Desecration of grave claimed as victory for animal rights

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The theft of a grandmother's remains from a grave in a country churchyard in Staffordshire was claimed by extremists yesterday as a victory in the global campaign for animal rights.

The Florida-based website of the direct action magazine Bite Back hailed the removal of 82-year-old Gladys Hammond's coffin as a successful "sabotage" operation. Bearing the slogan "more than one action a day, every day" the site listed the exhumation alongside other strikes in recent weeks. These included a paint stripper attack on a German businessman's home in Dusseldorf, the "liberation" of mice from a laboratory in Russia and the defacing of billboards at a greyhound stadium in Ireland.

Police believe the reason Mrs Hammond, who died in 1997, was targeted was because she was the mother-in-law of one of two brothers who run Darley Oaks Farm in Newchurch, Staffordshire, where guinea pigs are bred for medical research. Campaigners claim the animals are kept in appalling conditions at three locations in the villages of Newborough and Newchurch, allegations the family denies.

The farm has found itself at the centre of an increasingly pernicious protest thought to be conducted by members of the Animal Liberation Front. Not only have the farm's owners, David Hall and his two sons Chris and John, been targeted, but the entire village in which they live has come under attack.

Regarded by the Home Office as the most extreme campaign of its kind, the Halls and their friends and neighbours have been subjected to personal threats, attacks on their property and smear campaigns.

A 70-year-old woman had the windows of her home broken; the landlord of a local pub was threatened with arson after refusing demands to ban the brothers; veterinary staff, the village hotel, and local solicitors have all been warned not to have anything to do with the Halls, and the greens of the brothers' golf club were dug up after anonymous threats were received.

Mrs Hammond's son-in-law, Chris Hall, described the family's disbelief yesterday saying the five-year campaign against them had plumbed new depths. "We are devastated and disgusted by this barbaric criminal act. There cannot be many people who would stoop to this terrible atrocity."

To make matters worse, said Mr Hall, demonstrators turned up outside their home on Sunday to "chant verbal abuse" at them - part of a continuing "peaceful" protest. "It shows the kind of people they are. It shows what sort of world we are forced to live in," he said.

The protesters were ordered to disperse by police, whose efforts to protect the family and local interests have cost the Staffordshire force a total of £500,000.

Police believe it would have taken at least two people up to four hours to dig up the grave at St Peter's Church, Yoxall, sometime between last Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Detective Chief Inspector Nicholas Baker told a press conference yesterday that "most of the remains" of the "much-loved lady" were missing. "This incident has gone far beyond anybody's understanding of what constitutes a protest. It's difficult to find words to describe what's taken place ... it's beyond anyone's understanding of morality and decency."

Sarah Dixon of Save Newchurch Guinea Pigs, which has been campaigning against the farm, said she could not condone the "horrendous" incident but insisted the peaceful protests would go on. "This incident ... is nothing to do with our group and we have no knowledge as to who is responsible. As far as we are aware the police have said animal rights is only one avenue of investigation they are taking. It hasn't been established this is down to animal rights activists," she said.

The extreme actions of animal rights militants have proved increasingly effective. Campaigners have halted a project to build a primate research centre at Cambridge because of the excessive costs of protecting staff, while plans to build an animal laboratory at Oxford have been seriously delayed.

The desecration of the grave has caused disgust in the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote a letter of support to Rev Jenny Lister, the rector of Yoxall who conducted Mrs Hammond's funeral service. She said prayers for the family on Sunday. The Archdeacon of Lichfield, the Ven Chris Liley, said the attackers had "violated a place of peace".