Lead theft from churches is at 'epidemic levels' according to police, with places of worship suffering thousands of pounds worth of damage and taking congregations years to recover.

The record price of scrap metal is being blamed.

  • Watch the first of Chloe Oliver's report on Church lead thefts:

Repairs are still not complete at St George's near Fordingbridge, a year since the ancient church fell victim to lead thieves.

The vicar told ITV Meridian how the stolen lead has left not just a hole in the roof but their hearts too, with parishioners now having to raise the money to replace it themselves.

  • Leslie Player - Vicar, St James' Church:

  • REPORTED CRIMES ON CHURCHES INVOLVING LEAD IN THE LAST TWO YEARS:

10

DORSET

18

SURREY

33

SUSSEX

16

WILTSHIRE

14

HAMPSHIRE

The figure was significantly higher in Sussex, with more than a thousand crimes at churches and 33 lead thefts. Credit: ITV Meridian

Worryingly, thefts like these are on the rise right across the Meridian region. Now at epidemic levels, the National Crime Agency says that metal theft is one of the fastest growing crimes across the country.

In Wiltshire, 9 lead roofs have been stripped from religious buildings in the last 3 months alone.

The vicar at St James caught thieves in the act. They'd been holding a 24-hour prayer vigil when they heard noises outside.

  • Reverend Keith Brindle- Vicar, St James' Church:

This church has stood in Dorset for more than a thousand years.

Now it faces a £60,000 repair bill after sheets of lead were stripped from its roof.

This church faces a £60,000 repair bill Credit: ITV Meridian

However, not such a getaway for this thief. This photo shows his red van stuck in mud in East Meon near Petersfield. His greed got the better of him when he loaded so much lead onto his vehicle, it sank.

This photo shows his red van stuck in mud in East Meon near Petersfield. The man failed to steal lead.

After targeting 7 churches in 4 counties - causing £190k of damage - Petre Romeo Cazan was jailed for 7 and a half years.

With such a complex repairs, this church in Hampshire has decided not to replace its roof with lead and instead opt for a cheaper alternative.

This church in Hampshire has decided not to replace its roof Credit: ITV Meridian

The lead on the roof was inscribed with the graffiti of all the workmen who had gone up there, three centuries or more ago.

The lead was inscribed with the graffiti of all the workmen

What would've taken thieves hours to steal for a few quick hundred pounds on the black market, is now costing our churches tens of thousands of pounds and years to recover from.