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Fate of dormice hangs in balance

Expert says all we can do now is try to preserve the remaining populations

Famed as one of Britain’s sleepiest – and cutest – the future of the dormouse remains perilous, despite a major 20-year project to reintroduce it to the countryside.

Dormice have suffered a dramatic decline in numbers and range since the 19th century, and by the 1990s there was such concern that the recovery plan was set up.

However, a new study has called into question the success of the Natural England programme and is calling for it to be halted in those counties where the animal is believed to be scarce or extinct. Dr Paul Chanin,  a mammal expert and the author of the review, questions if a reintroduction programme should continue.

His report concludes that, of the dormice reintroductions carried out at 18 locations, just two populations have established themselves strongly enough to spread into the surrounding areas.

In five areas where the animals were released they have died out again, and there are serious fears for the survival of others, with at least two populations of reintroduced dormice now in decline.

Among the biggest problems faced by the programme is finding suitable sites which offer the potential for the dormice to spread farther afield.  Without this, the animals’ long-term survival chances are severely limited.

Despite sleeping for two-thirds of their lives and being the only rodent in Britain to hibernate, dormice are agile and active when awake. They derive their name from the French “dormir” – to sleep.

By the 1990s, it was realised they had disappeared from at least seven counties, including Nottinghamshire, where reintroduction has failed.

Dr Chanin said: “Whether restoring the population to its former range is an appropriate ambition must be decided elsewhere, but given the major changes in landscape that took place in the last century and the risks associated with climate change, it is possible that it is not achievable.

“In my opinion it would be better to consolidate the existing range rather than expand into areas where dormice are now scarce or absent.”

However, Ian White, of the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, which co-ordinated the programme for Natural England, insisted the project was a valuable contribution to preserving dormice in Britain.