Close Encounter: Fur flies down on the farm

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK, the high-hedged lanes of Madeley in north Staffordshire rang with the collective high-pitched squeals of 7,000 mink, briefly enjoying their first taste of freedom.

Animal liberators, thought to be the Animal Liberation Front, stole into Len Kelsall's fur farm at Onneley, near Newcastle-under-Lyme, sometime during the night, cutting open hundreds of cages and spraying, "ALF: Have some respect for animals" on a fence.

High drama and mink chaos reigned briefly, but their escape was pretty short-lived - many were rounded up, run over, or shot by neighbouring farmers. As the piles of dead mink mounted, it began to seem like a pretty pyrrhic victory for the supposedly daring liberators, and a dismal experience for the few surviving mink - around 700 - who were rounded up and promptly returned to their miserable cages before the night was out. Was it really an effective way of raising national awareness of fur farming cruelty?

Who better to ask than Mark Glover, the activist behind Lynx, now campaigns director for Respect for Animals. I met Mark just in front of Len's impressively well-guarded farm. We stand in front of a gate, straining to hear the squeals of distant mink. In the field behind us, discarded rusty cages are piled up. The smell of mink, fetid and musty, wafts across from the farm.

So did Mark approve of this latest show of animal activism? "It was a highly inappropriate action. Mink aren't adapted to survive on their own. It was sad to see them, running in a straight line for the first time in their lives. People were battering mink. It was crazy - you could see the blood lust in their eyes." Mark also feels that mink have been seen in a poor light. "I think they're nice. They have been portrayed as vicious killers but they're highly intelligent and very inquisitive. That's how they survive in the wild."

Anyway, Mark tells me, guardedly, that there are suspicions that it may not have been the ALF. "The ALF usually do economic damage and then release photographs - but the place wasn't smashed up at all, and there were no pictures."

So what is he driving at exactly? "You tell me how they got in and opened those cages. We've only got Len's word for that. He knows the bottom is falling out of the mink market. People have suspicions that it's in Len's own interest for the mink to go missing - for insurance."

"How can someone make his living that way? There are thousands of animals in there, living impoverished lives - and for what? To end up as a pounds 10,000 fur coat," says Mark, tight-lipped, a look of contempt in his eyes. At this point, the man in question appears from one of the farmhouses, in a filthy blue boiler suit, surrounded by a haze of flies and a powerful aroma of mink poo. Two surly looking farmers follow close behind, but not too close. "Who are you lot?" asks Len suspiciously, and Mark almost snarls. A police car hovers behind us and slows down.

Mark and Len have crossed paths before, and now they're not on speaking terms. "Under no circumstances is that man coming in here," says Len, pointing at Mark, and his two farmhands draw in closer. Mark squares up, hands folded across his chest. "It's the same every time. You invite me in, but when it comes down to it, there's always an excuse." Len shouts: "Don't you come over that line. They can come in." - he glances at myself and the photographer. "But you - out!" The police car drives off.

Mark looks dejected, and we follow Len into his house of horrors. "It's pointless. You can't convince him - he's a fanatic," he mutters, and leads us behind enemy lines. Len proudly shows us his corrugated sheds containing rows, and rows, and yet more rows, of cages. It's a pitiful sight - rust, muck, stench and the interminable grating squeals.

Len's been busy feeding - hence the soiled boiler suit. Lunch isn't a pretty sight - what looks like liquidised cowpats are slapped on top of the cages, dripping down over the mink. There are about four or five in each cage, slumped on top of each other, listless and enervated, barely bothered to sit up and nibble the slop through the top of the cages.

"See, these animals are content," says Len, although I don't think his corrugated shacks are mink heaven on earth. "My vet congratulated me the other day for the way I put them to sleep - 15 seconds with carbon dioxide," he beams.

So how does he respond to suspicions in some quarters that last week's activities were possibly an inside job? Len laughs. "Forget the insurance. I'll lose a lot of money out of this. It has destroyed years of building up a farm. I can't sleep properly. I'm still having awful dreams about it. It's horrendous. I can't eat." Not surprising, considering what's on the menu. "Back to the feeding," says Len cheerfully, preparing to spray another layer of brown gloop over the cages, and leads us outside to Mark who's still piqued that we've been allowed a glimpse of Mink Hell and he's been left alone.

"So?" he asks us, impatiently. "What was it like? How many animals in a cage, then? What condition were they in. Did they all have tails?" Yes, I think so. "Mmm. And at least four or five to a cage," he says. "Sounds like a possible case of over-breeding. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it's very convenient considering what's happened..."

We head back to the car, trying to spot any stray mink that may have eluded Len's grasp. Mark is on the mobile phone, keeping animal HQ updated. "Mission accomplished," he whispers. "We're coming back."

Does Mark feel it's been a successful mission? "Mmm," he says. "I always want to be able to look back and say, `At least I tried'."