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Fossil Collecting Code

29 September 05
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) Head For A Scottish Fossil Code
Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH)  will launch new Scottish Fossil Code discussions today on the Scottish Fossil Code, which will provide guidelines on how to collect fossils in a responsible way without damaging them or the areas where they are found. The launch is part of Scottish Geology Festival and will be held at Petershill Wildlife Reserve near Bathgate, an example of a site which has experienced considerable damage from irresponsible fossil collectors using crowbars and sledgehammers. Small-scale fossil collecting is a popular hobby and amateur collectors quite often uncover rare and very important finds. But Bathgate is one of a number of important geological areas in the country, including Skye, Caithness, Ayrshire and Lesmahagow in South Lanarkshire, which is threatened by irresponsible, large-scale collecting. In some cases industrial-scale machinery has been used and some fossils are known to be illegally traded on the international market. SNH has a duty to prepare a fossil code as part of Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. The code will contain good collecting guidelines, information on activities that are likely to damage fossil resources, when fossils should not be removed from land and how fossils removed from land should be kept or otherwise treated. Dr Colin MacFadyen, SNH Geologist said: Scotland boasts some of the rarest and most scientifically important fossils in the world, from some of the earliest land plants and fossil fish to early mammal and dinosaur remains, but in some areas the fossil heritage is threatened by irresponsible collecting. Mechanical diggers, rock saws, and even explosives have all been used to collect fossils in Scotland. However, in the hands of irresponsible collectors, such equipment causes tremendous damage and can threaten to annihilate vulnerable sites and the fossils they contain.

The Scottish Fossil Code will inform the public about Scotland’s fascinating fossil heritage and about the importance and fun of fossil collecting, but crucially it will also encourage responsible collecting.” Stuart Brooks, Head of Conservation at Scottish Wildlife Trust said: “Scotland has a fascinating geological heritage, a structure that essentially shapes our natural landscape. Yet, as we have found on certain reserves, a minority of visitors have exploited the fossils, rocks and even natural landmarks found by damaging or removing parts of them. The development of a new code can only help to raise awareness of all our responsibilities in safeguarding this rich resource for the future.”

Petershill Wildlife Reserve is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest as it provides evidence of the shallow tropical seas that covered the area around 330 million years ago, including numerous giant oyster–like shells and beds of colonial coral similar to those found in the Bahamas today. Despite SSSI protection, large areas of the fossilised sea floor at the site have been removed by people using sledgehammers and crowbars. Part of the problem of illegal fossil collection is that many of the sites are in remote locations, and so often 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 few people report the crimes to the police. The Birk Knowes Site of Special Scientific Interest in Lanarkshire is an example of a remote and important fossil site, that has almost been totally ‘worked out’ as a result of a German fossil collector, who had no permit to excavate and remove the very rare and valuable fossils. Despite negotiations between SNH with the Humboldt museum in Germany, which now holds the specimens, no acknowledgement has been made that the rarest specimens acquired from the site were collected irresponsibly, and no agreement has been made to return the fossils. The fossil code will be launched at Petershill Wildlife Reserve, near Bathgate at 11AM, THURSDAY 29TH SEPTEMBER.