STONE thieves have been branded as 'despicable' after they took a number of concrete slabs from pavements in Oswaldtwistle.

A number of paving stones were taken overnight from Pot House Lane, the Jackhouse Nature Reserve, leaving behind bare patches of mud where they used to be.

Asphalt has since been used to patch them.

Veteran local councillor and leader of the opposition at Hyndburn Council, Peter Britcliffe, slammed the thieves and called on more to be done to tackle them.

He said: "I think this is despicable. It's almost like vandalism as well as theft, and it's sad to know there's a market for it.

"The government have cracked down on mental theft, and now they need to crack down on things like this too.

"I would urge anybody who has any information, or sees anything suspicious, to report it."

Fellow councillor and former mayor, Judith Addison, said: "I think there's been a big illegal trade in these flag stones for a long time, they fetch good money.

"Hopefully the police might be able to trace the culprits if there've been other similar incidents recently in our area.

"When the stones were taken from the top of Rhyddings Park wall on the Fielding Lane side about two years ago a lady saw the culprits in action when returning late from baby-sitting and got their vehicle registration number.

"The police were able to recover the stones, although naturally the council had the expense of reinstating them.

The number of metal thefts reported to police has tumbled, falling from 1,819 in 2011 to 1,017 just two years later.

However, the number of stone thefts in the same period tripled from 71 to 213, sparking fears criminals put off metal theft by strict new legislation are changing tact.

The crime has been linked nationally with the recession, and prices for some types of stone, such as York, can fetch around £100 a square metre.

Former Hyndburn and Haslingden MP Graham Jones, who is seeking re-election next month, said he had expected metal theft to fall following the introduction of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act last February.

Trading with cash was outlawed, and dealers were required to apply for a licence in a bid to combat theft.

A police spokesman appealed for anybody with information about the theft, which took during the hours of darkness on March 29 and 30, to call 101.