Desecrating graves, a chilling tactic revived from the annals of animal rights extremism

The desecration of graves - such as that of an elderly woman in Staffordshire last week - has a potent symbolism for the animal rights movement. A veteran activist John Curtin was arrested over the incident, but later released without charge. Mr Curtin was connected to members of the Hunt Retribution Squad (HRS), who dug up the grave of the Duke of Beaufort in 1986.

The desecration of graves - such as that of an elderly woman in Staffordshire last week - has a potent symbolism for the animal rights movement. A veteran activist John Curtin was arrested over the incident, but later released without charge. Mr Curtin was connected to members of the Hunt Retribution Squad (HRS), who dug up the grave of the Duke of Beaufort in 1986.

In 1977, campaigners against bloodsports vandalised the grave of the celebrated Victorian huntsman John Peel, at the village churchyard in Caldbeck, Cumbria. His headstone was broken and the head of a stuffed fox was thrown into the grave. A note left beside it read: "John Peel has blown his last horn and the fox has had the last laugh."

Police arrested a prominent hunt saboteur, Mike Huskisson. Mr Huskisson, who has remained a consultant to the League Against Cruel Sports and represented it at the Burns inquiry into the future of hunting, was jailed for nine months, as were two other activists.

The latest incident, in Staffordshire, was directed against Darley Oaks Farm in Newchurch, which breeds animals for medical research. The body was that of Gladys Hammond, mother-in-law of one of the farm's partners, Chris Hall.

Officially, police say the fact that the farm and the village where it is based have been subjected to a five-year animal rights campaign is merely one line of inquiry. In reality, it is the only viable motive. Its owners have indicated they may now close the business.

The Animal Liberation Front (ALF), the group said to be responsible for the worst of the attacks at Newchurch, has not claimed responsibility. Robin Webb, spokesman for the ALF, said it was "unlikely but not impossible" the organisation was behind it. He said grave robbery would not break ALF rules of engagement, which prohibit harming life, although it was more likely the work of the provisional wing of the movement; the Animal Rights Militia (ARM), or the Justice Department.

Emerging in the 1980s, ARM has been responsible for a string of poisoning hoaxes around the world, as well as firebomb attacks on key "targets" such as Boots the chemist.

The Justice Department shares the same philosophy and tactics. "It could be that people have that seen this tactic has been used in the history of the animal rights movement, and thought to use it in this situation," said Mr Webb.

But while both ARM and the Justice Department have "legal personalities", the more prosaic truth is that the names are merely "shopfronts" employed by an overlapping group of activists for specific actions. The number of hardcore militants is thought to number no more than a handful.

According to Superintendent Steve Pearl, who heads the National Extremism Tactical Co-Ordination Unit, a non- operational unit that advises the police, Government and businesses on how to deal with animal rights extremism, the membership of the movement follows a steep pyramid.

"Tens of thousands of people are happy to donate money to the cause. From this there are about two to three hundred who turn up on protests. But the extremists themselves make up a very small number - I suspect this is as low as 50 or even less," says Supt Pearl.

Police believe that extreme acts alienate mainstream support. Supt Pearl points to the dwindling numbers who demonstrate. At the highwater mark of the campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) in 1999, more than 1,000 people would turn up for protests. At the last day of action in Oxford, they could barely muster 250, he says.

But campaigners can lay claim to a successful year; plans to build an animal research laboratory at Cambridge have been shelved, while a similar project at Oxford was seriously delayed when contractors pulled out after being targeted.

The campaign led by Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shack) against HLS continues. This week activists were hitting the phones in a co-ordinated "ring-in", demanding to know why firms were continuing to do business with HLS. A different company was chosen each day.

But police fear such legal acts are being slowly replaced by a more deeply entrenched extremism, which this year has seen increasing attacks on homes and vehicles. In the first six months of this year, 165 people were arrested in connection with animal rights protests. This is up nearly threefold on the same period in 2003, when there were 66 arrests.

More of these attacks happen at night, and the justification for considering someone a "legitimate target" is also widening. This week protesters demonstrated at a Worcestershire school after it emerged that a member of the board was indirectly related to medical research using animals. Protesters recently demonstrated against Marks & Spencer because one of its haulage companies does business with the gas supplier to HLS.

Businesses, on the advice of the police, are pursuing the protesters through injunctions. But they know that as activists claim victory over one company, they simply move on to the next. For Supt Pearl the fight goes on: "These people are zealots. They know no limits."