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"Rogue" Metal Detector Users Could Be Stealing Sussex's History

As lockdown fragments, police in Sussex have been reporting an increase in damage caused to the county's sensitive heritage sites — and it's thought a rogue minority of metal detector users might be behind it.

In recent days, officers have responded to unauthorised damage caused to the ground at Firle Beacon, the earth surrounding World War II pillboxes near Bexhill and Cuckmere Haven, and, for a second time this year, Winchelsea Cricket Pitch which is linked to a mediaeval building and undercroft.

Each case has resulted in a disturbance to the earth, with the topsoil replaced after digging.

What was or was not removed from the hole created by the digging is unknown.

The hobby of metal-detecting includes a vast majority of "detectorists" who abide by the law; who obtain a landowner's permission before scanning the ground; and who declare anything they find to the landowner or, in cases of larger finds, to the local Coroner or the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

But, in a conversation with Sussex Police's specialist heritage crime advisor, PCSO Daryl Holter, More Radio has learned of a secretive and illegal minority who may be responsible not only for damage to ancient sites, but for the theft of irreplaceable evidence of Sussex's history.

"Since people are starting to get out and about, they're noticing the tell-tale signs of certain heritage crimes — and one we're looking at right now is the evidence of illicit metal-detecting.

"The vast majority of metal-detectorists are ethical — they record their finds, and the whole reason they do their hobby is because they love history, and this is an important tool to help us understand our past.

"But you have a minority who are doing it for their own personal gain, or they're stealing these objects out of the ground to then sell-on, or to make money."

PSCO Holter was clear about classifying those carrying out illicit activities:

"These people are thieves, they're criminals."

"It's essentially stealing our history, stealing our past, stealing our understanding of an object.

"The sites we've seen targeted are scheduled ancient monuments, which are afforded the highest protection in law — they're historically so important that we need to look after them.

"Some sites have still to be discovered, and what's happening is that these illicit metal-detectorists do not get the landowner's permission, and they'll often go there by day or night, trying to hide away as they do."

He described the Police's viewpoint on this activity:

"The law regards this incredibly seriously.

"It isn't like stealing something from a shop that you can get again tomorrow.

"When these artefacts are taken out of the ground, you can't find them again — they will be gone, and the story is lost, forever, and any education that the object had to give us is ripped away from us and future generations."

His message for anyone spotting unusual activity was:

"If you see someone with a metal detector by night, using torchlight, there is something immediately suspicious about that."

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