And because of these closures, the search for fossils has increased the focus on the already heavily pressured coastal venues. The Jurassic Coast, the Isle of Wight, the cliffs around Whitby and other similar sites have been under the most intense scrutiny in recent years and the pressure is unabating now as more and more collectors descend on the unprotected cliffs and beds.
It is a fact that during the winter, and especially during storms and scouring tides, the competition is at its fiercest and most intense. Indeed, the Isle of Wight has been described to me as “unbelievable” during stormy conditions as an army of lamps and torches turn the cliffs into something akin to a Christmas tree covered by fairy lights – and at 2 o’clock in the morning as well!
How much material of scientific importance has been lost forever? Of course, there are many ethical collectors out there, both professional and amateur and they have made significant contributions to our science. They are not the problem – it is those without any moral obligations that are plundering the sites, collecting for themselves or, as is more and more common these days, collecting to order for clients who are willing to pay a small fortune for a complete ichthyosaur or a partial iguanodontid.
So what is to be done? Can anything actually be done? Well perhaps we can learn a lesson from the United States and use their experience and ideas over here. Early in 2009, the Palaeontological Resources Preservation Act (PRPA) was passed by the House of Representatives and signed by Barack Obama to become law. The PRPA actually consolidated existing practices within the USA by simply making them legally binding, thus enabling the courts to prosecute and sentence those who broke these laws.
It is worth describing the main features of the PRPA before we look at the possibility of utilising some or all of it here in the UK. The main features are:
1) That fossils are a unique and non-renewable resource that provides clues to the Earth’s history and ultimately its future. Very important point this – “non-renewable” – so many people forget this. When they are gone, they are gone forever.
2) Fossils can still be collected from public land but these can only be invertebrate and plant fossils. A reasonable quantity can be taken but they cannot be traded, bartered or sold to anyone else.
3) However, it is forbidden for ANY vertebrate fossils to be removed from public land regardless of whether they are for personal use or to be sold. A permit must be obtained before vertebrate fossils can be collected and these are nearly always issued to professional palaeontologists and they, in turn, must deposit their finds into a professional repository such as a museum or university.
There are other things on the bill but those items listed are the fundamental principles. Interestingly, fossils collected from private lands are not affected, provided you have permission from the landowner – so the commercials and some private traders appear unaffected. And, it must be repeated, that the public can still collect some fossils from public land, provided that it is done sensibly and does not involve the physical alteration of the surrounding rocks to remove the fossils. Surface collecting is the norm.
There have been objections to the bill but these appear to be unjustified and now that the PRPA has settled down, it appears to be working well (I am happy to be corrected here if you know different). The USA has vast palaeontological reserves and these include some of the richest dinosaur hunting grounds in the world and it makes sense to protect them. The UK, on the other hand, is a very small country by comparison and has extremely limited exposures available for research and the collection of vertebrate fossils.
So can the UK implement its own PRPA? Firstly, there are already some initiatives in place but these have only met with limited success. Without the force of the law behind them, people ignore these initiatives and collect. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) offer some protection and have some legal powers but these appear to be seldom enforced and despite the fact that UNESCO declared the Jurassic Coast a world heritage site, it remains constantly scoured for its treasures.
|The south west side of the Isle of Wight - still free to plunder.|
No, the protection is needed for the more exceptional specimens such as partial and complete skeletons, complete skulls, other associated elements, track ways and other similar fossils. For me it needs to be illegal to remove these specimens without a permit and the proper permission but perhaps, unlike the American system it could be allowed that some non-professional collectors could be licensed because some of them have made fantastic contributions to science over the years. However I would quantify this by agreeing with the PRPA and would insist that all specimens must be deposited into a professional repository.
There will always be the problem of how would we would know when a significant specimen had been removed? Well apart from the physical clues one would hope the public would notify the authorities if they saw something suspicious. And the local collectors aren’t daft – they would know when something is amiss. Someone will always tell someone what they found and excavated – they always do and this will get back to others in the paleoworld. That is why we know that there are so many important specimens in private hands, not just here but all over the world.
I appreciate that a law of this nature can affect a lot of decent avocational palaeontologists out there, people who do have extensive collections and will actually leave their collections to museums, universities and the nation for the benefit of science. It is unfortunate that it could come to this and I would include myself in your number but what is the alternative?
The United States has considerable palaeontological resources – some relatively untouched. They are bigger and so much richer with the amounts of remains in some bone beds defying imagination. The Americans have done something about it and moved to protect them. The UK has little in comparison but is equally as important – and done nothing.
Please accept this post for what it is - to promote healthy discussion. It is not intended to offend any well meaning amateur collector or palaeontologist. I simply believe that perhaps it is time for some form of legislation to protect out dwindling fossil resources – before it’s too late.