Edible dormouse making a meal of Britain

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Frustrated householders are helping to disperse an increasingly serious pest - the fat or edible dormouse.

Ten times the weight of the native, common dormouse, its squirrel-sized cousin may be on the verge of a sudden explosion.

The edible dormouse was brought to Tring, Hertfordshire from Hungary by one of the Rothschild family in 1902. Since then it has slowly spread through Chiltern woodlands in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire and a little beyond.

Sometimes it moves into house lofts in large numbers, where it will gnaw on woodwork, cable coverings and plastic garden furniture. It makes a strange, mechanical, high-pitched noise in the mating season and sounds surprisingly heavy-footed for a small, tree- dwelling mammal.

In woodlands it can strip the bark from young conifer trees, in much the same way the grey squirrel attacks broadleaved trees. "It causes considerable damage and it makes a hell of a noise," said Mike Render, forestry officer for Buckinghamshire County Council.

It is illegal to kill the creature under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, because it is endangered in its native central Europe. But under the same Act, it is also illegal to move it around the country because it is an introduced species. However, a survey organised by the Mammal Society found evidence that people are moving the edible dormouse.

The society chairman, Pat Morris, says the animals were being released in Berkshire, near Oxford, and in the New Forest, in Hampshire. "It is only a matter of time before the fat dormouse and its associated problems turn up in other parts of the country," he says in Mammal News.