Fossil collecting

Scelidosaurus, the Charmouth dinosaur. This is probably the finest dinosaur found in Britain but it was recovered in pieces from a landslide largely over a four month period thanks to the dedication of just one local collector.Scelidosaurus, the Charmouth dinosaur. This is probably the finest dinosaur found in Britain but it was recovered in pieces from a landslide largely over a four month period thanks to the dedication of just one local collector.Charmouth storm March 2008Charmouth storm March 2008A handful of pyratised ammonites picked of Stonebarrow Beach following the stormA handful of pyratised ammonites picked of Stonebarrow Beach following the stormDamage to a large ammonite, Tar Rocks, Portland. Someone has put a chisel to the edge of an ammonite and broken it off. The effect will last for many years as this is a site only slowly replenished by erosion.Damage to a large ammonite, Tar Rocks, Portland. Someone has put a chisel to the edge of an ammonite and broken it off. The effect will last for many years as this is a site only slowly replenished by erosion.Kevan Sheehan with the huge pliosaur skull that he patiently rescued over a five year period. The beast is on display in the Dorset County Museum.Kevan Sheehan with the huge pliosaur skull that he patiently rescued over a five year period. The beast is on display in the Dorset County Museum.The primary objective for the World Heritage Site in terms of the management of the fossil interest is to provide the most effective mechanism for the recovery of fossils of great scientific value that are constantly at risk of damage or destruction by the sea. We believe that collectors with open access to the site and acting under the guidance of responsible collecting offer the best way to achieve that aim. In addition, we want to see the coast used as a place to inspire and engage people in geology and fossils through, where it is sustainable, the collection of fossils. Ultimately, this is a site where collecting can take place in many, but not all areas, but that must be at a level which does not compromise the scientific integrity of site, indeed, it should complement it.

Fossil collecting and fossil collectors are an essential part in the management of the Jurassic Coast for the simple fact that if the fossils are not collected, they will be destroyed by the very process that expose them; the sea. For that reason people are allowed to collect in many (but not all) parts of the World Heritage Site.

That said, it is important that people collect responsibly and at rates that are appropriate to the varying parts of the site. Soft cliffs erode very rapidly and therefore the fossils are both refreshed quickly and at imminent risk of being washed away. Here collecting is an essential part in the management of the site as collectors provide the best chance of specimens new to science being rescued.

Slowly eroding sites are a different mater entirely. Here, irresponsible collecting can leave its mark for decades because the cliffs are not refreshed by erosion.

The Jurassic Coast team, along with Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee has developed 'A site based approach to the management of fossil sites' as informal guidance on the effective management of fossil localities based on their sensitivity. The paper is unpublished as yet but available at: Geoconservation website.

There are both common sense guidance and rules and restrictions on the collection of fossils.

The broad approach to collecting on this coast is that of 'responsible collecting'. People can collect but that must be appropriate to the locality. Guidance follows below on good practice.

Natural England and the World Heritage Site team make no attempt to overtly control what happens to the fossils recovered due to the efforts of collectors. This is an open, eroding coastline, 155 km in length with open access for all. It would be impossible to enforce rules or regulations on what is being found or to attempt to police the site.

We advocate a climate of cooperation over coercion based on mutual respect and a recognition of the very considerable efforts made by collectors in recovering fossils from almost certain destruction. Over the last 200 years, from the days of Mary Anning onwards, collectors have, and continue to demonstrate their contribution to the palaeontological interests of the site.

There is no better way to manage this type of site. Restriction without enforcement would, at best, lead to the clandestine recovery of fossils which we would have no idea were being found, and at worse, lead to the unquantifiable loss of countless rare and scientifically important specimens to the sea.

One of the best examples of this is the Weymouth Bay pliosaur skull found over the course of five years almost entirely by one collector who, upon finding the first bones in 2003, returned to the site every day when the weather could uncover more, and as a result of that, recovered the specimen almost completely (three other small pieces were found by two other collectors and reunited with the specimen, while two pieces were lost).

Ownership of fossils can be complicated. The current interpretation of UK law is that fossils that fall out of the cliff (i.e. ex situ) may be regarded as having been abandoned by the landowner unless that landowner clearly states a desire to retain all fossils on their land. Fossils that are in situ clearly belong to the landowner, or possibly the mineral owner. Of course, one complication is that a fossil can fall from the land owned by one individual onto that owned by another while each may have a different view to that ownership. In West Dorset, under the fossil code, the principal landowners have stated that they retain ownership of all fossils on their land but are prepared to pass that ownership to those collectors who follow the code of conduct operating in that area. See the full code for details.

Kimmeridge Bay. Hammering is not allowed along this part of the coast but you do not need a hammer to appreciate the fossils as most are crushed impressions that are almost impossible to collect.Kimmeridge Bay. Hammering is not allowed along this part of the coast but you do not need a hammer to appreciate the fossils as most are crushed impressions that are almost impossible to collect. Ammonites such as this are impossible to extract and attempts to do so only lead to their destruction. Kimmeridge is a place to look at fossils rather than collect them.Ammonites such as this are impossible to extract and attempts to do so only lead to their destruction. Kimmeridge is a place to look at fossils rather than collect them.

Along some parts of the coast there are restrictions on the use of hammers; notably along the Kimmeridge coast and within the Army Ranges. Indeed here, the use of hammers and digging in situ is forbidden without prior permission from the landowner. But at Kimmeridge, you do not need a hammer to appreciate the fossils as nearly all are crushed and crumbly. Kimmeridge is not a good place to collect unless you are prepared to spend very many hours patiently searching in all weathers.

The West Dorset coast is subject to a fossil collecting code of conduct. The beaches are rich with fossils, especially after rough weather and this is a place where people can collect.The West Dorset coast is subject to a fossil collecting code of conduct. The beaches are rich with fossils, especially after rough weather and this is a place where people can collect.

The coast between Burton Bradstock and Lyme Regis is subject to a voluntary code of conduct. Here collectors are required not to dig in situ without permission (although fossils at immediate risk of damage or destruction can be excavated), to record the fossils that they find and to offer those fossils of key scientific interest to accredited museums should they be sold or donated.

Details of the code can be found at:

http://www.charmouth.org/chcc/rocks-fossils/fossil-code/fossil-code-cat-1?view=gallery&id=21

And:

http://www.charmouth.org/chcc/rocks-fossils/fossil-code/fossil-code-cat2?view=gallery&id=22

The West Dorset code is currently subject to review. The consultation paper can be downloaded here

west_dorset_fossil_code_review.pdf196.96 KB

appendix_1__all_specimens.pdf140.84 KB

appendix_2_reclassification_and_de_classification_of_specimens.pdf21.87 KB

appendix_3_category_1_specimens.pdf45.05 KB

appendix_4_specimens_purchased_by_collecting_cultures.pdf29.16 KB

appendix_5_defining_scientific_importance.pdf19.64 KB

appendix_6._consultation_list_final.pdf23.33 KB

appendix_7_questionnaire.doc57.5 KB

appendix_8._plates.pdf2.41 MB

appendix_9_issues_and_recommendations_identified.pdf80.26 KB

and the results of the consultation will be made available later this year.

Within the Undercliffs National Nature Reserve west of Lyme Regis permission is required to collect fossils for sale, though this has never been applied in practice. The increasing concern along Monmouth Beach is the indiscriminate use of hammers by ill informed tourists and the apparent decline in the quality and number of large ammonites on the beach. Currently collectors are requested not to collect the large ammonites. Some damage has been observed in the Ammonite Pavement; this is stupid, reckless and ill informed collecting. It should be obvious to anyone that attempting to extract these ammonites is very difficult and will lead to a decline in the quality of this iconic feature of the coast. Should such irresponsible actions lead to a hammering ban for all? It is reluctantly being considered as an option but as with any prescriptive approach on this open site, difficult to enforce and complicated when weighed against the benefits delivered by responsible collecting, which can require the use of a hammer.

Monmouth Beach, west of Lyme, is famous for its large ammonites but there appears to have been a decline in recent years, probably due to ill informed ‘tourist’ collecting.Monmouth Beach, west of Lyme, is famous for its large ammonites but there appears to have been a decline in recent years, probably due to ill informed ‘tourist’ collecting. Ammonite in the ‘Ammonite Pavement’ on Monmouth Beach. There are chisel marks around the edge.Ammonite in the ‘Ammonite Pavement’ on Monmouth Beach. There are chisel marks around the edge.


Ammonite in the ‘Ammonite Pavement’ that has been broken by trying to extract it.Ammonite in the ‘Ammonite Pavement’ that has been broken by trying to extract it.



At Budleigh Salterton there is a by law banning the removal of pebbles from the beach. This is in response to a previous permission that allowed pebbles to be extracted commercially but it was recognised some time ago that the practice was unsustainable.