The Dormouse - one of Cheshire's most secretive and very sleepy creatures

Cheshire Wildlife Trust's Tom Marshall opens the lid on the private life of one of Cheshire's most secretive and very sleepy creatures, the dormouse Photography by Tom Marshall

When it comes to describing wildlife, cute is often an overused word. In the case of the hazel dormouse however, I really can’t think of anything more suitable. With those perfectly round, wide, jet black eyes and a gingery-orange coat of the smoothest fur, it’s tough not to be captivated by this charming little mammal. And how can you not be taken in by that classic image of a blissful slumber, with a long tail curved round creating a perfect ball of furriness.

For most, a Sunday morning lie in is just enough to see us through the week, but in the dormouse’s case, spending more than half a lifetime asleep means the difference between life and death.

So why the seven-month snooze? Well, for starters when you weigh around 20 grams it’s tough keeping warm when the temperature dips below freezing – even with a heart rate that may be five times greater than a human’s. When you have warmed up, there’s nothing more disappointing than heading out into the woodland canopy only to find that everything has shut down for winter – even the birds are making a beeline for peoples’ backyards just to see them through until spring.

So for the dormouse it’s time for some serious shuteye, curling up into an impossibly tight ball in a nest constructed of Mother Nature’s finest bedding, from early winter until the following April.

Centuries ago, this sleepy scene would have been repeated in trees up and down the UK, in coppiced woodlands filled with hazel and oak. As our landscape changed however, dormice increasingly found themselves awakening to a very different scene, and their leafy home changing or disappearing altogether. No longer were we coppicing trees for traditional crafts, and great swathes of forests made way for agriculture and development, with even the hedgerows which offered some chance to find a new home rapidly disappearing too.

This inexorable change in our countryside led to the last wild dormouse being seen in Cheshire almost a century ago in 1918, near Wistaston in Crewe. And for several generations this remained the case.

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Like all the best solutions to a seemingly big problem however, the answer was a simple one. If the connecting corridors of the dormice’s home were being lost, it was vital the remaining strongholds were safeguarded and the opportunities for the mice to thrive were maximised.

As has proven a great success with numerous bird species, providing a safe and secure refuge was the first part of the task. And in the case of the dormouse this was as straightforward as developing a traditional backyard nesting box with one subtle difference – living in such intimate harmony with the trees of their woodland home, the entrance to a dormouse nesting box is the tradesman’s entrance, in what most of us would typically consider the back of the box, next to the tree.

With these safe havens now in place, scientists across the UK turned to another conservation technique – but one not without its risks – the direct re-introduction of dormice to specific locations.

According to the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), some 600 dormice have now been reintroduced to locations throughout Britain, and in Cheshire’s case this took place at a secret location in the south of the county during 1996 and 1997 with the support of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust and Natural England (formerly English Nature).

With dozens of dedicated volunteers, wildlife experts and veterinary expertise, the dormice of Cheshire and those across the border in North Wales are now some of the most studied in the UK thanks to the North West Dormouse Partnership.

Now, after almost 15 years and countless thousands of carefully-opened wooden lids to see who is at home, the project in Cheshire going a step further with funding support from Chester Zoo and PTES. The first full analysis of a reintroduced dormouse population is now underway with vital data collected over the last few years using the latest microchip technology.  

A delicate and highly-skilled procedure, the mice are first located by checking their wooden homes, and after a few moments of general anaesthesia the chip is placed under the skin, rather like a domestic cat or dog. After its ‘vital statistics’ are taken, the mouse is checked by a scanner to ensure the chip is functioning and placed carefully back in its box. Every mouse located is scanned or newly chipped, to allow the team to monitor their movements and general health within the population. At the Cheshire site alone, with its 180 nesting boxes, this means the team peeks into nestboxes over 720 times each year.

Experts from Cheshire Wildlife Trust now hope the project will allow them to discover how the reintroduction is faring following such a long absence, and whether Cheshire’s cutest creature could one day be a part of our wider countryside once again.