1.6 The “capture” of the illegal collector

By 1995, four years after we first alerted the authorities, the Birk Knowes fossil bed was becoming increasingly difficult to work at due to the large amount of debris left behind by the German collectors. As warnings to SNH about this continued to fall on deaf ears, it was time to take a different approach.

One of the farmers along the track to Birk Knowes was made aware that the Volkswagen station car that kept driving past his farmhouse on the way to Logan farm was from a collector without a permit who had been ransacking the fossil site. The farmers were asked if they could make Scottish Natural Heritage aware the next time they saw the car.

The idea was that if SNH was alerted about Edinger being at Birk Knowes at that moment, it might motivate them to come out into the field.

And so it happened. On the 21st of August 1995 Scottish Natural Heritage received a call that Edinger had just arrived and that he was at the site there and then.

Two SNH staff members were dispatched: Alan McKirdy, Head of Earth Sciences, and Liz Buckle, an area officer from the Lanark office.

SNH found Edinger at the local farm. When confronted, Edinger admitted that his car contained fossils from Birk Knowes (=effectively stolen property…or not?). He also admitted that he had been coming to the site for a number of years to remove fossils.

But, instead of involving the police, SNH had a chat and decided to let him off with a warning not to come back. Furthermore, he was also allowed to keep the fossils he had with him.

How is it possible that a fossil thief was let off even though SNH had been warned about him for years, he had admitted to this fact, and even had stolen fossils with him at that moment?

The answer to this seems to contained in SNH’s account of what happened:

Source: Email from Lyndsey Kinnes, Operations Manager SNH, 22 March 2016

According to SNH, Edinger had mentioned the oral permit! This would have sounded familiar to one of the dispatched SNH staff members, as it was Alan McKirdy who, according to the site warden, had given Edinger the oral permit.

Strictly speaking, the police should have been contacted at this point because of the theft of fossils. However, it must have occurred to McKirdy that doing so would have created an awkward situation.

If police became involved, the first thing Edinger would tell them was that the site warden had arranged oral permission. When asked, the site warden would most likely explain to them, like he would later write in his letter to us, that it was McKirdy who had given the oral permission. This would have raised questions about McKirdy’s actions and put him in a difficult position.

When confronted about this, SNH disputed the notion that Edinger was let off due to the oral permit. SNH said that shortly after meeting Edinger at Logan Farm steps were taken to see whether they could prosecute him:

Source: Email from Lyndsey Kinnes, Operations Manager SNH, 22 March 2016

However, this still does not explain why the police was not involved. In fact, if SNH really was serious about prosecuting Edinger then they should have involved the police there and then. It was also SNH’s duty as site managers to do this, and they should certainly not have let Edinger take the “stolen fossils” with him.

Another remarkable detail about this encounter is the reason why Edinger could keep the stolen fossils. According to SNH (see above), the staff were not in a position to determine the provenance of the material with the required degree of precision, so were not empowered to act“. What does it say about SNH when the Head of Earth Sciences could not even identify the fossils from the most important site under his responsibility and from a fossil fauna that is largely unique to that location alone? Two points come to mind:

1. The SNH Head of Earth Sciences could not be bothered to look up which unique fossils occur at Birk Knowes.

2. SNH did not know much, if anything, about the fossils from sites under their care. They make use of geologists to do the work of palaeontologists. Despite common belief, geology and palaeontology are only superficially related to each other as palaeontology is primarily a biological discipline. This could explain why SNH had and still has no staff qualified to deal with fossil matters.

Next we will look briefly at SNH’s attempt to prosecute Edinger.

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