This is only the start, say farmers on the front line

Angry protesters adopt French tactics by using tractors, trucks and vans to barricade oil distribution depots and a refinery
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The Independent Online

His eyes were bloodshot from having been awake all night, but Andrew Holmes was not planning to go home until someone had come to take his place.

His eyes were bloodshot from having been awake all night, but Andrew Holmes was not planning to go home until someone had come to take his place.

"Everybody needs fuel. This affects everybody," he said. "We are expecting more people to come tonight. We can keep going the whole weekend."

Mr Holmes, 47, a farmer from Ruthin, near Wrexham, was among the first to join the blockade at the Shell refinery at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. He had been in the local Co-Op doing the weekly shopping with his wife on Thursday night when his mobile phone rang and he was called to a meeting of farmers at St Asaph's cattle market.

Having seen the price of fuel climb steadily in recent months, the mood among the men was angry, and a decision was made there and then that whatever their French counterparts could do, they could do better. Within an hour, Mr Holmes and scores of others had thrown up an impressive blockade of tractors, trucks and people outside one of the North-west's most important petrol suppliers.

But the farmers and hauliers who blockaded Gate 2 at the Stanlow terminal on Thursday night and throughout a grey, slow-moving morning and afternoon yesterday were just a small number of the protesters taking direct action across the country over the rise in fuel prices.

In Hertfordshire, lorry drivers blocked the Buncefield Oil distribution depot near the M1 at Hemel Hempstead. Another protest took place on the A1 near Gateshead when trucks, vans, lorries, tractors and cars assembled at a truck stop. In Ireland, meanwhile, the government was to hold urgent talks with fishermen to ward off similar protests.

Could it be that after a week of militant action and Gitanes-smoking across the Channel, yesterday will be remembered as the day la maladie française est arrivée?

The comparison was not that exact. At Ellesmere Port yesterday there were perhaps no more than 50 or 60 protesters, and there was no real belief that they could overnight bring the country to a halt, as has happened in France.

But there was little doubt they were having an effect. Dozens of Shell tankers, with their trademark red and yellow livery, stood parked up inside the depot, and a Shell spokesman later confirmed that none of its fleet of 60 tankers, carrying a total of 1.8 million litres of fuel, had left the depot to make deliveries. Only a handful of independent hauliers had agreed to distribute the fuel.

The plant supplies fuel to several hundred garages across northern England - Shell's own and those of other fuel companies - and last night a number of petrol stations were reported to be running low on supplies.

"We do not envisage a problem in the short term," said the Shell spokesman. "We can cope with this over the weekend, but after that we might have to think about sourcing other supplies."

The contract to distribute the fuel is held by an arm of P&O, the shipping group. The company said it had told its drivers not to leave because it could not guarantee their safety - away from the site in particular.

However, some of the tanker drivers, speaking privately and on condition of anonymity, said they supported the action of the demonstrators at the gates.

According to the demonstrators, their level of success will depend on how much support they get from the general public. But they are convinced of the strength of their argument, pointing out that while pre-taxed fuel in Britain is the second-cheapest in the EU, at 82p a litre after tax it is the most expensive.

Len Hughes, an independent haulier from Mold, said: "If this carries on I am going to go to the wall. I cannot carry on like this.

"Three months ago, say, the cost of fuel for a job from Liverpool to London would be £100 - now it is £130. We have to pay for the fuel out of the price we get for the job, and that price does not go up. Fuel costs now account for up to 45 per cent of the rate, whereas five years ago it was about 25 per cent."

Another haulier from North Wales, self-employed for the past 15 years, said: "This whole industry needs a shake-up. There is no honesty involved. We see letters from courier companies saying things like, 'Because of the increase in the price of diesel we have had to increase our prices'. But we never see any of the increase and it is us who have to pay the extra fuel costs."

Tom Houghton, local co-ordinator for the Farmers for Action UK group, said the demonstration was the result of months of anger. "This has been simmering away for a long time. Everything about the farming industry is on the way down - beef, sheep, pigs. Now it's the cost of fuel."

At that point Mr Houghton's mobile phone rang and he briefly moved away. There were reports coming in of support for the protesters in other parts of the country.

"We realised that something was going to give," he said when he returned. "But I think this will be just the start of it."

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