Tackling Heritage Crime

We define Heritage Crime as ‘any offence which harms the value of England’s heritage assets and their settings to this and future generations.’ Threats include metal theft, criminal damage like arson, illicit trade of cultural objects and unlawful metal detecting.

Here’s a quick look at some of the ways we’re tackling heritage crime, and how you can get involved:

1. Working with communities: Heritage Watch

Police car with Heritage Watch sticker

Heritage Watch is part of Neighbourhood Watch, with communities acting as the eyes and ears of the police. Often it’s the people who live near or manage heritage sites who can help to prevent crime and where crime does occur, lead to the identification of the subject. There are currently Heritage Watch groups in Cheshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, York and Kent, and more in development.

Get Involved: If you’re interested in setting up a local Heritage Watch network, get in touch with your Neighbourhood Watch Coordinator.

2. Working with police: Heritage Crime Liaison Officers

Police engaging with re-enactors to raise awareness of heritage crime. © Historic England

Nearly every police service in England has identified a Heritage Crime Liaison Officer, who act as liaison between us and other heritage and law enforcement partners. As well as guidance and training provided by us, the officers also attend an annual conference to gain specialist expertise in preventing heritage crime.

You can contact these people through your local police force. 101 for non-emergencies, 999 for emergencies.

3. Preventing metal theft: Operation Crucible

Two Forms (Divided Circle) by Barbara Hepworth
Two Forms (Divided Circle) by Barbara Hepworth in Dulwich Park, London, in September 2011. The sculpture was stolen in December of that year.

Operation Crucible is a national campaign to tackle the theft of heritage metals. We’re working with police, metal working and recycling sectors to prevent and investigate the theft of metal from historic sites. This can include church roofs, railings (around parks and historic buildings), and public art like statues and sculptures. The metals that are most at risk are lead, copper, bronze and zinc.

In 2011 a much-loved bronze sculpture by Barbara Hepworth was stolen overnight from a local London park. Insured by the council at £500,000, the scrap value of the sculpture was thought to be just £750.

4. Preventing unlawful metal detecting: Operation Chronos

Scenes of Crime Officer gathering forensic evidence from a Roman site
Scenes of Crime Officer gathering forensic evidence from a Roman site that has been attacked by illicit metal detectorists. © Historic England

Metal detecting involves people using quite sophisticated electronic equipment to identify metallic objects buried in the ground. There are many thousands of detectorists that do this lawfully as a hobby. They report their finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) which is part of the British Museum. More than 815,000 have been reported to the scheme since it started.

However, some people take part in metal detecting unlawfully, sometimes referred to as ‘night hawking’. ‘Nighthawking’ is a term used to describe illegal metal detecting on farmland, archaeological sites and other areas of archaeological interest, usually in order to steal coins and other artefacts for their historical and financial value. Operation Chronos focuses on identifying the criminal minority who are intent on stealing our shared cultural heritage.

5. Stopping maritime crime: Operation Birdie

A bronze cannon from a historic wreck. Items like this are a target for thieves. © Historic England

Similarly to nighthawking, the vast majority of divers and people who go beach combing comply with the law. However, there are a small number of criminals who are intent on causing damage and interference to coastal and maritime heritage sites.

We’re working with the Police, Maritime & Coastguard Agency, Receiver of Wreck, Marine Management Organisation and Sub-Aqua Community to prevent and investigate this form of criminal behaviour.

In the last five years, two major convictions have resulted in significant finds and a custodial sentence, and the first ever seizure of personal finances.

6. Guidelines for sentencing heritage thieves

Stolen Bronze Age axe head recovered during search warrants in Ramsgate, Kent 
© Historic England

Plaques stolen from war memorials; organised gangs stripping church roofs of lead; nighthawks stealing historic objects from the ground and unlawful salvage from historic shipwrecks. In 2015 we advised on new sentencing guidelines that meant that these crimes would be recognised in the sentencing process for the first time.

7. Police support volunteers

Heritage Crime Support Volunteers in Leicestershire
Heritage Crime Support Volunteers in Leicestershire

A growing number of experts are lending their archaeological expertise to tackle heritage crime in their local area. If you feel that you have skills to share, please do get in touch with Mark Harrison.

Further reading

In the latest issue of Heritage Online Debate, conservation and heritage experts discuss the battle against metal theft.

More on our website about tackling heritage crime

Explore the Staffordshire Hoard

National Rural Crime Network


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