We’re thrilled to announce that last week our RSPB Devon volunteer and wildlife photographer, Jo King, discovered a species new to the RSPB Exe Estuary reserves in Devon - she spotted a hazel dormouse grooming itself alongside one of the footpaths, whilst she was out photographing the local wildlife. This is the first time a dormouse, which are an endangered species across the UK, has been recorded on this reserve – we’re MEGA excited to say the least! And luckily it stuck around long enough for Jo to capture some incredible photographs - be prepared for a cuteness overload!

I asked Jo to tell me about her amazing experience – here’s what she said: “My main passion is bird photography so I’m often found wandering the Devon RSPB reserves with my eyes to the sky. But on this particular day the weather was fine and butterflies were out in extraordinary numbers, flitting and settling along the ground - so my eyes were on the path; bordered by tall seeded grass swaying in the breeze.

“Suddenly, something small, brown and fluffy caught my eye - clinging to a blade of grass right in front of me. As I edged closer it dropped down to the ground but didn’t run off. My heart started pounding and adrenaline kicked in – it was a dormouse! I’d never spotted one before, but had seen plenty of photos, and this tiny, ginger-coloured ball of fluff, with its thick, furry tail was unmistakable!”

(Love this photo of him stuffing his face!)

Jo’s discovery is particularly special because dormice are mainly nocturnal creatures and it’s really unusual to see them in broad daylight. In fact, the name ‘Dormice’ comes from the French word 'dormir' - meaning to sleep.

The first thing Jo did after making her brilliant discovery was to let our RSPB Site Manager of the Devon Reserves know - Peter Otley. Pete was obviously ecstatic too: “It’s fantastic that one of our amazing volunteers, Jo, has managed to record her fantastic discovery on film. This is a first for the RSPB Exe Estuary reserves and demonstrates how the careful management of our hedgerows and field margins can have such a positive effect on a wide range of wildlife. We’re really excited to be providing a home for another protected species and to be able showcase the wonderful wildlife that our reserves support at all times of the year.”

Our UK Dormice are in Trouble

Wildlife charity, People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), do a lot of work to help our UK dormice as they’re sadly in long-term decline both in terms of numbers and range across the UK. Over the last 17 years their population has declined by around 40% and dormice are now vulnerable to extinction in Britain. Once widespread across the UK, PTES’ 2016 State of Britain's Dormice report showed that they are have become extinct in 17 English counties since the end of the nineteenth-century. Dormice are classed as a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

The loss, inappropriate management and fragmentation of the ancient woodland, hedgerow and farmland habitats favoured by hazel dormice, are contributors to their current struggle. Changes to our environment with wetter summers and warmer winters also affect their access to food and ability to hibernate – again impacting on dormouse survival.

How Can We Help?

I contacted Ian White, PTES’ Dormouse & Training Officer, to ask him about the plight of the hazel dormouse and what we can do to help: “Without a doubt hazel dormice are one of Britain’s most endearing and cute mammals, but as they are small, live in the tree and shrub canopy and are usually active at night - they are rarely seen. And sadly these charismatic creatures are also vulnerable to extinction.

“Our dormouse conservation work involves managing a nationwide dormouse monitoring scheme, coordinating annual reintroductions and advising land owners about sympathetic land management practices. The reintroductions are important for the long-term conservation of this species, as we’re restoring dormice to counties where they’ve been lost so that they can thrive again. Our approach also benefits a whole raft of other species including birds, bats and butterflies. This is a great start in beginning to combat the dormouse decline.

“It can be difficult for people to get involved in dormouse conservation, but they can volunteer for practical work with a local conservation charity; contact a local dormouse group to see if there are opportunities to help monitor dormice; and support charities involved in the conservation of hazel dormice.”

For more information about dormice and PTES click here

How the RSPB Manage their Reserves for Wildlife

As a conservation charity we do a lot of work on our Devon reserves to create and manage a range of beneficial habitats for wildlife. RSPB’s Peter explained to me the measures his team take to help: “On the RSPB Exe Estuary Reserves our team sensitively manage the hedgerows for the benefit of the wildlife that call these special reserves home. Over the last few years we’ve planted new hedges and carried out hedge-laying. We’re extremely careful when it comes to cutting the hedges, as they’re invaluable high-ways and byways for wildlife, such as dormice, to travel safely across the landscape and forage for food.”

“We’ve also encouraged patches of bramble to thrive in our hedges – a juicy treat for a dormouse. And around the edges of the reserve’s hedgerows, we have created scrubby margins, which provide more diverse habitat for a range of wildlife. Now we know that dormice have made our RSPB Exe Estuary reserve their home we’re going to do even more to help them thrive in our little corner of Devon. ”

(Snoozy dormouse!)

Jo's 'Momentous Experience'!

I’ll end this amazing good news story with a final few words from Jo: “I knew this was the most momentous experience I was likely to have for a very long time and in a split second I took a deep breath, lifted the camera and said, ‘Don’t mess this up Jo!’. I had a 100-400mm zoom lens with me so stood about two meters away and captured a few shots before the dormouse ran off. As always, I was very much aware of my responsibility - I must not touch, disturb or interrupt the wildlife I encounter, and I knew that hazel dormice are especially protected.

“But to my amazement the dormouse was really chilled – he sat nibbling the grass seed and grooming himself for over an hour – I was mesmerized! Eventually the dormouse jumped to the ground and crawled into the tangled grass and brambles. At which point I finally let out an emotional and fairly loud, ‘Wow’!”

All photos taken by Jo King. To find out more about Jo King and her photography work, click here. 

Follow Jo on Twitter: @JoKingDevon

To find out how you can give nature a home, click here.