The man who saved Studland

Dune heath at Studland Bay

Few have heard of him. But we owe ecologist Cyril Diver a great deal - especially those who love the naturally changing world of Studland Bay.

To stand on these intoxicatingly unspoiled dunes and look east across the water to the ‘millionaire’s paradise’ known as Sandbanks is effectively to look into an alternative future, one that Captain Diver saw coming and – hooray for wildlife - averted.   

Preserving wilderness from house building

His passion for the natural world, which began with the gentle study of snails as a diversion from the horrors of the trenches in the First World War, allowed him to see what others in the 1930s were missing. Our wilderness was in danger of becoming one big housing estate. The countryside had an enemy – town planning. 

Going on to lay the foundations of Britain’s wildlife legislation, devising and heading up The Nature Conservancy and ultimately preserving many beautiful natural spaces, Captain Diver’s first battle began on a much smaller scale. 

Cyril Diver (second from left) and his colleagues helped lay the foundations of modern ecology
Captain Cyril Diver and friends at Studland in the 1930s
Cyril Diver (second from left) and his colleagues helped lay the foundations of modern ecology

On hands and knees, he and his foot soldiers – friends and volunteers – painstakingly surveyed all 350 hectares of the diversely stunning Studland peninsula, recording around 2,500 species of beetles, birds, bees and butterflies. 

This important snapshot, compelling enough in its time to see off damaging building projects, lay undisturbed until 2012 when it was donated to the National Trust, which now owns and manages much of Studland. 

Volunteers repeated survey

Cyril Diver Project volunteers dragonfly spotting by boat on Little Sea
Cyril Diver Project volunteers surveying Little Sea by boat
Cyril Diver Project volunteers dragonfly spotting by boat on Little Sea

Intensive farming practices, a rising sea level and invasive non-native species, are undoubtedly adversaries but pitched against these are the welcome formation of a whole new dune ridge and hundreds of dragonfly-friendly freshwater pools.        

Volunteer experts and beginners, including ecology students from Bournemouth University, joined The Cyril Diver Project, taking to the sand dunes, heathlands, wet woodlands and mires to repeat his meticulous study.

Younger dunes are dominated by marram grass
Dunes at Studland Bay
Younger dunes are dominated by marram grass

With 4,600 species recorded overall, we now know that a quarter of the UK’s native flora can be found on Studland, although a few rarities have disappeared.     

The rare sand lizards and the precious heath tiger beetle, who prefer bare ground, might have moved onto a younger bit of the dune system but the rare Dartford warbler, nightjar and smooth snake are thriving.  

Like nature, the conservation war is a balancing act but the work started by Captain Diver continues.   

Additional facts:

  • More than 200 volunteers dedicated a total of 3,500 days to The Cyril Diver Project between 2012-2015
  • Manpower prevented Diver from studying lichen flora but in the recent survey, 29 major rareties were found  
  • Today’s surveys outscored Diver’s on beetles (777 compared to 239) and moths (325 against 611) but also failed to re-find significant numbers on each.    
  • The Nature Conservancy was established in 1949, superceded by the Nature Conservancy Council in 1973 
  • A new sand dune ridge has been created since Diver’s time, from sand being naturally deposited along the eastern shoreline