Around 60 sheriffs and bailiffs backed by more than 100 police officers, some on four-wheel buggies on the muddy terrain, began their operation just before 4am to clear the demonstrators from a series of tree houses and tunnels on the heavily wooded site. By late afternoon, 14 people had been arrested and up to 30 more people had left voluntarily, leaving as many as 100 still to move.
One journalist making a documentary with the protesters claimed he was beaten on the head by bailiffs, and a demonstrator claimed CS gas and batons were used to dislodge them. One of their spokesmen, Jeff Gazzard, said: "The language of the sheriff and of his bailiffs is one of medieval brutality. And that is the way they have behaved."
The protesters will receive support today from the local MP for Tatton, Martin Bell, who is due to arrive on site this morning, fresh from his first speech in the Commons yesterday. However, he will not be welcomed by all. Some protesters said Mr Bell turned down their invitation to visit the site during the election campaign.
At an acrimonious press conference yesterday, Cheshire's under-Sheriff Randal Hibbert, in charge of the clearing, denied any brutality, and pointed to the "low" number of arrests, mostly among those who had used "lock- on", people who had chained themselves to trees or concrete. He said: "It was a very satisfactory day's events."
He denied his men were involved in attacks, including one on the journalist. However, television producer John Fraser Williams, who is making a documentary for SC4 in Wales, claimed he had been restrained with plastic handcuffs, laid face down in the mud and beaten on the head. Mr Fraser Williams, who had apparent cuts around the ear said: "If that's what they do to journalists, then God help the protesters."
He said he had full confidence that Greater Manchester police, who, he said, would not behave with such "thuggishness," would investigate his allegations. Last night, a police spokeswoman confirmed they had received two complaints about official behaviour, including one by a journalist, and these were being referred to the Police Complaints Authority.
After weeks of stand-off during which veteran protesters tree houses and up to nine tunnels, including one called Cakehole, 70ft long, the pre-dawn action to remove them still took some by surprise. Teams of sheriff officials, with specialist tree-climbing units wearing white suits, and tunnelling experts in black suits and masks, moved into the first part of the site to jeers, catcalls and blowing of whistles. One woman protester hurt her leg after apparently falling from a tree.
By mid-afternoon one of the biggest tree houses called Zion had been cleared after a battle between officials and protesters over a flag which flew from the top of the giant beech tree. In the Jimi Hendrix tree, eight protesters clung on as officials suspended operations for the day to concentrate on clearing tunnels.
Yesterday's events are likely to be the first stage of a clearance operation which could last at least a month. Officials expect by the end of the week to have cleared the Greater Manchester part of the massive site, but will then face the much tougher task of removing people from tree houses and tunnels under the Cheshire side.
The Under-Sheriff admitted the operation could take weeks before contractors can start work on the pounds 170m runway.
The Campaign Against Runway 2 said it intended to go ahead with legal action tomorrow appealing against a High Court judgment over the right of the airport authorities to build a runway on parts of the land.