Dispelling Some Myths: Edible Dormouse anyone?
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
All Romans ate dormice didn't they? You may have been told that in school, and it's still a popular and persistent belief, but it's simply not true. Although wealthy Romans might have dined on them - as a culinary delicacy - edible Dormice were not widely eaten by ordinary Romans who simply could not afford such expensive luxuries. Moreover, Edible Dormice (Glis Glis), also known as Fat Dormice, were certainly not native to Britain, and the evidence for their introduction to these shores by the Romans is sadly lacking. As for Romano-Britons eating them, there is even less proof!
Edible Dormice were, however, farmed and eaten (as a snack), even though they were expensive to breed and raise. According to the Roman scholar and writer Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BC - 27 BC), dormice were kept in pens enclosed by walls that were polished to prevent them from escaping and filled with trees whose fruit they like: beechnuts, acorns, chestnuts. When the trees were not bearing fruit, acorns and chestnuts would be thrown inside the walls for the dormice to glut themselves on. Only a small amount of water was provided since Dormice use little and prefer to live in a dry place. Roomy hollows or burrows would have been available where they might give birth.
It was noted that dormice get fat in winter as they sleep in the hollows of trees. Consequently, in less spacious urban surroundings, such as the villas or town houses of the wealthy, potters made distinctive terracotta jars or containers known as "gliraria". The fine example shown below right was made for Tastes Of History by Graham Taylor of Potted History.
The inner sides of these gliraria had ribs for the dormice to walk on and holes for them to deposit their food. Jars of this kind can be seen in the museum in Naples where the examples have ribs forming three to five stories and little openings traversing the walls. Such jars were stocked with sufficient supplies of acorns, walnuts or chestnuts before the dormice were placed inside. With the jars covered, the dormice would eat, sleep and grow fat in the dark. The fatter the dormice were, the more they were esteemed.
Edible Dormice are less like mice and more like squirrels, being silver grey in colour, with white or yellow undersides. They have large round ears, black areas around small eyes and long bushy tails. Typical examples are between 14 to 19 cm long, with a tail a further 11 to 13 cm long. They are found throughout much of mainland western Europe and on a number of Mediterranean and Baltic islands, including Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, and Crete. Although not native to the United Kingdom, dormice were accidentally introduced to the town of Tring in Hertfordshire after escaping from the private collection of Lionel Walter Rothschild (the second Baron Rothschild) in 1902. As a result, the edible dormouse population in Britain, now 30,000 strong, is concentrated in a 200 square mile (520 sq km) triangle between Beaconsfield, Aylesbury and Luton, around the south east side of the Chiltern Hills.
They have adapted well to the presence of man and will now frequently hibernate in insulated attics and even dark shelves in cupboards, particularly if there are soft materials to make a nest. Dormice can be regarded as a pest in such circumstances, however, due to faecal fouling and the fire risk resulting from their gnawing of electrical cables. Despite this the UK's Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 prohibits certain methods of killing them, and the removing of dormice may require a licence.