Fossil thieves use diggers and dynamite to wreck sites

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The Independent Online

Fossil hunters determined to get their hands on stones worth tens of thousands of pounds are using power tools and dynamite to blast them from their ancient resting places, a leading conservationist group warned yesterday.

Fossil hunters determined to get their hands on stones worth tens of thousands of pounds are using power tools and dynamite to blast them from their ancient resting places, a leading conservationist group warned yesterday.

Throughout Britain a boom in collecting fossils has turned the one-time passion of amateurs into big business for commercial collectors willing to go to any lengths to secure a rare specimen.

In England areas such as Dorset and the south coast, which have drawn fossil hunters since Victorian times, the operations of unscrupulous collectors have already been curbed by tighter controls and a code of conduct. But in the more remote areas of Britain criminal activities are harder to detect.

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.

A boom in the black market across the world for "natural history objects" has led to areas such as Cheese Bay in North Berwick being destroyed by irresponsible commercial collectors using mechanical diggers and industrial equipment to plunder the natural heritage. Jonathan Larwood, senior palaeontologist with English Nature, said: "There are problems with fossil collecting in England but not on the same destructive scale that occurs in Scotland.

"A lot of the sites with important fossils in Scotland are very remote and difficult to manage while in England if there are incidents of problematic collecting they tend to be discovered very quickly."

The growing demand for anything ranging from tiny fossilised fish to entire dinosaur skeletons has created a multi-million pound black-market business that has encouraged unscrupulous collectors to look to more secluded sites. Last year the market in fossils was estimated at more than £50m and growing.

There are fears that illegally gathered fossils will be lost for good as they are hoarded by collectors and yesterday the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime, which involves the police and wildlife conservation bodies, launched a campaign in Scotland to fight fossil hunters who break the law.

Although fossil collecting is not illegal north of the border if permission is obtained from the landowner, irresponsible hunters can ruin entire areas of scientific interest in their bid to secure rare specimens.

A spokesman for Scottish Natural Heritage, one of the main agencies behind the crackdown, said: "People collecting for financial gain have already damaged sites in Caithness, Orkney, Skye, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire through large-scale removal of fossils, using rock saws and other industrial-scale machinery.

"The fossil-bearing rocks at the Birk Knowes Site of Special Scientific Interest in Lanarkshire have almost been totally 'worked out' as a result of a German fossil collector, who had no permit to excavate the very rare and valuable fossils."

Even when the surrounding areas are not destroyed, illegal fossil hunters rarely record the exact location or the "death position" of their finds, information which is priceless to palaeontologists, because they fear competition from other collectors.

Part of the problem of illegal fossil collection is that many of the sites are in remote locations so any disturbance of the area is only detected after the collectors have gone.

In addition, many landowners are unaware of the scientific value of the fossils on their land or do not regard irresponsible collecting as a problem. As a result nobody reports the crime to the police. But the authorities are reluctant to see any blanket ban imposed on small-scale res- ponsible collecting which they recognise is a hobby enjoyed by many people, including children and amateurs, some of whom have made remarkable new discoveries.

Inspector John Grierson, the wildlife liaison officer with the Northern Constabulary, said: "We urgently need people to come forward and report any fossil gathering which they suspect may be carried out without permission."

His force covers nearly one-sixth of Britain's landmass and the area has many fossil-rich sites.

"We are losing some of our most prized geological resources to wildlife thieves, who have no regard for protecting this important part of our natural heritage," he said.

Illegal collections

Archaeological sites

Illegal metal detecting on important archaeological sites is rife. Since 1988 about 200 ancient monuments have been raided, some of them many times, with very few people caught. Most raids take place at night as gangs attempt to cash in on the growing demand for antique collectibles.

Flowers

One group of criminals is just as likely to know the Latin name for a rare snowdrop bulb as they are to understand the mechanism of trafficking illegal booze or tobacco. The growth in gardening as a hobby has resulted in a boom in thefts across the country to feed black market demand worth an estimated £2bn a year in wild flower colonies.

Rocks and stones

The craze for water features and rock gardens inspired by television shows has resulted in many beaches being stripped of pebbles and sand, particularly in the south of the country, causing havoc with sea defences. In some cases local councils have been forced to buy in replacement shingle to protect vulnerablecoastal areas from erosion.

Birds eggs

Although there is only a limited market in birds' eggs or any international smuggling ring there is still a hardcore of collectors willing to break the law. Despite facing a fine of up to £5,000 in Scotland, or even a prison sentence south of the border, collectors are willing to risk their liberty for a chance to own a rare egg which is often worth only a few pounds.

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