Yesterday I went back down to the moor to see where Simon and Ian had burnt to, and found lots more (30ish) mouse nests. Really neat, with all that interwoven grass. Some had little entrance holes. Some were badly singed and others fairly intact. They had obviously been lodged down amongst the stems at the bottom of clumps of grass - no wonder I'd never seen any when I looked before the burn.
Now they were exposed to the weather. I collected them up, hoping some would be intact enough to interest guests, or that a mammal expert might be able to confirm what species had actually made them. It's been raining stair rods, so today I laid the nests out to dry on the dining room table. As I picked one up I could swear it squeaked at me! Looking more closely, it was the only one not obviously empty. Could it still be inhabited? We took it straight back to the reserve!
But it had been through the fire, and pretty much fell apart in our hands. Fantastically though, the dampness at the base of the grass had done its job, and protected the tiny weaver.
There, with its tail curled fluffily around it's face, was a yellowish mouse with little ears on the side of it's head. We took a couple of snaps, but forebore to actually turf it out of its winter home for a proper look - it was clearly hibernating. We put the nest back in the heart of an unburnt tussock.
Was it a dormouse? Or a harvest mouse? The books say harvest mice don't hibernate, and this mouse was definitely asleep. We sent the photos off to a couple of experts. Both our contact at the Devon Wildlife Trust and another who monitors dormouse nest sites at the Royal Botanical Gardens Wakehurst Place agreed it was a dormouse. I'm thrilled! Apparently they hibernate until April, but with occasional bouts of wakefulness. I just hope no predator takes it - stoats owls and even badgers are apparently partial to the odd mouse.
It's a shame we disturbed it, but the weather's been awful since we swaled the culm grass - I don't think it would have survived, exposed as it was by the burn. And without the burn, we'd be losing the habitat itself.