The village ensnared by animal rights protests protest of animal rights prot

In the finest October traditions of rural Staffordshire, a rendition of "We plough the fields and scatter" was ringing out from Needwood Church of England primary school in Newborough yesterday afternoon. If events had run their normal course, the pupils' customary "circle time" with their headmistress would have been occupied with thoughts of harvest thanksgiving too.

In the finest October traditions of rural Staffordshire, a rendition of "We plough the fields and scatter" was ringing out from Needwood Church of England primary school in Newborough yesterday afternoon. If events had run their normal course, the pupils' customary "circle time" with their headmistress would have been occupied with thoughts of harvest thanksgiving too.

But instead, after another twist in the saga that has consumed this small village for five years, the classroom discussions have covered exhumations, abandoned coffins and threats of sabotage.

Newborough, an apparently sleepy parish numbering just 170 homes, has found itself in the eye of a pernicious protest waged by the Animal Liberation Front against a land-owning family who breed guinea pigs for animal research.

The campaign had included attacks on property, poison-pen letters and threats of sabotaging the local pub's beer before the theft from a churchyard in nearby Yoxall of the remains of Gladys Hammond, who was mother-in-law to one of elderly landowner's sons.

"Everyone says they dumped the coffin outside the [guinea pig] place without the bones," said one schoolgirl, walking into her parents' kitchen after school yesterday. "We talked with the head about how they threatened to poison the beer at the pub, too." And did any of this scare her? "No, it doesn't bother any of us."

Newborough's villagers wish they could share the children's philosophy. The campaign against David Hall and his two sons, who own a number of properties including the guinea pig farm at Newchurch on the Lichfield-Ashbourne road a mile away, has permeated every fabric of village life. The words "Death to the Halls" and "Scum Church" (a reference to Newchurch) are frequently daubed on roads and sign posts; unexploded sodium nitrate fireworks designed to wake the Halls in the small hours litter outlying fields; the window which is still broken at the local Red Lion pub after a missile was thrown during a campaign that saw off the last publican; and a house next to the guinea pig farm has taken four years to sell.

Gentle village events bring untold complications. The dedication ceremony for the opening of a millennium sculpture and tree was gatecrashed by protesters who were seen off by police. The Staffordshire force's presence is even requested at the occasion Newborough is best known for - the annual well-dressing, staged every May in the main street.

Like most locals, the schoolgirl and her parents cannot be named since they fear reprisals for speaking out. Villagers with every conceivable link to the Halls have been attacked over the past five years.

Nick Saunders, the Halls' dairyman, had his car covered with paintstripper before activists leafleted Newborough with claims that his partner had a sexually transmitted disease.

The Red Lion's former publican, Keith Marklew, had bricks through his window after refusing to bar John Hall, the landowner's son. After his brewery received sabotage threats, Mr Marklew was told to bar Mr Hall. He refused and was in effect sacked. His replacement, Ian Terrell, is forced to adhere to the brewery's order to keep the Halls out.

Janet and Steve (not their real names) returned from holiday in August to find a leaflet warning against contact with more named Hall "contacts" - an elderly farming couple and a woman believed to play tennis with a member of the family.

"These people need to be shown that they are not welcome in your neighbourhood whilst they deal with the Halls," the leaflet stated. "We will not be put off by the democratic process failing. We will just find other ways of tackling these people."

The obscurity of the new targets' links with the Halls, allied to the activists' capacity to find the body of a woman who does not even share the Halls' surname, has persuaded some villagers that a "mole" must be at work within the village.

"Someone must be supplying them with their information," said Jane, who is in her 40s. "It has made us all circumspect about what we saying to whom and it has caused trouble for those who are up front about liking animals."

The removal of Mrs Hammond's body has strengthened support for the Halls. "We would rather not have the farm on our doorstep but we can't help but support the Halls," said one woman. "The graveyard thing has raised such a level of revulsion here."

John Hall acknowledged the support his family had received. "People who have never said anything before have been very forthright in their support for the family," he said. But he criticised police for the lack of arrests during his five years of attrition, which had left his family employing a private security firm "to sleep at nights".

In fact, Staffordshire Police secured a conviction as recently as 1 October, when Andrew Davies was jailed for 28 days for his part in the protest.

A worry for police is the prospect of a violence against the activists. Talk among young farmers at the bar was more militant than usual on Monday. "Some of the younger ones were talking about taking things into their own hands," said one.

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