Information and Advisory Note Number 110 Back to menu
Scotland's fossil heritage is an important scientific,
economic, educational and leisure resource which has a wide range of users
including research scientists, students, school pupils, amateur collectors,
commercial collectors and the general public. If not properly managed,
vulnerable fossils may be damaged or lost.
This note is a distillation of years of debate on the issue of fossil collecting and the vulnerability of the fossil resource to this activity. An introduction to the nature and use of fossils is followed by sections on threats to fossils sites, types of collector, site vulnerability and definitions of the terms 'responsible' and Irresponsible' fossil collecting. The legal aspects of collecting, which are not well established, are also reviewed.
The note concludes with the consensus view of collecting, the SNH policy statement on fossil collecting and a set of measures to help protect the most vulnerable sites.
Fossils are the remains or traces of once-living animals and plants and range from microscopic pollen grains to dinosaurs. Fossils are largely restricted to sedimentary rocks that represent accumulations of sand, silt and mud laid down in ancient marine, lagoon, river and lake environments. Fossils may be found in sea cliffs and beaches, within and alongside river banks, and in quarries and road cuts, where natural erosion or human activity has exposed the layers of sedimentary rock.
The rich and diverse fossil heritage of Scotland spans at least 800 million years of Earth history. Scotland has yielded the world's oldest known vertebrate, some of the earliest amphibian and reptile remains, some of the oldest known plants, the oldest known insect, and some of the earliest mammal remains. Scotland's fossil heritage has therefore had a crucial role in evolutionary studies. It is expected that significant discoveries will continue to be made.
Of the 834 Geological Conservation Review sites in Scotland, 84 were selected specifically for their fossil fauna and flora (see Ellis et at. 1996). An additional 107 sites contain fossil-bearing rocks, selected for their stratigraphy and representing various periods in Scotland's geological history.
Fossils are of great scientific and educational value.
They provide an insight into prehistoric life and allow the reconstruction of
environmental conditions that existed millions of years ago. They enable us to
piece together past life and its evolution to the present day biota. This is the
science of palaeontology. Fossils are also crucially important for dating
rocks and comparing rock sequences regionally, nationally and internationally
(the science of stratigraphy). The role of fossils is vital in the search
for oil, gas and coal, all essential for our day to day economic well-being.
Fossils are also an essential component in educating and training students of Earth science. They also have an important role in primary and secondary education, in aiding an appreciation of biological evolution and Earth surface processes in general.
There are four principal threats to the fossil heritage:
burial, quarrying, natural erosion and collecting.
Burial - One of the primary causes of site loss in Scotland is burial through various means. The burial of sites generally takes place at inland sites through in-filling of quarries for waste-disposal. Restoration plans for quarry sites can also result in in-filling, battering, grading and planting of vegetation on fossil-bearing rock faces. At coastal locations, sea defences, coast protection works and coastal road development may involve the building of rock armour berms, gabion banks and wave-return walls.
Quarrying - The commercial quarrying of a fossil-bearing rock, a limestone for example, is an obvious threat. This threat is particularly apparent when excavation involves remote controlled machinery. In many cases the loss of rock during the lifetime of a quarry is not significant as the resource being quarried is large. However, there are situations where quarrying could lead to the loss of a fossil-bearing rock layer that has only a very limited extent. Quarrying does have its positive side as many extremely important fossil discoveries have been made in active quarries. The importance of quarrying to palaeontology is reflected in the considerable number of disused quarry Sites of Special Scientific Interest. In many instances quarrying, like natural erosion, is valuable in renewing exposures and makes available previously inaccessible rock sections. In Caithness and Moray commercial quarrying still depends on more traditional skills and less intensive use of heavy equipment. Here it is possible to discover and subsequently safeguard new fossil material.
Natural erosion - In certain areas, particularly sea and river cliffs, erosion can lead to the weathering and inevitable loss of newly exposed fossils.
Fossil Collecting - Responsible' fossil collecting (defined in Section 8 of this note) does not normally constitute a threat to the scientific interest of the majority of sites. However, there is a minority of sites that contain a fossil resource of extremely limited extent or contain very rare and scientifically valuable fossils, which are vulnerable to collecting if it is conducted 'irresponsibly' (defined in Section 8 of this note). Research scientists and curators are concerned to ensure that specimens are not removed from sites without the recording of crucial information, such as the position within the rock layer sequence in which the fossil is found. In the absence of this information the fossil is rendered useless for stratigraphical studies. In addition, large amounts of the fossil-bearing resource, and the contained fossils may be removed and destroyed in pursuit of particularly well preserved or rare fossil specimens.
There are five principal types of fossil collector: the
research scientist, student of geology, amateur collector, casual curio hunter
and commercial collector.
Research scientists collect and study fossils to facilitate the advancement of geological and evolutionary science. Fieldwork by university and college students, and to a much lesser extent school groups, can lead to the removal or destruction of fossil material in the course of rock identification and other field exercises. As a leisure activity, fossil hunting can be a rewarding experience enjoyed by amateur collectors and casual curio hunters (such as holidaymakers), motivated by the excitement in discovering a fossil of significant aesthetic appeal or rarity. Commercial collectors supply a market for fossil material among individuals, museums and some research institutions, who for various reasons are unable to collect for themselves.
There are instances where the various collector types work together for their mutual advantage. The palaeontological excavation at East Kirkton Quarry near Bathgate, where 'Lizzie' or Westlothiana (possibly the world's oldest known fossil reptile) was found, is an example of collaboration involving research scientists, museum staff and a commercial collector. The excavation resulted in a wealth of scientific information, fossil specimens for museums and financial gain for the commercial collector through the sale of fossil material.
Amateur collectors and curio hunters have been responsible for major fossil discoveries, particularly vertebrates, exemplified by dinosaurian remains on Skye. These collectors may pass on apparently rare or unusual specimens for specialist identification.
There are a variety of destinations for fossil material
following its collection or purchase. Material collected for research purposes
is generally studied and curated, then stored or displayed and is made available
for further research work. Collections made by amateur collectors or casual
curio hunters in time may end up being dispersed and dumped and therefore lost
to science. Some specimens and collections may however be donated or bequeathed
Historically, the majority of museum exhibits have been, and still continue to be either donated finds, or merchandise sold to the museum by commercial collectors. The Museums Association of the UK has a code of conduct that stipulates museums should not accept on loan, acquire, or exhibit fossil material acquired in violation of a country's laws. In theory, therefore, museums should only purchase fossils from those who have the right to transfer ownership title to the museum.
As indicated in Section 4, fossil yielding sites do not
all have the same vulnerability to the pressure of fossil collecting. Some sites
are more vulnerable to collecting pressure than others and to the differing
activities of the various types of collector.
Some sites may contain a very small and unique fossil resource. It is possible in such situations that the fossil resource may be removed entirely and lost to science. One such example is the amphibian fossil-bearing Cheese Bay 'Shrimp Bed' near North Berwick, half of which was removed illegally in a matter of hours by a collector using a mechanical digger. Sites that contain an abundance of common fossils and appear to be under no threat, for example on the Skye coastline, may also yield a few exceedingly rare fossils, such as dinosaur bones, the irresponsible removal of which would be scientifically damaging.
Three categories of site vulnerability may be defined as follows:
Robust - Sites where either the fossil resource, including material of high scientific value, is extensive and the fossils very common, or the fossils are rare, difficult to collect, unspectacular and perhaps poorly preserved. Also sites that are inaccessible through the occurrence of a physical barrier.
Vulnerable - Sites where the fossil-bearing resource is either substantial or of unknown extent, and the fossils are generally well preserved, with some of them having considerable scientific value, aesthetic appeal and/or commercial worth.
Very vulnerable - Sites where there is a very small fossil-bearing resource, that could in theory be totally removed in hours using appropriate equipment, and/or where fossils of the highest scientific value are to be found that could be targeted by collectors.
Site vulnerability categorisation may change over time following quarrying and other activities such as resource evaluation, research excavation and the discovery of new fossil material.
The responsible fossil collector seeks permission
to access and collect from sites. Only a few representative samples from in
situ, loose and fallen rocks are taken, with details of the location and
position within the rock layer sequence being recorded. Specialist advice is
sought upon the discovery of apparently rare and scientifically important
specimens. Collected material is carefully labelled and housed. The responsible
collector therefore adheres to the code of practice outlined in Section 11.2.
In most circumstances, responsible fossil collecting is not harmful to the conservation of fossil sites. It can actually benefit our understanding of geology. This is particularly true where the fossils are relatively common or the sites in which they are found are subject to high levels of natural or artificial degradation, such as coastal cliffs that are being eroded or quarries that are being actively worked. In such situations collecting fossil specimens, that might otherwise be destroyed, can be beneficial to science, provided that they are properly documented and made available for study. Responsible fossil collecting can therefore be a valuable activity in the sustainable management and safeguard of our fossil heritage.
The irresponsible fossil collector tends not to seek access and collecting permission from landowners. In pursuit of rare, perfect and aesthetically pleasing specimens, large amounts of rock may be removed and other fossils are destroyed. Location and other valuable information may not be recorded and specimens tend to end up being lost to science through their use as unlabelled ornaments.
Irresponsible collecting provides no scientific or educational gain and is therefore an unacceptable activity which may result in irreparable damage to our fossil heritage. It will pose a clear threat where fossils are rare or the fossil source is limited in extent, for example in a cave or a river channel deposit. Collecting without proper recording and curation, inexpert collecting, over-collecting and inappropriate use of power tools and heavy machinery are likely to reduce or even destroy the scientific value of such sites.
There is no legislation specifically designed with fossils
or fossil collecting in mind. There are, however, a number of areas of Civil and
Criminal Law which may apply to people visiting land for the purpose of
collecting and removing objects (including fossils). There has been one instance
in Scotland of a prosecution having been pursued and a conviction secured.
There is also a range of statutory legal obligations which relate to Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and National Nature Reserves (NNRs) notified under the terms of National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949) and the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). The latter allows for the specification of a list of Potentially Damaging Operations (PDOs). These can include:
PDO 25 - Removal of geological specimens, including rock
samples, minerals or fossils.
PDO 27 - Recreational or other activities likely to damage (specified) features of interest.
The onus is upon the owner/occupier to prevent such damaging activities, or notify SNH if such are likely to occur. However, SSSI designation does not protect a site from a 3rd party carrying out a PDO unbeknown to the owner/occupier.
Precedent appears to indicate that fossils tend to be treated as "minerals" for the purposes of the Law. Ownership of fossils lies with the person who owns the mineral rights to the land on which the fossil is found. It should be noted that the owner, occupier and person holding the mineral rights may, in some instances, all be different.
Providing legitimate ownership is established, it is permissible to sell and export fossils from the UK. There is currently a lack of controls applicable to the export of Earth science materials. This contrasts with the ability to prevent the export of manufactured materials (works of art etc.) through the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art. At present there is trans-national inconsistency with regard to legislation governing the fossil trade.
Over the last 20 years the subject of fossil collecting,
and in particular the role of commercial and non-commercial fossil collectors,
has been the subject of lively debate. There have been claims that geological
sites were being destroyed by indiscriminate hammering or over-collection. This
culminated in a meeting in London in 1987 on The use and conservation of
palaeontological sites', organised by the Palaeontological Association and
sponsored by the Nature Conservancy Council among others. The debate then and
subsequently, has led to the following key consensus points regarding the fossil
resource and fossil collecting.
• Responsible fossil collecting should be encouraged, as this activity in the long term will promote the science of palaeontology.
• There is no justification for the total prohibition of collecting at any site. However, there are a small number of sites where fossil collecting needs to be regulated and monitored, because the resource is limited and/or its scientific and heritage value is high.
• Commercial collecting is not necessarily wrong. Commercial collectors should be encouraged to work with palaeontological specialists and museum curators so that every possible opportunity is taken to systematise their collecting and guarantee that material goes to a suitable repository.
• Many fossils are more valuable out of the rock than in situ, provided they are properly housed, curated and made available for use in a suitable museum. Fossils exposed at outcrop will ultimately be lost through erosion.
In 1997 the JNCC produced a fossil policy statement intended for public information. The statement consists of two parts as set out below and is aimed at conservation of the fossil resource as a whole and not just areas that have statutory designation. SNH has adopted this policy.
11.2 Code of good practice
Adopting a responsible approach to collecting is essential for conserving our fossil heritage. The basic principles set out below should be followed by ail those intending to collect fossils.
Access and ownership - permission to enter private land and collect fossils must always be gained and local bylaws should be obeyed. A clear agreement should be made over the future ownership of any fossils collected.
Collecting - in general, collect only a few representative specimens and obtain these from fallen or loose material. Detailed scientific study will require collection of fossils in situ.
Site management - avoid disturbance to wildlife. Many invertebrates and lower plants live on or under loose rocks that should be replaced in their original positions whenever possible. Do not leave the site in an untidy or dangerous condition for those who follow.
Recording and curation - always record precisely the locality at which fossils are found and, if collected in situ, record relevant details of the position of the rock layer from where the fossil was collected. Ensure that these records can be directly related to the relevant specimens. Where necessary, seek specialist advice on specimen identification and care. Fossils of prime scientific importance should be placed in a suitable repository, normally a museum with specialist staff and adequate curatorial and storage facilities.
Scottish Natural Heritage will oppose fossil collecting on the small number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest where this activity would cause significant damage to the features of special interest.
11.3 Achieving positive management
In order to achieve the successful management of Scotland's fossil heritage, SNH will:
• Promote the responsible approach outlined above in the Code of Good Practice.
• Encourage the placement of scientifically important fossils into a suitable repository (such as a registered museum) in order to ensure their proper curation, long-term security and accessibility.
• Recognise the contribution that responsible fossil collectors can make to geological and palaeontological study.
• Encourage collaboration within the geological community to ensure that maximum educational and scientific gain is made from our fossil resource.
• Support and encourage initiatives that increase awareness and understanding of the value of our fossil resource and the need to conserve it.
• Increase awareness and understanding of the differing management needs of fossil sites. In particular, encourage landowners and occupiers to become advocates for conservation of the fossil resource.
• Through the JNCC review the need for export and import controls on the international trade in fossil specimens.
In October 1995, SNH convened a meeting of research
scientists, curators, collectors and conservationists in Lanark to discuss the
threat posed by irresponsible collectors to the most vulnerable of Scotland's
fossil sites. The meeting took place in view of ongoing scientifically damaging
collector activity at some Scottish sites and the desire among those taking part
to prevent or at least control the problem. Birk Knowes Site of Special
Scientific Interest near Lesmahagow formed the basis for much of the debate. In
lieu of constant site policing which is quite impracticable, a series of six
measures for protecting the most vulnerable sites in the country was agreed
On site signs - To inform people of the scientific interest of the site and the threat posed by collecting (to counteract collector claims of ignorance of the site's special interest).
Landowner and community awareness - Raise awareness and understanding of the site's significance with the owner and local community (to help keep a watchful eye on the site).
Voluntary wardens - Encourage local natural heritage enthusiasts to visit the site (thereby providing a level of informal site surveillance).
Permitted amateur collecting - Allow amateurs to collect under the auspices of an institution (to provide an additional site surveillance and perhaps monitoring function).
Physical protection and resource removal - In extreme situations a fossil resource may be protected by a fence, buried, or removed entirely to safeguard the scientific interest.
Advertise site protection measures - Make public site protection measures in geological articles (to ward off potential collector threat).
One or more of the measures may be used depending on the requirements of each individual site.
Clarkson, E.N.K.. 1985. A brief history of Scottish
palaeontology. Scottish Journal of Geology, S21,389-406.
Ellis, N.V. (ed), era/. 1996. An Introduction to the Geological Conservation Review. GCR Series No.1. Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, 131 pp.
English Nature 1992. Collection and ownership of fossils. Unpublished guide, issued as a ring bound booklet by Earth Science Branch, English Nature.
Joint Nature Conservation Committee 1997. Conserving Our Fossil Heritage. Position Statement issued as a leaflet by JNCC, Peterborough.
Foster, M.W.C. (in press). An overview of fossil collecting with particular reference to Scotland. SNH Research, Survey and Monitoring Report No. 115.
Norman, D.B. 1992. Fossil collecting and site conservation in Britain: are they reconcilable? Palaeontology, 35, 247-256.
Wimbledon, W.A. 1988. Palaeontological site conservation in Britain: facts, form, function, and efficacy. In Crowther, P.R. & Wimbledon, W.A. (eds.). The use and conservation of palaeontological sites. Special Papers in Palaeontology, 40, 41-55.
Colin C J MacFadyen
Earth Science Group Advisory Services
Scottish Natural Heritage
2 Anderson Place
Tel: 0131-447 4784
Fax: 0131-446 2405
Back to menu