Animal rights activists condemned as guinea pig farm gives up fight

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The Independent Online

The owners of the Darley Oaks Farm in Newchurch, Staffordshire, finally caved into pressure after a bitter and often illegal six-year battle with activists which culminated in the unsolved theft of the remains of the owner's late mother-in-law.

Hundreds of people were terrorised by the protesters. Threats had been made against anyone who was associated with the family who own the farm, who were themselves the subject of paedophilia smears.

In what was described as a "guerrilla terrorist campaign" hundreds of properties were damaged in the local village, mainly in night attacks, and electricity supplies were cut.

The closure is a blow to the police, the scientific community and the Government, which have fought tooth and nail to keep the operation running.

This is the latest in a series of defeats for scientific researchers, which includes the closure of a cat breeding farm, a kennels and, most damaging, the decision last year to scrap a primate research centre at Cambridge University because of escalating security costs.

Animal rights activists were celebrating what they claimed was a famous victory and said it would inspire supporters to redouble their efforts against other targets, such as Huntingdon Life Sciences and Oxford University.

A spokesman for Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs, the organisation that organised the peaceful protests outside the farm, said: "This is the most fantastic day of my life. It's a victory for the animals and it's a fundamental victory for the animal rights movement. I feel so unbelievably proud to be part of the movement ... Such charming and sentient animals should not be incarcerated within windowless sheds."

The decision to close the farm was made public in an anonymous statement by a family member. Another unnamed relative simultaneously appealed for the return of the remains of Gladys Hammond, who died aged 82. Her body was stolen from her grave in October last year. The relative said the decision to close the guinea pig farm had removed the need for the animal rights activists to keep her remains.

The statement, made on behalf of the owners, David Hall and Partners, said the breeding centre would undergo a phased closure to ensure the welfare of animals. The Halls plan to return to full-time traditional farming next year. "They have no plans to be involved in any way in the breeding of animals for medical or scientific research," the statement concluded.

The Government said the move was a family decision and it was understood that an alternative supply of animals had already been established.

The closure comes just a month after tough new laws came into force designed to stop "economic sabotage" against research bodies and their suppliers. The offence is punishable by five years in jail.

A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry said: "The Government is determined to tackle extremists who harass or threaten those involved in vital, life-saving scientific research and is committed to a policy of reducing, refining and replacing the use of animals in research."

Professor Tipu Aziz, a consultant neurosurgeon at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, who uses primates in his research into Parkinson's disease, called the closure as a "tragedy". He said: "It's my feeling that the treatment of this family proves that animal rights activists are acting like terrorists."

Brian Cass, the managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences, who was attacked by extremists brandishing pick-axe handles, said: "It was a succession of criminal acts over many years, some utterly despicable, and the perpetrators of these crimes need to be punished."

Simon Festing, the president of the Research Defence Society, said guinea pig research had contributed to 23 Nobel prizes in medicine.

"We still need to use them in certain important areas, such as the study of lung disease, deafness, allergies and the development and testing of new treatments," he said.

Philip Wright, the director of the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry, demanded greater protection of those involved in animal research.

Staffordshire Police have mounted a multimillion-pound operation to protect the farm and the village from attack, responding to 460 incidents since 2003 and arresting 60 people. It has also deployed thousands of officers policing the regular protests outside the farm.

Inspector David Bird, of the force's specialist Environmental Protest Unit, said the announcement would have no impact on the search to find those who had desecrated Mrs Hammond's grave. The Animal Rights Militia claimed responsibility for the incident. Two people arrested over the theft were later released without charge.

The battle of Darley Oaks farm

* 6 September 1999: Police investigation launched after animal rights activists steal 600 guinea pigs from Darley Oaks Farm.

* 7 October 2003: Police blame animal rights activists for spreading false rumours that a man with links to farm is a paedophile.

* 14 November 2003: Animal rights protesters blamed for failed arson attack on a home linked to the farm.

* 7 October 2004: Thieves steal body of Christopher Hall's mother-in-law, Gladys Hammond, from graveyard at St Peter's Church, Yoxall.

* 18 October 2004: Mrs Hammond's family receive hate mail from extremists.

* 2 December 2004: High Court grants temporary order banning protesters from going within 100 metres of farm.

* 15 December 2004: Police start unsuccessful search of woodland in hunt for Mrs Hammond's remains.

* 17 January 2005: High Court bans campaigners from going within 250 metres of premises occupied by Halls' employees.

* 15 March 2005: Detectives investigating theft of Mrs Hammond's body make appeal on BBC1's Crimewatch programme.

* 17 March 2005: Villagers fail in attempt to ban animal rights activists from 77 square-mile zone around their homes.

* 5 May 2005: Police start unsuccessful search of Brakenhurst Woods in hunt for Mrs Hammond's body after local media receive letters claiming her remains are there.

* 23 August 2005: David Hall and Partners announce business will cease breeding guinea pigs at end of 2005.

Geneviève Roberts