Dormouse: A far from sleepy adventure

There is a wonderful moment in the BBC film of The Gruffalo when the mouse – or ‘Little Brown Mouse’, as Fox, Owl and Snake like to call him – imagines himself falling back into a bed of hazelnuts a la Kevin Spacey landing on a bed of roses in American Beauty. It’s clear, too, from the way he sighs on glimpsing a distant tree loaded with autumnal riches that this mouse simply adores hazelnuts. Well, so do real mice. And one mouse in particular – the hazel dormouse.

So, when I considered what to do for our mouse adventure in my family’s quest to see the animals from The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo’s Child, I was determined that the hazel dormouse should be on our list of targets. True, as depicted in The Gruffalo, Little Brown Mouse more closely resembles a wood mouse, but my two children, Sam and Mungo, wouldn’t care. And besides, I wanted them to see a beast that surely merits a place in the top 10 list of the most ridiculously cute and gorgeous creatures on this Earth.

And so it was that on a slightly drizzly Saturday morning in mid-September, Mungo and I – Sam had a prior engagement at a birthday party from which he could not be torn – found ourselves a few miles outside Cheddar in Somerset, with voluntary dormouse monitor Jamie Edmonds and wildlife and travel writer Pete Dommett.

Pushing through a thick hazel and oak wood, roughly every 10 yards or so we’d come across a dormouse box. They were the same size and shape as a bird box and made out of the same marine ply. We’d carefully slide the lid off each one to check whether there was anybody home. But for an hour or so, what we mostly got was slugs and snails or the odd bed of moss left by a blue or great tit. If we were lucky, there’d be jet-black millipede crawling across the bottom of the box or coiled up like an anchor rope on a ship.

Mungo was starting to get the hang of it. “No dormow,” he’d sing gleefully as he peered intently into each box. He really didn’t mind – he was more than happy to prod the slugs, snails and millipedes with a stubby little finger, and then it was onto the next. “No dormow!” “No dormow!”

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There were no dormow in this box, but would we get lucky?

To try and pep things up a bit, Jamie said he’d heard something – a deer, perhaps – somewhere behind us, and then Pete dropped a nestbox on his son, Tom’s, head – well, it might not have been his head, but there were tears and jellybeans were fortuitously produced and handed round to the assembled company. Mungo was enjoying his adventure in the deep dark wood.

We were having a nice walk and apart from the single injury, the children were being a delight, so I’d got to the point of not caring that much whether we found a dormouse or not.  Having reached this point of Zen calm about the “will we, won’t we?” that is an inevitable aspect of any trip to see a truly wild creature, Jamie opened up a box to find it full of vegetation – mostly soft green leaves – that he delicately parted to reveal the tiniest of tiny nests intricately woven out of grass and not much bigger than an egg cup. A dormouse had made it – but since departed. “It might have heard us coming,” Jamie said ruefully.

It wasn’t long after that we found something almost as exciting as a dormouse – a nestbox with a brown long-eared bat inside. The bat was hanging upside down and its tiny claws, no bigger than eyelashes, were suspending it from the top ledge. You could see its body gently pulsing like a miniature bellow as it breathed in and out, and one huge comedy ear. “Careful, it could just fly off,” Jamie warned as I showed it to Mungo, who seemed rather nonplussed. I think he preferred millipedes.

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Mungo was fuelled in our quest by the odd peanut butter sandwich.

The bat would have done it for me, but then Jamie found another box stuffed full of dry green leaves. This time, some careful probing revealed two, then three and four impossibly tiny baby dormice, two in one corner and two opposite. No more than a week old, Jamie said, each weighing perhaps two or three grams.

For a dormouse, the fight to survive the winter begins from the moment they are born. Before the winter or autumnal frosts set in and they hibernate until the spring, this year’s new-borns must have reached a weight of at least 12 grams and ideally somewhere around 15-20 grams. Some of this will be gained on their mother’s milk, some through their own foraging. “The biggest one I’ve ever found was 44 grams,” Jamie remarked. “It was so fat it could barely move.”

He carefully picked out one of the siblings and showed it to us – its body length was no more than the width of two fingers, and though covered in a short brown fur, it didn’t quite living up to the billing of one of the most attractive animals alive. I guess that comes with age. Once again, its lack of dynamism did rather spoil things for Mungo, who showed no more than a passing interest in a baby beast that was being pathetically cooed over by the other members of the party. Ah well, at least he had seen it, and I have the photo to prove it – one day, he’ll be grateful.

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A baby dormouse perhaps just a week old – it’s got some weight to put on in the coming weeks if it’s going to survive the winter.

In any case, by now he was tiring of the adventure. “Blue car, blue car,” he started to murmur as we wound our way back through the trees to our starting point. Despite repeated promises that we were, indeed, on our way back to the blue car, he clearly didn’t believe me, and every time we came across another box that Jamie had to check, he repeated this refrain with ever increasing alarm and urgency – in some hideous Mungo hell, we’d be checking dormouse boxes on one never-ending, circular route.

Eventually – though not before we’d spied a raven flying overhead – we emerged from the wood into a clearing overlooking the Cheddar reservoir. From there, it was mostly downhill back to the carpark – and our blue car. “Goodbye, dee dar woo,” Mungo trilled joyfully, and started skipping off along the path as if the day had just begun. Not a bad ‘Gruffalo quest’ day, I reflected – the mouse from the The Gruffalo and both a bat and a raven from The Gruffalo’s Child. Just a shame Axel Scheffler never drew any millipedes.

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