Interview: Ian White

A short introduction

My degree, many years ago, was in Applied Biology and then I got side-tracked and ran my own business in the retail sector for about 20 years. Then I had a career change – I studied an ecology course at Merrist Wood and became interested in small mammals, specifically hazel dormice, and then I studied for an MSc in Biological Recording.

I had worked with many of the small mammal experts in the UK and was in the right place at the right time when a part-time role of Dormouse Officer was created at PTES and I was lucky enough to get the job. I supplemented the part time role with a teaching job and wrote, and taught, a Foundation degree programme at Merrist Wood. I left the college after a couple of years to work full time at PTES with the role of Dormouse and Training Officer. I remain the only person working full time on dormice in the UK.

Hazel dormice (Muscardinus avellanarius).

What are your earliest memories of your passion for nature?

My mother was Canadian and grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan. When I was a boy, we use to fly to Canada to go to the farm, now run by my Uncle, for about 6 weeks every year. It was a small boy’s dream – the freedom to roam around 600 hectares with my 7 cousins, riding horses, driving tractors and watching beavers. There were at least two lodges on the farm and one year I was determined to get some photographs. So for a week I got up early and went down to the slough and watched two beavers fell and eat a birch tree while I sat about 2m away. Unfortunately, when the film got processed it was all scratched.

What mammal-related topic has pricked up your ears recently?

As I work only on dormice, it is mostly dormouse news that I tend to be aware of. And there have been two exciting things happening for dormice over the past year. One is the work undertaken by PTES to investigate whether dormice will use an arboreal bridge to cross gaps such as roads and railway and the other is some work by students who have had great success identifying the presence of dormice by using footprint tunnels.

Hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius).

Can you explain further and whether you think this is relevant to UK mammals and Biodiversity?

There have been a lot of so-called dormouse bridges put up to help dormice cross roads when part of their living area has been destroyed by developments. Unfortunately, none of these have been shown to work but it has been shown that dormice will cross roads on the ground. What we don’t know, is what dormice, which live in the tree and shrub canopy, would like to do. PTES copied the design of a Japanese dormouse bridge and put it up on our nature reserve on the IoW. Dormice were recorded on it in 9 hours and over the course of a years were recorded on it at least 30 times as opposed to the total of three times they were seen on the ground. PTES is now working with an Ecological Consultancy to build a commercial bridge that we know works. This could be a major step in improving landscape connectivity for dormice.

Dormice are a difficult animal to find and survey for and if there is a reasonable likelihood of finding them then you need a licence, which can take at least two years to get, to make sure you don’t break the law. To survey we usually use either dormouse tubes or dormouse nest boxes and that means that a dormouse needs to be home at the time we check the box for us to say they are definitely present. Footprint tunnels are different – dormouse footprints are quite distinct, they can be checked by people who don’t have a licence, because there is no disturbance, and they show which animals have passed through over the previous three days rather than just giving a snapshot. This technique could be a real advance in trying to find where our dormice are.

Hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius).

What three things could our readers do to help dormice?

Dormice are a wonderful species to work with. They are of conservation concern as the population has dropped by nearly 40% since the year 2000; they are one of our crown jewels of our native fauna; they are good indicators of a healthy countryside, if dormice are present then the habitats will be good for a range of other species; they are cute and people like to see dormice and we should care as they are part of our native wildlife and we have a duty of responsibility to look after it. They are also highly protected and so it can be difficult to work directly with dormice. In the first instance, people can volunteer to work with your local conservation charity to improve habitat in woodlands and hedgerow for dormice. If people would like to work directly with dormice most Counties now have a local dormouse group who may be able to help. Finally, support your local wildlife charity that undertakes dormouse work or support PTES who are the leading conservation charity in the UK working on dormice.

If you want to find out more about hazel dormice, read our 2016 Spring issue and visit PTES website.

Thank you for your time, Ian!


Disclaimer: The views expressed by interviewees do not necessarily reflect those of The Mammal Next Door