A day in the life of a BBOWT trainee

A day in the life of a BBOWT trainee

Dormouse sleeping in nest by Zoe Helene Kindermann

"We approach the boxes quietly, treading carefully as we get closer so as not to alert any inhabitants of the box. There’s a great sense of anticipation; what will we find in this one!?"

I’m Alice and this year I’ve been lucky enough to have taken part in an Ecology Traineeship with BBOWT.

This has been a varied and exciting role, looking at the biodiversity on nature reserves across the three counties. We help to carry out a wide range of wildlife and habitat monitoring projects, from hedgerows and flower meadows, to water voles, butterflies and birds.

One of my favourite surveys is checking nest boxes for hazel dormice.

A number of nest boxes are positioned in strategic locations on trees across a selection of BBOWT woodland sites. Once a month the boxes are checked for signs of hazel dormice, and any other mammals, under the supervision of a dormouse licence holder.  

We approach the boxes quietly, treading carefully as we get closer so as not to alert any inhabitants of the box. There’s a great sense of anticipation; what will we find in this one!?

Dormouse nest box

Dormouse nest box

Similar in design to a bird box, a dormouse box differs only in that the entrance hole is closest to the tree, to allow the dormice to enter more easily. Quickly and gently, this hole must be bunged with a stuffer, so as to prevent a great escape by any small mammals inside. Then, slowly and carefully, the lid of the box is slid back a fraction; just enough to peek inside and catch a glimpse of anyone at home.

Great excitement must be contained at the sight of any small faces looking up at you through the gap; perhaps a blue tit on her nest, or a wood mouse taking shelter.

Any birds are left well alone and the box closed up. Any mammals, such as wood mice or shrews, are looked at more closely and their numbers recorded, before returning them to the tree in their box.

Many a search has resulted only in nest identification, still an important find to be recorded.

Dormouse nest box

Checking a dormouse nest box by Terry Whittaker/2020Vision

Hazel dormouse nests have a neat, spherical, woven structure, made of fresh green leaves and strips of honeysuckle bark. Much different from a cup shaped bird’s nest of twigs, feathers and moss. 

It can feel disappointing when no mammals are found in any boxes, with no more than a woodlouse to show for your efforts.

But if you’re patient and very lucky, you may even see the golden furry face of a dormouse looking back at you through the gap in the lid. And suddenly, to action stations! The box is removed from the tree and placed carefully into a bag. Then the lid can be safely removed without any escapees.

On one occasion, seven young dormice scrambled out of the box with their mother into the bag, a very unusual and exciting find. Their round black eyes looking up expectantly.


Dormouse sleeping in a nest box by Terry Whittaker/2020Vision

Each dormouse is sexed and weighed quickly, and younger individuals kept in the hand as long as possible for warmth. Their feet have terrific grip for tree climbing and stick to your skin easily, running through your hands like a furry ping-pong ball. It gives them comfort to be enclosed completely inside your hands in the warm and dark.

Great care is taken in handling them and they are then safely returned to their box and the tree in no time. Repeat finds in the same box are not uncommon; they don’t seem to mind this examination process much and very rarely bite. 

It is satisfying to know that all the data collected goes back into the management planning for the BBOWT nature reserve, as well as the National Dormouse Monitoring Scheme database.

Another survey successfully completed, and an end to another exciting day as a Wildlife Trainee.

BBOWT runs volunteer traineeships in four areas of our work: reserves, ecology community engagement, and education.

Find out more about BBOWT's traineeships

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Volunteer cutting brambles by Ross Hoddinott