As workmen hacked the branches from the giant oak whose misfortune it is to stand on the route of the planned A30 dual carriageway in Devon, under its roots the last five demonstrators on the site scattered deep into the tunnels.
The conflict at Fairmile, the last of the three protest camps along the road-improvement scheme, had reached a stalemate yesterday.
At the weekend, the Fairmile Five issued their demands which included a plea for a new inquiry into the project. An under-sheriff, Trevor Coleman, rejected the demands, saying that they were totally unrealistic. Yesterday everyone seemed resigned to sitting it out.
Simon Barnett, the deputy under-sheriff for the eviction, said that it could be days, even weeks, before the site was clear. But he added: "It would be in everybody's interests if they came out now. Their lives are in extreme danger".
It is a danger shared by the eviction tunnellers. The eight-man specialist team was advancing foot-by-foot in pursuit of Swampy, Welsh John, Ian, Dave and the only woman, Animal. The work is slow.
Last night one of the Fairmile Five was caught. Mark Clark, a spokesman for the under-sheriff, said John Woodhams, alias Welsh John, was caught in a tunnel shortly before 5pm. He said: "Our tunnelling experts nabbed him after they heard coughing." He was arrested and released on bail on condition that he did not return to within one kilometre of the camp.
Mr Barnett warned: "The earth is like sand, it's very fragile. The shoring up done by the protesters is very poor. They have used rotten timbers ... It's a very bad job indeed."
The tunnellers have progressed about 20ft. Yesterday they broke through a second steel-reinforced wooden door and then a third, which had blocked the way to where several tunnels branch off the main shaft. The four remaining protesters have split up inside, leaving the workmen to ponder the extent of the labyrinth dug in the last two years.
Outside the barbed wire and fencing which guards the tunnel entrance, two dozen more supporters play the mandolin, the penny whistle and the didgeridoo with occasional bursts of drumming, like a defiant warning to the 120 security guards and 50 police that the fight is not over yet.
A local man had volunteered as official observer for the environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth, although he was not a member, and was photographing workmen as they sawed up a treetop platform and dropped pieces to the ground. There are fears that a badger sett has been disturbed by the process. But he said: "They're much more careful when you have the camera on them."
Villagers treat the scene like part of a good day out. They come walking their dogs, bringing their children and grandchildren. Their feelings are mixed. Bridget Willsman, of nearby Cadhay, in her fifties, said: "I think the protesters are brilliant. It's such a shame to see the trees coming down and people should make a stand for what they believe in. But we do need the road very much. The old one's so dangerous. There's an accident every weekend. If we don't see it we can hear the ambulances."
Penny, a nurse from Exeter, came bearing food. "It's my way of giving support," she said. "I'm too old to be doing what these youngsters are doing but there are probably a lot of local people who have concerns about what is going on here. I feel that the traditional or conventional approach has failed."
A protester, Tabs, 20, was grateful for the supplies but said that even without the external sustenance they would still be there. "Where there's a will there's a way," she said.
The demonstrators sense it is a question of when, not whether, the last protesters will be brought from their cramped underground home for almost inevitable arrest. But the resolute handful remaining will refuse to budge until that day. "We're here," said Tabs. "We can't think about anything else at the moment."
t Radical environmental protesters are hoping the site of Manchester airport's proposed second runway will become the venue for the next major direct action against construction projects which harm the environment. About a dozen have already taken to the trees on land to be covered by the runway.Reuse content