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The Nighthawking Survey,

an investigation of those who use metal detectors to steal objects from the ground to sell them for personal profit, has finally been published. See lots of press reports here

It reveals that the activity is rife yet both prosecutions and penalties are at a derisory level – and that only 14% of landowners even bother to report it when it happens since they lack confidence that the police will act or that a prosecution will be successful. Even when someone is convicted the fines are tiny – from as low as £38 – and of no consequence compared with the value of what may be stolen in a single night. As one detectorist commented about a recent case – “They’ll be back out tonight on another site to get the goods to pay the fine.”

That the problem is rife will come as no surprise to many farmers. We recently highlighted the case of Mr Browning whose farm had been targeted 150 times – and in some regions most farmers have either been victims or know neighbouring farmers who have been.

Amongst the key recommendations of the report are to provide guidance to landowners on how to combat the problem, to increase the obligation on sellers of antiquities to provide provenances, to urge EBay to be more vigilant and to set up a central database of nighthawking incidents.

Most hopeful of all however is the recommendation that the police and courts should be prompted to take the crime more seriously, the central improvement being that the penalties should be greatly increased. It is a crime that is very hard to detect and gather sufficient evidence for but if getting caught has dire consequences the instances are bound to plummet, as some of us have been saying for years. It looks like it is finally going to happen. It is a nasty, mean-spirited crime for it is committed not just against farmers but all of us. The penalty should fit the crime.

There is something else that can be done that the report didn’t mention. All the other detectorists claim they despise nighthawks. Yet they widely and repeatedly admit they know many of them and share clubs and forums with them but are reluctant to expose them. This tribal loyalty is utterly childish and damaging. Let metal detectorists back up their words with actions and expose all their criminal colleagues. Anything else is outrageous – as indeed has been their response to this survey – out of ten thousand of them only 13 reported cases of nighthawking!

Finally we feel we owe ourselves a modicum of self-congratulation since no-one in the establishment looks to be preparing to offer us any….

We noticed that despite the situation in mainland Britain, the report reveals that nighthawking in Northern Ireland is virtually unknown. We have for some time been advocating the adoption of the Northern Irish regulatory system in England, Scotland and Wales.

Sometimes mere ordinary members of the public can see beyond all the talk and claims and can see what’s right and obvious better than those in positions of responsibility. Perhaps the crystal clear implications of this report will be taken on board. There is a simple, speedy and perfectly fair way to put an end to nighthawking so that it is “virtually unknown” throught Britain, not just in a small part of it.


February 2009

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