Dinosaur hunting in Dorset
Wow, a real piece of dinosaur in your hand. It is a possibility…
Fossil hunting is not just for scientific types – it’s a fun activity that can be done by all the family. Dorset, in the south of England, offers world class fossil beds. Anyone can have a go at hunting for dinosaur teeth or bones there. Why not get yourself to Dorset and try this enjoyable and free activity, you never know what will turn up!
Dorset is home to The Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site – 95 miles of stunning coastline designated by UNESCO as having ‘outstanding universal value’. The rocks are really special as they record 85 million years of Earth’s history, spanning the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. They are fossil rich.
You can easily while away hours on the Dorset coast looking for fossils. My favourite place for fossil hunting is Charmouth. The beach has easy access, parking, a café and public toilets. Charmouth itself is a small village of less than 2000 inhabitants, boasting a large shingle beach. It has an interesting Heritage Coast Centre on the seafront with plenty of information on the natural history of the area. It is world famous for fossils and attracts serious collectors and amateurs alike.
There are plenty of fossils to be found all year round but the best time to look is actually during the spring or the winter months as there are less people on the beach then, and the storms and extreme high tides help to reveal new fossils. Search in the shingle and on the tide line, especially as the tide starts going in. Focus on a small area and keep your eyes peeled.
I especially love Charmouth in the winter. Waves lash the coast and come up over the sea wall, throwing large stones up at the same time. Surfers can be spotted too taking advantage of the waves.
The most common fossil at Charmouth is the ammonite. They lived in the sea between 240 – 65 million years ago and belong to a group of predators known as cephalopods. Living relatives include the octopus, cuttlefish, squid and nautilus. It’s amazing to discover these beautiful spiral shells and to be the first person to hold them so many years after their death. Also in plentiful supply are belemnites. They first appeared around 208 million years ago and are relatives of the ammonites.
At one end of Charmouth beach is Black Ven and at the other is Stonebarrow. Black Ven is the largest coastal mudslide area in Europe. Ammonite impressions can be found in the mud but most are so delicate that they break up if not treated very carefully. To reach Stonebarrow you have to cross a small bridge over the river. Stonebarrow is good for ‘fools gold’ ammonites and crinoids – ‘sea lilies’ that are relatives of starfish.
If you are lucky, you may come across a really amazing find. Any important finds must be registered with the World Heritage Team (01305 225101). After heavy rain in 2000 local collector Tony Gill found the fossilised remains of a 5m long icthyasaur, now named ‘Mary’.
It’s easy to get hooked on looking for fossils and it’s surprisingly calming too. Absolutely anyone can get involved, and children seem particularly good at it. You don’t need any special gear to look for fossils but if you are planning a few hours of fossilling it helps to have strong shoes and a strong bag to put your finds in. If you are using a hammer you will need protective eyewear or glasses as stone fragments easily fly up in the air. Hammers should only be used to split loose rock and not to hack at the cliff face You are probably better off just looking along the shoreline anyway.
Be aware that rocks can fall at any time. Check the tides and only set out along the coast during a falling tide. Mudslides also occur, especially after wet weather so keep an eye out and don’t take silly risks.
If you want an expert with you, guided walks along the coastline can be booked from the Heritage Centre.
For great views of this unique coastline, the nearby Golden Cap headland between Charmouth and Seatown is the highest view on the south coast. At 191m above sea level it is a great vantage point from which to admire the beautiful Jurassic Coast of Dorset.