Guidance on collecting geological samples from Sites of Special Scientific Interest in Scotland
Author: Rachel Wignall, NatureScot
This guidance outlines how to apply for permission to collect geological samples from areas that are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Scotland. Is your proposed field site in an SSSI? Visit SiteLink (Map view) to view and Open Data Hub website (Protected Areas) to download information on protected sites across Scotland.
Scotland’s rich geodiversity has been studied for more than 200 years, and has led to significant advances in science. Geoconservation aims to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy and learn from our amazing geodiversity, at the same time as protecting the most important sites for conservation in Scotland. Nationally and internationally important sites across the UK are identified in the Geological Conservation Review (GCR) and many of these are protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
What is geological sample collecting?
Geological sample collection includes all methods used in geological (rock, mineral and fossil) sites, geomorphological sites and stratigraphic sites, including environmental archive sites such as lake sediments, wetlands and peatlands. It does not include water sampling.
Sample collecting and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code
Fieldwork and sample collection are not covered by access rights under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (as set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code). Therefore, you will need to obtain landowner/occupier permission before you access the site to remove any samples, regardless of whether or not it is in a protected area.
Sample collecting and protected area laws
It is an offence for any person to intentionally or recklessly damage the protected natural features of an SSSI, and this includes unauthorised sample collection. If you do not have appropriate consent from NatureScot, and you go ahead and collect samples from an SSSI, you may be considered to be intentionally or recklessly damaging the protected natural features of the SSSI, and therefore be committing an offence. Police Scotland categorises damage to SSSIs, including to geological SSSI features, as Wildlife Crime.
Sample collecting and good practice guidance
As well as following the conditions of necessary permissions and consents, sample collection and all other geological fieldwork, both within and outside protected areas, should follow good practice guidance, including:
- Scottish Geodiversity Forum Ethical Rock Collection guidelines
- Geological Association's fieldwork codes of conduct
- Scottish Fossil Code
- Scottish Core Code
- Sampling for Cosmogenic dating
Obtaining consent from NatureScot to take samples from an SSSI
There are two pathways by which NatureScot* may grant consent for sampling, on SSSIs:
- When Public Bodies are applying for consent, NatureScot can grant consent directly to the Public Body or its representative. (13(1) Nature Conservation Act (Scotland) 2004).
- In all other cases, NatureScot grants consent to the landowner or occupier to permit the activity to be carried out. (16(1) Nature Conservation Act (Scotland) 2004)
If you represent an organisation that may be considered a public body, such as a government-funded body or an educational institution, you can apply directly to NatureScot for permission to collect samples from an SSSI. If you do not represent an organisation that may be considered a public body, you need to ask the landowner, occupier or manager of the SSSI to apply to NatureScot for permission for you to collect samples. The landowner, occupier or manager will need information about your proposed activities in order to apply to NatureScot. NatureScot will then assess the application.
To help you provide the right information for our NatureScot assessment, we provide a form for ‘Application for permission to collect Geological samples from Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)’. This form and notes on completion are included at the end of this guidance. This form is primarily aimed at those collecting geological samples to undertake research. However, the form may also be used if you are collecting for other reasons, such as educational purposes. Alternatively you, or the landowner, occupier or manager, may complete an ‘Application for consent form – SSSIs’, or email details of your proposed activities to NatureScot. However, if we need more information, we may also ask you to fill in an ‘Application for permission to collect Geological samples from Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)’. Please return this form to the contact email address for the NatureScot Area relevant to the site(s) in the application. NatureScot Area contact email addresses can be found on our website 'Area offices'.
Asking for permission, and giving details of the research you intend to do gives us the information we need to assess your request, and record permitted research for future site condition monitoring assessments. We need to balance the need to protect the geodiversity interest of the protected area for future generations, with enabling research and geoscience education to thrive. The scientific value of a geological SSSI is the sum of the existing scientific data from the site, and the potential scientific information remaining within the site. Removing geological samples decreases the store of information remaining, and would usually be considered irreversible damage to the SSSI feature. However, in some circumstances the loss of resource may be off-set by the scientific information gained from the samples taken, allowing an overall assessment of no loss of scientific value for the SSSI. We may refuse consent for a variety of reasons, such as a resource being extremely limited, or a site being particularly vulnerable to damage and loss. We may ask for further details about your proposal if we have concerns about damage to the site. It is also important that we understand how samples will be stored and curated after the research is completed, to ensure that maximum scientific and educational benefit is gained from samples taken from protected areas, and that the minimum number of samples are taken.
Other consents you may require to collect geological samples
You will need to identify, and gain consent from the mineral rights owner if you wish to collect geological samples from any site, as collecting without their permission may be regarded as theft. The mineral rights owner is usually, though not always, the landowner. Find more information on mineral ownership.
You may require additional consents to collect samples if the area you wish to collect from is a National Nature Reserve (NNR). If the reserve is owned by NatureScot, however, an application for SSSI consent should trigger an application for appropriate NNR consent. You can find out more information about National Nature Reserves.
You are also responsible for checking whether the site has any other protected status that requires additional consents (e.g. historical or archaeological sites), and to obtain these consents from the statutory body responsible for regulating controlled activities on such sites.
In summary, you are acting within the law if you obtain permission to collect samples. But note that permission or consent from one body or person does not imply permission or consent from any other body or person. For example consent from NatureScot does not imply permission from the mineral rights owner, landowner or any other party.
Timescale for granting consents
Please consider submitting an application for consent to collect as early as possible. It can take up to 4 months to resolve some requests to undertake regulated activities on SSSIs. We will process applications as quickly as possible, but please note that we may not be able to process applications submitted with a tight turn-around time. You may submit an application with a date range for the visit, and confirm exact dates later.
Guidance notes for completing the NatureScot form ‘Application for permission to collect geological samples from Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)’
- Applicant details – The person completing the form. By completing the form, the applicant is agreeing to be responsible for the actions of all members of the field party at all times, while undertaking the activities covered by the application.
- Field party details – Group size: Knowing group size helps assess impact on the site including on non-geological features (e.g. trampling of habitat features). Named individuals: individuals in charge of any activities undertaken under the consent must be named. A named individual must be present and in charge when any samples are collected.
- Visit dates – Consent to collect samples will be given for specified dates. You need to ensure the dates you give cover all dates you will be collecting. You may submit an application before exact visit dates are confirmed by giving an appropriate date range for the visit.
- Project description – This is an important part of the application as it allows us to assess the benefits and risks of the project for conservation of the protected area, and see the scientific and educational contribution the work will provide.
- Provide a summary of the research project and state what scientific and or educational contribution this project will make. How important is it that you sample this particular site? We expect a detailed outline of your research design, including:
- Aims and objectives of the project, and research questions;
- Sampling strategy, describe how you’ll select sample sites, and why you need to sample at this location. Include information on any previous sampling carried out at the site, and state the number of sampling visits to the site planned in the future. For example if this is a PhD project, do you need to return to the site and take further samples in future years? If your project involves sample collecting from multiple SSSI in Scotland (whether or not you are currently requesting permission to collect from some or all of these), please also include this information so that we can fully assess the impact of the project on Scotland’s geoheritage.
- Methods and analyses of samples.
- If this is a teaching visit, please describe how the class will be shown the outcrops or features, give details of any site preparation, and what sampling will take place, who will collect the samples, and whether multiple samples will be taken by the students.
- Sampling methods – Different sampling methods have different levels of impact on the geological heritage. Describe all sampling methods and equipment that will be used. Methods that you do not declare here will not be consented, and must not be used. Sampling by mechanical means (e.g. rock drill, or rock saw) is potentially more damaging to the geoheritage and so should be avoided if at all possible.
- Sample location details – Give details of each proposed sample location, using 8 digit National Grid References and/or an extract of an OS map. Describe what proposed sampling you wish to carry out at each location. If exact sample locations are not known, give the search area for sample locations and as much information as possible.
- Rock, sediment and organic deposits must not be moved or removed, or samples taken from locations not detailed on the form.
- Remember to include a map with sample locations clearly marked.
- The description/directions to the location, combined with the grid reference should be sufficiently detailed for someone else, unfamiliar with the site, to find the location.
- Sampling at classic localities, and localities frequently used for teaching purposes, should be avoided where possible. These sites are often unique or ‘best-examples’, their educational value is high, and they are easily damaged.
- The means of access to the site should have as low an impact as possible. Details of the route to the site allows assessment of any potential impacts on natural heritage features (e.g. breeding birds).
- Sampling methods to be used at each particular location should be detailed so that impact at that location can be assessed.
- Details of samples including rock type, geological unit and maximum number of samples should be given to allow impact to be assessed. If the samples are from Quaternary outcrops or modern sediments, give details of the stratigraphic locations, geomorphological units and/or other geomorphological context.
- Please give sample volumes in cm3, as this is easier to visualise than a weight in grams.
- The maximum amount (volume) of rock to be taken from a location must be stated. Where consent is given, this is the maximum sample volume that you can take. You must not remove more than this volume, and rock or sediment other than the sample volumes specified and consented to must not be moved or removed. So you must not break off large amounts of rock that you are not intending, or do not have permission, to remove as samples.
- Sample curation – Sample retention, curation and storage after analyses. Will samples be available for other research in the future? If not, give details of sample disposal. It is important that we understand how samples will be stored and curated after the research is completed, to ensure that maximum scientific and educational benefit is gained from samples taken from protected areas. This is especially important where future research may benefit from access to the samples, reducing the need for further sampling of limited resources, such as rare fossils and minerals.
- Scientific and educational outputs – to assess scientific and educational benefits from the proposed sample collecting, we need to know what the relevant outputs will be. Note that NatureScot will usually request copies of written output (reports, articles, scientific papers) as part of consent conditions.
- Likely conditions of consent – Conditions of consent may vary, however, this section is included to inform the applicant of likely conditions of consent. Links to codes and guidance referenced in this section of the form are given below.
Fieldwork and Access codes
Application for permission to collect Geological samples from Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) form is available to download next.