Page last updated at 12:59 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 13:59 UK

Hunters await 'fossil gold rush'

By Michael Stoddard
BBC News, Lyme Regis, Dorset

Dr Colin Dawes
Dr Dawes says rubbish on the beach is a danger

Fossil hunters are looking to the skies, but they are not waiting for the sun, they want rain and wind - and lots of it.

Experts have predicted the next storm to hit the Dorset coast will uncover a treasure trove of fossils, disturbed by the "worst landslip for 100 years" that affected part of the World Heritage Jurassic Coast in Lyme Regis earlier this month.

Prospectors are likely to descend on 1,312ft (400m) of beach in the hope of finding fossils dating back more than 190m years, with some worth tens of thousands of pounds.

"People are definitely keeping an eye on the weather and know a big storm is likely to wash away the debris and leave fossils ashore," said local fossil hunter Dr Colin Dawes.

"Already we're seeing more than 200 people at a weekend digging around the area compared to a few dozen normally.

It is very difficult to speculate about what could be brought out from the landslip, a dinosaur is unlikely, but you never know
Richard Edmonds, Jurassic Coast World Heritage Centre
"But any kind of fossil gold rush could bring major problems.

"The area is still very unstable and going anywhere near the cliffs is extremely dangerous.

"Then you have the problem of uneducated hunters not knowing what they're doing.

"For instance, you just can't use your DIY hammer from home, you need specific equipment and know what rocks to break into, it could be very dangerous hitting anything."

But despite the warnings, it seems impossible to stop an influx of bounty hunters chancing their arm hoping to hit it big, but what can they expect to find?

The landslip area is very close to the site collector David Soul uncovered the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever seen in Britain.

Scelidosaur fossils (picture Bristol Museum)
A Scelidosaur skeleton was found in Lyme Regis (picture Bristol Museum)
The 195 million-year-old Scelidosaurus, which was retrieved piece by piece over five years, just happens to be going on show later this month in Bristol.

But any such finds in the recent landslip look unlikely, according to Richard Edmonds, earth science manager at the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Centre.

"It is very difficult to speculate about what could be brought out from the landslip, a dinosaur is unlikely, but you never know," he said.

"A big storm with a high tide will clear out a quarter of the mud and rubbish, so three or four should do the trick. This will undoubtedly leave a lot of fossils ashore.

"But it would be very hard for anyone to come here with no knowledge thinking they could make some easy money, even though some good fossil specimens can fetch tens of thousands of pounds."

However, something even a novice should be able to pick up are ammonites, sea creatures related to the octopus and squid that became extinct about the same time as dinosaurs.

Ammonite fossil (back) ammonite sea creature model (front)
Fossils of the ammonite (model front) sea creatures are found in Lyme Regis
Their fossils vary in size dramatically and also in worth, but a good quality example fetches up to 400 in the local fossil shops of Lyme Regis.

But the excitement of finding anything startling is also mixed with the dangers still posed on the site.

Trees have been uprooted, boulders fallen from the cliffs and a landfill site has started overflowing onto the beach,

Mr Edmonds said: "We have no problem with people staying safe on the beach well away from the cliffs, and this will be where most of the fossils will wash up after a storm, but the dangers of climbing the cliffs and trying to dig for fossils is huge.

"We're now just waiting to see what happens after the next big storm, and bearing in mind what happened last summer, it could happen sooner rather than later."

Views on landslip scheme sought
03 Feb 08 |  Dorset
French sand for landslip scheme
16 May 06 |  Dorset


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