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UK sees surge in castle break-ins and illegal metal detecting

There has been a surge of castle break-ins, vandalism of ancient sites and illegal metal detecting as heritage thieves target Britain’s history during the lockdown.

Two intruders were caught clambering on the rooftops of 12th-century Amberley Castle, West Sussex in the early hours of one morning and arrested for burglary and criminal damage.

In a separate incident, raiders used a mechanical saw to cut through a security door at Dunnottar Castle in Aberdeenshire, before fleeing when they failed to breach a second barrier.

Other historic sites have also been targeted by thieves, including Walsingham Abbey in Norfolk – where thugs stole part of a wall – and two medieval parish churches, which had paving slabs removed.

Elsewhere, vandals caused ‘serious’ damage to Doll Tor, a Bronze Age stone circle in Derbyshire, by setting fires and removing several smaller stones, leading to a police investigation. 

Police were called to Amberley Castle in West Sussex in the morning of May 8 after two people were spotted breaking into the site, which is now a luxury hotel charging up to £480 a night. 

Due to the lack of lighting, officers searched the rooftops using thermal imaging equipment and caught two suspects, a 16-year-old boy and a 28-year-old man. They were arrested on suspicion of burglary and criminal damage. 

Dunnottar Castle, a medieval fortress near Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire, was targeted by thieves who managed to break through the main door between June 10 and June 15. 

The damage was spotted some time later by a jogger who called police. An investigation found the raiders had tried to break through a second door but had failed to do so and fled. 

The threat of criminals targeting historic sites has prompted major heritage organisations, including the National Trust, to maintain tight security at their sites. 

A spokesman told MailOnline today: ‘We take the safeguarding of our places and collections very seriously. We have security measures and procedures in place at all our properties and keep these under constant review.’ 

However, many nationally important heritage sites are not regularly staffed, making them more vulnerable to thieves and vandals. Many employees have also been staying at home during the lockdown, making the sites they usually maintain even more vulnerable.

There has been a rise in reports of illegal metal detecting by Hadrian’s Wall, with several thefts recorded near Horsley in Northumberland. 

On July 12, police were tipped off about a suspicious car in the area and went on to arrest a 44-year-old man on suspicion of theft. 

Similar incidents were investigated by Cheshire Police as part of its Operation Roudhouse investigation, which involved a series of raids that led to four arrests. 

In the Peak District, the prehistoric Doll Tor stone circle near Birchover was ‘seriously’ damaged by vandals in early June. 

The thugs moved several of the smaller stones of the scheduled ancient monument to build a fire pit and for a seat, as well as setting several other fires. 

Sam Grimshaw, who discovered the damage at the site, told the BBC: ‘Once I’d realised what I was seeing I became very angry, and a great feeling of sadness came over me as I saw more and more stones removed. 

‘I was amazed at the effort that had been put in to move some of the stones, I couldn’t quite believe it.’

The Bronze Age monument is managed by Historic England, a government-funded body that monitors heritage crime and regularly reports incidents on its Twitter account. 

Recent incidents include paving slabs being stolen from the graveyard of the Church of St Helen in Merseyside, and from directly outside the entrance of All Saints Church in Whitefield, Greater Manchester. 

Meanwhile, on July 3, staff at Walsingham Abbey in Norfolk tweeted that they were ‘horrified and fed up’ to discover that 175 bricks had been stolen from a wall in the grounds. 

Scotland has also seen a spate of heritage crimes during the lockdown. 

Since the end of March, six people have been arrested for illegal metal detecting, and a report was made of somebody digging at the world-famous Callanish Standing Stones on the Isles of Lewis.

Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said no serious damage was done but archaeology at the site could have been disturbed.

Other reports included movement of grave slabs at Restenneth Priory near Forfar and graffiti and littering at Lincluden Collegiate Church in Dumfries.

Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire, was broken into in June and campers were found at Newark Castle near Port Glasgow, Inverlcyde. 

Inspector Alan Dron, chairman of the Scottish Heritage Crime Group, said: ‘Over the lockdown period from April to June, rural crime fell by 39 per cent this year, fly tipping spiked and heritage crime also rose. It was one of the areas where we saw a significant increase.

‘Because people were staying more local, they were getting out to investigate sites close to where they lived.’

A spokesman for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said: ‘We take incidents of heritage crime very seriously.’ 

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