By Charlotte Owen
The hazel dormouse is well-known for being a sleepyhead, and rightly so. It will spend about six months of the year in hibernation, curled into a little golden ball of fur in a cosy nest of leaves, and once a dormouse has entered its deep winter sleep it won’t wake up for anything but spring. Dormice usually hibernate from November until April or even May, depending on the weather, but before they can think about going to bed they must first focus on fattening up.
Autumn provides a bounty of nuts and berries perfect for this purpose. Dormice have been feasting on blackberries, sloes, sweet chestnuts and – best of all – hazelnuts. Each one is packed full of fat and protein, providing a high-calorie reward that’s well worth the effort of gnawing through its tough outer shell. Dormice nibble hazelnuts in such a distinctive way that the empty shells are reliable clues to the presence of these elusive little creatures. They carve a neat, circular hole with a smooth inner rim so that the discarded shell ends up looking like a miniature clog. In contrast, mice and voles are much messier and leave obvious tooth marks, creating holes with edges that resemble a milled coin.
Dormice themselves are much harder to find, mainly because they are nocturnal and secretive but also because they are now quite rare. Numbers have plummeted in the past hundred years and dormice have disappeared from half of their former range. Thankfully, southern England remains a stronghold but even here, dormouse distribution is still very patchy and remaining populations are often isolated. Dormice are almost entirely arboreal and rarely come down to the ground, so they need plenty of diverse deciduous woodland, ideally with stands of their favourite hazel coppice, and a dense understorey of honeysuckle, bramble and shrubs to climb through. They can only ‘commute’ between woodland patches via suitable hedgerows, which provide safe passage through the landscape as well as a source of food and shelter. By restoring and reconnecting dormouse habitats across Sussex, this sleepy little character will be able to thrive once more - and a wealth of other woodland wildlife will benefit too.