The Hazel Dormouse - Wake me up when it's over.

18 December 2016 | Posted in mammals
The Hazel Dormouse - Wake me up when it's over.
hazel dormouse / Mark Greco

Well that was a bloody depressing year wasn’t it? Never before in my life have I felt such a strong urge to just curl up in a ball and go to sleep for a very, very, very long time. This defeatist attitude is a way of life for the hazel dormouse who each year scrawls the words ‘do not disturb’ across its calendar for November, December, January, February, March and April and turns in for a nap.

After 2016 the feeling that your future is quickly becoming uncertain and dangerous is one which we can now all relate to. For the dormouse it’s an annual event. The onset of colder weather each autumn signals that the dormouse diet of flowers, fruit, seeds, insects and nuts will soon vanish. Each winter instead of struggling to survive it simply shuts down and sleeps. In the autumn, feeding at night among trees and bushes, they can double in weight as they stock up on food before the hard times arrive. Which reminds me, I need to pick up a trolley full of tinned goods next time I’m in Tesco.

When they have sufficiently stuffed their cute little faces these rotund rodents descend to a ground-floor dormitory, a tightly woven nest under moss and leaves, and become dormant. Heart-rate and breathing reduce by over 90% and body temperature is dropped to just a few degrees above freezing. This means dormice don’t need much energy to stay alive and valuable fat reserves are burnt very slowly. Not many British mammals actually hibernate. Sure, badgers and squirrels enter a deep sleep for longer periods but they’re not hibernating – they’re merely in ‘stand by’ mode and can reawaken quickly. Full hibernation requires a complete shutdown, pulling the power plug (almost) completely out of the wall. Of our British mammals just dormice, hedgehogs and the bats hibernate.

(Dormouse/ Photo by Derek Middleton)

Yet it isn’t just Britain’s longest lie-in that has earned the dormouse its sleepy reputation. Even after it has woken up in May the dormouse will readily hit the ‘snooze’ button and drop back into a torpid semi-hibernation as a way of avoiding any hassle. Not much food available yet? Back to sleep. Too wet to go out and find food? Back to sleep. Simply can’t be bothered? Back to sleep. Sleep seems like an easy alternative to life’s problems but hibernation and torpor have a high price; if a predator finds you you’re too tired to wake up and run away.

So as our world shuts down around us and compassion, respect and hope get stripped away we can’t just shut down and forget about it. We can’t let ‘em catch us sleeping. We have to stay wide awake and vigilant, ready to stand up and make the world around us a better place. Let’s hope that when that sleepy ol’ dormouse wakes up in 2017 the world will be a little bit brighter. For everyone.

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