We spoke to the senior warden and centre manager of the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre, Meirel Whaites, to find out her top tips on hunting for fossils in Dorset
Where in Dorset is best to go for fossil hunting?
The Dorset coast is world famous for fossil hunting, but not all of the beaches are easily accessible. Charmouth is one of the safest and most accessible beaches on the coast, and areas best for finding fossils are only a short five minute walk from the seafront. Other beaches within the local area include Seatown (to the east) and Lyme Regis and Monmouth beach (to the west of Charmouth). Although fossil collecting may be slightly more limited at Monmouth Beach, it is definitely worth a visit as you can see giant ammonites fossilised in the limestone plinths, which gives it its name, known locally as the 'Ammonite Graveyard'.
What are the most common finds we should look out for?
There are a number of different fossils that you can find here, but the most common finds are the belemnites, ammonites and crinoid stems.
How can we identify them?
Everyone always thinks that fossils can only be found by using a geological hammer to break open rocks, but it is much easier than that. Many fossils can be found just by searching through the small pebbles and gravel patches along the beach. In these patches you will find small brown bullet shapes, or thin brown rods like pencil leads or crayons. These are fossilised belemnites (pictured left), which are the remains of ancient squid-like creatures that would have been swimming around in Jurassic seas. Other finds to look out for are the beautiful coiled shells of the ammonite fossils, star-shaped crinoid stems and if you are really lucky, a squashed black doughnut. As bizarre as it may sound these funny shaped black pebbles are often the fossilised remains of an Ichthyosaur (a giant marine reptile), and each 'doughnut' is a backbone or vertebra from this creature.
How old are these fossils?
The majority of the fossils that we find here at Charmouth are around 190-million-years-old and are from the Jurassic period, when much of the south west of England was covered by a large ocean. We also have a line of cretaceous rocks that run along the top of the cliff, which are around a 100-million-years-old. Fossils that can be found in these younger rocks include fossilised seashells and sea urchins.
What are your top fossil hunting tips?
If it is your first time fossil hunting, your best tools are your eyes. Many of the fossils can be found by just searching through the pebbles and hammers are not essential. Children are especially good at fossiling as their eyes are younger and they are much lower down to the ground. The other major tip is be patient (which I know can be hard if there are children involved!). Don't go racing along the beach at a pace, slow down, let your eyes get used to it and search in one patch at a time. If you don't have any luck in one patch, then move on to the next one. Your patience will be rewarded. If there is a visitor centre nearby, pay them a visit. Local people are always a great source of information and are usually the ones 'in the know'. Fossil hunting walks run throughout the year from the Charmouth Coast Centre, and we have a wide variety of displays to inform and educate the public, and a great team of enthusiastic staff and volunteers who are more than happy to help. The last bit of advice I could probably give you about fossil hunting is...watch out, it is an addictive hobby!
Are there any safety advice precautions we should take?
The reason we find so many fossils here at Charmouth is mainly due to the geology of the area. The crumbling nature of our cliffs means that new material is always being washed out onto the beach. People often think that landslides just happen in the winter, when we have a large amount of rain or stormy winter seas, but they can happen at any time of the year and often after prolonged spells of dry weather in the summer months. On any stretch of coast, always stay well away from the cliffs. At Charmouth especially, there is no point in looking for fossils in the cliffs, they are all found in the loose material that has already been sorted by the sea. Never hammer in the cliffs, you could start a landslide, and always go fossil hunting on a falling tide (i.e. when the tide is going out). Check the local tide times online or at a visitor centre. Be sure to tell someone when you are going out on the beach and when you expect to return. Enjoy yourself, but be safe and responsible. Our local HM Coastguard teams are always on call, but a bit of common sense when fossiling could save a lot of call outs to these teams.
Are you running any fossil hunting trips this spring?
Join the warden for a two-hour fossil hunting trip along the beach at Charmouth. The walks include a 20-minute talk in the Centre before heading out onto the beach, and are suitable for all ages and abilities. The trips cost £7.50 per adult and £3 child and booking is essential. For further details see the Centre website on www.charmouth.org/chcc.
We also have a special Fossil Fantastic Day on 22nd March, which is a whole day of fossil fun aimed at families and children, with a fossil walk, fossil identification and arts and crafts activities. It is suitable for ages six and upwards, visit www.charmouth.org/chcc for more details.
Read our feature on Dorset in the March/April 2014 issue...