Citizens of the natural world, unite!

Walkers in the Purbeck Hills near Corfe Castle

A major survey of wildlife on the Purbeck peninsula will draw on the help of an army of volunteer ‘citizen scientists’ to count and record the plants and creatures that live there.

It’s some of Britain’s most biodiverse countryside. And every week a faithful band of volunteers heads to the nature-rich Dorset peninsula of Purbeck to spot and painstakingly record each individual example of wildlife, helping to build a vital bigger picture for the National Trust.   

Commitment to conservation

Retired botanist Jim White can track his own sense of responsibility back to the 1980s when he was at the beginning of a long career with the government body formerly known as the Nature Conservancy Council (now called Natural England). 

“I remember well the moment the penny dropped that we couldn’t carry on treating the environment in such a cavalier way. Thirty years on, I didn’t want to give up my commitment to conservation just because I was retiring,” he says.

Wildflowers in south Purbeck, Dorset
A clifftop in Purbeck, Dorset

Jim’s background, particularly his teaching experience, made him a good choice to lead the Botany group. From March to October, they gather statistics for flowering plants, grasses and sedges, switching to mosses and liverworts in the winter. 

Citizen scientists gain useful experience

The term ‘Citizen Science’ first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014 so Purbeck’s data-collecting land army is a pioneering one. Defined as ‘scientific work undertaken by members of the general public, often in collaboration with or under the direction of professional scientists’. 

Darren Cook first volunteered as a Citizen Scientist as part of his Masters degree in Biodiversity Conservation at Bournemouth University. He knew nothing about snakes or lizards before he started, and is now something of an expert.

Common, but not often seen!
A common lizard in the grass
" Reptiles get a bad press. They’re actually quite cute. Smooth snakes are gorgeous to look at and velvety to the touch."
- Darren Cook, Citizen Scientist

Studland’s snakes and lizards seek warmth by slithering under the many corrugated iron refuges that have been dotted around the site.  

The smooth snake and the sand lizard are protected under European legislation so handling them is a licensed activity. Darren gained his licence solely through his volunteer survey work so joining the National Trust’s call to action brought personal reward. 

Additional facts: 

  • All six of our native reptile species are found on Studland; common lizard, sand lizard, slowworm, grass snake, smooth snake and adder. 
  • Reptiles cannot generate their own body heat and are very cold first thing in the morning so need to bask in the sun or find a warm place to recharge. 
  • The Citizen Scientist army on Studland is a spin-off of the Cyril Diver Project – a 2013-2016 survey repeating the 1930s pioneering work of Captain Cyril Diver. 
  • Free workshops, led by national experts on topics from fungi to hover flies, are frequently held.  
  • In 18th and 19th century England, amateur naturalists like Gilbert White played an important role in cataloguing local flora and fauna. 
  • Free ‘citizen scientist’ apps using GPS and camera technology are available, allowing volunteers to collect verifiable records in the field.