The dormouse is one of the most distinctive small mammals native to Britain. It is easily recognised by its furry tail, sandy-orange coloured fur and bulging black eyes. However, it is rarely seen due to its nocturnal activity and hibernating habits. Dormice are most commonly found in coppiced woodland and one of their names, the hazel dormouse, reflects their preference for hazel woods.
Dormice are woodland mammals. They eat nectar, flowers, ash keys, berries, nuts and insects. During the day, they sleep in a nest in a tree. In contrast to their arboreal life in the summer, the winter months are spent in hibernation in woven nests at ground level. At this time of year dormice are much more vulnerable to predators – a hibernating dormouse is in no position to run away. Hibernation is a strategy for saving energy at a time of year when food is scarce. The body temperature of a hibernating dormouse falls to that of its surroundings and its heart and breathing rate slow down by 90% or more. Energy used up during the winter torpor comes from fat reserves – just before hibernation, fat may comprise almost half of their mass and they look very chubby! Dormice are one of only three British mammals which hibernate; the other two are hedgehogs and bats.
Dormice have declined in numbers and distribution over the last 100 years. It is estimated that they have disappeared from about half the places in which they were once found in Britain. Small scattered populations are found in Wales and in England they are found mostly in southern counties. Dormice have never occurred in Scotland or Northern Ireland. Dormice have declined mainly due to habitat loss and changes in habitat management. A dormouse’s diet changes seasonally and so they are generally only able to inhabit woodland which has a variety of tree species. Dormice are fully protected by law and even opening a dormouse nest box to see what is inside cannot be done without a licence. They are a UK Biodiversity Action Plan Priority Species and a Local Priority Species in over 40 British counties, including Kent.