Rise in illegal metal detecting at English Heritage sites

  • 1066 battlefield among the historic sites targeted
  • Conservation charity calls on public to help

English Heritage has called for communities around the country to remain vigilant in order to help protect historic sites from illegal metal detecting – or ‘nighthawking’ – as the charity today reported an increase in incidents at the places in its care.

New data revealed that December 2019 was the worst month for incidents of illegal metal detecting at English Heritage sites in more than four years; and, that there were more than double the number of incidents in 2019 compared with 2017.

The Battle of Hastings battlefield in Sussex and Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire were amongst the sites targeted by ‘nighthawks’, alongside Old Sarum in Wiltshire, the site of Salisbury’s original cathedral. Old Sarum was attacked again in January this year, and Wiltshire Constabulary are currently appealing for witnesses.

The majority of the more than 400 places in the care of English Heritage  are unstaffed and free to enter – the conservation charity has been working closely with the Police and Historic England to prevent the problem and to identify those responsible, and as well as reviewing its security arrangements, is now calling on the wider public for their help to protect these nationally important sites and buildings.

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 people as a hobby since the 1970s, when metal detectors first became available on the mass market. The majority of  detectorists comply with the law and the Metal Detecting Code of Conduct.

However, illegal detecting – or ‘nighthawking’ – is undertaken without the permission of the landowner and with a total disregard for laws which safeguard the preservation of 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."

Members of the public who believe they are witnessing illegal metal detecting should 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. Alternatively, to share information about criminal activity and remain anonymous, contact Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. Members of the public are warned not to personally confront nighthawkers following incidents of violence by illegal metal detectorists.

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