HUNDREDS of thousands of pounds worth of lead has been stolen by thieves targeting churches - including three in the South Somerset area.

Last week, St Peter and Paul’s Church in South Petherton became the latest in a long line of churches to be hit by overnight vandals.

This comes after Barrington and Ilton also fell victim to ruthless thieves last month.

Churches across the county have seen their roofs ransacked in the past few weeks, including Glastonbury, Kingsbury Episcopi, Goathurst, Middlezoy, Brent Knoll, Meare, Bradford-on-Tone and Bridgwater.

An Avon and Somerset Police spokesman said: “We have received a number of reports of lead being stolen from the roofs of churches in Somerset in recent weeks.

“Several churches have reported roof tiles have been removed overnight, leaving them with expensive repair bills.”

As well as having their materials stripped, many churches found their interiors exposed to the elements, with wet and windy weather compounding the problem.

Chief Inspector Martyn Cannon said: “We have had a number of reports of similar incidents in Somerset in recent weeks. These incidents can cause a lot of distress to communities.

“Officers have been visiting churches to provide reassurance and security advice around CCTV to try to prevent further thefts.

“We would ask members of the public though to be vigilant and report any suspicious behaviour to us on 101. If you see an ongoing crime, call 999.”

Anyone with information is asked to call 101 and give the call-handler reference number 5220054726.

While most communities woke to find the thieves long gone, South Petherton’s churchwarden disturbed the intruders in the act.

“I had put out a leaflet to all the properties overlooking the church to say raise awareness, and say that we were not going to be up there doing any work,” said Steve Harrison, South Petherton churchwarden.

“On Thursday morning, at about 2am, one of the neighbours phoned me up to say he heard a noise, which was described as ‘like someone dropping something into a wheelbarrow’.

“I went up there are did lots of driving around with my headlights on, so it might scare off anyone who was still there, and then started walking around with my torch.”

Although Steve didn’t see anyone, his neighbour said that at this stage they saw ‘four guys in hoodies’ running from the scene.

“We reckon about 90 square metres of lead was ripped off,” Steve added.

“There was a lot of water in the church by the time we got to work at 7.15am.”

Within hours a builder was on the scene and by the afternoon the exposed ceiling had been covered in tarpaulin.

Steve said: “When the realisation hit, I got this terrible feeling. I makes you wonder, ‘what kind of people would do this?’”