The wheel turns, seasons come and go. What once was a bright spot on the horizon speeds quickly towards you and is upon you before you know it – carrying out dormouse box maintenance, marking the start of the dormouse survey season once again!
I met my fellow dormouse monitor at Scotney Castle this morning, ready for a morning of checking the condition of each of the 70 boxes in woodland around the estate. Any boxes that were rotten or had been gnawed by squirrels were replaced with new boxes; new wire to tie the lids down used to replace old broken wire; emptying out old nests (dormouse or mouse) ready for another year of nest making by various beasties.
It was during emptying one box of a mouse nest that we came across something rather unexpected. We opened the lid of the box to find it full of a loose pile of dried leaves; typical of wood mouse or yellow-neck mouse nests. After gently inserting a stick to check for movement (mice can give very painful bites) a single mouse leapt onto the edge of the box, but didn’t dash off straight away as is normal. Instead she hesitated, and didn’t move until the box was tipped down a bit. We then checked for another individual and began to slowly empty the leaves out of the box, as dormice do not like the strong smells of mice. It was only when I saw something wriggle that I had a closer look. A slug I thought – it is not uncommon for slugs to find their way in – but to my utter surprise, it was a baby! What?!
It is extremely uncommon for mice to breed this early, and neither of us had seen young so soon before. That must have been why Mrs Mouse was slow to leave the box. We hastily but carefully looked through the leaves and we found three more babies. When we were certain there were no more, we placed the loose leaves back into the box, made a slight depression to put the babies back in and then covered the top with more loose leaves. We put the box back up quickly and left. I really hope they will be ok and mum comes back.
After that, we were very careful when emptying out the other boxes, but we didn’t come across any other mice, babies or otherwise, so that was a relief. No dormice were found either; I had thought with the mild weather there might be one or two in the boxes in torpor, but none were to be seen. In the next box along from the babies we did find another mouse. This was an adult, and we guessed he was a male. He just blinked at us, and promptly shoved his head under a leaf.
I love walking around the woodlands at Scotney because they are so full of wild flowers, and most parts are rarely entered except by National Trust staff, so it’s quite a privilege to see something most other people don’t. We saw emerging early purple orchid Orchis mascula, flowering primroses Primula vulgaris, lords and ladies Arum maculatum and fox glove Digitalis purpurea and leaves on the trees well and truly emerging.