Last year, 123 buildings in the area had their slates ripped off and already this year another eight buildings have been targeted, according to police reports.
'These buildings are 300 or more years old but once the slates have gone the old beams will not last long,' said Andrew Lowe, conservation officer for the Lake District National Park Authority. 'The slate is worth about pounds 500 a ton second- hand so someone can get pounds 2,000 or more for a night's work.'
Inspector Ian Robertshaw, crime prevention officer with Cumbria Police, said: 'We believe that some of the people doing this are professional villains. They are cheeky enough to do it in broad daylight and have got away with it. We have started a farmwatch scheme to look out for this type of crime.'
Slate must be used to roof most buildings in the Lake District according to planning rules made by the National Parks Authority. However, farmers often cannot afford to replace stolen slates on old, unused buildings.
At Auldby Farm, Skelton, Cumbria, most of the slate was removed from a small barn next to the road by thieves who made two visits over a period of about three months. Local people saw them removing the slate during the day and did not think of reporting them to the police.
Now, after more than a year of exposure to the elements, the hard oak beams of the barn at Skelton are beginning to suffer from woodworm and rot. It makes no sense to replace the slates when, because the barn is right next to the road, they are very easy to steal.
The black market in stolen slate may have been inadvertently encouraged by Lakeland planning rules which specify that certain buildings must be clad with second-hand slate to give the building an instantly 'old' appearance. New slates, which are more expensive than second-hand ones, take more than 10 years to lose their bright green appearance.
A new artificial slate tile costing less than one-third of the price of new slate is being tried out by the Lake District National Parks Authority. Permission has been given for it to be used on a farm building at Waberthwaite near Ravenglass.
'It is made from concrete and resin. It looks indistinguishable from natural slate at a distance of two or three feet and is guaranteed for 50 years,' Mr Lowe said.
'We are waiting to see how it weathers. But I think we will be giving permission for it to be used more frequently in the future.'
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