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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace