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Fifteen years since live exports divided Brightlingsea
By Lynne Wilson
BBC Essex

Brightlingsea animal rights demonstration
Brightlingsea was the scene of protests at the export of live animals

In January 1995 Brightlingsea was thrust into the spotlight when farmers and exporters wanted to use the port to ferry live sheep and calves to Europe.

Animal rights campaigners believed the shipments were cruel.

For 10 months protestors and police clashed on an almost daily basis. There were hundreds of arrests and the demonstrations divided the community.

BBC Essex's Lynne Wilson was one of the reporters covering the story; she recalls the events of 15-years-ago.

As a news reporter in the late 80s and early 90s I had experienced the heartbreak of the Hillsborough tragedy and the hostility of the Poll Tax riots.

But when a small group of protestors gathered in the Essex town of Brightlingsea to stage a demonstration about live animal exports it was an entirely new experience.


Exporter Roger Mills was planning to ship live animals through the port into Europe.

A makeshift control room was set up in the community centre
A law banning heavy vehicles from Colne Road after 11pm was breached on the grounds of public safety
By the second month of protests police stopped wearing riot clothing
High profile visitors to the demonstrations included MPs and celebrities such as Carla Lane

Animal rights campaigners, led by Brightlingsea resident Maria Wilby, had organised themselves into a group called BALE (Brightlingsea Against Live Exports).

Daily protests began along the streets down to the small harbour as huge trucks, carrying live animals for export, trundled slowly through.

The cargo was mostly sheep, but there were also cattle, plus the animals which aroused the most emotion, veal calves.

People wept, shouted, laid in the road, waved banners and tried to block the path of the huge lorries, sometimes attacking the lorry cabs in the convoy.

Reporting on miners' marches in South Yorkshire and the angry Poll Tax riots at Islington Town Hall, I had seen mob violence close-up.

But this was something entirely different.

Although there were days of high tension, drama and anger, much of the time there was also camaraderie, goodwill and humour.

My colleague Paul Dunt was reporting for BBC Essex in the middle of a large crowd near the wharf one day when a fence was pulled apart and the wooden stakes used as weapons.

He remembers shouting "hello" to someone he knew amidst the bedlam. That was what it was like, moments of violence, panic and terror interspersed with good-natured banter!

Brightlingsea animal rights demonstration
Many of the clashes were violent and disappointing for the local campaigners

It was the first time I had seen large numbers of women, young children, mums with toddlers and pensioners alongside activists and professional campaigners in the front line of an angry, and sometimes violent, public protest.

Reporting the story

In my experience there are more than just two sides to every story, there are many more. Reporting the complexities and personalities involved is one of the best things about the job.

From Isla Humphreys, 19, who was repeatedly arrested, to Tilly Merritt, 79, it was the women, housewives, mothers, grandmothers, and children, who caught the media's eye. Especially when youngsters staged a protest during the half-term holidays.

I was lucky enough to have News Editor, Mark Wray, guiding me through.

We spent a lot of time wondering if we had reflected all sides in the right way; could we get access into one of the lorry cabs, were we telling the story about the impact on farmers, were we representing the views of people living in Brightlingsea who did not want to join the protests?

There were days when it felt like everyone was talking about this small, coastal town
BBC Essex's Lynne Wilson

From the start there were huge attempts to foster good relationships in a small community where everyone hoped life would someday return to normal. The approach by Essex Police was a turning point in dealing with public disorder.

In April 1995, the relative calm was shattered as the Public Order Act was used, forcing protestors to give notice and causing a break down in communications between police and protesters.

Three months into the protests, in mid-April, the Act was tested and, for the first time, there were significant numbers of protesters arriving by coach from elsewhere.

Masked demonstrators also appeared in the streets with water bombs, bottles, coins and eggs injected with chemicals.

It was a low point in the campaign and although order returned, for the next few months many people were haunted by the scenes that were splashed across the world's media.

This emotion was reflected on a daily basis on the BBC Essex phone-in with John Hayes.

Police guard a lorry with live animals for export
Brightlingsea was a hot topic from January to October

John nicknamed it the "B" word and there were days when it felt like everyone was talking about this small, coastal town reluctantly flung into the eye of the storm.

Then, at the end of October 1995, it ended almost as abruptly as it started.

The exports stopped and life, very slowly, returned to normal.

When the BBC Essex radio car rolled into Brightlingsea on that freezing cold day in January 1995, we did not know we would all still be there 10 months later.

We also did not know the story would fill radio phone-ins for weeks on end, cost millions to police and spark interest across the globe.

You can see more about the Brightlingsea live export demonstrations on BBC East, Inside Out, Monday, 22 February 2010.

In pictures: Brightlingsea protests
17 Feb 10 |  History


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