The Dormice of Gwyrch Castle

Jake Barrowin Conservation & Ecology

Lying beneath the imposing Gwyrch Castle is Abergele Golf Club, which recently won a national environmental award, and has protected myriad animals, including some feisty little dormice. Jake Barrow headed to Colwyn Bay to meet Master Greenkeeper Darren Anderson to find out more about his conservation work.

The 'Outstanding Environmental Project of the Year 2018' award was collected by 42-year-old Darren Anderson, the Master Greenkeeper at Abergele Golf Club, as part of the BTME Golf Awards 2018 presentation ceremony in January.

The club accepted its award alongside such prestigious 2018 winners as Carnoustie Golf Links, Kingsdown Golf Club and John O'Gaunt Golf Club, with its 'Tir Gwyllt', which is Welsh for 'Wild Land', and was the name suggested by Darren's bilingual wife Sali.

Darren told the Rhyl Journal that he would visit Portugal this April to learn more about ecology in golf course management, because of his involvement in the award:

"Firstly, it was about us building an ecology area. The awards obviously encouraged us, and we were still entering even though we thought we didn't have a chance."

"I felt immensely proud when it was announced we'd won. I just couldn't believe it. I didn't know what to say, apart from 'thank you' to everyone."

"The whole idea was that we wanted to improve our environmental standing and encourage ecology with the resources we had really, as we didn't have money to spend."

"When we found out we had made it to the final, we were over the moon, and the club directors automatically said they were going along to support the awards. However, when I saw the fantastic work the other finalist had done, I warned the directors, 'please don't get your hopes up.'"

A spokesman for Abergele Golf Club then told the Journal: "It goes without saying that we are extremely lucky to have Darren. The work he has put in to enter for this award and continues to do to maintain these standards makes Abergele a golf course to be proud of."

The project included the incorporation of several nature conservation tools at the side of the third fairway, beside a field immediately adjacent to the castle.

It includes a bug hotel, a ladybird basket full of pinecones, a floral area in which local and wild orchids now grow, corrugated steel sheets to encourage slowworms, a selection of bird and bat boxes, eco-stacks for beetles and other little arthropods, a manmade beehive, wetland areas and a butterfly fruit table.

It also, perhaps most uniquely, features tree boxes and tennis ball houses in which dormice can nest.

These are spread over some distance, for terrotorial reasons.

A club member, Peter Warren, is also a member of the Conwy Bee Association, and agreed to set up and maintain the beehive voluntarily, as a hobbyist.

Gwyrch Castle

Work has been undertaken to remove around thirty large poplars from just above the conservation area, partly for sunlight improvement, but also because they were blocking the view of one of the North Wales coastline's most iconic views, that of the massive faux-castle, Gwyrch.

Although it looks much older, the castle is in fact an early-19th Century folly; a manor house constructed on the order of the 12th Earl of Dundonald's grandfather, Lloyd Bamford-Hesketh.

Since then, it has almost become a tertiary house for the royals, although they refused this offer, and later looted and squatted in, until the inside was barely recognisable.

Its most recent run of near-fortune came in 2007, when it was bought for £850,000 by a company willing to spend a further £6 million on renovations to turn it into a luxury hotel.

This fell through, and it remains in a desolate, unfilled state. It was purchased by another buyer hoping for a hotel conversion in 2012, but no media coverage of any updates is available.

If ever the renovation does occur, no doubt the guests will be able to stroll to the bottom of the castle's gardens and peer over the fence and seek out the plethora of wildlife encouraged by this pioneering environmental golf course project.

Out on the course

Most of Darren and his team's time, though, is naturally spent on maintenance of the club's par-72, 18-hole course, which runs over 6,547 yards of the site.

In the early 2000s, the greens were completely revamped to USGA specifications, as the management hoped that no time would be lost to poor weather over winter.

Abergele's staff, via the club website, describe the course like this: "four inviting par-threes… prevailing winds… memorable, undulating greens… a signature final hole… testing course, after which you will be able to reflect on your putting ability."

The course is also a little hilly in parts, and this was considered when deciding their choice of maintenance equipment manufacturer. Darren said: "We have a few Kubotas, but we're mostly running Toro equipment. All cutting equipment is Toro, and the tractors are Kubota."

"Toro machinery has a long lifespan. Reliability and quality is great with them. We're good at maintaining them, so that, along with their reliability, means they retain a good residual value when we come to sell them."

The greens are partly sand-based, which Darren says allows him to play around a lot more with minerals than would be practicable on surfaces with lower pH values.

He said: "I think we are ready for the changing nature of preventative solutions. An idea like using enough iron where it's feasible, rather than using the fungicides which we're usually very tempted to use, is just one of the ways in which we can avoid such products."

"Some people don't even like that you're putting sulphate of iron down, but sometimes it's more a case of the best choice of two - it's better to use the iron than a harmful-type fungicide."

"They're being removed from the market for a reason, often to do with how often they stick around in water on the water-based courses."

"Plant protection companies are coming up with products less harmful to the environment, but this also means there can be a fungicide resistance build-up so stewardship is key in reducing resistance."

"My dad used to talk about using mercury on the greens [he laughed], which you wouldn't dream of now. Today's fungicides are regulated and safer to use through COSHH and risk assessments."


Because of their elusiveness, their quirks and their mystery, in this forthcoming section we will be learning about dormice, and how to keep them safe if they show any signs of habitation.

It's important to note that this information will usually use the term 'dormouse' to refer implicitly to the life of the 'common/hazel dormouse', which is native to the UK and is the animal most often referenced by the term. Including the 'hazel', there are at least 49 types of extant dormouse.


And they aren't considered mysterious without reason. Their size, habits, spread and lack of relatives all add to their mystique - the information contained here is near the extent of public knowledge about the sneaky fuzzballs.

Perhaps the most famous example of a dormouse globally, as is the case with so many animals, is a fictional and anthropomorphic one; in this case, The Dormouse from Lewis Carroll's landmark children's book, 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'.

Its portrayal in the story was important to the public understanding of the animal's signature behaviour: that it sleeps often. In Chapter VII of the book, this necessitates the ability for it to talk in its sleep, and The March Hare and The Hatter bully it whilst it's unconscious.

This character was referenced and further popularised in Jefferson Airplane's 1960s pop masterpiece 'White Rabbit', which advises its listener to 'remember what the dormouse said: "feed your head".'

Hibernation & Etymology

That sleepiness is the reason the dormouse is so called. Rather than being named for its visual and genetic similarity to mice, as is sometimes thought, it was named for its tendency to hibernate, based on the word stem 'dormir', which is the French verb 'to sleep'.

Dormice in temperate zones will hibernate for at least six months out of every year. This will often be for longer if the weather continues to be too cold for their shallow fat deposits.

As well as their long hibernation, they sometimes require a miniature one called a 'torpor', whenever it gets cold, wet or food is difficult to come by - a very vulnerable or, depending on one's attitude, perhaps even fussy, creature.

The talking point here continues to be that, somewhat amazingly, experts still do not know where they hibernate. The People's Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), a UK organisation, is working hard to discover this, as it is thought few dormice survive each winter.


They are even training search dogs to seek out hibernation spots, in the hopes of improving methods of protecting the sleepy creatures.

This is all because their numbers are declining, as is their viable range. Although they are globally considered safe, in the UK they are officially viewed as vulnerable to extinction.

According to PTES, they are also "a priority species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan… protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981."


Dormice are small rodents, and are semi-closely related to squirrels and mice, but in extreme genetic similarity with no known species.

They are one of the oldest forms of rodent, and their family is diverse for a mammalian subtype. It includes some that do not truly hibernate, and many that are specialised for types of habitat significantly different from those found on the British Isles.

They reproduce in litters of about four, but again, most will not live for very long. The ones which survive will usually only have one litter, sometimes two, but they are weaned and achieve independence very early, usually tackling their first hibernation alone when a couple of months old.

They have evolved to be nocturnal, which is partly because their ranges vary over those of birds of prey, and appearing at night makes the threat of most inert - the only real aerial threat to the hazel tends to be the owl.


These types include the expert climber, the 'forest dormouse', which lives basically anywhere heavily wooded, and the 'desert dormouse', which looks a lot like a hamster or gerbil, because it is covered in long, soft fur to help in its arid home, which appears to be exclusively Kazakhstan.

This specialisation means the dormouse is incredibly adaptable, typical of smaller mammals, and has evolved to live in every climate type across Eurasia.

It has variants in coastal Japan, the north Asian steppes, the arid Kazakh desert, lush Russian wet-forests and was, at one time, even subject to island gigantism on the hot and sticky Spanish islands, where the extinct 'Majorcan giant dormouse' grew to around 30cm (12") long.

In the UK, they are nowadays mostly limited to the Anglo-Welsh border, southern England and southern Wales, which is why Darren and his team are so fortunate to manage a course on which they can safely live and reproduce.


As difficult as it may be for some of us to think about, many of the world's people still eat other tiny rodents as we eat rabbits, and they are considered a delicacy in some parts of the world.

This, in dormice, is particularly true of the imaginatively-named 'edible dormouse', which was eaten by wealthy ancient Romans, who saw it as the height fine meat.

They are still consumed by those at the other end of the economic spectrum, largely in central and eastern Europe, and trapping them is a traditional pastime for social activity in Slovenia.


Dormice share traits with other animals considered integral parts of British culture, including their penchant for fighting, which they share with the famously feisty European robin.

This is a reason for their apparent scarcity. It is rare to find two families of dormice within a few hundred yards of each other, owing to territorial disputes, presumably the evolutionary result of their constant struggle to find suitable sources of food and hibernation shelter.

Many tend to bite humans who attempt to capture them without taking necessary precautions. This is an issue, because like all rodents they have well-developed incisors, and the bites of some larger types, such as the 'fat dormouse' can reach the bones of a human hand.

They are also carriers of the same communicable diseases found in rabbits, rats and other transmitters, such as salmonellosis and, famously, the now-rare bubonic plague.

Description and other behaviour

According to PTES: "Hazel dormice have golden-brown fur and large black eyes and, distinctively, they are the only small British mammal with a furry tail."

The organisation concludes that their overall length is somewhere around 7cm at average, with a tail nearly this length again, and they tend to weigh about 20g whilst awake and perhaps almost double this weight when beginning to hibernate. They live for up to five years in the wild.

When they do succeed in finding food and shelter, they will thrive upon a mixed diet which helps to both provide fat for winter, as with sugary berries, and protein, as with nuts.

They are, usefully, omnivorous. This means they can also gain those vital proteins and fats from aphids and other small insects, larvae and larval galls.


Due to their size, expertise at hiding (and being asleep), and their need to live far away from one-another, dormice aren't predated as often as other small mammals.

However, when they are found, they can be eaten by owls, cats, and occasionally dogs or other birds of prey if the dormouse is still around in the morning. But, this is most dangerously the case with the modern nemesis of small UK wildlife, the grey squirrel.

This grey squirrel threat, as red squirrels have also found to their detriment, is pernicious because it is a two-pronged attack. It is also a result of the grey squirrel thriving in similar conditions and on similar foods, such as hazelnuts and other seeds, nuts and fruits.

Maybe the biggest threat to dormice in this country, however, is the same threat faced by the panda: their own inability to successfully breed and survive in the modern, human-ravaged world. They are slow to move to new areas and will almost always become extinct where challenged.

Quick Facts

The following facts about hazel dormice, our most common species, were taken from Countryfile and give some insight into the mysteries surrounding the tiny animal:

• Hazels weigh as little as two £1 coins

• Until about a century ago, they were kept as pets

• The Romans stuffed them or dipped them in honey

• They are now extinct in seven English counties

• They're so-names because hazelnuts are their ideal food

• It is illegal to injure, kill or even 'disturb' dormice in the UK

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