The Dormouse slowly opened his eyes. ‘I wasn’t asleep,’ he said in a hoarse, feeble voice. ‘I heard every word you fellows were saying.’
The Dormouse makes only a fleeting appearance in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but he’s perhaps the most endearing character of Lewis Carroll’s wondrously bonkers bunch. Asleep for most of the Tea Party, and last seen being stuffed into a teapot by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, it seems there’s nothing the Dormouse likes better than a good nap. Fantastical fiction aside, is there any truth in the author’s vision of this little creature?
There’s a clue in the name, of course; dormir being French for ‘to sleep’. The dormouse can spend six months of the year in the hibernation. If winter drags on, it may wake to snack on stored provisions, then snuggle back into its warm nest. Its reputation for blissful slumber was such that Tudor insomniacs rubbed dormouse fat on their eyelids. Its tendency to doze at low levels makes it vulnerable to predators ranging from owls and badgers to domestic cats. In Roman times, they were picked off as a savoury dish to be served with honey and poppy seeds.
With its golden coat, pink nose and huge black eyes, this tiny animal, which would fit into the palm of your hand, has bags more appeal than the average rodent. Its tail is furry, not scaly, and its long whiskers can ‘whisk’ as many as 15 times per second. Cute indeed, but you are unlikely to spot one. Not only is the dormouse nocturnal, but its numbers are in sharp decline due to destruction of its natural habitat. Although it moves through woodland in the high branches of deciduous trees, the dormouse also depends on lower levels of scrub and undergrowth for food, such as berries, seeds and insects, as well as shelter. Badly managed coppicing and encroaching urbanisation, roads and railways all threaten its habitat.
In Lewis Carroll’s time, the dormouse was common; sadly now it is extinct in most of the country, with the exception of Southern England, South Wales and the Welsh borders. In East Hampshire, wildlife surveys have revealed dormice at a number of sites, including Old Winchester Hill and Shutts Copse near West Meon.
Fortunately legal protection is now in place, and must be adhered to when development encroaches on known dormouse territory. Walkways – wire mesh suspended across tree-high poles – have proved successful in allowing the animals to navigate potentially dangerous spaces above ground, rather than risk predators, or traffic, at ground level. The chance of seeing a dormouse skittering across one of these bridges is slight, but the proof is in the nibbled hazelnuts found on either side. Wildlife and conservation bodies are working to restore and maintain natural woodland habitat, and specialist organisations such as the Hampshire Dormouse Group are monitoring activity.
And what can the rest of us do to help? If you live in an area where dormice have been spotted, you could provide a nest box. This is similar to a standard bird box, but the preferred version for dormice has an entrance at the back, deterring predators and trespassing birds. If you’re lucky, a dormouse may take up residence. It may be a rather quiet visitor, but it would be wonderful to know it was there!