To visit and collect fossils from Birk Knowes SSSI, permits were issued by the Lanark office of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) since the year 1992 (before 1992, permits were issued by the Nature Conservancy Council; the predecessor of SNH).
Despite a permit system in place, and a site warden and farmers to keep an eye out, this site was also visited by collectors without a permit. The most significant of these unauthorised collectors was Ernst Edinger; a gymnastics teacher from Leverkusen, Germany. His collecting at Birk Knowes started around 1980 and ended in 1995. Edinger usually visited the site alone, but was sometimes accompanied by an associate. He would camp below the house of the local farm, located a ½ kilometre from Birk Knowes.
Remarkably, the site warden was well aware of Edinger’s activities. In fact, they were friends and Edinger would occasionally stay at his house in the nearby town of Lesmahagow. The site warden went to great lengths to support Edinger. Being a trusted local as well as an authority on Birk Knowes, he convinced farmers that Edinger was a legitimate collector. This helped Edinger to collect unimpeded for many years.
To maximize gains Edinger had an efficient yet rather destructive way of working through the rocks. He would vertically crack slabs of siltstone into smaller bits and check the edges for a black line, which usually indicates the presence of a fossil. As such nearly all fossils he collected from Birk Knowes SSSI are broken fossils glued back together (see above example).
Throughout the years he collected many hundreds of specimens from this site, amassing a collection that dwarfed the combined Birk Knowes collections of all British museums.
Most damage to the site was done in 1994-1995. Edinger would fill his Volkswagen station car, return to Germany, and come back a week or so later. His intensive fossil collecting left a lot of debris and changed the face of the exposures.
Although SNH had already been receiving reports about illegal collecting activities from us, it was after they were informed by a museum that they started to act.
However, Scottish Natural Heritage did little more than visit the site and did not find evidence of large-scale fossil collecting (this would require before-and-after photographs and not one visit every couple of years). According to SNH, none of the farmers could recall finding unauthorised collectors on their land – hardly a surprise considering what the site warden had told them.
On the 21st of August 1995, through a tip from a local, SNH was informed about the arrival of Edinger. What transpired here will be explained later.
Shortly thereafter, around the 25th of August 1995 SNH closed Birk Knowes “provisionally” until a new management plan could be put in place. The closure was a direct result of the illegal collecting activities by Edinger.
Unfortunately, the closed status of the site only really negatively affected legitimate collectors. Closing a site to legal collectors in order to curtail illegal collecting is a paradox in itself. Furthermore, the closure was especially unnecessary because there was nothing wrong with the permit system. The problem was with the people managing the permits.
Next it will be explained how SNH failed in the protection of the site.