Lead theft …… again, and again, and again. Where is it all going? And WHY?

The many diverse and global news that has headlined since the last Trace-in-Metal newsletter have moved metal theft and its impact on our heritage out of the news spotlight. But the lack of this specific illumination does not mean that criminals have stopped stealing lead from churches and historic buildings. Indeed it is on the increase, and this is now the third re-write of this piece, as further attacks have taken place.

A whole lead roof (20 tons) was stolen from the Grade I listed All Saint’s Church, Houghton Conquest, (pictured:Gary Mudd) over a prolonged period of time but was only noticed October 2 when daylight was seen coming through the ceiling. To gain access to the roof the thieves posed as tradesmen. Expected to reach ten thousands of pounds the insurer will not cover all the repair costs leaving a devastated treasurer and volunteers. Read more on the BBC news. 

The next day, October 3, North Yorkshire Police tweeted that the 12th century church of St Peter and St Paul in Drax, West Riding in Yorkshire, had part of its lead roof stolen. In Sledmere, an East Yorkshire, 600 square feet of lead was removed in the same week. Bridlington Press

The rural church of Middenhall in Suffolk also recently had lead stolen as had a church in Sparsholt where 30 square metres of lead was removed in September. To the list of churches now missing the protection of a lead roof can be added Hardwick in Rutland,  St Mary the Virgin in the Towcester Deanery, St James’ church, Thrapston, in the Oundle Deanery, St Mary’s in Willoughby Waterleys and St Peter’s at Askern.

UPDATE: 13/10/18 - Lead stolen from Pewsey Church

Many churches survive on donations and the cost of replacing stolen lead often puts pressure on finances in addition to the time Volunteers have to put in to raise additional funds. But, as put by Mark Harrison, Head of Heritage Crime and Policing Advice, Historic England, ’the value of our built and cultural heritage cannot be judged in pounds and pence alone’.

When lead from a roof is removed and the theft not immediately noticed, water ingress can lead to irreparable damage to interior structures and irreplaceable artefacts. Heritage crime, as defined by English Heritage, is "Any offence which harms the value of England's heritage assets and their settings to this and future generations.” As a response to these threats most police services have selected officers to act as single points of contact for events relating to heritage and cultural property crime. In addition, the Crown Prosecution Service has identified specialist prosecutors to function as Heritage and Wildlife Crime Coordinators.

Members of community groups such as Heritage Watch and Neighbourhood Watch  are encouraged to be vigilant and protect heritage by reporting suspicious activities to the police, and clearly the situation at Houghton Conquest would have benefitted from such a motivated group of ’capable guardians’.  

According to data released in August 2018 by the International Lead and Zinc Study Group (ILZSG), demand for lead outpaced production for the first six months of the year and with reported global stock levels falling the probability for an increase in price is escalating.

There is a proven correlation between higher metal prices and a surge in metal theft. NFU mutual, the UK’s leading rural insurer, is announcing in its annual report on rural crime that farmers are now using ’medieval’ methods to protect their flocks and machinery and keep criminals off their land. Earth banks and ditches are dug to stop criminals driving onto farmlands, single entry points - as in Norman castles - are created, and geese and dogs are used as audio alarms.

These types of security measures are obviously not appropriate for churches. Although the historic House Mark, used in early and late Medieval times in continental Europe to signify ownership, has its equivalent in the Trace-in-Metal marking system which has the added advantages that it is easy to detect but almost impossible to erase. Each tiny microdot provides proof of ownership and installation. Precaution is the best defence and by installing modern equivalents to traditional defences and keeping watch over treasured heritage buildings criminals can be identified and hampered.

20,000 less police offices must impact on the ability to deliver front line services into isolated and rural areas, and also there are questions regarding the abilities of those charged with the enforcement of sections of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act, notably local authorities. Research conducted by other stakeholders is showing some alarming figures relating to the renewal of operating licences. If these licences to operate are not being enforced, then what chance is there in enforceing the other important elements of the legislation, such as cashless transactions and carrying out due diligence checks on vendors?

With the law not being enforced, those willing to either shortcut for expediancy or profit can drive coach and horses through the legislation, and this creates ’safe’ disposal routes for stolen metal, fuels metal theft, damages communities and exposes legitimate recyclers and refiners, who unwittingly buy the stolen metal. In the end we all suffer.

Trace-in-Metal works because it indelibly marks lead and copper with coded microdots that can survive the temperatures used in metals recycling. It provides reassurance regarding the provanance of the metal and proves without doubt that it is stolen, linking those invloved with crime scenes. Apart from the legislation, (that clearly isn’t working) there has been nothing new in relation to reducing metal theft since the demise of the Metal Theft Task Force. Trace-in-Metal provides a new, resileint approach of not only marking the metal, but also giving stakeholders a platform for establishing the origins of the metal, and these abilities have not existed before.

Things have to change, maintaining the status quo is damaging our heritage assets and the wellbeing of our communties.