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English Heritage call against illegal metal detecting

December 2019 was the worst month for incidents of illegal metal detecting at English Heritage sites in more than four years. The quango which looks after 400 sites including such castles as Kenilworth and Dover, besides Stonehenge and Whitby Abbey, recorded more than double the number of incidents in 2019 compared with 2017.

The Battle of Hastings site in east Sussex, and Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire were among sites targeted by ‘nighthawks’, as was Old Sarum in Wiltshire, the site of Salisbury’s original cathedral. Old Sarum was attacked again in January 2020. Wiltshire Police are seeking witnesses.

Most of those 400 places are unstaffed and free to enter. The conservation charity has been working with the police and Historic England, and reviewing security arrangements. It’s calling on the wider public to remain vigilant.

Kate Mavor, English Heritage’s Chief Executive, said: “Illegal metal detecting robs us of our past. Once items are spirited away they can never be replaced, and the evidence of those who went before us is lost forever. We are working closely with Historic England and local police services to combat this form of heritage crime. We are now asking the wider community to act as our ‘eyes and ears’ and to report any suspicious activity on or near English Heritage sites to the police.”

Metal detecting has been enjoyed by many as a hobby since the 1970s, when metal detectors first became available on the mass market. Most detectorists comply with the law and a Metal Detecting Code of Conduct. However, English Heritage points out that illegal detecting – or ‘nighthawking’ – is something without the landowner’s permission and with disregard for laws which preserve Scheduled Monuments and other protected sites.

Mark Harrison, Head of Crime Strategy at Historic England said: “Illegal metal detecting is not a victimless crime. We may never see or fully understand the objects taken or damaged because they have been removed from their original sites with no care or record as to their history or context. Historic England will continue to work with the police, English Heritage and the metal detecting community to identify the small criminal minority who are intent on causing loss and damage to our shared cultural heritage and to bring them to justice.”

If you believe you are witnessing illegal metal detecting, report it by calling 999 if a crime is in progress, or 101 if a suspected crime has taken place but the suspect is no longer at the scene. Or, to share information about criminal activity and remain anonymous, contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. Official advice is not to confront nighthawkers due to cases of violence by illegal metal detectorists.

About English Heritage

It is in charge of 400 historic buildings, monuments and sites – from Tintagel Castle in the south west to Offa’s Dyke between England and Wales (pictured), to Lindisfarne Priory in the north-east; from medieval castles, Roman forts to a Cold War bunker. Visit www.english-heritage.org.uk.

Operation Chronos is a national campaign to prevent and investigate illicit metal detecting. Heritage Crime Liaison Officers are now operating in UK police forces. In England, Scheduled Monuments are protected by law from metal detecting.


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