Somerset beach damaged by ‘irresponsible’ fossil hunters

Cut rocks on Doniford Beach
Image caption,The fossil hunters used angle grinders and rock saws to extract fossils

By Bea Swallow & Matt Faulkner & Cheryl Dennis

BBC News in Watchet

Fossil collectors have been using angle grinders and rock saws to excavate large ammonites from a protected beach.

Geologists in Watchet, Somerset, are asking people to be more responsible when gathering fossils from the bedrock at Doniford beach.

The marine fossils found embedded in the cliff and bedrock are estimated to be around 197 million years old.

This section of coastline is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and is protected by law.

Doniford Bay is well known as a marine fossil hot spot and is widely advertised as such on social media, fossil collecting websites, and in various geological publications.

On 14 November a Somerset Council employee alerted police to two men reportedly trying to use an angle grinder to remove fossils from the rocks.

When officers attended they found two French nationals who admitted they were fossil hunters, but said they were unaware of the prohibition and hadn’t seen any signage.

An Ammonite in rock at Helwell Bay
Image caption,Ammonite fossils were once marine animals related to today’s squid and octopus

Dr Andy King, geologist with ecological consultant company, Geckoella, said fossil hunters are welcome to explore the site, but emphasised that hammering into the bedrock is not permitted.

“Its fine to take anything loose from the beach. If you didn’t, it would just get washed up, eroded away and broken up in any case,” Dr King said.

“But the magnitude of this, you can see where they have taken out a very large portion of a bedding plane, and the material still left here is showing deep saw marks,” he continued.

“It is quite shocking in my experience to see this kind of damage done,” he added.

The collectors have since been reported to Avon and Somerset police.

Dr Andy King standing on the beach at Doniford Bay
Image caption,Dr King said there must be a “balance” between enthusiasm for collecting and responsible sourcing of fossils

According to the UK Fossils Network, people should always check before hunting as it is prohibited in some areas.

“What we have learned from this, is that what we desperately need along this coast is much more promotion about how to collect fossils responsibly and sustainably,” Dr King said.

He added that local authorities need to better inform visitors on the “Responsible Fossil Collecting Code” so that they don’t destroy the environment or put their lives at risk.

Dr King warned that uninformed fossil hunters could get caught out by the high tidal range at Doniford Bay, as well as the risk of “irresponsible” chiselling causing cliff erosion and rock falls.

“The message really, is bring your camera not a hammer,” Dr King added.

In September, fossil hunters were warned away from stretches of the Jurassic Coast in Dorset after cliff falls.

During the tourist season, the beaches at Charmouth are patrolled by fossil wardens whose job it is to warn visitors against the riskiest behaviour, and steer them towards the easier pickings near the shoreline.

The coast between Lyme Regis and Burton Bradstock, primarily owned by the National Trust and Charmouth Parish Council, is covered by a “fossil collecting code of conduct”, aimed at keeping people safe and ensuring finds are correctly recorded.

It urges people to only search on a falling tide, avoid the base of cliffs, wear appropriate clothing and to tell someone of their whereabouts and expected return time.

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