Author: Nathan Akrill

The priorities of the code are twofold. First; that fossils should be recovered before they are destroyed by the very processes that expose them; landslides and storms, and second; that everyone should have access to information about what is being found.

West Dorset fossil collecting code of conduct

Consultation – Executive Summary

The West Dorset fossil collecting code of conduct (the code) was developed by a working group with representation from the conservation agencies, landowners, the scientific community, including museums and collectors and, following consultation and a trial period, was adopted in the late 1990’s. It applies to the coast between Lyme Regis and Burton Bradstock or stratigraphically, the Lower and part of the Middle Jurassic. The code has been accepted by UNESCO as appropriate management for this type of site through the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site Management Plan. The code continues to be administered through the fossil code working group.

This is an exceptional site; a rapidly eroding coastal section that is the source of internationally important fossils contained within an internationally significant geological section maintained by spectacular coastal processes; including episodic massive landslides and storms.

The priorities of the code are twofold. First; that fossils should be recovered before they are destroyed by the very processes that expose them; landslides and storms, and second; that everyone should have access to information about what is being found.

The Code then outlines responsibilities amongst collectors. Specimens of key scientific importance should be offered first to accredited museums if they are to be donated or sold. Collecting in situ is restricted and the fossils within the cliff sections may only be removed with permission from the landowner unless these are specimens (principally vertebrates and large crinoid slabs) at immediate risk of being damaged or destroyed by the sea or found by others, where these may be extracted immediately and retrospective permission sought.

The code recognises the essential and demonstrable role that collectors, notably local collectors, have always played in the recovery of fossils, from Joseph and Mary Anning some 200 years ago to those of today, who continue to make new discoveries. However, the Code review identifies a number of key issues and challenges associated with the ongoing collection of the fossils. These centre upon the following:

The numbers of specimens under public control: Less than 15% of the specimens recorded and defined as being of ‘key scientific importance’ have so far found their way into accredited museum collections.

The Coast as a science resource: Collecting effort is high along parts of the site, leading to the recovery of many common forms of fossils that are well represented in museum collections together with occasional, rare and highly significant specimens that are new to science. Despite this high collecting effort, fossils of great scientific interest are typically rescued ‘just in the nick of time’. The coast remains in ‘favourable condition’ and fossils in situ remain reserved principally for scientific study that can and does continue.

The educational parties using the Coast: Many geologists interest in the subject was sparked at a young age by a visit to this coast. The promotion of the Earth sciences to the general public is important to the long term profile of what many would say is an often overlooked subject. The coast, particularly around Charmouth and Lyme Regis, is a focus for major educational activities; several museums/heritage centres and individuals lead numerous guided walks for schools and the general public, throughout the year. This is an entirely sustainable activity in terms of the coast in that the common fossils are abundant and renewed by the natural erosion rates at work on the cliffs. This activity delivers significant economic benefits to the local area, manifested by the number of fossil shops and guided walks.

Leisure visitor collectors and their safety: A small minority of tourists do continue to clamber up and pick away at the cliffs but the scientific interest is unlikely to be damaged by such activity which also makes no significant contribution to erosion rates. The concern is much more for their safety.

Current views amongst academics of the Code: The view of the academic community to collecting is almost certainly mixed. Many we know are highly supportive of collecting while some have expressed concerns or reservations about the level of collecting effort along this coast.

A key objective of this consultation is therefore to canvass and record the full range of opinion, particularly from within the academic community. We would like you to consider the following issues. Does the site remain in good condition and are the priorities of the fossil code working group correct? Can scientific investigation be undertaken? Is it better that the specimens are recovered, even if they remain in private hands, where they may be kept, swapped, sold or donated, than to seek a more restrictive approach that essentially attempts to control the destiny of important fossils? Is co-operation preferable to coercion? It is difficult to imagine how a more restrictive approach that might lead to loss of co-operation, good will or trust with collectors, would improve the chances of important specimens, particularly vertebrates, being rescued. Is there an alternative, more effective, practical and affordable way to achieve the objectives set out in the code or alternative objectives that you have identified?

We are very keen that your views help us to take this process forward, and encourage you to examine the evidence, issues, recommendations and discussion that are contained within this consultation. We would be grateful if you could respond using the questions below, which are also available as a separate Word document (Appendix 7). Please respond by the end of September 2011. The responses will be reviewed by the Science and Conservation Advisory Group and the fossil code working group and incorporated into the review of the code where appropriate.

Question 1. Are the priorities of the code correct or flawed? In your view do the objectives that the working group adopted at the time remain valid? Need revision? Need additions?

Question 2. What are the barriers and issues relating to acquisition and how can they be overcome?

The West Dorset coast is a robust site subject to high erosion rates. Ex situ collecting effort is high but the coast remains in ‘favourable condition’ and research can be undertaken.  Question 3. Do you agree or disagree with that statement? What is the evidence to support claims of damage to the scientific interest within this site? Statements, views or opinions will be of more value if supported by evidence.

Question 4. Is there an alternative, more effective, practical and affordable way to achieve the objectives set out in the code or alternative objectives that you have identified?

Question 5. Defining scientific importance. Are the categories defining scientific importance correct and if not why not? What is missing?

Question 6: Quality of the records. Is the level of detail enough?

Question 7. Awareness of the code. Have you used the recording scheme? Are you aware of it?

Please respond either on paper or by email, using Appendix 7, to Richard Edmonds, Earth

Science Manager, Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site team c/o Environmental Services, Dorset County Council, County Hall, Dorchester DT1 1XJ.
E-mail: r.edmonds@dorsetcc.gov.uk

Access the full code here

The closing date for comments will be the end of September 2011

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