One of Britain’s rarest – and cutest – mammals has put in a surprise appearance at a remote farm in rural Lancashire. The dormouse was discovered snoozing in its nest, concealed among plastic bags, on a farm in Preesall, near Garstang.
Though relatively common in Southern England, the species has disappeared from Lancashire. It still clings on in small numbers in Cumbria and Northumberland and has been reintroduced to Cheshire. There are an estimated 45,000 dormice in England and Wales.
Dormice are fully protected and the Lancashire Wildlife Trust is keen to discover whether the Preesall mouse is a resident, or if it just hitched a ride from elsewhere. Since it was discovered a nearby farm has also reported seeing dormice, raising hopes that a small population may survive in the county.
The dormouse was still in hibernation when it was found, and Trust volunteer Bob Danson was called in. He said: “The dormouse was found in its nest in plastic bags, at the farm in Preesall. It was still in hibernation so the lady who found it took it home and put it in a warm place. I was asked to pick it up and verify it was a dormouse. To my knowledge there are no recordings of dormice locally. It is possible this came to the farm with one of many deliveries of potatoes, pheasants or fertilizer.”
Dr Tim Graham, Lancashire Biodiversity Manager for the Trust, said: "This is a very unusual discovery and we would love to find out whether there might be a small population in the area. Hopefully people will contact the Lancashire Mammal Group (firstname.lastname@example.org) with some sightings and we'll try to organise a survey of the area later in the year."
Sadly, UK populations have shrunk as mixed woodland of oak, hazel, sweet chestnut and other food-bearing plants have been cleared for agriculture and development. Badly managed hedgerows, loss of traditionally managed coppices and the spread of coniferous plantations have also damaged the prospects for dormice in Britain.
One of their last outposts in the far north of Lancashire was in Silverdale, where confirmed sightings were last reported in the early 1980s. Reserves Officer for North Lancashire, Steve Ryder, hopes to carry out surveys this autumn to get a clear idea of whether the endearing rodents are still around.
He said: "The last recorded sightings were over 25 years ago, although there have been some possible unconfirmed reports since then. I've done some dormice surveys before and hopefully we will get out onto our reserve on Warton Crag with some volunteers and other conservation bodies this autumn and do a 'nut hunt'. Once we've got an idea of where they are, we can start to look at linking up the habitats or possible reintroduction. There's plenty of mixed woodland around here so it could be ideal habitat for dormice."
The dormouse is now being cared for by Sarah Bird, Chester Zoo's biodiversity officer, who holds a special licence from Natural England to look after the animals. She said dormice have shown themselves to be surprisingly adaptable creatures.
Sarah, who's been involved with reintroduction programmes in Cheshire and north Wales, said: "It's really exciting that one has been found in Lancashire. They can survive in new woodland and even in conifer plantations, so long as they can find brambles and pollen to feed on. One of the things we've found since dormice were reintroduced in Cheshire is that once one is spotted, you start getting more sightings. In north Wales we turned up lots of sightings once we started surveying."
Dormice were brought back to woodlands in Cheshire in 1996. Since then the population has done well enough for conservation work to be carried out to help them spread from their woodland strongholds to new habitats. Attempts have also been made to re-introduce dormice to Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire.