Fossils are the preserved remains of ancient life, and show how life on Earth has changed over time. Fossils can be found by anyone, of any age or experience, and fossil-finding can bring enormous pleasure. The scientific study of fossils is called palaeontology, and all people, of all ages and experience, can contribute to this science.
Many parts of Yorkshire, especially on the coast, are great for fossil-finding. If you’ve never been out fossil-finding before, one of the best ways to start is by signing up for a professionally run fossil trip, such as those led by Hidden Horizons in Scarborough or Natural Wonders in Whitby.
If you’re planning your own fossil-finding trip, it is vital that you are prepared, safe, and responsible.
Permission – Where are you planning to go fossil-finding? Do you need permission to collect fossils there? Landowners might not allow fossil-finding on their sites; other sites may be protected. Visit the UK Government’s MAGIC website to find out more.
Access – Is it safe to access the site? Are there any risks or dangers? Does the site have high cliffs where rock falls might happen? Is the area prone to flooding? If you’re going to the coast, is access dependent on the tides? Is the foreshore rocky and slippery?
Wildlife – does the site have any protected wildlife? Be particularly cautious about planning fossil-finding trips in breeding or nesting seasons.
Weather – check the weather forecast before you go, and check again during your trip. Many kinds of weather – wind, rain, ice, sun – can create hazards to fossil-finders.
Kit – take warm, waterproof clothing. Take sunblock and a hat. Wear sturdy footwear with ankle support and good grip. Take water and food. Take a camera. Make sure your phone is charged.
Support – avoid solo fossil-finding. If you must go alone, have a check-in plan with friends or family. Tell them where and when you are going, and what time you will be back.
Apps – Fossil Explorer is a free smartphone app, produced by the Natural History Museum, which tells you what fossils might be found anywhere in Britain. Another very useful, free app is Geology Viewer, which shows what rock types are beneath your feet.
Many fossil-finding sites are havens for wildlife. Don’t put extinct creatures ahead of living ones. If there are nesting birds, or resting seals, for example, be careful and keep your distance. If you have a dog, keep it under control on a lead. The Yorkshire Seals Group has an excellent guide on how to avoid disturbing seals.
Respect the cliffs
Every year, people are injured or even killed by cliff falls in Yorkshire. Stay away from any cliffs above head-height; wear a safety helmet if you can’t. NEVER hammer cliffs. Many cliffs in Yorkshire are protected by law: hammering them not only endangers yourself and others, but is potentially illegal.
Don’t get hammered
A Yorkshire fossil-finder uses their hammer sparingly. No fossil is worth a serious eye injury: wear safety glasses, and NEVER hammer rocks when other people are nearby. Care for others and care for yourself.
Do seek help
If you get hurt, or stuck in mud, or trapped by the tide, seek help immediately. If the only phone call you can make is an emergency one, dial 999. On the coast, ask for the Coastguard. Don’t wait to see if things improve, or if the tide will stop coming in. Be safe, not sorry.
Be a responsible fossil-finder
Although it is 25 years old, the JNCC Fossil Collecting Policy still offers very useful guidance on responsible fossil collecting. If you find a beach pebble containing a fossil, it probably belongs to the Crown. That doesn’t mean you need to write to the King and ask for permission to keep it. His Majesty already has an extensive fossil collection. However, please do think of others when you are fossil-finding, and don’t take too many specimens. Quality is always better than quantity.
And if you think you might have found a fossil that’s really special, follow Yorkshire Coast Rocks‘ advice and Record, Report, Reflect:
RECORD what you’ve found, and it’s location, as precisely as you can.
REFLECT – only move the fossil if it is safe and legal to do so, and avoid doing anything that might damage it.