By Andrea Davidson
Dormice are rare and, at one time, all of Suffolk's had died out. However, they have been reintroduced into a few specially selected areas including a woods near Needham Market. While they are not exactly thriving, they are surviving.
Nearly two hundred special wooden boxes have been mounted on trees in the woods there. The dormice use them for shelter during the summer and to have their babies.
In October, they should be heading down to the ground to hibernate, but because the autumn has been so mild, there are still quite a few active at the moment.
There are just three people in Suffolk licensed to handle dormice. One of them is Alan Rogers and he took me on a check of the boxes: "The most northerly part of England where you will find dormice is Suffolk. South of the River Gipping and from the east towards Bury St Edmunds.
"As well as our release sites, there are also dormice around Bentley. It's a lovely area which has lots of natural hedgerows. We've also found them around Polstead. Technically you need very large woods for dormice, but because the farmer has kept large hedges, he's got quite a good population."
I was told there was no guarantee there would be any dormice in any of the boxes - but by about the tenth, we not only came across a full grown female, but also some babies. However, the future for them is not good. They're probably only four or five days old and weighing about 1.5 grams each, so they'll need to put on 12g before the winter, which is almost impossible.
Alan says they can't interfere with nature any further: "A lot of us working with the mammals would like to save them, but unfortunately it's part of the actual process to make sure they are strong enough - we do not want the weak ones surviving."
So hard as it is, we put them back, knowing that probably only the mother will make it through to the spring. We go on to look in more boxes and it's not long before we find more creatures.
It's another family group and this time the youngsters are much more developed and nearer the magic 13g weight they need to be to survive. Alan carefully takes them out of the box, weighs them (in a plastic sandwich bag!) and makes a note of their sex and location.
To complete the search takes about five hours in total. In that time we find 21 dormice, plus the tiny babies. It is not a bad number - but could be more. Last month there were 73 - although it doesn't necessarily mean they have died. Some may already have gone into hibernation, and some just might not have been in the boxes this time around. Their numbers have been up and down ever since the first release in 2000. The dormice are bred at sites run by The People's Trust for Endangered Species. Alan is an independent who does the re-introducing to the wild.
So the future for the Suffolk dormouse is far from clear. But there is something the human population can do to help according to Alan: "We are just about holding our own here when it comes to dormice.
"The population in the rest of the country is declining. What we need is good management - farmers to put back a lot of their hedgerows and to interlink them with ancient woods. And if we can do that, then we've got a better chance of keeping our dormice in Suffolk."
Alan Rogers, who lives in Ipswich, holds work parties once a month between April & October. He welcomes volunteers who can contact him on 07715 789336.
last updated: 23/04/2008 at 15:27