Richard Otley is the animal exporter who defied an army of protesters at Brightlingsea. Danny Penman finds he is prepared to do more than that to protect his trade
Richard Otley, Britain's best known exporter of sheep, lives discreetly in the village of Bythorn, Cambridgeshire. The first indication of his presence is a scratched and battered Range Rover - the same Range Rover that appeared in TV news bulletins last month being attacked by animal rights protesters at Brightlingsea, Essex.

Beyond the Range Rover is a short driveway leading to a Portakabin. Everything seems quiet. Suddenly a man with fear in his eyes is running towards the car wielding a pickaxe handle. An eager-looking rottweiler follows close behind. There is a moment in which another car looks likely to suffer the fate of the Range Rover, before a shouted introduction is made. The man apologises quickly and explains that he was expecting an attack from the Animal Liberation Front.

This is Richard Otley, whom many animal rights protesters would probably like to see locked in a veal crate and dumped in the English Channel. Unlike them, he will have been pleased at the breakdown of EU talks on the regulation of the animal export industry yesterday.

Aware of the fury he arouses, Mr Otley has installed "sophisticated security systems". The windows of the Portakabin that serves as his office are coated with thick plastic to make them shatterproof; his house is ringed with security lights.

"We've had to invest in fire extinguishers and there are fire points in every room. The police have even given us an operation name and they do an hourly sweep through the grounds. We've even had to take precautions with the post.

"We've had one bomb on the doorstep and we are now ready and capable of handling any more the animal welfare groups would like to take. We've got pickaxe handles at the ready and we now have the use of a water cannon if necessary."

Richard Otley has been well known to animal rights protesters for several years. He was instrumental in setting up the ferry service through Plymouth operated by MT Shipping - one of the three functioning livestock ferry services in the country. At the close of last year he also ran shipments of live sheep through King's Lynn, in Norfolk.

But it was in January that he achieved general notoriety. Riding shotgun into Brightlingsea in the cab of a livestock lorry and allegedly sticking two fingers up to the crowd, he drove the demonstrators wild with anger.

The next day, as he attempted to do the same, he was reportedly arrested - something he denies. "The commanding officer simply said to me: `For the safety of my officers, can you stop the confrontation by leaving the cab?' I said: `No problem'. In fact, I am thinking of taking legal action because the police issued a press release which said I'd been arrested when I hadn't." From that moment on he has been under the media spotlight - an odd situation for a man involved in a trade where the main players organise themselves quietly and remain as secretive as possible.

Mr Otley has the appearance of a Tory grandee in the making, aged perhaps 35, with a solid public school and farming background. In fact, he is 27, left school at 16 with a handful of CSEs and is the son of a country school headmaster. He has been involved with the livestock trade almost all of his working life. At 18 he went to New Zealand and worked as a sheep shearer for about a year and a half. When he returned to Cambridgeshire, he began buying and selling sheep.

He is now the director of several companies. He has a farm of about 150 acres that is essentially a holding pen for sheep in transit and which he chooses not to show to visitors.

He is more a commodity trader than a farmer. He buys at markets all over the country and exports about 160,000 sheep a year, mainly to France, where many will be grazed for a while before slaughter and sold as French. After costs, he makes around £1 a head.

There is a group of about 20 live animal exporters that control the trade in this country; of this group, Mr Otley is the largest exporter of sheep. They are now involved in a fight with animal welfare groups that Mr Otley, for one, will not back away from.

"I think they've bitten off more than they can chew by picking on the farmers. We're a tough lot. We're used to hardship and we're used to being out in all weathers. There will come a time when we won't be pushed around any longer.

"If the National Farmers Union doesn't do something, then we may have blockades of ports by farmers - we can't let them hold us to ransom because of a 22-mile stretch of water. Certain drivers are carrying shotguns as a matter of routine - legally carrying them - but they're not there for shooting game. In Britain in 1995, isn't that sad? I would say that 90 per cent have a hunk of wood on board."

I ask him if he thinks there is any cruelty in the trade. "A lot of people try and transpose their views on to the animals. I think there have been some very isolated incidents. Obviously, whatever you do on a large scale you're going to trip up sooner or later. It's not in our interests to overcrowd lorries and cause cruelty. Is there cruelty in sending 54 people skiing if they're all crammed in a coach first?"

But skiers choose to travel that way. "We're not talking about skiing, we're talking about the transportation! And the people on board don't actually have room to lie down. Livestock have room to lie down."

The livestock trucks I've seen haven't got enough room for animals to lie down, I tell him. "That's because the animals choose to sleep on their feet," he says.

Mr Otley was fined £7,000 for causing unnecessary suffering to a consignment of sheep last year; on appeal, the fine was reduced to £3,000. He obtained the usual health certificates for the shipment, in December 1993, but had the sheep sheared afterwards. Trading standards officers said in court that, given the weather, they expected 20 per cent of the animals to die before the journey was completed.

I ask him if he thinks animals have rights. "It doesn't work like that. You can't meddle with the human food chain. It's been set up and accepted. A small minority are ramming vegetarianism down the majority's throats. Where do you draw the line? Do you apply it to rats? When this country was rat infested years ago would these people have tried to stop them killing rats? Will we have to stop using fly spray?"

Has the death of Jill Phipps shaken his determination to carry on with the trade? "Obviously, everybody in the industry has been saddened by the loss of life, but it was bound to happen. She can blame nobody else but herself for that. The argument has gone away from whether it's right or wrong to ship animals. It's now whether the ALF can bust the live exporters of the industry. The answer to that is no."

But if they do win? "Every time we get thrown out of a port we're looking for somewhere else. If it comes to the crunch we'll buy a port. You could probably buy Brightlingsea for under a million. You will only need a dozen exporters to club together and throw in two or three hundred thousand pounds. I would say that the majority of the exporters would have that cash in hand. We certainly would.

"Wales would be ideal. You wouldn't have any opposition because the Welsh farmers would stamp on them. But if you go down to the South Coast they're all such self-righteous, pompous, middle class prats that they think the country owes them a living.

"How can we lose? The only way we can lose is financially and we're still making money, but it's difficult. The EU has already said we already have a compensation claim case. They're also breaking free trade rules. If they want to unilaterally stop us using a Welsh port, then we'll have a real serious case. I'll just sit back and draw the money I'll be entitled to and do nothing."

If the protesters do win on the British mainland, Richard Otley says he'll look further afield for a source of sheep. "The Falklands would be ideal. The Falklands are part of the EU and there are an awful lot of sheep down there."