A beginner's guide to fossil hunting

‘Making any collection is fun. The young Darwin loved collecting beetles. But with fossils you are collecting objects that could be millions of years old, embedded in materials that were created in tropical or Antarctic seas, which ended up here - incredible.’
- Chris Stratton, learning officer in the Shropshire Hills

Hunt for fossils and bones is one of our 50 things to do before you’re 11 ¾ so our learning officers and rangers have helped us to put together this guide for families and fully-grown fossil enthusiasts.

    Must visit places for fossil-hunters

    ‘Your first fossil find may be the start of a journey taking you to all sorts of exciting places.’
    - Chris Stratton, learning officer in the Shropshire Hills

    Discover indoor and outdoor places where fossil-hunters can uncover ancient treasures.

    What to take with you

    A young girl with a magnifying glass ready to explore wildlife at Anglesey Abbey

    * ‘A fossil guide book can be helpful if you want to see what the whole fossil and original creatures looked like. People often only find bits so this helps you to relate your fossil to a wider history.’
    – Chris Stratton, learning officer
    * A magnifying glass: 5x or 10x magnification is best for fossil hunting.
    * An old toothbrush is handy for brushing off mud.
    * Please do not take any hammers with you as you could damage fossils or, in the worst case scenario, cause precarious cliffs to crumble.
    * Don’t forget your camera. In protected areas you cannot take fossils away with you but photographs can always be added to your collection.

    Commonly found fossils

    What are ammonites, belemnites and devil’s toenails? All is revealed in this simple guide to commonly found fossils. We'd love to see snaps of any fossils you find on Twitter or Facebook.

    Staying safe

    ‘The best, and safest, way to look for a fossil is on the beach, where the sea has washed them out and left them for you to find.’
    - Sarah Kennedy, ranger in Dorset

    Fossil hunting is great fun, but there are a few things you need to keep in mind. For example, you must never try to remove fossils from cliffs and it’s always best to go collecting on a falling tide to ensure you don’t get caught out by the sea. Especially in high winds and stormy weather it is not a good idea to go near the sea or cliff-edges.

    The fossil code

    There are a few rules that all fossil-hunters need to follow.

    * As long as you’re not in a protected area you can pick up small fossils that are lying around on the ground.
    * Please do not remove any fossils from rocks or cliffs.
    * Large fossils are best left for all to enjoy.
    * Please report any rare finds to museums or your closest visitor centre.
    * If you are in a Site of Specific Scientific Interest please follow any rules they might have. They are there to protect geology for future generations.

    Entertaining the kids

    A child holding a fossil, on a beach in Yorkshire

    Finding fossils does require a bit of patience so children might need reminding that they aren’t guaranteed to find anything and will have to look at rocks for more than a few seconds.

    Illustrated books about dinosaurs are a great way to bring the past to life. Take along some paper and crayons and kids can take fossil rubbings or imagine and draw the creatures that left their traces in the earth.

    ‘I like doing rubbings of fossils and bones and investigating where they come from and what creatures they may have once been.’
    - Kai Bickley, kids’ councillor

    For schools

    The Shropshire Hills learning team run a rock and soil visit service for schools. Children can learn about the formation of the hills from nearby volcanoes and go hunting for 520 million year old fossilised raindrops.