Sunday 26 February 2012

Focus on Metal Detecting: Artefact Hunting on Environmental Stewardship Land

Despite being Senior Countryside Officer at Sandwell MBC (Walsall, UK), metal detectorist John Stokes apparently does not really understand much about archaeological conservation. So much so that he wrote to English Nature about their environmental conservation schemes, in fact he submitted it as a FOI request.
From: John Stokes, 21 May 2011
Dear Natural England, As a local authority countryside officer and metal detectorist I was slightly puzzled by a clause in the environmental stewardship agreement banning the above. English Nature, as I understand it after 27 years as a senior officer in countryside management, exists to protect and improve habitats. Can you please explain why it is felt necessary to include any reference to metal detecting and archaeology in agreements, as it seems to me that both activities are out of your remit and terms of reference. Yours faithfully, John Stokes, countryside officer.
I find it pretty astounding that somebody who has (it says) a senior post of this nature denies the importance of the conservation of the historic record (the resource artefact hunters are looting) in sustainable landscape and environmental management - which is what English Nature does. How can one conserve one element of the environment without caring for another? Surely environmental conservation is holistic and not exclusive? Perhaps it isn't in Walsall.

No matter, English Nature treated that question with the disdain it deserved.
The Rural Development Programme for England (2007-2013), [...] identifies the protection and enhancement of landscape and the historic environment as one of the 5 key objectives of Environmental Stewardship. The schemes provide incentives to carry out land management to protect and enhance historic environment features, habitats and species, landscape, soil and water resources, and access to the countryside. Natural England [...] along with English Heritage, has an Action Plan to deliver the UK Government’s response to the European Landscape Convention. This places value on the cultural aspects of landscapes, including the historic environment. Natural England consequently has a remit for the historic environment in all its activities.
One would have thought that a "Senior countryside Officer" would have known about the RDP and the European Landscape Convention and the government's response to it. Perhaps not in Walsall.

But then the information supplied 15th June 2011 in reply to the request (Request No 1146; RFI#1146) by one Jez Bretherton, Historic Environment Senior Specialist in English Nature was pretty thought-provoking. Fittingly, the reply was published on the "What do they Know?" website ( The first part is not - from the Preservationist point of view - particularly controversial:
The holder of an ES Agreement is responsible for protecting and retaining archaeological sites and other environmental features on Scheme land. Compliance with the Entry Level Scheme Handbook (version 3, 2010 cited here) ensures activities such as metal detecting on known archaeological sites in grassland, overwintering of stock on sensitive sites, and others that can cause damage to environmental features are subject to appropriate measures to ensure their impact is not negative. The Handbook states: ‘With the exception of Scheduled Monuments (SMs), Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and known archaeological sites under grassland, metal detecting is allowed on land within an ELS agreement, provided that it is undertaken in accordance with the principles of best practice laid down in the most up-to-date Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales and that you agree that all finds are reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme.’
One would of course have expected nothing less. This means, if these rules are adhered to, that there should be a clear concentration of reported archaeological finds on Environmental Stewardship (ES) land. Sadly there appears to be no obligation on a landowner receiving ES subsidies to ensure that metal detectorists using this land as a source of collectables are complying with this requirement - for example verifying all finds are reported on the PAS database, or even incorporating in their land access agreement with artefact hunters the requirement to report ALL finds under penalty of revoking permission, still less the placing of such agreements on file with the administrators of ES conservation funds.

Equally uncontroversial (if it means that the event can be stopped or the damage done effectively mitigated) is the requirement:
Natural England must be notified of the details of large scale metal detecting events, including metal detecting rallies, on any ELS agreement land at least 12 weeks before the event.’
Under Higher Level Stewardship the requirement is:
Do not carry out or permit metal detecting or archaeological fieldwork on any of the archaeological sites on your holding identified in your FEP, unless agreed with your Natural England adviser in writing.’
The next bit of Historic Environment Senior Specialist Jez Bretherton's text however raises eyebrows. I'll discuss it in the text below.

Vignette: Sandwell's countryside.

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