Twelve churches in Suffolk have suffered lead theft since July 2015. This might not set the alarm bells ringing if compared to the frequency with which lead was stolen before the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act in 2013. But for the communities around the local church it is a serious and sad situation. If a church has not installed a roof alarm insurance payouts are capped at £7000 which in most cases covers only a small part of the repair costs.

St Mary’s Church in Stratford had most of the lead taken from the roof over the nave and over 34 bays - estimated replacement cost £25,000 to £35,000. Lead to a scrap value of £3,000 was stolen from the medieval Church of St Mary’s Combs, repairs can take up to five years and will cost in the region of £150,000.

Only when rainwater started gushing down the walls of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s in Lavenham did the congregation realise that the lead of their church roof had been taken - the hard work to raise funds is now carried out to be able to pay for new lead with an estimated cost of over £10,000.

And it is not only Suffolk churches that has been targeted. In Northamptonshire between nine and 12 tonnes of lead was stolen from the roof of St Mary's Church at Great Bringham (Pictured Below) with All Saints Church in Lilbourne having a similar quantity removed. In Darlington, the Priest-in Charge the Venerable Nick Barker, slept in the Holy Trinity Church for a fortnight to provide added security in case thieves attacked the building again.

There is little doubt that congregations are decreasing, and therefore the cost of maintenance and repairs will have to borne by fewer and fewer parishioners. Allowances for expenses following any theft of lead is not a recurring post in the parish budget - such emergency expenditure will be hard to cover for many small country churches. The importance of these historic buildings to the communities is demonstrated by the way people do join forces to raise funds, and they are having to find new and creative sources of revenue.

Villagers in Stratford kept watch over the Church of St Mary for five nights, when neighbours were away on the sixth, the thieves moved in. The effectiveness of roof alarms depends on the response time of a security company or the Police. Travelling time to a rural church could mean that both lead and thieves have long gone by the time protection arrives.

Keeping the lead on the roof is clearly the preferred solution. Fixing lead sheets to the substructure is not practical as the metal expands and contracts with changing temperatures. Having volunteers keeping vigil over the church and its lead during night time is likewise unrealistic. Lead has for millennia been used as a roofing material. On an historic building it is a major feature visually impacting on the local environment and streetscape. It is also a ‘Green Material’ with a long lifetime, low carbon footprints and almost 100% recyclability.

Once unmarked lead has left its home it is almost impossible for law enforcement agencies to prove its provenance. Legislation in the form of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act has been of little help to the parishes that have been targetted recently.  

Trace-in-Metal Ltd offer a new innovation which seeks to keep lead on the roof. By infusing existing lead with coded markers that survive meltdown the lead can be traced back to source throughout the metals recycling ’food chain.’  Marker specific installation data is kept on a secure database which can be accessed by the Police. The Trace-in-Metal protection system provides alerts to Scrap Metal Dealers should any thefts of marked lead take place in their area giving them the tools to refuse buying stolen lead.

Even if lead has been shredded or melted the markers remain intact and traceable providing law enforcement agencies support in their fight against metal theft. This provides a storng detrrent to those willing to buy stolen lead. With the Next Generation Lead Marking System Trace-in-Metal can help keep the lead where it belongs - on the roof - and help guardians of historic buildings and churches use their time and effort to continue preserving our heritage.