Captain Moonlight: National What Week?

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The Independent Online
EVERY WEEK is National Something Week these days, don't you find? Condoms, vegetables, sausages, road safety, rhubarb, politeness, a calendar of causes. This week, though, I think you will agree, is rather special: this week is National Dormouse Week. And, appropriately enough, it doesn't get going until Wednesday.

A sympathetic creature, the dormouse. It sleeps for up to seven months a year, and isn't averse to more if the summer turns nasty. All in all, it spends about three-quarters of its life in slumber, hence its name, and appearance in Lewis Carroll. Give your dormouse a hazelnut and it will take a good 20 minutes to nibble it. You don't hurry a dormouse.

You are very lucky if you see one, too. 'The man in charge of mammals at the British Museum has never seen one,' says Dr Pat Morris of Royal Holloway and Bedford College, dormouse expert, who will be giving talks throughout NDW. They are nocturnal, foraging high up in the trees in the summer months, and sleeping in nests a few feet above the ground.

And growing ever more scarce. Difficult to tell, of course, but likely to be fewer than 250,000, according to Dr Morris. Hardly any left in the North, where they find life and the weather increasingly grim. None at all in Yorkshire, it seems. During NDW, which is being organised by English Nature, volunteers will be carrying out a dormouse census by searching for the chewed hazelnuts that mean dormice are dozing nearby. Special sites are being set up. Some dormice will even be fitted with radio transmitters, although I shouldn't have thought the transmissions will be that exciting. How do you tell a dormouse has been at the hazelnuts? Neat, circular holes.

They have no natural enemies. Can you eat them? Not the British dormouse. 'Not even enough for a sandwich,' says Dr Morris. The Romans, though, used to fatten up the more robust European variety, and then store them asleep to be taken off the shelf at will for a snack in the winter months. In 1902, Lord Rothschild imported some on to his estate in Hertfordshire, where they remain local but numerous. Dr Morris said there was a butcher in the Midlands who was breeding his own and offering them at pounds 80 a pair. No, he said, he hadn't; but he might.

(Photograph omitted)