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Move to Halt Fossil Theft and Damage in Scotland

An event to promote the protection of one of Scotland’s oldest and rarest resources took place in Caithness to highlight the ongoing problem of illegal fossil collecting. On May 23rd, there was  a ‘fossil foray’ at Skinnet Farm quarry, involving local primary school children, fossil collectors and rangers, to demonstrate good practice in gathering fossils, followed by a briefing on the subject.  The event was organised by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and includes local police wildlife liaison officers and a fossil expert from the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.  It was organised as part of the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife crime (PAW), which seeks to raise awareness on wildlife crime and to enforce wildlife conservation legislation in Britain. Partnership for Action Against Wildlife crime (PAW) is a multi-agency body including all organisations involved in wildlife law enforcement in the UK. Its main objective is to promote the enforcement of wildlife conservation legislation, particularly through supporting the networks of Police Wildlife Liaison Officers.

Scotland boasts some of the rarest and most scientifically important fossils in the world, spanning at least 800 million years of Earth history. These range from some of the earliest land plants and fish fossils to early mammal and dinosaur remains. Yet this priceless natural heritage is threatened by the irresponsible and illegal collecting and trade of rare fossils, some of which can be sold on the international market for thousands of pounds.

Fossil collecting is not illegal if permission is obtained from the landowner. There is no desire whatsoever for a blanket ban of such small-scale responsible collecting, as it is a hobby enjoyed by many people, including children and amateurs, some of whom have made remarkable new discoveries. The problem lies with those who collect irresponsibly and without permission.  Such collectors do not report their findings, and can destroy rock faces in their attempts to pick off the rarest and most valuable samples.

People collecting for financial gain have already damaged sites in Caithness, Orkney, Skye, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire through large-scale removal of fossils, using rock saws and other industrial-scale machinery. In 1992, for example, a collector used a JCB to dig up a fossil bearing rock from ‘Cheese Bay’, near North Berwick and an entire fossil-bearing ‘fish bed’ in Orkney has recently been removed by collectors. The fossil-bearing rocks at the Birk Knowes Site of Special Scientific Interest in Lanarkshire have almost been totally ‘worked out’ as a result of a German fossil collector, who had no permit to excavate the very rare and valuable fossils.  Despite negotiations by SNH with the Humboldt museum in Germany, which now holds the specimens, no agreement has yet been reached on giving back the rarest and most important fossils from the site.

Dr Colin MacFadyen, SNH Geologist said:
“Scotland is seen as a ‘soft spot’ for collectors and currently continental European and British collectors can thieve with impunity. If there is inaction to legislate for the curbing of irresponsible theft from and damage to Scotland’s vulnerable sites, we may as well hang up a big sign at the Scottish Border or at Dover saying ‘Scotland open for fossil collecting, hurry while stocks last.’ Until we have the necessary safeguard, I would urge owners of fossil localities to watch out for rock saw-yielding irresponsible collectors.”

Part of the problem of illegal fossil collection is that many of the sites are in remote locations so the thefts are only detected after the collectors have gone. In addition, many landowners are unaware of the scientific value of the fossils on their land or do not regard irresponsible collecting as a problem. As a result noone reports the crime to the police.

Inspector John Grierson, the force wildlife liaison officer at the Northern Constabulary said:
“We urgently need people to come forward and report any fossil gathering which they suspect may be carried out without permission. We are losing some of our most prized geological resources to wildlife thieves, who have no regard for protecting this important part of our natural heritage.”