Animal Protection > Worldwide Actions > United Kingdom

Animal activists jailed in grave desecration case
By Michael Holden
May 11, 2006

A combination photo showing four animal rights protesters who were sentenced for a total of 40 years on Thursday for a six-year campaign of intimidation against the owners of a farm breeding guinea pigs for medical research. Seen from clockwise top left, Kerry Whitburn, Josephine Mayo, John Smith and Jon Ablewhite

LONDON (Reuters) - Four animal rights militants were jailed for 40 years on Thursday over the "appalling" desecration of the grave of a woman whose family bred guinea pigs for medical research.

The body of 82-year-old Gladys Hammond was dug up and stolen from a churchyard in central England during one of the most sustained campaigns ever launched by animal rights protesters.

Britain is home to some of the world's most vociferous militant groups but police say the six-year campaign of violence, threats and intimidation against family business David Hall and Partners was one of the worst they had encountered.

It prompted tough laws against animal rights activists whom government ministers branded as terrorists.

The family of brothers Chris and John Hall, who ran the business at Darley Oaks farm in rural Staffordshire, and their staff, were subject to firebomb attacks, had paint-stripper poured over their cars and bricks thrown through their windows.

Other incidents saw a golf course used by John Hall damaged; newsagents that supplied papers to the family were threatened and letters were sent to neighbours of the owner of a firm providing fuel oil to the farm, falsely claiming he was a paedophile.

But it was the attack in October 2004 on the grave of Hammond, Chris Hall's mother-in-law who had died seven years earlier, that grabbed national attention.


"The desecration of Mrs Hammond's grave went way beyond any rational understanding of protest," said Detective Chief Inspector Nick Baker. "It appalled and disgusted people nationwide, including many animal rights protestors."

The grandmother's remains were only recovered last week, 18 months after being stolen.

Following a major police operation, involving up 50 detectives and costing 750,000 pounds ($1.4 million), Jon Ablewhite, 36, John Smith, 39, Kerry Whitburn, 36, and Josephine Mayo, 38, were arrested over the crime.

They eventually pleaded guilty to conspiring to blackmail the Hall family, and although it could not be proved they had dug up the grave, police said they were clearly involved.

Ablewhite, Smith and Whitburn were jailed for 12 years each while Mayo received a four-year term.

The gang, three of whom had criminal convictions dating back to 1987, were leading members of the Save The Newchurch Guinea Pigs (SNGP) campaign, police said.

"The desecration was not an isolated act but the culmination of a series of callous crimes all committed with one goal in mind -- to force the Hall family to stop breeding guinea pigs," Baker said.

To that end, the group can claim success. In January, exhausted by the relentless intimidation, the Halls quit breeding.

"This victory is a dramatic blow to an industry which can and will be defeated by kind-hearted activists," the SNGP said on its Web site at the time.

It was not the first success in the UK for campaigners who have threatened research carried out by Britain's multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry.

In January 2004, Cambridge University gave up plans for a 32 million pound primate research center over fears it would not be safe from militants.

The government reacted by introducing tough measures to clamp down on the activists, but only this week GlaxoSmithKline, Europe's biggest pharmaceuticals manufacturer, said shareholders had received letters warning them to sell their stock or risk having their names posted on the Internet.

A quarter of the world's top 100 medicines were discovered in Britain, home to industry giants such as Glaxo and AstraZeneca although the country accounts for less than 4 percent of the world drugs market.