The Iron Age Hillfort at Cow Castle, in Somerset
Britain's first 'heritage police' force has been launched to protect under-threat landmarks across the West.
English Heritage has teamed up with police chiefs in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset to launch a pilot scheme to target crime and anti-social behaviour at some of the region's most famous historical sites.
The new force will target everything from illegal metal-detecting at ancient battlegrounds to 4x4s churning up archaeological sites.
Thefts of lead from historic churches – a crime which has risen 20-fold in just the past five years – is also part of the new force's brief.
The Government body said it had identified the West as the pilot area because of the presence of many vulnerable heritage sites, and because of the enthusiasm of partners in the police and organisations like the National Trust at reversing the growing tide of heritage crime.
A spokesman for English Heritage said: "The true extent of heritage crime is difficult to ascertain due to the way in which it is recorded and the fact it tends to be under-reported by victims.
"This initiative seeks to address the reluctance to report such crimes by increasing public awareness and placing the emphasis on a coordinated effort.
"The 2009 English Heritage study of the problem of illegal metal detecting suggests that the problem is growing and reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg.
"Metal theft from churches is also a serious issue, with the number of insurance claims in 2010 being 20 times as many as that in 2005," he added.
The regional director for English Heritage, Andrew Vines, welcomed the new crime force, saying: "Heritage crimes rob us of our history. Their effect on our lives is insidious and felt often too late.
"Beautiful buildings are scarred forever, places we treasure and enjoy lose their identity and appeal, evidence about our past is lost and tourism suffers, not to mention the burden on owners to repair and put things right.
"Society needs to work together to combat these criminal activities."
The heritage crime initiative will focus broadly on four types of crime.
The first is damage to historic sites. That could be vandalism or arson at churches, or damage caused by vehicles on archaeological sites.
The second is artefact theft – illegal metal detecting or diving at protected shipwrecks.
The third is architectural theft – the stealing of items from historic buildings and structures, and the fourth is unlawful alteration or demolition of listed buildings.
Police chiefs from across the country are heading West to help set up the new force, which will co-ordinate existing officers in the various constabularies. Chief Insp Mark Harrison has been seconded from Kent Police to act as adviser for English Heritage.
"Good progress has been made in establishing coordinated working relations between the enforcement agencies and setting priorities at a national level," he said.
"But the most important part of the initiative is the engagement of communities across the country in establishing their own local networks to prevent and tackle heritage crime.
"A real difference will only follow if this galvanises local action," he added.
The national police leader for heritage crime, Chief Constable Richard Crompton, added: "This is a really important step which will have a significant impact upon the problem of crime and anti-social behaviour in and around our historic environment.
"A great many people care deeply about this sort of crime and I believe that we can tap into that concern and interest and work with communities to make a real difference."