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Rare hazel dormice reintroduced into the National Forest

Earlier this week, Paignton Zoo teamed up with wildlife charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and other partners to release 38 hazel dormice into a woodland at National Trust’s Calke Abbey, Derbyshire, in an attempt to save this endangered species from extinction in the UK.

According to PTES’ 2019 report, nationwide populations of the native rodent have declined by a staggering 51% since 2000, and hazel dormice are now considered extinct in 17 English counties. PTES and partners release healthy, captive-bred dormice every year into well-managed woodlands across the country to try and combat this decline.

Since the programme began in 1993, 1,078 dormice have been reintroduced to 25 different woodlands in 13 counties.

Hazel dormouse on a branch close up. Credit Clare Pengelly edited scaled
Despite once being a common feature of the UK’s woodlands, hazel dormouse numbers have plummeted in recent years due to habitat loss and fragmentation and climate change. (© Clare Pengelly)

Led by PTES since 2000, the annual reintroductions are part of Natural England’s Species Recovery Programme, and the reintroduction day is the culmination of months of hard work by several partner organisations, including the Common Dormouse Captive Breeders Group, Wildwood Trust, Paignton Zoo and ZSL.

This year, the golden-coated, bright-eyed dormice were released into a large, secluded woodland on the Calke Abbey estate in Derbyshire, where the National Trust’s ranger team and a group of volunteers will now be responsible for the ongoing care of the dormice and long-term management of the woodland.

Ian White PTES Dormouse Training Officer holding one of the hazel dormice being released into the National Forest 2. Credit National Trust Images James Beck cropped edited scaled
Twiglet the dormouse was one of 38 of the rare hazel species reintroduced into the woodland at Calke Abbey on Wednesday, June 14. (© James Beck | National Trust Images)

Regular health screening ensures that only healthy dormice are released into the wild, and the dormice harbour only native parasite species of importance to biodiversity, both of which are vital in mitigating disease.

All dormice released this year were captive bred by the Wildwood Trust, a member of the Common Dormouse Captive Breeders Group, before undergoing an eight-week quarantine and receiving full health-checks by expert wildlife vets at Paignton Zoo and ZSL’s Disease Risk Analysis and Health Surveillance (DRAHS) team.

Checking a dormouses eyes as part of the health check process. Credit Paignton Zoo edited scaled
The veterinary health check process includes checking the dormice’s eyes. (© Paignton Zoo | Wild Planet Trust)

After reintroduction day, the dormice will be left to quietly acclimatise to their new surroundings from the safety of their nest boxes, which are gently placed within larger mesh cages filled with foliage, food and water. Local volunteers will top up their food and water daily, and after 10 days and a further health examination, the mesh cage doors are opened to allow the dormice to explore their new home. When the dormice no longer use the mesh cages, they will be removed, leaving them to live freely in the woodland. The dormouse population will slowly increase and in time they will start to disperse to new woodland and hedge areas.

Ian White, Dormouse & Training Officer, PTES, says: “The ongoing success of our annual dormouse reintroductions is the result of a unique partnership and many passionate volunteers who together work tirelessly to help us bring dormice back from the brink and ensure their ongoing survival. Well-managed woodlands and hedgerows are key to restoring dormouse populations across the UK, so releasing dormice into such habitats is crucial for the species’ long-term recovery. The National Forest is home to a huge array of woodlands suitable for dormice, so we hope that this is the first of many reintroductions to take place in this part of the country.”

To find out more about PTES’ dormouse conservation work, visit www.ptes.org/dormice