What happened at Birk Knowes? A story of mismanagement, incompetence, and downright corruption by the Scottish government agency Scottish Natural Heritage (Naturescot).

We used to conduct paleontological research excavations at the fossil site Birk Knowes SSSI in Lanarkshire through means of a permit issued by Scottish Natural Heritage. However, the site was frequented by illegal collectors who removed many fossils. These illegal collectors had the audacity to write their names and addresses in a visitor book of a local farm. SNH was made aware by us about what was happening on many occasions over a period of 5 years, including where they could find out who was doing this. Despite this, SNH was unresponsive. They put their faith in a site warden who, which was also communicated to SNH, was compromised because he was friendly with the illegal collectors.

Eventually, the mess left behind by the illegal collectors became more and more evident to visitors and more complaints were sent to SNH. SNH caught the illegal collectors one day (through a trap set up by us). When they caught the illegal collectors they let them keep the stolen fossils they had with them and did not inform the police. Is it not strange that a government agency responsible for protecting the site lets the illegal collectors off? Why would they not involve the police? It turned out that one of the dispatched SNH staff members who caught the illegal collectors that day had (inadvertently) provided a mechanism to launder the stolen fossils. A year prior to catching the illegal collectors this staff member received a phone call from the site warden. The site warden knew that he shouldn’t have been letting illegal collectors visit the site. To cover himself and his friends, he tried to arrange a permit to turn the illegal collectors into legal ones. The site warden ensured that the illegal collectors sent a written permit request to SNH. However, the SNH staff member responsible for this had overlooked this for weeks and the permit request was left at the bottom of his in-tray. Over the phone, the site warden said that a decision was needed right away because bookings needed to be made. The SNH staff member said that it was OK that the illegal collector (whom SNH had been receiving warnings about for many years) went up to the site. In other words, an oral permit was given – and no conditions were attached to it. This oral permit was effectively used as a device to launder the stolen fossils as it is not possible to prove when a particular fossil was found or stolen. SNH had effectively legitimized years of illegal collecting and damage to the site. This is why they could not involve the police.

After catching and releasing the illegal collectors, SNH and the land owners decided to close the site. A few years later one of the illegal collectors sold most of his loot for the better part of 200,000 pounds to a German museum. SNH was advised not to take legal action against the illegal collectors, in large part because of the nature of the oral permit. SNH had been negligent and incompetent. However, SNH is very good at one thing. They spun this story in the newspapers as though the site is remote and difficult to protect – not mentioning our warnings, the oral permit, and the catch and release.

Despite having been warned about the allegiance of the site warden, SNH did not release him from his position. We were not pleased by this, as it was possible that he could still pave the way for the “illegal” collectors. The presence of illegal collectors disrupted our research, as it was not possible to conduct a proper excavation. As a result of SNH’s inaction towards the site warden, we exposed to the land owners of the site what had happened. SNH had kept their inaction quiet during their meetings. The land owners were not pleased with SNH and considered taking them to court at one point over their neglect. In the end this did not come to fruition, but it nonetheless caused embarrassment for some of the SNH staff that were involved.

As SNH knew it was us who had exposed them, they set about reprisal actions. They ensured that the fossil site would no longer be accessible for research purposes of which we were the main contributors. SNH commissioned the National Museums of Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh to survey the condition of the fossil site. The report written up as a result of this survey is the NMS report. The survey made logs of the fossil bed, and tried to look for more exposures of that particular layer in the surrounding area. SNH used the NMS report to play a little trick. They kept the NMS report confidential and released their own interpretation of the report. They made fantastic claims that the report concluded that fossil bed has been almost totally removed by the illegal collectors. This was used to justify the indefinite closure of this fossil site. When we eventually got a hold of the NMS report, we noticed that none of this had been mentioned, nor anything that could be interpreted as such. To the contrary, the report actually invited a large scale excavation as it would be necessary to find more quality fossils.

We informed the SNH CEO about discrepancies between the condition of the fossil site and SNH’s interpretations of the NMS report. He immediately launched an investigation into the size of the fossil bed. The investigation included 3 geologists who would act as reviewers to look at the NMS report again and come with conclusions about the condition of the fossil site. These 3 geologists were 1) a geologist from SNH, 2) a geologist from the NMS, and 3) a geologist working at Natural England. Unfortunately, the geologist from SNH had a conflict of interest. It was the same person who was responsible for commissioning and interpreting the NMS report. It was he who had made the fantastic claims that the fossil bed has been almost totally removed. A little further investigating and we found out that the geologist from the NMS is his friend/associate. We found photographs of them posing together and they are both members of an exclusive geological club and have published together. The geologist from Natural England turned out to be his English colleague and counterpart. It was apparent that the geologist was a judge at his own trial, and he had invited his friends/colleagues/associates to exonerate him for falsifying documents. And so it happened, the investigation found nothing wrong with the SNH geologist’s fantastic claims. In fact, these claims were re-iterated, despite not being supported by their purported source: the NMS report. As the investigation had clearly been rigged, we informed the boss of SNH and provided the necessary evidence. He ignored this and supported the fantastic claims.

At the bottom of SNH documentation it said that if we disagree with SNH’s decision we can take the matter to the Scottish ombudsman. We therefore presented my case to the ombudsman. They were reluctant to help and, instead of looking for reasons to investigate the case, they looked for reasons why they did not have to. Most importantly, they said that since we don’t live in the UK they don’t need to look into the case.

We then contacted the Scottish government department responsible for SNH; the office of the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment. We explained to them that we have a complaint about SNH and asked them if we could send it to them. The response we received was a little unusual. Instead of agreeing to see the complaint, they said that they know what we are going to complain about and that SNH has done nothing wrong. How is it possible for them to judge the merit of a complaint before it has been sent, while receiving only one side of the story? It is as though SNH enjoys some kind of protected position where it is permitted to misconduct itself without consequences.

We had warned SNH what would happen if they tried to sweep this under the rug; we would make a website and publish the whole story including names. We therefore made a website based loosely on the methodology of the British investigative journalist website ‘Bellingcat’. This website tells the story and is supported by documentation in the form of letters, emails, photographs, reports, etc.

SNH appears to dislike this kind of exposure. As a result, SNH wants to take one us to the Court of Session in Edinburgh because they claim that what is said on this website about SNH is false. We regard this upcoming court case as a desperate attempt by SNH to bury the painful truth. It is also bold that they should try this considering that everything that is said about SNH’s conduct in this affair has been documented.

The irony of this all is that if you are an illegal fossil collector who spends years thieving fossils from a protected fossil site, Scottish Natural Heritage lets you do this and does not prosecute you. But, if you are a bona fide researcher who exposes the incompetence, neglect and downright corruption of this organisation, that is when they come into action.

The full story of what happened is on the right.