Depending on which source you read, metal theft costs the UK economy anywhere between £60 million and £220 million a year.
But despite legislation by the Government making it harder for thieves to sell scrap metal for cash, the rural nature of south Lincolnshire makes it a prime target for gangs looking to make profits from lead and other metals by illegal means.
Just days before Easter, about two-and-a-quarter tonnes of lead was stripped off the roofs of St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Algarkirk, and St Mary’s Church, Frampton.
Cheryllyn Humphreys of Algarkirk Major Project Group, which hopes to turn the Grade I-listed, 12th-century church into a community resource, said: “We’ve had the roof felted and a pre-carbonate sheet put on the front of the stained glass side of the church to prevent further damage from the weather.
“Our Church Vision project is going ahead on May 16 to help the community with problems of rural isolation and transport issues, but we’ve had to find over £1,000 to stop the water coming into the church after the lead theft.
“The last time we were hit, restoration work on the church wasn’t completed for a year and we had a shortfall of about £50,000 that had to be found.
“Now we’re facing a similar thing again where we’re going to have to find extra money for a project that we were undertaking anyway.”
Police had a major breakthrough in December 2012, when six men were jailed for a total of almost 21 years for stealing 70 tonnes of lead which was sold for £70,000, causing up to £1 million of damage in the process.
The gang members were convicted as part of Lincolnshire Police’s Operation Brompton whose detectives found evidence of thefts at 20 churches in the county, including St Peter and St Paul’s, as well as St Mary’s in Sutterton, St Margaret’s in Quadring and St Nicholas Church in Lutton.
A Lincolnshire Police spokesman said: “Operation Brompton was launched in 2011 as an intelligence, prevention and enforcement strategy to tackle all metal thefts in Lincolnshire, including church lead thefts.
“The introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which made it harder for thieves to dispose of stolen items, has resulted in a significant reduction in offences and the numbers of reported cases of theft of lead from churches has fallen.
“However, incidents do still occur and sadly it is often the same churches that are repeat victims.
“This may be because the location of the church is particularly isolated or it may be that listed building status requires a ‘like-for-like’ repair when lead is stolen and thieves know that further lead is there to steal.
“At a time when police resources are stretched, we rely more than ever on the vigilance of local communities and the proactive actions that a diocese can take to protect its ecclesiastical buildings. “
The 2013 Act was no deterrent to the lead thieves who targeted St Mary’s Church, Frampton, in the days leading up to Palm Sunday on Sunday, March 29.
Father Charles Sowden, parish priest of Frampton and Wyberton, said: “We had a Lent course running on the Wednesday before Palm Sunday and then I met somebody at the church on Friday when everything seemed to be alright.
“Then on Sunday, there seemed to be rather a lot of water coming into the church and when our churchwarden had a look, he noticed that lead was missing from the roof.
“We live in difficult times but in reality, we have something like 660 places of worship in the county and it’s a very small percentage of churches that get hit.
“But when you look at the steepness of some of the roofs, you either have to be extremely brave or a complete madman to climb up and steal lead for comparatively little gain.”
The Scrap Metal dealers Act 2013 makes it an offence to buy and sell scrap metal for cash, requires scrap metal dealers to join a national register and to keep a record of sellers’ names and addresses at the point of sale.
Former Crime Prevention Minister Jeremy Browne MP, who introduced the legislation, said: “These changes will help tighten the net around rogue dealers who flout the rules and wilfully purchase stolen metal, while reforming the system to support legitimate businesses.”