Brightlingsea protesters feud after split over tactics

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A BITTER internecine row has broken out between animal-rights protesters in Brightlingsea. Former comrades in the struggle to end live animal shipments from the Essex port are at loggerheads over their different approaches to achieving shared aims. At the heart of the conflict is a dispute over how best to help the thousands of cattle that pass through the port each year for slaughter on the Continent.

Brightlingsea Against Live Exports - BALE - believes only a complete ban on live animal exports will do. Horror Out of Farming - HOOF - maintains that this is unlikely in the short term and until it happens the best way forward is to make sure the animals being shipped out do not suffer too much.

HOOF members say they now have to run a gauntlet of threats, abuse and malicious rumours. At a gathering last week at the Colchester home of Juliet Gardner, founder of HOOF, members said a hate campaign was being waged against them.

BALE denies running a campaign but says some local animal- rights campaigners are very angry at HOOF.

Brightlingsea became the symbolic heart of darkness for animal-rights protesters at the start of this year. Hundreds blockaded the port where lorry-loads of livestock arrived for export.

Hopeful of a ban on live cargo, as had been won at Shoreham in Sussex, the campaigners mobilised large rallies. They clashed repeatedly with police: dozens were arrested, many were injured. The issue galvanised across-section of people locally and nationally: housewives, young professionals, students and pensioners forged an unlikely but strong alliance. However, even as the demonstrations were at their height last February, friction began to surface.

Some BALE members, feeling that something more than protest was needed, formed a splinter group - HOOF - to inspect animals on sale at Colchester cattle market. They raised money to place water troughs in the market and gave sanctuary to two ageing ewes destined for slaughter. Farmers and livestock wholesalers, at first distrustful, gradually came round.

HOOF also checked for overcrowding on exporters' lorries and conditions on cattle ships. "We saw sheep and calves being picked up by their legs. We put a stop to it," says Ms Gardner, 29, a young mother of three. "Live animal exports aren't going to stop until the Government stops them. We were concerned that violent, noisy demonstrations alone were not doing anything to help the animals"

Last July she wrote a letter to the local newspaper, the Colchester Evening Gazette, complaining about the demonstrators' tactic of banging placards against trucks loaded with calves. "The calves must have been terrified," she wrote. "On Tuesday, the calves were held up in the lorries for unnecessary hours in soaring temperatures while a coachload of protesters was removed from the road. This tactic apparently met with approval from BALE, which is supposed to be an animal-welfare group.

"Those who condoned the actions and took part in them must have been fully aware of the consequences for the animals, yet allowed other considerations to override them".

After the letter appeared, all hell broke loose. Members of HOOF said last week they were chased off the wharf at Brightlingsea. A series of acrimonious meetings with BALE's controlling committee followed. Spoof versions of HOOF literature were distributed and former allies were at daggers drawn.

"We had telephone calls telling us to stay off the wharf, that live animal exports are BALE's issue and nothing to do with us," says Ms Gardner. "We wanted to walk on to the wharf but in the end we had to go in the back of Roger Mills [the exporter's] Land Rover. We didn't want to but it was the only way.

"Someone even rang Mr Mills's wife and told her he was having an affair with me. I'm supposed to have slept with him, the crew of the ship and everyone else. We are called HOOF whores, animal abusers, scabs, scum and everything else."

BALE denied harassing members of HOOF but said it was understandable that its members were angry. Carole Appleby, 33, a mother of four and one of the campaign co-ordinators, said: "We talk to the exporter. But we don't have social meetings with him. We have lived with this day in, day out. I admit people have banged on the sides of lorries, but feelings run high. We want live animal exports to stop and while BALE doesn't encourage some of the things that have happened here in the form of direct action, we understand them.

"HOOF's main concern is market watch. If Juliet Gardner is concerned about live exports, what is she doing in the exporter's Land Rover? She didn't come to us individually with her concerns - the first I heard about it was when I got a call from the newspaper."

Maria Wilby, another BALE spokeswoman, said it was "unfortunate but understandable" that HOOF members had been vilified: "There have been thousands of people at the demonstrations in Brightlingsea and I can't be held accountable for all their actions, just as Juliet can't be held accountable for one of her members sleeping with Mr Mills's minder.

"When they were chased off the wharf you have to understand people were very angry about the letter to the paper and if they can't take a bit of bad language then that's too bad. They were never in any danger."

The irony of the situation is not lost on either side. Both are passionately concerned with animal welfare and are dominated by strong women. Both want an end to live exports and mistreatment of livestock and agree that farming animals for meat will never stop completely. Yet they remain at loggerheads.

The entire Brightlingsea community is under pressure, somewhat alleviated by the High Court decision last Friday to refuse injunctions against 14 BALE members, including Ms Appleby. Still, a survey of local residents earlier this year found that 70 per cent believed the issue has divided the town.

Last week in the Coffee Pot cafe in the High Street, BALE members muttered imprecations against their former sisters-in-arms.

And surrounded by fellow HOOF members, Ms Gardner saw little hope of a reconciliation. "All we want to do is help animals. We're willing to talk to BALE but they won't talk to us."

Ms Appleby confirmed that the gulf between them is deep. "I've thought about calling her, but I've got too many other things to worry about without thinking about HOOF and Juliet Gardner. Why should I pander to her ego?"