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Tuesday, 5 March, 2002, 11:54 GMT
Fish fossils prove bone of contention
Dr Colin McFadyen searches in vain for fossil remains
Dr Colin McFadyen searches in vain for fossil remains
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Huw Williams
By Huw Williams
Scotland reporter
Fossil experts in Scotland have condemned a German museum which is refusing to give up a collection of unique fossil fish taken "illegally" from a protected site.

The Scottish Executive has now been asked to help recover the 430-million-year-old specimens.

Geologists who have examined the Birk Knowes site of special scientific interest (SSSI), say it has been so badly damaged by irresponsible private collectors, there are now no fossils left there.

The area, near Lesmahagow, was covered by an inland sea teeming with primitive fish 430 million years ago.

We'd like to see it returned to Scotland, to the landowner. He wishes it to be donated to a museum

Dr Colin McFadyen
They are the first known vertebrates on Earth and their fossilised remains have only ever been discovered at Birk Knowes.

Their presence has attracted illegal collectors, prepared to use explosives, heavy equipment, hammers and chisels to extract specimens which they either keep or sell on.

The site is managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and because of its SSSI status is protected by law.

But some fossils that are unique to Birk Knowes have ended up in the Humboldt museum of Natural History in Berlin.

Expenses claim

They were taken without permission from the landowner and without a permit from the conservation bodies in charge of protecting the site.

But the museum's director, Professor Hans-Peter Schultze, insisted he bought them in good faith from a private collector.

Other fossils from Birt Knowes
Other fossils from Birt Knowes
The collector, he said, had offered the fossils to Scottish Natural Heritage, but was turned down.

One possible reason for this, the professor added, was that the collector wanted his expenses for 20 years of making trips to Scotland. But this version of events is disputed by SNH.

It said it did not go ahead with legal action because the European legislation has never been tested in the courts, and the case would have been prohibitively expensive.

Further, it could not negotiate to buy the collection, because the fossils were - in effect - stolen goods.

Blank search

Professor Schultze said: "It was legal, at least in the beginning of the 70s and in the 80s. In addition, you can go and collect there again. That's not a problem."

At the site, Doctor Colin MacFadyen, from SNH, looked through a pile of shale at the bottom of the 10-metre-high cliff that produces these unique remains.

Dr Suzanne Miller
Dr Suzanne Miller: "Tiny pocket"
There, he hoped to find incomplete or imperfect examples - discarded by the collectors as not good enough to steal, but still scientifically useful. There were none.

He said the museum in Berlin was prevaricating and should return the fossils.

"Basically, the material was stolen from the site," he declared.

"We'd like to see it returned to Scotland, to the landowner. He wishes it to be donated to a museum, either in Glasgow or in Edinburgh."

Bleak verdict

Dr Suzanne Miller, the National Museums of Scotland's curator of rocks, said she was not surprised by the absence of fossils.

She has just completed an assessment of the damage caused by collectors at Birk Knowes and her verdict is bleak.

"There are no fossils remaining," she said.

"It's a tiny pocket of some rocks that are over four hundred million years old, and everything has gone."

Huw Williams visits the site
"The area's supposed to be protected... but has suffered badly"
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