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Caithness Field Club

Preserving Our Geological Sites
J Saxon

It is almost three years ago since David Gittens published a paper on the wanton destruction of Britain's geological sites (New Scientist, Vol. 769 No. 1081, p. 629) a process for which the geologists themselves are largely to blame. For several years prior to this article I had been making warning noises regarding sites of special scientific importance in the Highlands and Islands. The first of the sites to be pillaged was on Mainland, Orkney. At this site a squad of professional collectors stripped out an entire fish bed for preparation and sale in a respected establishment, the name of which has been a synonym for geological specimens for generations.

Next followed the rape of a locality in Ross-shire at the instigation of one of our National institutions. The latter was very clumsily carried out and resulted in the destruction of very many specimens. All the specimens not required by our "Institution" were taken by the excavators and offered for sale.

Next followed the "private collectors" who often despise the national institutions such as museums and universities. At first only one or two made the long journey north but, as the word spread and the A9 became better and faster, they came in increasing numbers and with more and more sophisticated equipment with the capability of removing and/or destroying fossils by the lorry load.

The "geological community" began to take notice. Far too late they began to publish notes for the guidance of collectors and pamphlets on the ethics of collecting. Many institutions followed (or sometimes led) the private collector in his battery of rock cutting power tools. My campaign to control collecting fell on deaf ears to a large extent and many of those officials whose reputations might have moved to action those with the custody of sites be they quarry masters, local councillors or landowners. For the most part they remained in their ivory towers and closed their eyes to the rape of the sites, even accusing those of us who were informing them of exaggeration.

Caithness is a long way from London. One wonders if it is any closer to Edinburgh sometimes. Certainly it was too remote for most of our authorities to visit and to see for themselves. Not so the rock hounds. These men think little of travelling a thousand miles to spend a few days collecting some newly discovered mineral or well preserved fossil. Their sources of information and their communications are superb. They often, working as clubs, produce their own magazines giving details of localities and access and a group can often strip a new site before the universities or other official bodies can act to prevent them. In West Germany alone there are over one thousand rock hound clubs some with memberships of over one thousand. And the law of trespass in Scotland, being much more lax than in most countries, makes this country a prime target for collecting trips.

The depredations of collectors, both institutional and private, led to the closure of Achanarras quarry and access to this quarry is now administered by the Nature Conservancy Council, with myself as one of their honorary wardens. The NCO also circulated the geological community both at home and abroad with literature regarding collecting. This seems to have had some effect. It seems certain that this year there were fewer collectors from overseas than previously. This does not mean that we can now cry "all's well". Turning their attention from Achanarras they have played havoc with many other fossiliferous sites. In company with one of their officers during the late summer I visited several sites. At every one there was recent evidence of the heavy-handed tactics of the worst of the collectors. Shattered rock was scattered everywhere and one could have filled a lorry with fragments of fossils which, not being of "museum" (i.e. collectors) quality, had been wantonly destroyed. Destroyed too were the "uncollectable" specimens such as the more bizarre and less "fish-like" fish. Their market value is not as high among collectors of fossils as their more photogenic "fish-like" relatives.

Above all else, with the private collectors, the act of collection is essentially destructive since they often take no trouble to label their specimens (they are often not equipped to classify them) and their geographical and stratigraphical positions remain unrecorded. The scientific value of such specimens is thus much reduced though, of course, their market value is not. In fact the very destruction of a fossiliferous locality can even enhance their value.

The collecting season is over for this year and my appeal for volunteers to help police the sites in a previous Field Club Bulletin met with no success. Those who follow the local papers, however, will have noticed the successful prosecution of two collectors recently who entered Achanarras quarry without permission. There really was no excuse. Signs erected at the entrance specifically forbid the collection of fossils without prior permission from the NCO.

The whole business raises unanswered questions. Under present laws it can be assumed that if you are found in possession of a geological hammer that you intend to use it. The only advice, I can offer is not to hammer at all. In fact, if we are to conserve these important sites, organisations such as the Field Club should have a general "no hammering" rule just as we would not expect our members to undertake excavations except under proper supervision.

To conclude I was informed that a party from one of our institutions was apprehended on a collecting trip during the past season and only avoided prosecution by the intervention of the NCO. Even the institutions good name as an "authority" would otherwise not have saved them from an embarrassing and perhaps costly court case. The trouble is of course that, to the constabulary, there is no obvious difference between an "institutional collector" and a "private collector" in either the methods they use or the damage they cause. Perhaps it is high tilm to call a halt to all collecting altogether except, perhaps, as a rescue operation, and insist that a11 institutions using casts as teaching material. So many official collecting trips seem not so much educational but more as a break from university routines. In these cases, perhaps, the lecturer should be the only one to wield the hammer, and that sparingly, if only for the sake of posterity.

Published in October 1980 Bulletin