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Heritage crime in the spotlight as police work to protect our history

Last modified: 25 September 2020 at 10:53am

Police are stepping up patrols and asking for the public’s help to protect North Yorkshire’s rich heritage.

Heritage crime in the spotlight as police work to protect our history

Historically important sites in York and North Yorkshire include everything from scheduled monuments like the remains of Roman forts and villas to the world-famous natural landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors.

However, they are at risk from criminals whose illegal activities could mean they are damaged or even lost to future generations.

Heritage crime is any offence involving damage or loss to the historic environment – that is, buildings, monuments, sites and landscapes that reflect our history. It covers a wide range of offences – including criminal damage, arson, theft of artefacts, metal theft, unauthorised metal detecting, unauthorised development and damage caused by vehicles.

Inspector Matt Hagen, of North Yorkshire Police’s Rural Taskforce, said: “North Yorkshire and the City of York have thousands of heritage sites, and they’re part of the reason why this is such an attractive place to live and visit.

“Repairing the damage caused to heritage assets is expensive – but the cost to communities is often immeasurable.

“We all need to work together to protect these sites, so that future generations can continue to enjoy them for many years to come. This can be achieved by increasing awareness of the heritage assets in our community, supporting rural watch schemes, and encouraging members of the public to report incidents around heritage sites.”

To encourage vigilance and increased reporting, officers are highlighting the top four risks to York and North Yorkshire’s rich heritage:

Criminal damage to historic buildings

Historic buildings in York and North Yorkshire are at risk of damage – caused either by vandals or thieves.

In June 2020, offenders daubed graffiti and caused damage to the ruins of a medieval castle in the Hambleton district. The owner said the damage would cost tens of thousands of pounds to put right.

In July 2020, damage was caused to the window of a building at Wharram Percy, the site of an abandoned medieval village. A witness noticed what was happening, and reported the offenders’ car registration number to the police. Officers were able to identify the offenders, who, as part of a community resolution, agreed to make a donation to charity towards the cost of repairing the damage.

Metal theft from church roofs

Metal thieves often target lead roofing on historic buildings – particularly churches. Stolen metal can be difficult to identify. The damage to buildings can be significant.

Last week, BBC One’s Crimewatch Roadshow featured an incident of lead theft from St Lawrence’s Church in Kirby Misperton. In early 2019, lead was stolen from the roof and damage caused to stonework. Sadly, earlier this year, rain entered the church through temporary roofing and damaged walls, plaster, paintings and carpets. The damage will cost more than £60,000 to put right – far more than the value of the stolen lead. Community events such as baptisms and weddings have had to be postponed.

PC Jez Walmsley, of North Yorkshire Police, said: “This type of crime is very much related to the price of lead and copper. Very simply, the higher the price of lead, the more this sort of crime goes up, because the thieves can get a better return on their work.”

2019 also saw lead stolen from St Peter’s in Brafferton, and St Hilda’s in Sherburn, Ryedale.

Nighthawking and the theft of artefacts

Officers are also aware of an increase in suspected nighthawking activity on historic battlefields in North Yorkshire. Several incidents are under investigation.

Nighthawking is a term used to describe unlawful metal detecting (at any time of day) in areas of archaeological interest, in order to search for coins and other artefacts. Nighthawks enter land without permission with equipment for metal detecting and digging. Items they find may be kept as part of a private collection or sold for personal profit – meaning valuable historical data could be lost forever.

Damage to countryside caused by vehicles

Activities that damage North Yorkshire’s historic landscapes can also be a heritage crime. In particular, police are working with National Park rangers to ensure trail riders and 4×4 drivers are driving legally and responsibly in this unique countryside.

Anyone ‘green lane’ driving or trail riding with non-road-legal vehicles, or in places where they shouldn’t be, may face prosecution.

What you can do to help

North Yorkshire Police regularly patrol heritage sites in rural areas, and work with partner agencies to ensure they are protected.

People who live and work near historic sites – particularly in rural areas – are asked to help the police combat heritage crime:

  • Be aware of where the heritage sites and artefacts are in your community – you can find information at www.historicengland.org.uk – and keep an eye out for them
  • Report any concerns to the police on 101 or, if a crime is in progress, 999.
  • Join a police Rural Watch scheme, and share information with others in the area.

Owners of such sites are urged to consider investing in CCTV cameras and property marking technology such as SmartWater.

Visit www.northyorkshire.police.uk/heritagewatch or contact your local police station for more information.

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