A LEADING metal detectorist has reacted furiously to claims by English Heritage that illegal “nighthawks” are pillaging the region’s hidden history.

Norman Smith, from Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, organises metal-detecting rallies around the country that are attended by up to 400 people, always with archaeologists in attendance.

English Heritage has recently published a report claiming illegal metal detecting and the taking away of antiquities is presenting serious risk to the study of the past.

However, Mr Smith yesterday accused English Heritage of being misleading and said: “Illegal metal detecting is now virtually non-existent.”

He said he helped with the survey, carried out for English Heritage by Oxford Archaeology, and that it found the problem to be minimal.

“English Heritage are notorious for anti-detecting feelings and have unsuccessfully campaigned for years to have metal detecting banned.

He said: “Their latest tactic has been to persuade the Department for Food and Rural Affairs to include restrictions on metal detecting in the written agreements signed by farmers claiming agri-environmental scheme payments.”

“Most metal detectorists record their finds on a voluntary basis with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and have recorded over 330,000 in the ten years since the scheme originated. Since the inception of the scheme, the recording of hoards has risen by 200 per cent.

“The scheme has also resulted in an increase in known archaeological sites.”

But inspector of ancient monuments for English Heritage, Keith Miller said: “To say the problem has gone is absolutely untrue.”

He claimed “honeypot”

sites were being targeted more and said the Defra scheme was designed to protect wildlife and heritage.

He added: “We are not against all detectorists – we have worked with them and even funded their work. It is only the illegal aspect we want to stop.”