Essex Wildlife Trust run several courses throughout the year and this was the first one that I signed up for. A day spent learning about the habitat of, and monitoring techniques for, the hazel dormouse.
The course was run by Rebecca Banks from the Essex Biodiversity Project and was held at the LNR at Norsey Wood in Billericay. We started at 10am with a presentation on the ecology of dormice, their prime habitats and how surveying has been carried out across the county. We were introduced to the nest tubes used over the spring/summer and the nest boxes used for the dormice to hibernate over winter. We then went out to look at some of the habitat where dormice have been found within the woodland. Norsey Wood is a delightful woodland. The last time I was there was back in March and things were very bare and wintry. Today however was very green and spring has definitely sprung. Bluebells carpeted the woodland floor and it was beautiful. We followed one of the footpaths along and then cut off into an area of quite dense trees and scrub. Rebecca asked us to alert her when we spotted the first nest tube. We all kept our eyes peeled and spotted the first one in a small tree. Once we had found one it was easier to find the others. The tubes are usually put out along a linear transect and are a set distance apart. We looked at what made a good spot for the tubes and that they should face in towards the centre of the tree or bush they were fixed to. They need to be positioned to allow any rain to drain out easily and fixed securely with wire.
We headed back to the education room to have lunch and a chat. After lunch we set to work on making some tubes of our own. This involved some prescored corrugated plastic, some plywood, small blocks of wood and a nail gun. It was great fun: we all made 5 tubes each and numbered them. Then we headed out to place them in the woodland. It was quite straightforward to make, and really good fun. Whilst we were folding and nailing everything together Rebecca was stripping cabling to reveal two pieces of wire which she cut into lengths for us to use to secure the tubes to the branches. We all headed back out to an area where the Ranger had instructed us to position the tubes. Starting with number 1 we positioned each box, moving in a linear fashion, keeping track of where we put each one, noting the type of tree, the height from the ground and any adjacent landmarks, e.g. ditch, large Elder tree etc.
I was really pleased with the locations chosen for my tubes, finding sturdy branches with a good about of potential food sources and shelter. Once we had put them all back we went back to the centre to pick up some nest boxes. The boxes are wooden and these ones had been made by the local prison. We carried 3 boxes to the first location we had been at and Rebecca showed us how to put them up using more wire. These were considerably more tricky and required two pairs of hands. The best set-up for dormice is to have a selection of boxes secured in a coppice stool facing in different directions. We managed to secure two boxes in the time we had left. Normally monitoring suggestions are that you should put out at least 50 tubes or boxes. The tubes are put out in spring and are left untouched until you can be confident that the dormice have gone into hibernation for the winter. At which point you can remove the tubes and inspect the contents to see whether there is any evidence of dormice. The nest boxes tend to be put out once evidence of dormice have been found in an area. They are used for hibernation and these must only be inspected, at the most once a month, for population studies by a licensed person.
It was a fun day, and I can but hope that one day I might catch sight of one of these elusive animals, even if it is just their fluffy tail disappearing up a tree...