'Wonderful town ruined' by bitter battles over live animal trade

A survey reveals the depth of Brightlingsea's wounds after six months of divisive protests.
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The lorries trundling through town carrying calves and sheep to the slaughterhouses of Europe have dwindled to a trickle. After six months of furious demonstrations against the trade, the spotlight has moved on.

The Essex port of Brightlingsea, a cul-de-sac with just one B-road in and out, has mostly returned to its slumbers. Even the protests have settled into a rhythm. Demonstrators no longer attempt to block lorries' paths, protest signs are professionally painted, and the road has hundreds of stencilled sheep - heads bowed - painted on it.

Yet a deep-seated anger, bordering on hatred, remains. The placid town of 7,000 souls is split between those who support the campaign for a ban and those who may agree with the sentiments but oppose the strategy that turned Brightlingsea into a battleground.

In an effort to heal the rift the town council paid for a poll by Essex University of 500 households to gauge the true mood. The results, disclosed yesterday, showed half the town disapproves of the protests, and the same number agree the police should use all lawful means to clear the roads.

However the survey also showed that 77 per cent opposed the trade and more than half said it made them question the judgement of the police and the Government.

In the charged atmosphere, with opinion about the use of blockade to stop the trade so finely balanced, the two camps are at best sceptical of its impartiality.

These days, though, few in the town occupy the middle ground. Local lore has it that marriages have disintegrated under the strain. Certainly old friends cold-shoulder one another.

"There are people in this town I've known for years will never speak to me again because I've had a go at the protesters," said Ian Cruickshank, a teacher, whose car was vandalised.

Recent weeks, however, have seen a disturbing new twist. Demonstrators from Brightlingsea Against Live Exports (Bale) picketed the King's Head pub for two consecutive Saturday nights, banging on windows as the wharf owner, Ernie Oliver, drank inside. Leaving escorted by police, he was surrounded by a jeering mob. "They were like wild animals," said Mr Cruickshank's wife, Pauline.

The following Saturday the protesters stayed away after word got round that the rugby club, allies of Mr Oliver, would be in the pub too. "This is a very serious escalation," said Mr Cruickshank. "Someone is going to get killed."

Many businesses have become casualties as visitors, assaulted nightly by scenes of violence in the news, have stayed away. The numbers of yachtsmen visiting is down, too. Houses are nearly impossible to sell. But trade has also suffered as shops have been boycotted because owners failed to display Bale posters.

As one of those concerned at the protests' effects, Michael Yardley, an experimental psychologist , believes the intolerance of others' views is alarming. "Something very unhealthy has happened here. There has been a loss of tolerance, exaggerated here because it is a close community."

Some simply keep their views under wraps. "People are frightened," said Mrs Cruickshank, also a teacher. "If you've had swastikas painted on your house, what do you do? My mother puts one of their posters in her window because she thinks she'll get a brick through it if she doesn't."

But the "silent majority" has found a voice. A scurrilous anonymous news sheet, published by "Bill Bollox-Chops", has appeared around town attacking the protesters.

During the council elections in May a spoof manifesto appeared for "Bollicky Bill", saying: "If erected (sic) ... I would turn the large green shed into a brothel, there are enough local prostitutes to staff it," a reference to the women protesters.

Sue Wheeler, a former Bale organiser and one of those named, shrugs it off. "In all the letters and telephone messages I've received only one or two have been abusive," she said.

However, according to Mr Yardley, the effect of the ill-feeling could be a lasting breakdown in respect for the law. "This is one of the most worrying aspects. The police have become a focus of hatred. They have become the meat in the sandwich."

Children have been just as vociferous, raising fears for the future. Mr Cruickshank said: "I've seen children calling the police fucking Nazis. This was a wonderful little town, but it's all messed up. I would move away tomorrow if I could. I've spent 20 years of my life here. I've people in the churchyard. But I'd go."