3.2 The policy change at Achanarras Quarry SSSI

Achanarras Quarry SSSI. The fossil bed is contained below the level of the quarry lake. Fossils can be found in the spoil heaps.
Collecting rules at Achanarras Quarry from 2016.

In 2016 one of us (G.v.d.B.) visited Achanarras Quarry SSSI to collect material for a research project. This site is owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage. The site used to be only accessible through obtaining a permit from SNH, but this system was removed when the quarry was opened to the general public in 2008. The idea behind making the quarry  public was that visitors would look through the spoil heaps and report new findings to SNH. In 2016 there were no restrictions concerning the duration of collecting. The remainer of the collection rules were fairly unremarkable. For completeness they are shown on the right.

During 2016 a number of weeks were spent by one of us at Achanarras Quarry to collect fossils of a fish that is quite closely related to Jamoytius from Birk Knowes and Ciderius from the Fish Bed Formation, which makes it of particular interest to us. One day an SNH staff member visited the quarry to check up on the site. G.v.d.B. made known the purpose of his visit to the site. The staff member did not appear to know very much about fossils. After a chat the staff member asked who he was talking to, and this was made known (the name was written down).

We were aware that by asking our name and writing it down that Colin MacFadyen would learn that one of us had been to Achanarras. As policy advisor on geology, Achanarras is also his responsibility. This would be an interesting test to see if he would do something to try to block our work at this site, like what happened at Birk Knowes SSSI.

Collecting rules at Achanarras Quarry from 2017.

The following year the site was visited again. It came as little surprise that the collecting rules had been changed. The new rules are shown to the right, with the new section of interest highlighted.

The difference since the visit in 2016 is that it is no longer possible to collect there for several weeks like one of us had been doing. There was now a limit of 7 collecting days. Could it have been co-incidence that the rules were changed, or might we have been targeted?  Consider the following:

1) Who else has spent weeks at Achanarras since the quarry opened in 2008? According to the site warden, who is a local farmer, we were the only ones.

2) SNH placed an image of one of our fossils on the sheet of paper explaining the new rules (see above, and a close-up with comparison below). This fossil was photographed by the SNH staff member whom one of us met at Achanarras the year prior. This appeared to be a subtle message to us, not unlike the inclusion of a Dutch warning on the signs at Birk Knowes SSSI, as mentioned in chapter 2.1.

3) Who advised the local office to change the collecting policy? We found this out and yes; it was Colin MacFadyen.

These points indicate that we were the target of these changes.

The irony of this all is that one of the main purposes of removing the permit system was to stimulate scientific discovery. SNH had even spent £40,000 on creating a shelter at the site for visitors (see below). Yet, when the first and only person since this site opened to the public wants to work on the fossils, we are met with Colin MacFadyen advising the local office to restrict collecting at the site. One of us would go on to produce the only scientific paper about Achanarras since the site was opened to the general public (see here).

The shelter at Achanarras Quarry.

It appears that limiting the collecting period to 7 days was not enough. After the paper was published, SNH decided to change the policy again. This time the collecting limit was to be set to 3 days. When we asked why the change was being implemented, the local office claimed that this was to protect the site from commercial collectors. This is remarkable for two reasons;

1) The fossil bed at Achanarras is submerged below the quarry lake. This means that in-situ fossil bed is out of reach.

2) You can only collect from spoil heaps, which means that sizable and intact fishes are few and far between. This makes the site hardly worth the bother for commercial collectors, especially when other localities in the region are far more suited for collecting mantlepieces.

We explained to the local SNH office how incredible the given explanation is, after which they retracted the decision to limit the collecting duration to 3 days. Who advised the local office to change the limit to 3 days? We asked and it was Colin MacFadyen, once again.

It is disturbing to see how he is going out of his way to do everything possible to block our work. As if sabotaging access to Birk Knowes SSSI is not enough; he tries to do this at other localities as well. Effectively, he is abusing his advisory position by providing false advice to local offices who depend on him. Thankfully, not everyone at SNH blindly follows his advice.