Good news all round - building dormice boxes with New Leaf mental health patients for use on SLR projects
Dr Ben Garnett, Senior Ecology Consultant
Earlier this year I conducted some bat inspections of an NHS building in Exminster. By chance I got talking to one of their staff, Richard Wellington, who works for a not-for-profit NHS initiative there called New Leaf. New Leaf rehabilitates mental health patients by teaching them new vocational skills, getting them back on their feet and into the world of work. One way they do this is through carpentry, making furniture and various wooden products. I noticed these included a few bird, bat and hedgehog boxes for local gardeners, and got talking to Richard. He showed me a few, and I was really impressed at their quality. However, one thing they didn’t make was dormouse boxes, and we needed a lot in 2019 for major infrastructure and residential projects.
Standard boxes are available from various online suppliers but are not of particularly great quality. I was aware that the Wildlife Trusts had recently developed a new and superior ‘Brampton’ dormouse box design (https://www.wildlifebcn.org/dormouse), where the entry hole is moved beneath the box and reached by a short corridor. Research found these were more successful than the old standard boxes, as they prevent a high degree of box wastage to nesting birds which cannot access the hole (nesting birds deter dormice). However, this ‘Brampton’ style box was not currently available on the market, so I suggested that New Leaf might have a go at producing something similar for us. I had the Wildlife Trust design and forwarded this to Richard, and we then met a couple of times to refine it. We made two main refinements, firstly a lid made from marine-grade ply which is more hard-wearing than the usual standard and should allow the box to last for decades before it eventually rots. I have previously found that it is almost always the lid which rots and is destroyed first so it made sense to reinforce it; without this roof the box is exposed to rain and becomes unusable. Secondly, we included a grill mesh over the top compartment to allow quick and easy inspections during monitoring; the box no longer needs to be removed from the tree, instead the lid can be removed, and the surveyor can inspect the contents without risk of a dormouse escaping, or even falling out.
Richard finishing a dormouse box
New Leaf were able to gear up and produce these new boxes in bulk, for the equivalent price of the inferior, standard models currently available. In the last few months the SLR Exeter office has ordered over 70 boxes from them, plus a few bird boxes too, worth over £1,000. Many of these boxes were used to support dormice relocated by the A382 road widening project near Newton Abbot. SLR client Devon County Council were delighted to have provided superior boxes for dormouse (a Devon Biodiversity Action Plan Species), at no additional cost, whilst also rehabilitating mental health patients in our local community. We have also introduced this partnership to CG Fry & Son in the residential sector, who have been eager to use these boxes for their housing developments. Looking forward, I have shared this scheme with other SLR ecologists around the UK and Ireland, and we therefore hope many other orders will follow.
Rhian adding finishing touches to a box (left) and a collection of the finished dormouse boxes (right)
So far, this partnership has been a great success for dormice, mental health patients, local wildlife and vulnerable people in our community. It’s a win-win-win-win! We look forward to working further with New Leaf and I would continue to urge anyone to think of them when ordering wildlife boxes for future projects. They have great woodworking skills and Richard is always keen to point out they are willing to adapt and produce any kind of box we want. There is scope for further innovation with other box types, although their bird, bat and hedgehog models are already great wooden options for these boxes. We hope this will prove to be a long and fruitful partnership.
Dr Ben Garnett is a Senior Ecologist with SLR with over 14 years of consultancy experience. Ben has extensive experience conducting and supervising a wide range of habitat and protected species surveys including badger, dormice, birds, bats, great crested newts, reptiles and otters.