife Trust and Forestry England and you can read more details and up-to-date plans here.
The Wildllife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire: www.wildlifebcn.org/dormouse
Recommended video about Dormice in nearby Cambridgeshire
People's Trust for Endangered Species:
Recommended video by Suffolk Wildlife Trust
Mammal society factsheet: