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West Dorset Fossil Collecting Code

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Image: Charmouth October 2006. The West Dorset coast is an ‘exposure site’ of the most extreme, being subject to massive landslides and rock falls that are rapidly washed away by the sea.

Richard Edmonds* reports on the recent review of a code of conduct first adopted in the 1990s

Geoscientist Online Special 22.06 July 2012

The West Dorset Fossil Collecting Code, adopted in the late 1990s, aims to provide a practical and affordable means of managing collecting within this part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site involving all those with an interest; landowners, conservation agencies, researchers, museums and collectors. A primary purpose is to provide the very best chance for scientifically important fossils to be recovered and recorded rather than destroyed by the sea on this dynamic and rapidly eroding coastline. 

The Code has recently been reviewed through a consultation with various stakeholders. As a result of the strong balance of positive endorsements of the Code received, it will remain in operation without fundamental amendment. A plan to improve the implementation of the Code will be drawn up based on the suggestions made by respondents.

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Background to the consultation

Image: Dapedium partially destroyed by the large swell wave event of the 16th December 2011, which uncovered it. Monmouth Beach, Iron ledge Shales, Angulata Zone late Hettangian. Monmouth Beach lies outside the fossil code area, hence no record number but as an identifiable fish from a known horizon, it would be recorded as a category 2 specimen if it were in the code area.

The West Dorset Fossil Collecting Code of Conduct (the Code) was developed by a working group with representation from the UK national conservation agencies, landowners, the scientific community including museums, and collectors and following consultation and a trial period, was adopted in the late 1990s. It applies to the coast between Lyme Regis and Burton Bradstock or stratigraphically, the Lower and part of the Middle Jurassic. A review of the Code was started in June 2010 with the publication of a consultation paper. The responses to that consultation have been considered by the Jurassic Coast Science and Conservation Advisory Group (SCAG) and the West Dorset Fossil Code Working Group and this document now summarises our discussion of the issues raised and explains the actions that we propose to take.

This was a consultation open to all and the original consultation documents can be found on the Jurassic Coast web site 

The full responses to the consultation will also be placed on this web site. NOTE: this address may change with the revision of the web site.  The full code can be accessed here 

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Responses from the consultation

We only received 32 responses. The consultation went to at least 130 individuals directly and was also widely circulated through newsletters and networks. There were also requests to forward the consultation through societies, associations, networks and every university department in the UK with an earth science faculty.

Images above and below: Close up views of parts of an as yet unidentified fish, possibly a condrostian, found by three different collectors from the Spittles landslide in the autumn of 2011. No one has seen anything like it from the Lower Jurassic in this area. Despite the local collecting effort, several blocks have probably been lost to the sea or possibly remain to be washed out of the landslide.

The response was disappointingly small but 28 of the respondents were either completely supportive of the Code or supportive with comments for improvement. The operation of certain elements the code, notably the quality of the records, attracted considerable criticism. The remaining four respondents expressed more serious concerns and made a number of suggestions for the modification of the Code and the overall management approach. Considerable parts of three of these four responses used identical wording.

We believe that it would be reasonable to assume that the vast majority of people consulted but who did not respond do not hold concerns about the Code or the condition of the West Dorset coast for the simple reason that if they did, they would be more motivated to respond.

The consultation centred around seven basic questions about our approach, site condition, barriers to acquisition, alternative approaches and the accessibility of the information about what is being found. It would be impossible to attempt to summarise the full range of responses and our consideration of them but that has been done and is available on the Jurassic Coast web site.

The key issue regarding the best management approach for the West Dorset coast is that this is a rapidly eroding coastline with a rich store of fossils that are quite clearly at risk of destruction from the very processes that expose them. Over the last 200 years collectors, both amateur and professional, have demonstrated their value by rescuing specimens that now reside within accredited museum collections and that ‘tradition’ continues today. There is no way to effectively police the beaches or provide the required collecting effort that is so evidently needed; despite high collecting effort the fossils of most importance are rescued ‘just in the nick of time’ as they can only be found once they start to be uncovered by erosion.

The main criticism of the code is a suggestion that it lies outside ‘international thinking’ on best practice in geoconservation. The Code was endorsed by UNESCO as part of the Management Plan for the original nomination and inscription of the Jurassic Coast as a World Heritage Site in 2001. The Jurassic Coast Management Plan has subsequently been revised in 2010 and again endorsed by the UK Government and UNESCO as an effective way of managing this type of site which includes the management of fossil collecting. Some of the concern centres around ‘loss’ and here we draw attention to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (UNESCO) that includes: ‘Considering that deterioration or disappearance of any item of the cultural or natural heritage constitutes a harmful impoverishment of the heritage of all the nations of the world,…..’. The priority on our coast must be to protect the fossils from deterioration or disappearance (total loss) to the sea. Collectors, with open access to the coast are, and always have been, the mechanism that best achieves that. The full response also considers the Council of Europe recommendations on the conservation of geological heritage and recent, supportive guidance published by European ProGEO which is recognising that sites vary in their sensitivity to collecting.

Dorset 4.jpgIn our view, site sensitivity is the leading consideration when attempting to identify the most effective management of palaeontological sites. It should hardly need to be said that the management of an open, eroding coastline would be different from that of a working quarry or excavation, a disused quarry, an inland outcrop, a disused mine dump or a cave deposit. Each of these sites varies enormously in terms of their sensitivity to collecting. An open coast requires collecting effort in order to rescue specimens while a cave deposit will be destroyed for ever by irresponsible collecting. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the identification of effective management strategies for fossil sites. Identifying the best management approach is the subject of an as yet unpublished paper; ‘A site based approach to the sustainable management of palaeontological sites’ by Edmonds, Larwood and Weighell, available at: The approach developed here is central to Natural England’s new guidance on the management of geological specimen collecting.

We do not claim that the West Dorset Fossil Collecting Code is perfect but we do feel that it is the most practical and effective way to manage a site such as this. It aims to provide the very best chance for scientifically important fossils to be recovered and recorded rather than destroyed on this dynamic and rapidly eroding coastline. Many involved in this consultation recognise the complex nature of the site and the pragmatic approach that needs to be taken. This is indeed a unique World Heritage Site and the management reflects that. We intend to continue dialogue and discussion around many of the observations, suggestions and issues that have been raised and will now draw up an action plan and implement it in order to improve the Code for the future. Some elements are relatively easy to deliver, such as an on line database for the records of what is being found, while others are rather more complicated and involve a number of interest groups, organisations and even national policy makers.

We would like to thank all those who contributed to the consultation and welcome positive engagement in the future.

* Richard Edmonds is Earth Science Manager, Jurassic Coast Team, writing on behalf of the Science and Conservation Advisory Group, West Dorset Fossil Code Group and World Heritage Site Steering Group.