Unscrupulous fossil hunters are destroying some of the world's most valuable and important scientific sites by using power tools and even dynamite to plunder collectable specimens worth thousands of pounds.
Now conservationists have put together the world's first code of conduct in an attempt to put an end to the destruction.
Across the UK, fossil collecting has become fashionable, and the one-time passion of amateur collectors has turned into a multi-million-pound business, prompting unscrupulous hunters to go to almost any lengths to secure a rare specimen.
According to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) many internationally important sites in Skye, Caithness, Ayrshire and Lesmahagow in south Lanarkshire have already been seriously damaged by the plundering of hunters.
Scotland boasts some of the rarest and most scientifically important fossils in the world, spanning at least 800 million years and ranging from some of the earliest land plants and fish fossils to mammal and dinosaur remains.
With a global trade in "natural history objects", for anything from tiny fossilised fish to large dinosaur skeletons, the black-market business is estimated to be worth more than £50m a year and growing.
As a result, illegal fossil hunters are damaging scientifically important sites and rarely, if ever, record vital information such as the exact location of their finds because they fear competition from other collectors.
The problem of illegal collecting is especially bad in Scotland because many of the sites are in remote locations so disturbance of the area is only detected after the collectors have gone.
"The Scottish Fossil Code will inform the public about Scotland's fascinating fossil heritage and the importance and fun of fossil collecting," says Dr Colin Galbraith, SNH director of policy and advice, "but, crucially, it will also encourage the responsible collecting and care of fossils."
The draft code, which is open to public consultation until 7 September and has been produced with the help of fossil collectors, landowners, palaeontological researchers and others with an interest in Scotland's fossil heritage, aims to establish a nationally agreed framework of advice on best practice in the collection, identification, conservation and storage of specimens.
A shore way to Jurassic treasure
Gerald McSorley holds up a Jurassic fossil, found using legitimate methods, which shows four perfectly preserved vertebrae, complete with spinal cord and blood vessels. The fossil, the remains of a plesiosaur, was found on the shores of Loch Ness in 2003. The most expensive fossilised skeleton sold in the UK, also a plesiosaur, fetched more than £35,000 two years later at an auction in London.Reuse content