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How to Photograph Hazel Dormice

The UK has two dormice species: the native hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), and the non-native edible dormouse (Glis glis), which can be found in a limited area of England. This article is about photographing hazel dormice, and all references to ‘dormouse’ or ‘dormice’ will refer to this species. 

The dormouse

The hazel (or common) dormouse is a small, native rodent that is almost entirely nocturnal. It spends its days in a nest of fresh and dried leaves, woven into a ball the size of a large orange. These summer nests are usually hidden in dense shrub vegetation, often bramble.

Dormice are usually active from April/May until the first frosts in October/November. They hibernate in a winter nest that is usually at or below ground level, either in leaf litter at the base of a tree or in woodpiles. Their preferred habitat is mixed deciduous woodland, connected by dense hedgerows.

In parts of their range, they have become dependent on commercially coppiced woods of hazel or chestnut. Their diet changes as the year progresses, from tree and shrub flowers in spring, to fruits and nuts in autumn. They also eat caterpillars and other insects.

The dormouse is found in varying densities south of a line drawn from North Wales to Suffolk, but is most common in England’s most southern counties, from Kent to Cornwall.  

Chestnut coppice is an important habitat for dormice in Kent.

Legal protection

The hazel dormouse is a fully protected species under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The following is an extract directly from the UK government website:

You’re breaking the law if you do certain things including:

  • deliberately capture, injure or kill hazel dormice
  • damage or destroy a dormouse resting place or breeding site
  • deliberately or recklessly disturb a hazel dormouse while it’s in a structure or place of shelter or protection
  • block access to structures or places of shelter or protection
  • possess, sell, control, or transport live or dead hazel dormice, or parts of hazel dormice

Any of the following could happen if you’re found guilty of any offence:

  • you could get an unlimited fine
  • you could be sent to prison for up to 6 months

This is the same protection afforded to all bats, cetaceans, pine martens, otters, wildcats, red squirrels, water voles, and, oddly, walruses. The difference with regards to dormice is that they are extremely difficult to find, other than in or near a place of refuge, but we’ll get to that. 

Read more: Understanding schedule 1 licensing for bird photography

Photography

Probably the first thing to say is that, in order to photograph dormice legally and ethically, you will need help. There are three ways to photograph hazel dormice: in captivity, in a monitoring/conservation scenario, and in the wild.

All will require the cooperation of someone else, and most likely the assistance/supervision of a licensed dormouse handler/keeper. 

1. In a conservation setting

Many dormouse populations are monitored by local volunteers, often associated with the county mammal group. These all have some kind of website and so are easy to find and contact. They usually monitor several woods and maintain a network of artificial nest boxes, which they will check periodically throughout the summer.

They will have the level 2 licence which allows them to catch and handle dormice. They may simply check for dormouse presence by looking for food signs and nest box occupancy, or catch dormice to weigh them and mark them for future reference, by fur clipping. 

Hazel Ryan and John Puckett of Kent Mammal Group weigh and record a family of dormice

In return for a set of images, they may allow you to photograph this process. If you build a relationship with the group, or even volunteer with them, over time it could lead to further photographic opportunities.

Until fairly recently, most published images of dormice were of a mouse in a nest box, curled up in a torpid state. This is when they go into a sleepy, inactive state, during periods of cold weather.  

Torpid dormouse photographed in its nest box

Good documentary images of the work the volunteers do are important to any story about dormice, and can be really useful for the mammal group for attracting volunteers or fund-raising. 

A single camera and wide-angle to short zoom will work for this kind of photography, but I find it useful to have two cameras (on straps) which I can switch between. For most of this kind of work I’ll use a 24-70mm on one camera, and a 70-200mm on the other.

Occasionally I’ll use a 16-35mm if I feel I need to get more into the frame, or I’m working in a tight space. I’m personally not keen on anything wider than 24mm, due to the distortion a wider lens brings. Flash can be useful when working in a dense wood, but I prefer not to use it if I can avoid it, due to the intrusion.

These days, I really like using mirrorless cameras on silent mode. You can really fade into the background and eventually people forget you’re there, and become less self-conscious. I prefer not to stage photos as I prefer real moments, but this can mean you occasionally miss something.

Clipping fur as a means of identification for recapture.

A detailed record of fur clipping is made. These types of images are useful for the mammal groups to have for reports and presentations.

2. In captivity

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. The problem isn’t necessarily the photography, but finding someone who keeps captive dormice in large enough enclosures, and who will allow you to photograph them in situ.

A licence is required to keep dormice captive and, to my knowledge, the only holders are individuals, zoos, or wildlife parks actively involved in the Common Dormouse Captive Breeders Group, either as a breeding or pre-release holding facility. The most important breeder of dormice for release is probably the Wildwood Trust in Kent. 

I have done this, fifteen or so years ago, but not with any success. The keeper allowed me to use an enclosure housing non-breeding dormice, and I built a small set in one corner of the enclosure using chestnut leaves (the enclosure was in a chestnut coppice) in order to hide the wire background, and fresh hazel branches for the dormice to run around on.

I used leaves as a background as it was safer for the animals than black fabric. I lit this with two flashguns on very low power and triggered the camera from a short distance away by a long cable release. I used a dim red light to find the dormice in the dark enclosure.

I didn’t get a single usable image. I don’t think this is a method I would try again myself, as I think the images looked staged. But, if you can find a location, it’s a viable option.

There are hazel dormouse images in photo libraries that look like they were photographed this way, or probably in a set into which the animals were placed. I’m less comfortable with this approach due to the potential stress it could cause the animal. The dormouse would have to be used to being handled, and probably hand-raised, in order for me to do it.

Although any captive dormouse photography would be carried out under the supervision of an experienced and licensed handler, it’s ultimately up to the photographer to decide what is ethical or not. 

An adult dormouse photographed with a DSLR camera trap.

Read more: Captive animals in UK photography workshops need licensing

3. In the wild

Dormice can occasionally be found visiting garden bird feeders, sometimes in late daylight. If you can find one, and the house owner is willing to grant you permission to photograph, this is definitely the easiest way to photograph wild dormice.

As the dormouse would take a fixed route to the feeder, probably along the closest branch, a fixed camera, pre-focussed and triggered remotely, would be the best approach. It could be triggered manually by radio, either from the house or a vantage point in the garden, particularly if it comes at a regular time. Otherwise, I’d probably use an infrared sensor to trip the camera.

I’d light it the same way as I will describe later in this article. It may be possible to move the feeder a little, but it shouldn’t be moved if this might put the dormouse at a higher risk of predation. Cats are a constant danger for small mammals (and birds) in the garden.

The best source of information about gardens that have visiting dormice would be the local mammal group. I’ve never had much luck with garden dormice. On the two occasions that I found a suitable house, the dormice stopped coming just as I was about to place the camera. 

A very young dormouse, not long out of the nest box

A few years ago I was commissioned by the conservation communication project 2020VISION to photograph wild dormice in woodland. Dormice carry out most of their activity high in the canopy or deep in dense bushes, so simply finding one by torchlight would be almost impossible, and would create far too much disturbance.

I also discarded the idea of setting up a feeder in the wood, as I felt there was too great a risk of unintended consequences. A feeder would have to be in place for a fairly long period and would attract other nocturnal rodents which, in turn, would attract predators. I felt there was too great a risk of upsetting the delicate ecological balance that allows for viable dormouse populations. 

I decided that the only way it might be possible to photograph wild dormice was with a DSLR camera trap, but where to set it? A friend and his partner, both level 2 licence holders, were monitoring a mixed broadleaf woodland with a healthy population of dormice, and they kindly offered to help.

The only place where we could be reasonably sure a dormouse would pass by is the branches that lead directly up from a nest box to the canopy. Working near a nest box would require a mitigation (disturbance) licence from Natural England. The monitors supported my application and, once this licence was in place, we could make a start. 

Dormouse carrying food back to the nest box

The tricky bit was identifying which of the several possible branches was the one the dormice used most often. For the first couple of weeks, I got nothing. If my friends got fed up with me constantly asking “so, which way do you think they go?”, they didn’t show it.  In the end, it came down to trial and error, and slowly I started to get photos. 

I set the camera a metre up from the box with a beam system as a trigger. This system has two units, one of which sends out an invisible, pulsing infra-red beam, and a receiver. When the beam is broken, the camera takes an image. The system is configurable as to how many images it takes on a single activation, how many pulses to miss before firing, and what time period for the system to be operational.

I set it to work only during the night, take three images, and everything else set as fine as possible. The problem with setting the system this fine is that almost anything will trigger it. Falling leaves, insects, large raindrops. Really, anything.

I had three flashes set in my usual configuration of the main light from one direction at around 45 degrees, a fill at a half or even quarter power of the main, and a backlight to act as a rim light on the fur. The beam had to be set close enough to the branch that a dormouse wouldn’t pass under it, but not so close that the slightest movement of the branch in the wind would trip it.  

A dormouse stops after the first shot and looking directly at the camera. This happened several times and shows the animal reacting more to the sound of the camera than the flash

The flashes were set on low power. Dormice move fast, and it takes a short flash duration to stop the movement. I used a shutter speed of around 1/200th to exclude any ambient light, so all the lighting came from the flash.

A flashgun’s exposure is determined by the duration of the flash. It’s only an approximate guide, but full power on the type of flashes I was using will be roughly equivalent to a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second, where 1/16th power is around 1/4000th.

So, the lower the power of the flash, the more likely to stop fast action. I sometimes use two flashes together on 1/8th power, rather than a single flash on 1/4, if I want to stop movement. In this case, the flashes were close enough that single main light on 1/8th power was enough at ISO 500 and f/8.

This set-up worked well enough and, over a period of two months, I got about 30 useable images.  

Example speedlight setup

Equipment

For the camera trap images, I used a Nikon D200 camera and three SB25 flashes. The flashes were connected by homemade cables that would wake and fire the flashes from sleep. I now use wireless flash triggers made by Camtraptions.

The camera trap system is a Trailmaster 1550 beam system. I used a beam rather than a PIR as it is more precise. More sophisticated beam systems are now available from Cognysis in the US. These days, entire camera trap systems can be bought off the shelf from Cognysis and Camtraptions although, as of yet, Camtraptions don’t sell a beam (active) sensor.

Brett Lewis of Kent Mammal Group checking the last box of the season in November.

In conclusion 

This tutorial has been more anecdotal than initially intended, simply because I realised I couldn’t just say how you should go out and photograph hazel dormice. It’s not that simple. 

So, I showed what worked for me and what didn’t, and ideas that were discarded due to potential harm. The hazel dormouse is a delicate and vulnerable species. To try to photograph them near a nest or any place of shelter, even accidentally, requires a licence from the relevant authority.

To get that license, you need the help and support of a licensed dormouse monitor, and a good reason to photograph the species. I would suggest that, for anyone wishing to photograph hazel dormice, the first step should be to contact your local mammal group.

Visit Terry's website

Terry Whittaker is a professional wildlife photographer currently based in the UK. His work is published in outlets as diverse as wildlife trade billboards in Cambodia, best selling UK album artwork and kid’s conservation magazines in the US. He’s interested in post-industrial rivers and guides tours to the most remote, wild parts of Iceland.

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