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Isle of Purbeck environmental research

The project

Bournemouth University students, led by Dr Anita Diaz and Dr Liz Franklin, have been working with the National Trust and RSPB in Purbeck to monitor heathland habitats and develop more effective conservation methods for the area. The project stemmed from a long-standing relationship with both organisations and a desire to give students the opportunity to get involved practical conservation work.

During the summer of 2015, five teams of students from universities all over the country spent ten days carrying out surveys of plants and pollinators at 60 different heathland sites in the Purbecks. Each team was led by a BU undergraduate. Over the course of the ten days, the students amassed around 1,500 hours of surveying work, gathering huge amounts of data in the process. This has helped to build up a better picture of flora and fauna in the area and learn more about the effectiveness of current conservation management methods. The work is currently being extended by a new team of ten BU students who are staying in new camping facilities created for this co-creation partnership by the NT.

The benefits of co-creating research in this way have been felt by all parties involved. For the students, it has been a fantastic way of developing their skills and putting their academic knowledge into practice and bolstering their environmental experience, which will be a real advantage when it comes to applying for jobs in their final year. It’s proved to be a great opportunity for BU’s academics too, as it’s allowed them to take their teaching into the real world.

But perhaps the most significant boost has been to the National Trust, RSPB and our local area as the extra manpower has enabled them to gather substantial amounts of data which will go on to inform conservation activities that will help to preserve the natural beauty of Purbeck for years to come.

The academic

Dr Anita Diaz, an Associate Professor in ecology, worked with Dr Liz Franklin to help set up the Purbecks SERT project.

“The project was the result of a long-standing relationship with the National Trust and RSPB in Purbeck, who wanted to carry out a series of ecological monitoring surveys, so that they could get a better understanding of how to shape their future conservation plans,” says Anita.

“It seemed like a great opportunity to get BU students and students from other universities involved in hands-on environmental research, both to increase their skills and to increase our research capacity. Research with impact is something I really believe in and I like to bring my students along with me as it’s such a good learning environment for them.

“Getting involved in research is a brilliant way for our students to build up their confidence, develop new skills and learn about the link between research and professional practice. As well as getting to put their academic knowledge into practice, they develop all sorts of soft skills and gain huge amounts of confidence as they realise what they’re capable of. It’s a real privilege to see them blossom into highly employable young people.”

The student

BU undergraduate student, Kate Rickard, spent her summer as a team leader for the Purbeck project.

“I wanted to do something a bit different with my time and I knew that being a team leader would be a really great experience. I’m from Poole originally and love Purbeck, so I couldn’t wait to get to live there for the duration of the project,” explains Kate.

“As a team leader, I was responsible for four students from other universities. I had to make sure I knew which sites we were visiting, which methodology we would be using and look after the wellbeing of my team throughout the project. Before the residential aspect of the project started, all the team leaders worked with Anita and Liz to organise its logistics.

“Being a team leader was a great opportunity as it helped me to be more confident when interacting with people I don’t know very well. I definitely improved my skills in identifying pollinators and plants as a result of working on the project. I also got to see how a scientific research project is planned, organised and carried out which was useful later on when I was designing my individual research project.”

The impact

Michelle Brown is the Ecology Officer for the National Trust’s Purbeck Estate and was the project lead for the National Trust.

“BU students have been involved with the National Trust since 2010, when they began assisting with our annual deer census survey, but it wasn’t until the start of the Cyril Diver project in 2013 that our Student Environmental Research Teams (SERTs) took shape.

“Cyril Diver is a three-year project to ecologically survey the whole of the Studland Peninsula, following in the footsteps of Captain Cyril Diver, Studland’s first champion of conservation,” says Michelle, “We’re going to compare our data to Captain Diver’s so that we can analyse changes in the area over the last 80 years.

“I took over as project officer for the final year of the project and designed and supervised the 2015 SERT team’s participation. As a former BU student, I am passionate about the collaboration of BU and National Trust Purbeck as a mutually beneficial opportunity. In this competitive industry, those who are able to demonstrate practical experience with conservation organisations, develop the skills that employers are looking for and make important connections in the conservation network are really able to increase their chances of standing out from the crowd.

“Over the course of three years, BU students have been involved in a number of different ecological surveys, including a botanical baseline of the Studland Peninsula, a damselfly and dragonfly nymph survey of ten key wetland areas and a survey of Purbeck heathlands. BU’s students have proved to be a wonderful asset in carrying out both baseline habitat and targeted species surveys, contributing greatly to the survey effort and expanding their survey and identification skills as the next generation of biodiversity recorders.

“Their involvement has informed the analysis of 80 years of ecological change at the site, which in turn has informed the new site management plans for the national nature reserve and ensures that the National Trust can manage the site in the best way possible based on academically rigorous survey methodologies and reliable evidence.

“This is the largest Citizen Science project that the National Trust has embarked upon to date and has not only significantly increased our knowledge of the site and how to manage it most effectively, but has also formed the foundation of Citizen Science Biodiversity Recording in the National Trust.

“We are rolling out the project model across Purbeck, in collaboration with other conservation organisations. As well as this, the lessons learned are being disseminated throughout the National Trust at a national level with a view to establishing further Citizen Science biodiversity recording at other sites. The long-term aim is to embed Citizen Scientist biodiversity monitoring into what we do in the National Trust as a whole.”