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The Dormouse’s Revenge

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For centuries, back to Roman times and still in places such as Croatia and Slovenia, the dormouse was considered a delicacy, stuffed and then roasted or fried – yum, yum. To distinguish him from his from dormouse chums, Glis glis (according to Linnaeus in 1766) has become known as the Edible Dormouse or the Fat Dormouse – so much for political correctness, when such fattist comments are permissible. What bad luck when, had Glis been less portly and less appetising, he might have been protected by law and kept from the oven, in the same way that his relative Muscardinus avellanarius has been. Maybe Glis should have acquired a posher Latin name.

as this got anything to do with planning or has Thackeray finally lost his marbles? It has in fact, become increasingly more important to planning and to developers, though I think poor Glis is still on the menu somewhere.

The Hazel or Common Dormouse (Muscardinus etc) is one of the UK’s most endangered mammals, although, with a population of 45,000, you might be forgiven for agreeing that it is indeed common and questioning whether it needs protection. It is, nonetheless, afforded a very high level of legal protection and it is Natural England’s advice to LPAs that survey reports and mitigation plans are required when protected species might be affected, as a part of the planning application process and not as a condition of planning content.

Ok, we are becoming accustomed to having to take account of badgers and great crested newts or, in the Thames Valley, the dreaded Dartford Warbler (wasn’t that Mick Jagger?), but the common dormouse is becoming a particularly tricky customer. If the LPA will not deal with your planning application without a survey and mitigation and if your Stage 1 ecological report suggests a possible common dormouse habitat, then you’re stuffed, not quite in the same way as poor old Glis, but enough to make him chuckle, go on a diet and reach for the hazel Just For Dormice.

The problem is three-fold (as opposed to Penfold, who was, I believe, a mole and, therefore, not protected). Firstly, the dormouse is a particularly lazy fellow and, if it’s a bit chilly, can hibernate for up to nine months of the year. Secondly, through recent research, it has been shown that the dormouse habitat is far more extensive than was once thought, now happily living in hedgerows, scrubland, conifer plantations and coppiced woodland as well as the traditional chez dormouse areas, mature woodlands with a good supply of hazelnuts. Thirdly, the surveys required to establish a presence, or indeed a non-presence, are onerous to say the least.

The cuddly dormouse appears to have made the planning application a seasonal event, only to be submitted in the winter after an exhaustive and possibly fruitless search that has taken up all of the previous summer and extended across both the application site and neighbouring land with the same habitat characteristics.

Of course, the government has helpful advice on measures to be adopted by way of mitigation, top of the list being “persuasion”. This is probably not the same gun-law as might be used in Somerset or Gloucestershire to persuade badgers to leave town. It involves clearing the affected area, by hand, a bit at a time and only during the winter, so that, on waking, the dormice find that the habitat is not quite as nice as they thought it was when they went to sleep. This might take two winters for large development sites, and, even when the little darlings have been persuaded to move on, tree stumps and earth cannot be moved until the following summer, in case some of them overslept.

If, after all this, you have no option but to relocate them, subject to licence, they should not be moved to an area with an existing dormouse population. Hopefully, someone else will have spent the previous year checking that one out.

This is indeed the Dormouse’s Revenge for all those years when he was nothing more than a tasty snack. A creature which, according to Countryfile, weighs as little as two £1 coins has the capacity to cost house-builders and, consequently, house-buyers several million times its own weight, in delays to the building programme for the much-needed upsurge in new homes. For most of us, our knowledge of dormice began and ended with a fat chap sitting next to the Mad Hatter and nodding-off during a tea party, so it should come as no surprise to find elements of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland here, in the level of protection afforded to these creatures and in the unreasonable demands placed by the government and by Natural England on applicants and LPAs charged with being pro-active in delivering ambitious housing targets. Perhaps Alice grew up to be ecologist.

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