Barricades go up to stop the men from the ministry

Protesters
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The Independent Online

They were calling it a line in the sand and it was easy to see why. More than 200 people crammed into a narrow lane, daring the ministry slaughtermen to try to kill the animals behind them ­ healthy animals that they vowed to protect.



They were calling it a line in the sand and it was easy to see why. More than 200 people crammed into a narrow lane, daring the ministry slaughtermen to try to kill the animals behind them ­ healthy animals that they vowed to protect.

This was Oaklands Park outside Gloucester yesterday and the locals' standcould yet become the Government's biggest foot-and-mouth PR disaster.

Here, 100 sheep, more than 30 lambs and 60 dairy cattle ­ all free from disease ­ have been earmarked for slaughter because a nearby farm became infected. But Oaklands is no ordinary farm; this is a community of 116 people, including 46 mentally disabled adults who lead normal and largely self-sufficient lives by working the land and livestock breeding.

Defending them, and their pleas that the livestock be vaccinated instead of slaughtered, were villagers from Newnham, bank clerks from Stroud, organic farmers from mid-Wales, teachers from Gloucester and other people who had heard of their plight and simply decided to help.

"This is what I have been waiting for, really," said a woman of 50 calling herself Ruth Larch (she had taken a sick day from her job at a bank). "It is clear to anyone with eyes that slaughtering hundreds of thousands of healthy animals is morally wrong and simply isn't working. I'm not an animal rights activist but I've been waiting for an opportunity to demonstrate how I feel. I think this is the moment lots of ordinary people have been waiting for."

Indeed it was. It was as if Oaklands had become a crossroads at which frustration and anger met. As long ago as 27 March, the community members, who constitute a charitable Camphill community trust, sent a fax to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) asking to have their livestock vaccinated. They received no reply but on 4 April they were served with an "A" notice telling them in effect they were quarantined and their sheep and cattle would have to be slaughtered.

Since then, they have been besieged by supporters on the 150-acre (60-hectare) site. Yesterday, as the threat of slaughter grew nearer, the lane to the farm was blocked by a gate, three vehicles and hundreds of demonstrators. At a back entrance, a cattle grid was removed and more barricades erected. But, after an early- morning visit from the police, the men from the ministry stayed away.

"We now see ourselves as the focus of peaceful civil disobedience," said Tyll Van de Voort, one of the community workers. "We don't believe simply killing all the animals is the answer. We believe there should be a policy of vaccination with a view to long-term immunity and vitality within the stock. Industrial farming hasn't worked, just as the solution born out of that mindset isn't working. We have to completely review the way we think about farming."

There was cheering outside when Maff announced it was "reviewing" the Oaklands case as a result of an appeal from the community's solicitors. But those who left knew the reprieve could be withdrawn at any time.

One of them, Martin Lusmore, a 50-year-old glass designer from Chepstow, summed up the mood. "The last time I went on a demonstration, Jack Straw was president of the National Union of Students," he said. "I'm an urban person but I feel there is something badly wrong if we have to go down the road of mass slaughter without even giving vaccination a chance. This was the catalyst for me to get out here and do something. I think it could be the focal point for something much bigger."

Behind the barricades, efforts were made to keep life as normal as possible. Here, living in 11 households, farmhouses and a manor house, the community grows fruit and vegetables for its needs and for 100 local families, who are each sent a box of vegetables a week. There are enough eggs for 100 and milk and meat for 200.

If the animals are slaughtered, that could have a serious effect on the community, although its members are anxious to keep the disabled members, who have disabilities such as autism and epilepsy, out of the front line. "We don't want to sentimentalise their involvement," said John Neligan, a farm worker. "We just want to save the animals if there is any way at all we can."

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