Anti-vivisection training camp arouses animal passions in Kent village

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At first light this morning two mobile phones will be activated, their numbers having been advertised on the internet for some time. They will be staffed by volunteers who will give out location details and advice to 300 animal rights activists from all over the world who are due to attend a training camp in direct action techniques for anti-vivisectionists and hunt saboteurs.

At first light this morning two mobile phones will be activated, their numbers having been advertised on the internet for some time. They will be staffed by volunteers who will give out location details and advice to 300 animal rights activists from all over the world who are due to attend a training camp in direct action techniques for anti-vivisectionists and hunt saboteurs.

Organisers have remained coy as to exactly where the four-day event will be staged after being the subject of highly critical media stories and a government ban on one of its main speakers. The setting will be the small village of East Peckham in Kent on a three-acre plot of grass and derelict orchard which has been run for four years as an animal sanctuary by a local woman, Marion Eastwood, whose claim to fame until now was an appearance on Kilroy in which she claimed to share a bedroom with her pet pig.

The event has caused some alarm among Ms Eastwood's neighbours. The village was once the centre of the Kentish hops industry and its restored oast-houses with their herringbone drives provide comfortable homes in the South-east commuter belt.

It provides an unlikely backdrop for seminars and workshops in which activists will be taught how to challenge High Court injunctions, withstand police interrogation and provide back-up to jailed militants. According to the organisers: "Many people have come back from prison stronger activists."

There will also be lessons in self defence and how to target "fur, circuses, zoos and other animal abusers".

The event comes at a crucial moment in the debate over animal rights. The Government recently granted the police and courts new powers to clamp down on illegal protests outside the homes of those involved in animal experimentation - a term that protesters have stretched to include anyone associated with the construction or staffing of laboratories. But the demonstrators believe they are winning the battle. One organisation, Speak, which is supporting the weekend, recently forced Cambridge University to abandon its plans to build a neuroscience centre, and has since helped delay an £18m research laboratory at Oxford. Another group, Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs, is accused of being behind a bitter campaign against a farming family and its friends.

At first, many people thought the decision to stage the event at the sanctuary, a registered charity which plays host to a couple of dozen rescued farm animals, was part of an elaborate decoy to divert police and the media from infiltrating it. Particularly so when they heard that the controversial American trauma surgeon Jerry Vlasak had been banned from attending by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett. Dr Vlasak, who defends the killing of scientists who use animals, will address the gathering via video.

He said last night that he was not "calling for assassinations" but added: "I'm asking for us to look at it in the historical context of liberation movements and do whatever is necessary. Violence has historically been a part of these struggles, been morally justified and necessary for them to succeed."

Kent police insist the event is a private one on private ground. But they have offered reassurance to the village butcher and the local chemist, telling them there will be a rapid response in case of trouble. "Our concern is to keep it hassle free for the residents," said a police spokesman.

Hassle is exactly what many locals fear. People are concerned about how protesters are going to get to the site. Public transport is virtually non-existent into the village and parking is restricted. Organisers say they will meet delegates at nearby Tonbridge railway station and shuttle them in.

Another concern is sanitation. According to the gathering's website, 10 toilets have been hired and a number of eco-friendly compost facilities.

But at the heart of the dispute is the animal sanctuary itself. While the view is by no means universal in the village, some say they have endured years of misery with animals escaping, ravaging gardens and causing traffic problems - and have accused a runaway pig of knocking over an old woman who had recently recovered from a hip operation. They believe house prices have been affected by the scruffy sanctuary and have accused livestock of turning a public footpath that runs through it into a quagmire.

Ms Eastwood is regarded locally as something of an eccentric. Animals are described as her "religion" and as well as bedding down with pigs, she tolerated another which ate parts of her car and she has also been seen making rude gestures at the butcher's shop window.

Organisers insist the weekend will pass off peacefully. Dogs are banned as are drugs - and meat and alcohol will only be consumed after 7pm.

But yesterday, as volunteers prepared the site, the mood in the village was one of imminent invasion. One resident said: "We all believe in live and let live, but if anything kicks off here Marion is going to be very unpopular."

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