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Hazel dormice conservation: rescuing Britain’s rarest rodent

At Paignton Zoo, our commitment to saving endangered species extends beyond the exotic animals typically associated with zoo-based conservation. In fact, since 1998, when we rescued a pair of these tiny creatures from a building site on the Channel Tunnel, we have been rearing and caring for dormice as part of a nationwide project to reintroduce the endangered species, whose population has declined by half since the year 2000.

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The hazel or common dormouse are one of Britain’s most endangered species.

Paignton Zoo is collaborating with Peoples Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), National Trust, ZSL, Natural England, Wildwood Trust and the Common Dormouse Captive Breeders Group, with the aim of reintroducing dormice annually to discreet locations throughout the country where populations have become locally extinct. The dormice will then be monitored by the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme (NDMP), with hopes that they will breed and increase their numbers before winter hibernation.

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When fully grown, dormice only reach 6-9cm in body length and weigh no more than 2 £1 coins.

Dormice are good indicators of animal and plant diversity, and dormouse-friendly habitats are also good for woodland birds, bats and butterflies, which is why it’s crucial that we work hard to reverse the decline and promote recovery in British woodlands. Climate change, changes in woodland management, farming practices and loss of hedgerows have all taken a heavy toll on the native habitats of the hazel dormouse.

The captive-born dormice have been transported to Paignton Zoo, where they will remain in quarantine at our Vetcentre for approximately 12 weeks. During this time, our expert veterinary team will care for the young mice, manage their quarantine facilities and conduct health checks prior to the release of the dormice.

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The vet team conduct most health checks under general anaesthetic to minimise stress.

This year’s reintroduction will take place in June, and will see the dormice we have cared for, plus others from ZSL, released into the wild.

If you’re interested in following our progress, keep an eye out for our “Dormice Diaries” updates. We’re proud to be collaborating with other organizations in protecting the hazel dormouse and other endangered species as part of our mission to help halt species decline

Hazel Dormice: Quick Facts

  • The name ‘hazel’ comes from their preferred diet of hazelnuts.
  • Hazel dormice are nocturnal, and hibernate from October to April/May.
  • They are arboreal, spending their lives in the branches of deciduous woodland trees, preferably hazel.
  • The species is protected in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
  • The main threats to dormice are habitat destruction and fragmentation, competition for food from invasive species such as grey squirrels and predation from domestic cats.

Interested in a career as a zoo-based vet? Find out more about their unique and exciting role in the video below.