Following the discovery of dormice for the first time in Brighton earlier this month, I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you a bit more about one of Britain’s rarest, most protected and intriguing species of mammal.
A few weeks ago a volunteer from the Friends of Waterhall, an environmental group concerning themselves with all aspects of looking after Waterhall Valley and Downland, found three dormice while cleaning out bird nesting-boxes in the area which the group put up a few years ago.
Dormice are in fact some of the smallest members of the rodent family, weighing roughly as much as two £2 coins; and with a body length of between 6 and 19 cm (2.4 and 7.5 in) these incredibly agile creatures make exceptionally good climbers and actually spend most of their time in trees.
Dormice are generally mouse-like in appearance, but have furry, rather than scaly, tails. They also possess an excellent sense of hearing, and will usually signal to each other with a range of different vocalisations.
Like us, dormice are omnivorous, typically feeding on fruits, berries, flowers, nuts and insects. Dormice are unique among all rodents in that they lack a cecum, the part of the gut used in other species (like rabbits and horses) to ferment vegetable matter.
Most species of dormice are nocturnal, and will commonly hibernate for six months out of the year, or even longer if the weather remains sufficiently cool; sometimes waking for brief periods to eat food they had previously stored nearby.
During the summer, they accumulate fat in their bodies to nourish them through the hibernation period.
It is from this characteristic that they got their name, which comes from Anglo-Norman dormeus, which means “sleepy (one)”; the word was later altered by folk etymology to resemble the word “mouse”.
The sleepy behaviour of the Dormouse character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland also supports this trait.
Thousands of years ago in ancient Rome dormice were even considered a delicacy either as a savoury appetizer or as a dessert (dipped in honey and poppy seeds).
The Romans even had a special kind of enclosure known as glirarium used to rear dormice for the table!
These days, dormice are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of most endangered animals.
The species is mainly confined to the southern counties, with scattered populations in mid Wales and the Lake District.
In the UK, they have full protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. However in certain rural areas of Croatia and Slovenia, the ‘Fat Dormouse’ type remains a traditional game species and is still eaten as an important source of animal protein in human nutrition today!