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NatureNature Studies

Nature Studies

I have thought for a long time that there is something peculiarly thrilling about setting eyes on an unfamiliar wild animal. My own belief is that this feeling is very old, and that we have inherited it from our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors, who lived cheek by jowl with everything from mammoths to lions, and showed their intense emotional reactions to these creatures in the astonishing cave paintings they made of them in places like Lascaux and Chauvet in France. But even today, thousands of years later, the sense of awe and wonder at the sight of a strange wild animal persists. It is obvious in children—it was very observable in them in zoos, in the days before zoos fell out of favour—but it also can be felt by adults lucky enough, say, to go on wildlife holidays or safaris, especially with the big beasts of Africa.
I can vouch for that, having seen hippos and giraffes and buffalos close to in the wild, and even more, rhinos and elephants. My first sight of a wild elephant left me almost trembling, at how amazing it was, how huge and how majestic and also, how dangerous (for elephants are very dangerous indeed.) So do you think it would be remotely possible to get the same sort of thrill as one gets from seeing an elephant, from seeing a dormouse? Well, my answer is Yes.
For a start, it’s harder. Your chances of seeing a wild dormouse have always been much lower than those of seeing a wild elephant. This exquisitely-charming, three-inch long bundle of golden-brown fur, not quite a mouse—it is more closely related to squirrels—is Britain’s sleepiest creature: it hibernates, in a nest under the leaf litter of the woodland floor, and is sound asleep, wrapped in its long furry tail, for as much as seven months of the year. Then in the summer, when it’s awake, it is active only in the treetops—and then only at night. Your chances of glimpsing one on a country walk have always been infinitesimally small.
But now this already-rare creature, only found in Britain in southern England, is rapidly getting rarer. Dormouse populations have shrunk considerably in the last twenty-five years, perhaps because of the disappearance of its favourite habitat of coppiced woodland and more worryingly, perhaps because of climate change—if a dormouse wakes up in a very warm winter, thinking it’s spring, it will find no food and will starve to death. It’s now one of Britain’s most endangered animals, so when Angela Price of the Dorset Mammal Group recently offered me a chance to go with her team on a survey of a woodland where dormice are known to breed, I jumped at the chance. The survey was of nest boxes and nest ‘tubes’ which the group has put up among the trees to encourage breeding, and finding a nest is in practice the only chance you will ever get of seeing Muscardinus avellanarius in the flesh.
For more than an hour we found nothing. I watched as Angela and her all-women team—Jan Freeborn, Katie Crawford and Brazilian Briza Alves, all professional ecologists, and Kathy Harvey and Kath Tyler, who are volunteers—checked box after box and tube after tube without success. We had done more than 30 and I was beginning to think we would draw a blank when they finally found a tube which was heavier, and so likely to contain a nest. Amid an outbreak of whispering and fevered anticipation they opened it—inside a big clear plastic sack, clever move—and a mother dormouse and three young popped out.
I was gobsmacked. I cannot tell you how beautiful this small animal was, with her lustrous golden fur and her big black eyes and her frantic energy, scrambling around inside the plastic sack, until she was put back with her babies in her nest tube. I felt an immense sense of privilege at seeing something both so elusive and now so rare, but I also felt the age-old sense of awe at seeing a new wild creature, still coursing through the tissues after thousands of human generations. A six-tonne African elephant weighs 200,000 times as much as a 30-gramme dormouse, but I have to tell you that my initial sight of the first, in a dry river bed in Namibia, was fully equalled in wonderment by my sight of the second, in a woodland at the heart of Thomas Hardy’s Dorset.

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