James Robbins has been working as a warden with the countryside team at Cotehele, on the banks of the Tamar in east Cornwall, for four years. His personal interest in dormouse ecology and conservation, and his enthusiastic championing of this cause on the estate, has led to him being known as Cotehele’s ‘dormouse warden’
But, ‘are there dormice on the Cotehele estate?’, this question has no quick or easy answer…
‘Back in 2007 there were no confirmed records of dormice on the estate, but there were rumours of a rogue dormouse hanging out in the gardener’s potting shed. The countryside team and volunteers had been searching for their characteristic signs: opened hazel nuts – with no luck. The presence or absence of dormice can be hard to prove.
‘Late that year, however, we found the telltale opened hazel nuts in an outlying area of the estate called Cadsonbury, two miles south-west of Callington. This beautiful spot includes an Iron Age hill fort overlooking the valley of the River Lynher. The lower slopes of the hill are covered in scrub and woodland, and that’s where the opened hazel nuts were found. There are very few mature trees in this woodland, which could mean a shortage of natural holes for the dormice to use for daytime shelter and breeding, so we decided to provide them with dormice boxes both to give them shelter and to help us to monitor their population.
‘Sixty boxes were made from local larch, with the help of volunteers and the children from Calstock primary school; 40 went to Cadsonbury and the remaining 20 stayed at Cotehele.
‘The first season’s monitoring of the boxes found only breeding blue tits and great tits – no dormice. Then in late December 2008, whilst cleaning debris out of the boxes, we found a hibernating dormouse buried in the remains of a blue tit’s nest – the first confirmed record of a dormouse on the Cotehele estate! It was a strange sighting as dormice don’t usually hibernate above ground – they need the high humidity found in damp leaf litter to survive. It’s possible that this dormouse woke up during a warm spell and left its hibernation site, then when the cold weather returned it was forced to use the box for shelter.
‘Since then, we’ve found several dormice in the boxes – along with nuthatches and a brown long-eared bat – but no evidence of breeding, as yet. Fingers crossed!’