Whatsapp nighthawking gang convicted of illegal metal detecting at 12th-century Roche Abbey near Rotherham

A gang of men who used Whatsapp to organise illegal 'nighthawking' trips to ancient monuments and ruins have been sentenced.

The Greater Manchester-based group targeted Roche Abbey near Maltby in South Yorkshire, and were caught at the English Heritage-managed site using metal detectors to unearth coins and metal items which they removed without permission.

South Yorkshire Police, Cheshire Police and Historic England all collaborated on the prosecution as the five also targeted Beeston Castle in Cheshire.

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The men appeared at Chester Magistrates Court last week and were all given five-year criminal behaviour orders which prevent them from metal detecting at any English Heritage site in England and Wales.

Roche Abbey

Curtis Barlow, 32, of The Quadrant, Droylsden, admitted taking coins and metal artefacts from Roche Abbey between 13 and 15 December 2019. He was handed a £572 fine along with £85 surcharge.

Gary Flanagan, 33, of Winton Avenue, Audenshaw, admitted taking coins and metal artefacts from Beeston Castle and Roche Abbey between 13 and 30 December 2019. He was handed £1,100 fine plus a £85 surcharge.

Daniel James Lloyd, 33, of Beech Avenue, Droylsden, admitted taking Bronze Age axe heads, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between 13 and 30 December 2019. He handed £600 fine plus a £85 surcharge.

John Andrew Lorne, 29, of Sunnyside Road, Droylsden, admitted taking Bronze Age axe heads, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between 13 and 30 December 2019, and removing coins and metal artefacts from Roche Abbey between 28 and 30 December 2019. He was ordered to pay £1,760 plus a £85 surcharge.

Francis James Ward, 32, of Dingle Drive, Droylsden, admitted taking Bronze Age axe heads, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between 13 and 30 December 2019. He also admitted producing a small quantity of cannabis. He ordered to pay £1,430 court costs plus a £85 surcharge.

They were ordered to forfeit all artefacts and their metal detectors which have an estimated value of up to £1,000 and above.

The men’s illegal activities were unearthed when a number of holes were found in the grounds of Beeston Castle and Roche Abbey, both historic sites in the care of English Heritage, sparking an investigation in December 2019.

Further information led them to Ward and on New Year’s Eve, officers from Cheshire executed a warrant at his Droylsden home.

This then led officers to Lorne and his home was searched during a warrant at which a number of items were seized.

Both men were arrested and interviewed while mobile phones and other devices were seized.

When analysing their phones officers discovered both men were part of a nighthawking Whatsapp group, leading to the arrest of Lloyd, Barlow and Flanagan.

PC Ashley Tether from Cheshire Police’s Rural Crime Team led the investigation. He said: “Their Whatsapp group clearly showed what they were up to and our subsequent forensic investigations alongside South Yorkshire Police put them at the locations where the incidents had occurred. What followed was a number of months of carefully identifying and cataloguing the historic artefacts they had taken with the help of Historic England experts. The evidence we put together was such that they pleaded guilty at their first hearing.

“The theft of historic items and the damage caused to scheduled monuments and listed buildings is an assault on our history and the impact on the historic ground they have damaged should not be underestimated.

“Although no exact value can be determined for the artefacts taken, they are a piece of national history that help us to understand our past. Once these items are lost or damaged they can’t be replaced and we lose the context and the story that may have helped us to understand our ancestors better.

“The items these men took for their own gain are part of our rich history and need to be protected which is why we embarked on a lengthy and complicated investigation with Historic England and South Yorkshire Police's Rural Crime Team.

“These men are now barred from metal detecting near historic sites in England and Wales and if they want to do so on any other land, they need to show the land owner a copy of the CBO before conducting metal detecting activity - if you see them not adhering to this restriction you can report it to police. Breaching such orders can result in a prison sentence.”

Historic England's head of heritage crime strategy Mark Harrison added: “A decade ago, we did not have the skills and techniques necessary to investigate this form of criminal behaviour. We have now developed the expertise, capability and partnerships to identify and prosecute the small criminal minority of nighthawks. The overwhelming majority of metal detectorists comply with the legislation and codes of practice.

“When thieves steal artefacts from a protected archaeological site, they are stealing from all of us and damaging something which is often irreplaceable.”