THE sleepy hamlet of Newchurch, Staffordshire, is not accustomed to being the focus of national media attention, yet on 7th October 2004 a crime so horrifying occurred in the cemetery of the parish church that the local community was thrust into a blaze of publicity.
During the night the body of Gladys Hammond had been exhumed from her resting place and stolen. It was to be almost two years before she was returned to her grave and the perpetrators sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
What had been Gladys’ crime? Why had her burial place been desecrated? The answer was that her son-in-law, Christopher Hall, ran the Darley Oaks guinea pig breeding farm. The farm had become a focus for “animal rights’ groups” who had vowed to close down the operation at any cost.
A campaign to intimidate the inhabitants of the area around the Newchurch guinea pig farm had been rapidly escalating for several years. In the period from 2nd February 2003 up until the 7th October 2004 attack on St Peter’s churchyard, no less than 428 criminal incidents were reported to the police, while many others went unreported such was the level of fear.
Farm workers had paint stripper thrown over their cars, routinely received hate mail and it was not unusual for bricks to be thrown through the windows of their homes during the night. Most distressing but by no means unique was the treatment handed out to May Hudson, a widow in her 60s, who supplemented her pension by doing domestic cleaning for the Hall family. She was subjected to bricks through her windows, paint bombs, hoax bombs, and on one occasion she was sent “a new home card” giving her new address at Burton Hospital A and E department.
There had also been a threat to desecrate the grave of Mrs Hudson’s late husband. Eventually even this redoubtable old lady caved in and gave up her job.
The local veterinary practice that cared for the farm’s dairy herd also found itself under attack. Animal rights’ activists stormed their waiting room and the partners found protesters outside their homes late at night. Even the Hall’s solicitors, Shakespeares of Birmingham, had their offices invaded and somewhat disappointingly abandoned their clients as a result.
The power lines to the whole area were cut on several occasions: as on 9th July 2003 when a wooden pole supporting an 11,000- volt overhead electricity supply line was sawn through at ground level causing the loss of electricity supplies to 2,140 customers.
The effect of all these acts was to create a level of fear amongst the local community that permeated their whole lives. Ordinary country folk terrorised in their own homes, fearful to go about their everyday activities.
Even the local public houses became targets. Anyone seen drinking in a pub used by the Hall family was liable to become a victim. The Red Lion became a particular focus for protest and the brewery was forced to bar the Halls.
These acts of terrorism give us an insight of the depths to which the campaigners were prepared to sink to close down the Newchurch guinea pig farm, an objective in which they were ultimately successful. They are cited only in an attempt to give some impression of the passion which drives those dedicated to “animal rights” to commit crimes which, as the Archdeacon of Lichfield said at the time of the cemetery desecration, “cross the line in a civilised society”. Although most will feel that the deeds of these animal liberationists are extreme and perverted, there can be little doubt that they themselves believe their activities are fully justified.
Debates on animal welfare seem to have the almost unique potential to become rapidly polarised with each side taking entrenched positions and failing from the outset to listen to any other point of view. Consider the “hunting with hounds” issue. During the passage of the Hunting Act, the House of Commons was packed to capacity only to empty when other matters such as the war in Iraq or the welfare of children in care were the subject of discussion.
Do we as a society really place greater importance on the welfare of foxes than that of children? It would seem so. The control of bovine TB (or lack of control) has become so mired in the endless arguing over the role of badgers in spreading the disease that government policy is determined not by scientific evidence but by their inability in a practical sense to deliver a cull.
The debate is so polarised that it would be something close to political suicide for any government to order a cull of badgers. During the 2001 footand-mouth disease outbreak, the almost hysterical media reporting given to the fate of Phoenix the calf forced a change in government policy. Such is the emotional power of animal rights.
At a recent meeting of the RCVS Council, the role of the College in issuing policies and giving advice on animal welfare issues was confirmed by a large majority but it was also agreed to review the “mission statement” which currently includes the words, “to act as an impartial source of informed opinion on animal health and welfare issues and their interaction with human health”. There are some who feel that the College has no role in entering the debate on such matters as vivisection, hunting with hounds or the control of TB. It is argued that adopting stances on these issues would be controversial, dangerous, difficult and too expensive.
We live in a society in which information has never been more accessible. The internet enables anyone who can type the word “google” to view vast amounts of data on any given subject. So why should the RCVS involve itself with the politics of animal welfare? The volume of information is already so great that there is a danger it confuses rather than enlightens. Yet the public and government increasingly look to respected institutions for guidance as to how they should evaluate what has become known as the “information overload”.
Often acting “as an impartial source of informed opinion” is misinterpreted as dictating solutions. Far from it. Surely it is the role of a profession to explain that there may be two sides to a debate, each with equal validity.
Choices must be made but they should be based on a good understanding of both sides of the case. For example, consider the breeding of guinea pigs for research purposes. If one holds to an animal rights’ perspective, the integrity of the guinea pigs is absolute and nothing can justify using them in experiments. This is a legitimate (if minority) opinion.
Most would takeamore utilitarian approach and consider what might happen if we don’t breed guinea pigs for research, weighing up the net benefits against the negatives. It is not the role of a learned institution to take sides in the debate, rather to point out and explain the consequences of each moral pathway, thus enabling the public to reach an informed decision.
It is the nature of the moderate and learned that they are rarely as strident in their views than the extreme and evangelical. The old saying, “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on” (Henry IV part II) has never been truer in this internet age.
Organisations dedicated to animal rights are masters at publicising their cause whilst the more moderate animal welfare lobby has all too often vacated the battleground, leading to a one-sided and unbalanced deliberation.
The sustained campaign of terror mounted against the Hall family is a direct consequence of the current dysfunctional debate. Professional people have a wider obligation to society than merely managing the affairs of their own profession; the public rightly look to them for guidance on many issues.
When the professions fail to speak, the vacuum is quickly filled by the less well-informed and sometimes the misguided. In recent times we have seen major animal welfare crises managed almost without regard to veterinary opinion – the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak being the classic example.
As the profession best placed to be a calm, reflective source of opinion on these emotive issues, I would argue that the RCVS not only has a role to play but a moral obligation to do so.
On 12th May 2006, Jon Ablewhite, John Smith and Kerry Whitburn were each sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for acts of blackmail associated with the desecration of Gladys Hammond’s grave. Josephine Mayo, Whitburn’s girlfriend, who admitted purchasing petrol to make explosive devices, was sentenced to four years in prison. In December 2005, after six years of violent intimidation, the Darley Oaks guinea pig farm closed down. On 31st May 2006 Gladys Hammond was reinterred after a service in St Peter’s Yoxall attended by her family and friends almost nine years after her original funeral. Newchurch and its surrounding villages have returned to a peaceful rural existence.
■ Details of the campaign of terror against the Hall family are taken from the Judgement of the Hon. Justice Owen handed down in the Queen’s bench division of the High Court at the Royal Courts of Justice on 17th March 2005.