A question. Are we suffering from an epidemic of nighthawking in the UK? The regularity of reported incidents are happening more and more often. In the past month multiple accounts have appeared in the British media and some have been very high profile.

Nighthawking is the theft of archaeological artifacts from protected archaeological sites and areas under the cover of darkness, most commonly by members of the public with the use of a metal detector. Nighthawking breaks the law on a number of points:

  • Trespass: Nighthawking is often performed on private land where permission to survey and dig has been refused. Any disturbance with the land or dispersal of any substance makes it aggravated trespass which is more routinely prosecuted.
  • Digging on scheduled sites: Digging on any sites which are scheduled monuments without prior consent from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is illegal.
  • Declaration of treasure: The Treasure Act 1996 requires all finds that are legally defined as treasure to be declared to a local coroner or the police within 14 days. Nighthawkers rarely declare their finds due to the method of acquisition. Breach of this law can result in a £5,000 fine, a term of imprisonment up to three months or both.
  • Theft: In Britain, ownership of finds on private lands, unless declared treasure, rests with the landowners.
    Impact on metal detecting in the United Kingdom

Nighthawking has a detrimental effect on the reputation of legitimate metal detectorists, who, in some cases are held in high esteem having contributed over 850,000 items to the records of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This aside, the archaeological community and general public via information reported in the media has begun highlighting what we can suggest, is an epidemic in the UK.

Nighthawking and the Oxford Archaeology study ( Click here for the PDF of the review )

Nighthawking was the subject of a study undertaken by Oxford Archaeology and collectively funded by English Heritage, Cadw, Historic Scotland, National Museum, National Museum of Wales and the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The primary aim of the study “Nighthawks and Nighthawking: Damage to Archaeological Sites in the United Kingdom and Crown Dependencies caused by illegal searching and removal of antiquities”, was to assess the level of damage caused by Nighthawking to British archaeological heritage and to study the adequacy of current law in dealing with Nighthawking.

The review, which cost the taxpayer £66,000, proved that over the ten-year study period, attacks on archaeological sites equated to fewer than 1.5 incidents a month and was far from the crimewave some archaeologists believed it to be.

The Study ended in 2008. In the 13 years since, metal detecting in the UK has seen a boom with upwards of 25,000 hobbyists now actively participating. The rise in the figure has also seen more nighthawking activity take place, with the addition of social media and media articles, we must estimate the figure found in the study is now much higher.

In 2019 Detectorists were jailed for £3m Viking hoard theft. George Powell and Layton Davies uncovered about 300 coins in a field in Eye, near Leominster, Herefordshire, in 2015, but did not declare the treasure, instead selling it to dealers. They were convicted of theft and concealing their find, with Powell, 38, jailed for 10 years and Layton, 51, for eight-and-a-half.

Coin seller Simon Wicks, 56, was also convicted on the concealment charge and jailed for five years and Paul Wells, 60, also convicted of concealing the find

With the prominence of this case in the public eye and especially in the metal detecting community, the belief was that cases of nighthawking would subsequently lessen. 2 years later, this does not seem the case.

The most recent case reported in the media occurred only a few days ago.

Nighthawkers illegally accessed the remains of a Roman villa in a village near Scarborough just hours after Historic England publicly revealed the find.

The heritage body announced that the ruins of a unique circular building with a bath-house had been found in the village of Eastfield and that the structure did not match the design of any other villas discovered in either Britain or Europe.

Security guards were employed to protect the site from potential nighthawkers, however, they managed to breach security on Wednesday night and inspector of ancient monuments Keith Emerick confirmed that they had damaged the buildings and possibly removed items. A full inventory is now being carried out and they have upgraded their security provision.

On April 12th, Humberside Police say they had been receiving a number of calls in relation to illegal metal detecting on farmland and areas of archaeological interest.

April 10th, 5 men admitted heritage crimes at Cheshire’s Beeston Castle and Roche Abbey in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.

All five men, from Tameside, appeared at Chester Magistrates Court on Friday, April 9. They each pleaded guilty to removing, without written consent, objects of archaeological/historical interest found by a metal detector in a protected place.

They are all next due to appear before District Judge Nicholas Sanders at Chester Magistrates Court next month, who will decide whether to sentence them or if the case should be moved to Chester Crown Court.

Curtis Barlow, 32, of The Quadrant, Droylsden, admitted taking coins and metal artefacts from Roche Abbey between December 13-15, 2019.

Gary Flanagan, 33, of Winton Avenue, Audenshaw, admitted taking coins and metal artefacts from Beeston Castle and Roche Abbey between December 13-30, 2019. He was also charged with taking an axe head from Beeston Castle, a charge which he denied and the prosecution therefore withdrew.

Daniel James Lloyd, 33, of Beech Avenue, Droylsden, admitted taking an axe head, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between December 13-30, 2019.

John Andrew Lorne, 29, of Sunnyside Road, Droylsden, admitted taking an axe head, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between December 13-30, 2019, and removing coins and metal artefacts from Roche Abbey between December 28-30, 2019.

Francis James Ward, 32, of Dingle Drive, Droylsden, admitted taking an axe head, coins and other metal artefacts from Beeston Castle between December 13-30, 2019. He also admitted to producing a small quantity of cannabis.

Prosecuting, Ben Stanley said police were tipped off about a series of artefacts trying to be sold to an antique dealer, who became suspicious.

Police searched Ward’s address and found a phone containing a Whatsapp metal detecting group, with the five men involved.

Analysis of the respective heritage sites confirmed the defendants had been present.

They will next appear at Chester Magistrates Court on May 7.

In March Gwent Police’s rural crime team were investigating reports of nighthawking in Caerwent.

At the same time it was also reported that the little known Castle de Branceholme in Yorkshire had issues with nighthawking – both on the remains of the motte and bailey castle and on a Bronze Age mound (750BC) nearby.

The following four images were circulated on social media and emanate from Tring, Hertfordshire and the landowner, as you will read, would like a chat with those concerned.

Police officer’s from each area’s rural crime units are taking all of these and other matters very seriously, using social media to highlight nighthawking and other issues on a daily basis. If you are able to assist in any of these cases, ring 101 to report any incidents or offer other information.

An article published earlier in the year – Nighthawking or Hysteria? Shows that not all instances of possible illegal metal detecting is as such. On some occasions, images of the holes allegedly left during the crime, are infact nothing more than burrowing animals spoil heaps.

I also know of several metal detectorists that often visit sites, with the landowners permission, at nighttime due to their working lifestyle.

It is my belief that the representative body in the UK should be actively speaking out against illegal metal detecting, their voice is not being heard and only a cursory quote, semi regular – members found guilty of the activity will be removed from the membership.

A widespread campaign with the inclusion of all bodies involved or affected by nighthawking should take place and laws toughened, with increased penalties placed on those found guilty of illegal metal detecting.

This isn’t a slant on the hobby, not at all. The question is, is there an epidemic, or is it solely a media furore about, what otherwise is a fantastic community of hobbyists, doing things the right way, then again, shouldn’t the representative bodies be shouting about the responsible detectorist’s, the people working alongside the establishments, and the tremendous work done for charity?

Personally, I’ve witnessed a lot of good, I know of one person who has nighthawked, and that person is a pariah. All the people that I have come into contact with, I have no hesitation to speak about the good they do, both for history, the community and charity.

But nighthawking does exist. Please reconsider your actions if you are involved in this. The hobby has many battles ahead. Nighthawking will only add to these issues and further cause friction within the hobby and between those that links need to be strengthened.

Lets stop this epidemic together.

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