CONSERVATIONISTS are being trained to track signs of a declining species of small British mammals in local countryside.

Since last autumn volunteers with Durham Wildlife Trust’s Heart of Durham and the Land of Oak and Iron Projects, in the north of the county, have been conducting woodland surveys in their search for dormice.

Numbers of the endangered mammal, once a familiar feature of the British countryside, are estimated to have declined by two-thirds in two decades, with the changing face of woodland often seen as a cause.

Among monitoring techniques used is the placement of footprint tracking tubes.

Constructed from drainage pipes, they are baited with hazelnut butter and a strip of paper incorporated with a small area of ink.

It means small mammals seeking the bait leave their tell-tale footprints, with the recovered strips analysed at Chopwell Forestry School, in the Derwent Valley.

Wildlife conservation biologist Vivien Kent guided volunteers through a process to recognise the shapes and patterns of small mammal footprints. Dormice have distinctive triangular shaped metacarpals and heel pads.

A card from Strothers Hill Wood, near Rowlands Gill, has produced the most exciting prints which only came to light with a hand lens, but mainly from shrews.

Armed with their new skills and knowledge, volunteers now plan to spend the year collecting prints.

They will work trust photography group member Stan Potts, using good quality images to create a data base of foot prints as a reference tool in the ongoing search for the elusive dormice.