Opportunist metal thieves and shameless graffiti “artists” are ruining Yorkshire’s heritage and depriving historians of the chance to learn more about the region’s past, experts have revealed.
Staff at damaged churches targeted for their lead roofs are locking away valuable displays, fearing they will be taken, while illegal metal detectorists are believed to be stealing ancient items to order from historic sites.
Police have been given special training to investigate heritage crime and experts will today call on volunteers to help them monitor monuments for signs of damage and graffiti.
The problem will be discussed at a conference in York hosted by English Heritage, together with the city’s council and archaeological trust.
York’s city archaeologist, John Oxley, said: “Thefts and damage to historic properties actually have implications far beyond the simple monetary value of the material itself.
“It is not only the loss of historic fabric, it is the loss of the potential to enhance our understanding of the past.
“It is an area of crime that has always been around, but theft from church roofs, in particular, has certainly rocketed in recent years.
“Graffiti is an ongoing issue and there is a clear cost to the taxpayer in that we have to mobilise people to remove it. It costs at least £250 each time.
“We use gentle means to remove graffiti, but there is cumulative damage that occurs.”
Mr Oxley said raiders had stolen lead from the roof of St Olave’s Church, in Marygate, York, twice in the last 12 months, causing rainwater to damage its organ.
In Micklegate, Holy Trinity Church, has also been targeted by metal thieves and anti-social behaviour has been reported near the medieval St Martin-cum- Gregory Church.
Valuable church plate is being stored away in York Minster or in museums because staff are worried that criminals will strike, and bronze plaques have been stolen from the city’s Anglian Tower to be melted down in return for cash.
Mr Oxley said: “We are losing the linkage between the items itself and the places they were made for and where they were used.”
English Heritage expert Pete Wilson said “nighthawks” had long been suspected of destroying valuable archaeological evidence at Iron Age sites in the Yorkshire Wolds.
Sites near the old Roman road Dere Street, running through the Vales of York and Mowbray, are also thought to have been targeted.
“There are stories of sites of archaeological interest being targeted to order,” Dr Wilson said. “There are signs of a network of metal detectorists being commissioned to go to Iron Age sites that might have swords or armour.
“The challenge is that, even if you can catch somebody and get them arrested, then get them convicted, the site is still there and potentially vulnerable to other people doing the same.
“It is impossible to say how many nighthawks there are and it is an unfortunate term because some do their looting during the day.
“There might be 10,000 responsible, legal detectorists and we might only be talking about a couple of hundred nighthawks, but they can have a devastating effect.
“Meanwhile responsible detectorists have contributed so much. There have been something like 26 PhD and Masters papers written, based on material that has been found by detectorists.”
Chief Inspector Mark Harrison, a police officer working with English Heritage to reduce heritage crime, said the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Crown Prosecution Service and councils were all involved in tackling the problem.
He said police officers in West and South Yorkshire had received special training and he was keen to work with more agencies based in the region.
English Heritage has taken part in more than 150 heritage crime investigations since February 2010, but the organisation said these represented “only a fraction” of the incidents across the country.