Yorkshire stone thefts are 'dismantling' the heritage of rural areas after spike during lockdown
Brazen criminals have targeted parts of northern England to steal Yorkshire stone from walls, drives and pavements from homeowners gardens and farms.
Organised gangs are even believed to have posed as workmen in hi visibility vests and white vans to steal the prized items in broad daylight.
Train driver Simon Powell, from Holmfirth, said: "It is ruining the countryside and destroying our heritage. These people are destroying walls that have been there for almost 300 years.
"And it's a shame because the council never rebuild them like they were, they use concreted and it looks awful."
Mr Powell, 44, walks daily in Holmfirth - famed for being the location for filming long-running comedy Last of the Summer Wine - and has noticed a spike in thefts since March.
His route takes him past a disused quarry and hamlet, which was demolished in the 1950s, leaving piles of stone on the moorland.
He added: "I walk there quite a lot, there used to be a village up there to house the workers of the quarry. It was demolished in the 1950s, but the pavement was left in place. Over the last couple of months, each time I go up there there's another one or two gone."
In 2015, West Yorkshire Police launched a high profile campaign to try to combat a plague of thefts and raise awareness of the threat to their region’s heritage.
That year, Leeds city council had to replace £50,000 worth of Yorkshire stone stolen from pavements across the city – an increase of more than 50% on the previous year.
But Simon believes that since the start of lockdown, organised gangs have been targeting the area to steal the valuable stone.
He added: "There has definitely been a surge in the last three or four months. I know people who have had some stolen from their garden pavements and walls. The cost of replacing them is not cheap, you're looking at a £100 per square metre just for labour in some cases."
And it is not just a rural problem as urban areas have also been hit by the crimewave as people's drives have been dug up by gangs.
Police forces across the north have reported catching criminals in vans loading up or selling suspected stolen stone.
In July, West Yorkshire Police arrested two men and a seized a van after they were spotted loading Yorkshire stone paving slabs into the back of the vehicle in Halifax.
Residents in Burnley, Bolton and Middleton have reported thieves digging up irreplaceable paving slabs and making off with them.
In March, two men were arrested by Greater Manchester Police on suspicion of theft after police discovered £10,000 worth of stolen Yorkshire stone flags in Middleton.
One of their victims was a 90-year-old man whose garden path was prised up and carted off.
Simon added: "We have heard from people in the village that two or three men at a time just park up in a white van, put a high visibility vest on and dig them up in broad daylight
"I get quite cross about, there should be more regulation to stop people selling it on. Nobody stops to question them as they just look like council workers or whatever.
"They did it with scrap metal, they put things in place like stop dealing in cash and everyone has to fill in paperwork to stop people cashing in on stolen led. They should introduce something like that so that you can trace stone back to people."
Brazen thieves targeted at least three houses in Bolton in one night to steal Yorkshire stone paving slabs.
Kirsty Phillips woke up the next morning to discover four Yorkshire stones had been taken from her back garden, while her neighbour had six stolen.
She said said: "The Yorkshire stone flags were built with the house in 1845 and you cannot replace them. It is upsetting as they are from an era that has been and gone.
"These people are obviously stealing them to sell them. To think somebody has just stood in your back garden and has got the brass neck to do it – it just makes me mad.
"Who in the right mind thinks 'tonight we will steal paving stones'?"
West Yorkshire Police's rural crime team has urged people to be vigilant for suspicious commercial vehicles and offers of cheap stone.
In a Facebook post, the unit said: "Please keep your eyes open for any suspicious commercial vehicles, any that look overloaded and report any offers of cheap stone – if it’s too good to be true, it’s possible it’s stolen.
"Get as much information as you can, when, where, what time, any vehicle registration numbers, make, colour of vehicle."