Showdown on the farm

The animal rights community is resolved that, whatever it takes, Christopher Brown's cat-breeding establishment must be closed. The Government is resolved that, whatever it takes, he must be allowed to keep it open. The Battle of Hill Grove is becoming a war - and truth is already a casualty
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The Independent Culture
Christopher Brown will spend tomorrow at home. It's a nice place for a quiet Sunday: a large, secluded, stone farmhouse in the heart of comfortable Oxfordshire between Witney and Minster Lovell. But tomorrow, if past experience is anything to go by, it will resemble one of the scarier scenes from Zulu. Shortly after lunch, a ferocious army, screaming for his blood, will lay siege to his farm. Last time they attacked, 80 panes of glass - and nearly a quarter of the slates on his roof - were smashed by flying stones while 60-year-old Brown and his wife cowered under a staircase. Sometimes it's worse - one end of his house is still being repaired after being burnt out by a car-bomb last year.

Nick Deacon will be wishing he was at home. He's a young Thames Valley constable, and, as such, is one of hundreds of policemen - from six forces - who can expect to be called in for the day to have missiles and accusations of brutality hurled at them.

"It's a pain in the neck," he says.

Like Grunwick or Wapping before it, Hill Grove Farm has come to represent the unenviable face of policing. In the last major attack, Deacon was twice struck by flying rocks. Was it frightening?

"Bloody right it was."

But Cynthia O'Neill will be wishing she wasn't at home. An elderly ex-nurse who lives with four cats in nearby Milton-under-Wychwood, she's been barred by an injunction from coming within a mile of the farm, which for the past 27 years has bred and sold cats for scientific experiments.

"It's an infringement of my way of life," she complains, with some justification, since she's been campaigning against Brown more or less full-time for seven years. "I live in the area. I'm not even allowed on the main road. And they've confiscated my megaphone." She is not an obviously intimidating figure, especially in relation to a heavily built farmer like Brown. But she'd dearly like to be shouting a bit more amplified abuse at him on Sunday. Indeed, as the person who first began the campaign to destroy his livelihood, she has a reasonable claim to be considered Brown's worst enemy.

There's competition for that title, though. Two other campaigners, Natasha Dallemagne and John Curtin were barred from the Hill Grove vicinity earlier this year by the same injunction, as were, improbably, eight named animal rights groups and "anyone holding himself out to be an animal rights activist".

This in turn has provoked the wrath of Liberty, who see the order as an abuse of the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act. Other animal rights organisations (though not the RSPCA) have called for Hill Grove Farm to be closed. Some 48 MPs signed a recent early day motion condemning "establishments which breed cats and kittens for the vivisection industry" (Hill Grove is the only such establishment in Britain). And some 200,000 people have signed an anti-Hill Grove petition. Above all, there are Heather James (also known as Barwick) and Greg Avery (also known as Jennings), the organisers of the group that now co-ordinates the anti-Brown campaign: Save the Hillgrove Cats. (They have their own version of the farm's name.)

Greg, an unemployed 30-year-old from Birmingham, won't be there on Sunday: he's subject to his own exclusion order. But Heather, who's also from Birmingham, is confident that Sunday's siege will be the biggest yet. In the 14 months of its existence, Save the Hillgrove Cats has built up a mailing list of 5,000, and coaches will be coming from all over Britain. "There could be 2,500 people, maybe 3,000," says Heather. "And this is just the beginning. Whatever it takes, that place is going to close."

A more prudent or thin-skinned man might have called it a day by now - as the owners of Consort Beagles in Ross-on-Wye, after 10 months of attention from James, Avery and others, did last year. But prudence and sensitivity are not Brown's forte. Stubbornness is.

"It's just anarchy," he says defiantly across his dining-room table. "Terrorism. I've been beaten up, I've had letter-bombs, and so have my staff. But I'm not going to give up. If I did we'd have mob rule."

This fear is shared by the Thames Valley police, who have created a special unit to deal with the threat. Sections of 10ft-high steel fencing are stacked in Brown's grounds, ready to be erected around the farm at a moment's notice; there's a police radio mast on his chimney; and officers patrol the vicinity whenever he or they consider it necessary.

The cost of Operation Stile, after 18 months, exceeds pounds 1.1m; Brown's bill for private security is around pounds 30,000 a year. Brown's enemies have complained about the cost to the taxpayer, but the police are adamant that any compromise would be a dereliction of duty.

"It goes right to the core of policing," says Thames Valley's Richard Goodfellow, "which is to maintain law and order."

The Home Office is equally committed, and in July caused considerable controversy by allowing the police to introduce miners' strike-style roadblocks around Witney to prevent a demonstration. Conspiracy theorists among the protesters mutter darkly that Jack Straw has a cottage in Minster Lovell.

At the heart of this fury are 1,000-odd cats, many of Abyssinian descent, with names like Lennie, Pansy, Percy and Emily. They are housed in four secure units at the back of Hill Grove Farm and are prized by the vivisection industry because they are "specific pathogen free" - that is, they do not suffer from various common cat viruses.

Their thoughts on Sunday will have to be left to your imagination - as will most of the physical details of their short lives, since Brown will not allow outsiders into his units (or even to look through the observation windows used by RSPCA inspectors). Nor will he give more than the vaguest description of what goes on in them.

The cats live, typically, in pens 12ft by 8ft, each housing between 18 and 26 cats. Breeding "queens" are kept in "stud" pens 8ft by 6ft, with eight or nine females and one male in each pen; and there are smaller pens for mothers with new-born kittens. They're usually sold - for around pounds 400 each - at between eight and 12 weeks old. But roughly 10 per cent die before they're sold, a significant proportion, as a result of being eaten by their mothers.

These facts, most of which were dragged from a reluctant Brown in a court case earlier this year, hardly speak of very happy, well-adjusted cats. Nor do they speak of what most of us mean by "torture". The RSPCA and the Home Office are both adamant that the conditions more than satisfy legal requirements.

The protesters object that the legal requirements are inadequate. And, in any case, they would still want to "save" the cats even if they lived in five-star feline luxury - on the grounds that, as one demonstrator recently wrote to the Witney Gazette, these cats are "bred specifically to be sold for cruel and unnecessary experiments".

Precisely how cruel and how unnecessary is hard to establish. According to the Home Office, licences were granted for 1,446 experiments involving cats in 1997, of which 469 used cats bred by the research establishments themselves and 977 used cats from Hill Grove Farm. The Home Office will not say which were which; nor will it discuss how many of these involved feline vaccines, or give any other information, beyond the bald figures, as to what the experiments involved. The figures show that 703 of the experiments licensed were categorised as "applied studies - veterinary medicine", while 173 were in the field of immunology.

A trawl through hundreds of published reports on British experiments involving cats reveals much that is mundane and quite a bit that is grotesque (for example: "Reversal of fusimotor reflex responses during locomotion in the decerebrate cat"). Many of the experiments involve the nervous system; some have more obvious medical relevance than others. More importantly, nearly all involve general anaesthesia (usually "without recovery"). Opinions as to the necessity - or desirability - of such experiments will vary; but it's hard to see how most of them could be classed as "torture", or how they differ significantly in terms of cruelty to what goes on in abattoirs.

But the anti-Hill Grove campaign is about feelings, not facts. At an all-day vigil outside the farm last week, a prominent placard showed the legend "Hillgrove Farm Breeds Cats For Torture", around a picture of a cat with electrodes in its heart. If you didn't ask, you'd never guess that the cat was photographed in Japan, was dead at the time, and was highly unlikely to have had any connection with Hill Grove Farm.

The previous day, at a meeting in Witney that was designed to whip up local support, 50 cat-lovers had watched in horror as an anti-Hill Grove video showed various laboratory kittens in obvious distress. "I wish they'd do the same to you," shouted one lady as footage of Brown was inter-cut with a particularly stomach-turning experiment. No one seemed bothered by the fact that the experiment took place in the US and didn't use Hill Grove cats.

Nor did anyone dissent when both speakers asserted, as if it were established fact, that animal experiments were "scientifically useless". It's conceivable that they were right, but a huge majority of scientific opinion disagrees. For example, a BMA survey in 1993 found that 94 per cent of British doctors agreed that: "Animal experiments have made an important contribution to many advances in medicine," while a survey in 1996 of all living Nobel Laureates in medicine and physiology found (among the 55 per cent who responded) 100 per cent agreement that: "Animal experiments are still crucial to the investigation and development of many medical treatments." That doesn't mean that vivisection is right. But few of those who rely on Save the Hillgrove Cats for their information will even have considered these details.

Perhaps that's what gives the Hill Grove controversy its resonance. It's a front-line battle in the great war of our times: reason versus feeling; cold logic versus popular sentiment. And the reluctance of the rationalists to stand up and be counted has encouraged their enemies to believe that, at least where animals are concerned, victory is in sight.

"We're going to win," said a demonstrator at last week's all-day vigil, "because we're not going to go away until we do." A bearded, weather-beaten man of around 40 with a black ALF (Animal Liberation Front) badge, he identified himself - after some thought - as "Steve". He said that he was an unemployed landscape gardener, and had moved house two months ago from Toxteth to Oxford for the specific purpose of dedicating himself to the Hill Grove protest. "People talk about us as terrorists," he said, "but we're just ordinary people."

The idea that there is anything unusual or wrong about exerting such merciless pressure on law-abiding people does not seem to have occurred to the protesters.

Back in Milton-under-Wychwood, Cynthia O'Neill broke off a hair-raising series of allegations involving Brown, the freemasons, police brutality, deliberate organophosphate poisoning and the theft of her cat by vivisectors to insist that none of the Hillgrove protesters is capable either of violence or of intimidation. "They're all such lovely people. Goodness shines out of their eyes."

Some might query the goodness of attacking the property of Hill Grove's staff and demonstrating outside their homes - but not O'Neill, who recently justified such activities thus: "Many times we have politely asked workers at Hillgrove to give up what they are doing, but to no effect. Shaming them with demonstrations outside their homes and economic sabotage may be necessary to get the place closed down. There's nothing wrong with that." As for the physical attacks on Brown's home, O'Neill has a simple answer: "I don't think that it's violent to smash a few windows. It's economic sabotage."

Heather James, leading the vigil, was equally unapologetic. "I wouldn't encourage anyone to break the law. But I fully understand the pain and anger people are feeling. They've written to their MPs, they've petitioned the Home Office, they've been laughed at by Brown's workers" - this is a constant cause of complaint - "and they've had to listen to Brown saying on TV that he's an animal-lover. At the end of the day I've no sympathy if someone's roof gets broken."

But Christopher Brown has long since given up expecting sympathy. A heavy, suspicious-eyed man with a faintly aggressive smile, he knows that he cannot compete in media-friendliness with his tormentors. Questioned about his business, by journalists or by lawyers, he tends to answer unhelpfully and, often, inconsistently. He clearly distrusts the outside world - and the outside world distrusts him.

Yet few people could go through what he has been through without developing a cynical outer shell. As well as the sieges and the car-bomb, he's endured years of hate-mail and abuse; been kept awake by all-night vigils; and been portrayed as a monster to tens of thousands of people to whom he'll never have a chance to defend himself. He's also seen Hill Grove Farm's once-thriving sideline as a bed-and-breakfast and caravan park killed off.

"The Caravan Club withdrew our licence after pressure was put on them, and most of the bed-and-breakfast directories have removed us. Financially it's a disaster. I only keep going so as not to give in.

Actually, Hill Grove Farm's 1997 accounts show a profit, after tax and dividends, of pounds 108,879, compared with pounds 80,000 in 1992. But the 1998 accounts may tell a different story; and, in any case, Brown's apparent solvency hardly diminishes his suffering, or the justice of his next indignant complaint: "What I do is perfectly legal. Why should I give in to mob rule?"

He strokes his dog wearily. "It's been horrific," he says. "Devastating. We're existing, not living. And you can only withstand so much. But, yes, I'm stubborn. I'm not going to give in just yet. I just wish I could see a future."