In search of the elusive Cheshire dormouse

PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 August 2014

The dormouse's ginger fur, busy tail and large black eyes are unmistakeable

The dormouse's ginger fur, busy tail and large black eyes are unmistakeable

Tom Marshall

For generations, we've used dogs' unrivalled sense of smell to help us out. From seeking out disaster victims to tracking illegal drugs, dogs have been at our side. Now nature experts are hoping they will seek out rare wildlife too

Once her high-vis harness is strapped on by her owner Emma, nine year-old German shepherd Kim knows it's time for workOnce her high-vis harness is strapped on by her owner Emma, nine year-old German shepherd Kim knows it's time for work

It’s a typically unseasonal summer morning when a team from Cheshire Wildlife Trust, Natural Resources Wales and Conservation Dogs gather in a traditional British woodland of hazel, oak and ash, the sun occasionally making a fleeting appearance through fresh, lime-green leaves. Everyone is wrapped up in waterproofs and ready to go, but the star of day is braving it in a simple high-visibility harness, her own fur coat more than enough to keep the early morning chill at bay. There’s a sense of excitement and even a little apprehension among the two-legged members of the team, but nine year-old Kim, a German shepherd, is nonchalantly taking it all in her stride.

The aim of the day is simple. To discover whether Kim has what it takes to sniff out one of the forest’s rarest and smallest residents, the dormouse.

After disappearing from the wild in Cheshire at the beginning of 1900s, the dormouse made a long-awaited comeback during the mid-1990s, thanks to a team led by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, who helped reintroduce them to a secret location in south Cheshire after a 70-year absence. Since then, researchers have kept a close eye on the progress of the dormice through a network of hundreds of nestboxes along with routine micro-chipping in partnership with Chester Zoo and the People’s Trust for Endangered Species.

While the dozens of wooden des res are a tried and tested technique, nestboxes still left researchers with an impossible question to answer – what if the mice are making a home elsewhere? It was this dilemma that led the Cheshire Wildlife Trust to enlist the help of Kim and her owner, Emma Parker of Conservation Dogs.

Kim busy at work with her super-strength noseKim busy at work with her super-strength nose

Although Kim and her canine colleagues have already been hard at work detecting wildlife as varied at bats, great crested newts and pine martens alongside their narcotics work, this is the first time in the UK that dogs have been employed in a bid to seek out dormice.

With numbers of dormice still building up from their reintroduction at the Cheshire release site, today’s training day has been organised just across the border in North Wales at another, larger woodland with a more established population of the rare mammals.

Relaxed and calm, once Kim’s harness is on she knows it’s time to work and it’s just a short walk into the first area for investigation. With owner Emma just a few feet behind, Kim makes light work of the challenging terrain of logs and scrub beneath the canopy, running her nose just a few millimetres off the ground. Far from being a hindrance, the overnight rain and lingering drizzle is more likely to keep scents near ground level instead of disappearing on the wind, according to Emma.

Methodically and in complete silence, Kim systematically roves from side to side, occasionally raising her head into the upper branches of the scrub, waves of myriad scents passing across her nose, her ears gently twitching and adjusting.

Emma Parker (left) joins Sarah Bennett (centre) from CWT along with Conservation Dogs' director Louise Wilson for a training session with KimEmma Parker (left) joins Sarah Bennett (centre) from CWT along with Conservation Dogs' director Louise Wilson for a training session with Kim

But there’s one particular tree that has caught Kim’s interest. With countless small holes at its base, she turns toward Emma and calmly sits down, providing the indication that she has been trained to do on all of her jobs.

After an affectionate but brief and professional rub to the head and neck to reward her, a small orange flag is dropped into the ground before Kim is off again among the bluebells and on to the next potential location. After 20 minutes of serious sniffing, it’s time for a break and a snack of Kim’s favourite, cooked liver.

With Kim and Emma taking five, the team from the Trust can head in and investigate. Gently searching through the areas Kim has indicated on, the team are looking for signs of nest material, leftover nuts with their distinctive dormouse chew marks, or anything else that might giveaway the mammal’s presence.

In just this short session, there’s already some nest material and feeding debris that the team can take away to identify further. What has been a clear success, is Kim’s behaviour and the testing of this innovative technique, with the team happy there will be no impact on either the habitats or wildlife by Kim’s super-sleuthing nose.

Nestboxes have always been, and remain, a key research tool for wildlife experts tracking the fortunes of dormiceNestboxes have always been, and remain, a key research tool for wildlife experts tracking the fortunes of dormice

Although the team now know they have Kim as another tool in their efforts to understand more about our dormice and how to secure their future, there’s still much to be fine-tuned in this ground-breaking approach.

At the heart of Kim’s ongoing training will be honing her skills to definitively separate dormice scents from other small mammals such as voles, shrews and other mice. It’s a tough challenge but the team believe that using captive-bred dormice and perhaps even the cotton bags used for handling wild dormice during weighing and measuring on annual survey days could all be key to adding the dormouse to Kim’s repertoire.

Not only an advantage in discovering when dormice may be making a home away from where we’ve given them a helping hand, it’s hoped that Kim’s nose, and perhaps even those of her kennel mates may one day be seeking out dormice in completely new areas, perhaps even saving them from being lost to woodland removal or development.

However long it takes for Kim to become a true dormouse detective, those looking after our dormice can be sure that in the future man’s best friend could be at their side too.

Sue Tatman (left) and Sarah Bennett (centre) from CWT begin investigating an area Kim has indicated over as Louise Wilson looks onSue Tatman (left) and Sarah Bennett (centre) from CWT begin investigating an area Kim has indicated over as Louise Wilson looks on

Adopt a dormouse in Cheshire

You can help safeguard the future for Cheshire’s rare dormice by adopting one today through Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s new Nature Gifts scheme. As either a gift or a treat for yourself, each beautifully presented adoption comes with a personalised certificate and is packed with information on the dormouse with lots of stunning images. Wildlife adoptions start from just £25 and you can find out more at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/naturegifts.

The BBC One Show's Miranda Krestovnikoff joined the team to see the innovative work in actionThe BBC One Show's Miranda Krestovnikoff joined the team to see the innovative work in action

Join a small mammal safari

Although not a home for dormice, Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Bickley Hall Farm still hosts a huge array of small mammals from water shrews to harvest mice, and this September there’s a chance to get up close to these diminutive hedgerow dwellers in the Trust’s small mammal safari. This morning farm visit on September 13 is suitable for all ages and will showcase the technique of using ‘Longworth’ traps, allowing small mammals to be captured, checked and then released again with the opportunity for everyone to get a close-up mammal experience. To book a place, contact Tracey Gibson on 01948 820728 or email tgibson@cheshirewt.org.uk.

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