Stealing lead from church roofs has become such a lucrative operation that gangs of organised criminals are believed to be using drones and Google Earth to survey targets before carrying out surgical raids to remove tonnes of metal worth tens of thousands of pounds.
The resurgence of thefts, which last peaked four years ago, has seen more than 200 churches fall victim to lead strippers including 12 in Suffolk in a two-month period this summer.
Some churches warn they face closure because their insurance cover is limited and they are unable to meet the cost of the repairs.
Police, church leaders, insurance and security experts will meet later this month, at Althorp House in Northamptonshire to discuss the problem. The local 13th-century church in Great Brington, which has links to the family of the late Princess Diana, saw 10 tons of lead worth an estimated £40,000 stolen from its roof in August.
Police say some of the recent attacks have shown greater sophistication including the use of drones to select church roofs with most lead.
At one Northamptonshire church, thieves cut through two padlocked farm gates, extensively chopped down a hedge and laid down boards to reach the nave, which was completely stripped of lead.
Sergeant Sam Dobbs, of Northants Police said: “Community is at the heart of our rural policing role. Parish churches are at the physical and spiritual centre of that community, whether people go to church or not.
“In each of the parishes attacked there has been shock and revulsion at the desecration of what is a place of worship, a living museum, and a symbol of stability for hundreds of years.”
He said the average loss per church in the county had been in the region of £30,000 with insurance only covering £7,000. “Raising the balance is a gargantuan task for those left to pick up the bits. One church not only has to replace the roof but has had to condemn the organ which has been mindlessly ruined through the consequent water damage,” he said.
Experts say they have been surprised by the rising numbers of churches hit. Attacks peaked in 2010-11 prompting the government to set up the National Metal task force to co-ordinate police efforts. They also passed the Scrap Metal Dealers Act forcing dealers to be licensed. Cash payments for scrap metal have been banned since December 2012.
Angus Brown, a director of church security firm E-Bound, believes the rise is the result of organised gangs targeting churches. “The changes in the law resulted in opportunist thieves going elsewhere. Recently, the churches have been carefully chosen.
“Well organised, disciplined teams of people have come in working fast and removed large amounts of lead and copper before disappearing.”
He said it wasn’t clear where the metal was going to be smelted but believed that it was evident that loopholes in the Scrap Metal Dealers Act were being exploited.
Some church leaders have been critical of the police response to the thefts. One East Midlands archdeacon, who asked not to be named, said police were reluctant to investigate and declined to send forensic staff to examine the roof.
“It even took us ages to get through on the phone to report the theft in the first place. They couldn’t be less interested,” he said.
Ecclesiastical Insurance, which insures more than 90 per cent of the country’s church buildings said that while overall thefts had declined from a peak four years ago, it was concerned about the recent increases.
St Mary the Virgin with St John’s in Great Brington has launched a public appeal to raise the £40,000 needed to reroof the 13th-century Grade 1 listed church. To donate visit www.crowdfunder.co.uk/historic-church-appeals-for-help-after-roof-theft