Villagers welcome eco-troops in battle to shield otter and badger from quarry

The villagers were relieved when the protesters moved in. After two futile years of letter-writing and campaigning they see the shock troops of the eco-movement as their final chance.

Where other protest camps have not always had local support, in the tiny hamlet of Teigngrace near Newton Abbot there is nearly 100 per cent backing for the band of thirty young people who have sparked debate in a way more routine methods did not.

At issue are plans by Watts Blake Bearne (WBB), a clay company, to divert the paths of the Rivers Bovey and Teign so as to expand clay quarrying.

WBB say supplies of high quality clay are running out and they need the seam which runs under the river. It could provide a 100 year supply. Environmentalists claim the beautiful heathland is a haven for otters, badgers and other wildlife including the cirl bunting, the rarest bird in Britain. They are afraid it will be destroyed by the re-routing.

Within days of the first camps being set up, John Prescott, in his role as Environment Secretary, imposed a holding direction while he examined the files. A decision is expected in the next fortnight.

The 200 citizens of Teigngrace hope he will hold a public inquiry. In the meantime, they are feeding and clothing the protestors and even dropping in daily newspapers. When the camps requested chocolate cake, locals had delivered fifteen cakes within the day.

"They have given us hope," said Jill Bunce, 61, whose rented home will be over-shadowed by a 150ft-high waste tip and lapped by the diverted river. "Everybody was very down when we heard the plans had gone through, and then there was lots police activity and we discovered why and there was jubilation."

"We'll have 100,000 of them if they're going spare," added her husband, Peter, 64, a retired engineer. "The villagers have done everything by the book and it's done nothing. We fear Teigngrace will just disappear, if WBB aren't stopped."

Joan Avery, 75, allows the protestors to charge their mobile phone in her cottage. "Watts Blake Bearne are a big firm and they think they can do what they like" she says.

John Martin, 47, the chairman of the parish council, criticises the County Council who he said had completely failed to listen to what villagers have been saying. A plan for the Bovey basin which has been under discussion for months appears to have completely vanished, even though he believes it would rule out quarrying expansion, if accepted.

Many in the neighbouring towns of Newton Abbot and Kingsteignton support WBB. Jobs are hard to come by and many welcome any expansion by WBB.

Stuart, 20, one of the protestors, comes from nearby Bovey Tracey and said he was there because he wanted to stop the destruction of the countryside. But his father, a long-distance lorry driver who sometimes has dealings with the quarries, supported the plans.

Yet Christine Martin, 48, who runs her own plant nursery, said any emphasis on jobs was short-sighted. Clay was a finite resource and they should be looking to the future. "Sustainable tourism to try to relieve the pressure on Dartmoor would be ideal."

Dawn Crocker, for Watts Blake Bearne, said they were confident the plans would stand up to public scrutiny, but the delay caused by any public inquiry would cause them problems. The best clay deposits will run out in 1999. "We've been working on these plans for the last two years. The protestors move on site and suddenly we're a terrible company."

They said that there are only three areas in the UK where this grade of clay, used in bathrooms, and for tiles and crockery, is found.

"The working of minerals will always cause an environmental impact, but it's company policy that we do everything in our power to minimise that," she said.