Metal detecting: the law

Well, surely spring is finally here after a painfully drawn out winter. The clocks have changed, the snowdrops have at last given way to the daffodils, the fields are alive with new growth, ramblers and, quite possibly, metal detectorists.

Recent years have seen a great advance in the capabilities of affordable metal detectors. This, coupled with some spectacular finds, has led to a surge of interest in this pastime. This, in itself, is no bad thing. When conducted responsibly, metal detecting is a harmless hobby, which may uncover items of interest, and possibly value. Detectorists can be handy to know as they are usually happy to help in locating lost items or perhaps old metal pipework.

Anybody metal detecting should first obtain consent from the landowner and farmer. If not, they will most likely be trespassing. Ideally, they should be a member of the National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD) or the Federation of Independent Detectorists (FID). This is not too much to ask as it costs c£8/pa and the membership includes insurance which always provides some peace of mind. It also means that they are obliged to follow a code of conduct.

The main provisions of such codes are: always seek permission, follow the Country Code, disturb soil as little as possible, do not detect on designated land without the required permission, report all finds to the landowner and abide by The Treasure Act 1996.

The main land designations that apply will be Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It is worth remembering that many agri-environment scheme agreements will also restrict such activity. Should human remains be uncovered, the police should be informed and no further work carried out until the Home Office has issued a Licence.

All finds should be reported to the landowner in the first instance. Antiquities that do not qualify as “treasure” should be reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is run by the British Museum. This is not a legal requirement, but it is good practice to do so to ensure that the historic interest is recorded. The Treasure Act contains detailed definitions of exactly what constitutes “treasure”. For the sake of brevity, “treasure” is usually items that contain at least 10% precious metal (gold and silver) and that are over 300 years old, but not a find of a single coin. “Treasure” should be reported to the local Coroner. Failure to do so within 14 days is a criminal offence.

In no case does “Finders Keepers” apply! Any non-treasure find will invariably belong to the landowner but a division of spoils is not unreasonable and can be agreed in advance in a Search Agreement. The NCMD produces a model agreement. If the find is deemed to be “treasure” the Coroner will offer it for sale to the British Museum. The Coroner will then decide how the agreed price will be split between the finder, the landowner and possibly the tenant.

The unsavoury element of metal detecting is known as “Nighthawkers”. They detect mostly at night with no consent and no regard to designated sites. They steal any finds and such activity is a criminal offence. They should not be encouraged!

If you would like any further information or to discuss any rural related matter, please contact Tom Wills, head of the agriculture & estates department at Sintons.

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