THIEVES who stole decorative stones and flags from graves at a rural Burnley cemetery are being hunted.

Twelve large ‘York stone’ flags were taken from in front of headstones at Haggate Baptist Church, in Briercliffe, alongside stones from the tops of the memorials.

Thieves are believed to have loaded the heavy stonework over a low wall into a waiting vehicle, parked near the Nelson Road churchyard.

Police have condemned the thieves and have launched an urgent appeal for witnesses.

Police community support officer Rachel Lonsdale, part of the Briercliffe neighbourhood team, said: “This is a despicable crime where thieves have targeted the graves of people’s relatives and that is why we are asking for the public’s help.

“It’s likely that the vehicle was parked on the main road so I’d urge anyone that saw anything suspicious in the area or any vehicle parked where you would not expect it to be please contact us.”

Church elder Michael Green, who lives nearby and looks after the graveyard, reported the thefts to police, who believe the flagstones were taken between July 31 and August 12.

He said: “It is going to be very upsetting for anyone who goes and visits the graves of loved ones and finds them vandalised.”

Mr Green said that older family vaults, in one particular section of the graveyard, had been targetted.

The flagstones, measuring two-and-a-half feet to three feet wide, lay underneath chippings and would not have weighed as much as modern concrete versions.

The graveyard dates back to the 18th century and is still used for burials today. An original chapel was replaced by a larger church in 1866.

This lasted until 2002 when it was declared unsafe and demolished. The congregation now meets at the old Haggate Sunday School building.

Eyewitnesses to the graveyard theft can either contact PCSO Lonsdale at Lancashire Police on 101 or Crimestoppers, in confidence, on 0800 555 111.