Live Mink & A Dying Empire
In the killing of animals there is cruelty, rage, and the accustoming of oneself to the bad habit of shedding innocent blood.
- Rabbi Joseph Albo (1380-1444) (Sephardic philosopher)
The growth in direct action against the fur trade in the UK during the 1980s and the rapid sequence of victories that followed with the closing of outlets, farms and department stores, together with Labour pledges to ban fur farming, contributed to the overall picture of a dying fur trade. But as other campaigns took on a life of their own, there was a slow downturn in the campaign to force the fur trade out of existence. Consequently there has been something of a resurgence in the sale of fur as the industry has, on the quiet, sneaked its product back onto the high street - albeit mostly in the form of fur lining, cuffs and accessories. What is especially obscene for this industry boastful of the beauty of natural fur, is that this has been achieved in no small part by disguising real fur as though it’s artificial ‘fun fur’ and selling it that way, whilst all the time claiming that a demand for the real thing has returned. To all intents and purposes (industry profits aside), it may as well be artificial fur. That it isn’t is being addressed by the Animal Liberation Movement.

Personally, I took the view that the fur trade was all but done for and wouldn’t be able to re-establish itself and have focused for the most part on other issues. But others have continued the battle elsewhere. In the UK, we are once again getting to grips with an industry that is hopeful of a return to the good old days and a market opening up to their cruel exploitation. But things have changed since the time it was viewed as just an English problem to be overcome; word has spread not just across the Atlantic but the other ways also: into the heart of fur-farming Scandinavia.

In early summer, 1995, Finland saw the first raid of its kind when over six hundred foxes were freed from their cages after raids on four farms in the west of the country, a county boasting the world’s largest captive fox population, contributing over two million skins a year. This was a significant enough development in itself, but it was the trial of the three young women responsible for the liberations that was to draw the industry into the limelight and ignite a war that was to spread across Europe during the 1990s.

Of the three 20 year-olds, two said nothing to the police when pressurised, while the third told them everything. With her evidence, they were all convicted. A promise of leniency for Kirsi Kultalahati turned out to be her only reward, as she fared little better than the others at the conclusion of a month-long trial. Mia Salli and Minna Salonen were given suspended sentences of 2 ½ years whilst the talkative one got two years suspended. They were between them fined 850,000 Finnish Marks - around £135,000 - to cover farmers’ losses and increased insurance. It was a hefty sum in any currency and a price that had to be paid under Finnish law.

Media coverage of the story and exposure of fur farming made regular headlines and inspired others to act. Elainten Vapataus Rintama, the Finnish ALF, had arrived! By the end of the year, the police estimated that one fur shop a week was having windows broken and locks were glued even more often. That autumn, two more farms were raided, and 200 foxes were released into the wild. The hundreds left behind were dyed with red henna and all breeding records were stolen. Soon after that, a huge pelt processing plant owned by the country’s second biggest fur farm and feed supplier, and housing 20,000 polecat and 2000 fox pelts, was set ablaze causing extensive damage. At another farm, 50 foxes were dyed red.

Two months later in a first of its kind, several meat trucks were burnt out and on Xmas Eve there were three more in flames. To prove this wasn’t the preserve of a small number of objectors, 200 activists protested at the International Fur Auction, a hugely important event for fur traders. Sporadic actions around the event gave the appearance of a siege and resulted in over 40 people being arrested by the end of the day.

All this in no time at all, in a country that had hitherto played a negligible part in the growing Animal Liberation Movement. At the end of this year of unprecedented direct action, carried out predominantly by 19 and 20 year olds, scores of fur shops had closed down and rather bold predictions were being made by activists about the imminent collapse of the fur trade in Finland in the next few years. This was a rallying call to all involved in the industry to stand up and fight back. That meant not so much defending the practice of fur farming and extolling its virtues, but more violence.

Those on the front line of the industry were quick to issue their own threats to activists to the effect that if any were caught by the farmers, there would be trouble. Sure enough, it was two years on, but for the fur traders it was worth waiting for to prove they were good for their word. Alerted by recently installed movement sensors and silent alarms, five young raiders were rumbled late one night by the sleepless farmer as they entered a fox farm that had been raided three times before. As they ran from the scene, he emptied his shotgun into them.

One was hit in the lower back, one five times in the arms and legs and another was hit in the lungs and took another nine puncture wounds. All considered themselves to be very lucky, even though they were arrested in their car en route to hospital and had their homes searched. One injured woman was remanded in custody for five months and questioned repeatedly and was only released after going on hunger strike. The farmer told a pack of lies and was allowed to go about his cruel business armed and dangerous until some time later, following public pressure and threats of civil proceedings, police invited him to have a less cordial chat. He was then arrested and charged with assault, an unlikely charge in the event but a step in the right direction. As media interest grew and the police were forced to see through the gunman’s story, they upped the allegations to three counts of attempted manslaughter and two of reckless endangerment. The activists were charged with disturbing the domestic peace.

The raiders were convicted. At the wounding trial, the farmer argued that there had been no other way to detain the prowlers save by shooting them and was duly convicted of aggravated assault and reckless endangerment. Everyone then exchanged money. He had to compensate the three people for their injuries to the tune of four thousand Marks and pay their hospital costs and got 18 months probation. They had to pay him and his wife one thousand Marks for emotional suffering and serve four months probation.

The amount of public sympathy generated for one man and his gun, and indeed the wider industry, was a wake-up call for the enthusiastic fledgling movement - a reminder that there was some way to go to make Finland fur farm free. A thousand farms have closed in ten years with another 1,500 still operating.

During legal proceedings, it emerged that just one of the 50 foxes freed in another raid on the same farm had remained unaccounted for after the roundup, a statistic
that has been repeated elsewhere. In the UK following a release of 150 mink from Fairwood Mink Farm at Darcy Lever in Bolton in 1984, 145 were recaptured, three died and just two remained free. Other raids have resulted in larger numbers of animals avoiding the round-up and all have resulted in wider implications for the farm owners.

Results of tests carried out by the Finnish Fur Breeders Union on henna-dyed pelts confirmed there was no way the damage could be undone, rendering sabotaged pelts worthless. Worthless pelts mean worthless animals and worthless animals don’t live in cages. Over the next ten years, in the region of 100 fur farms were raided in Finland releasing tens of thousands of animals and causing huge damage to pelts and equipment with no end in sight.

A series of raids on mink farms in Germany saw 300 mink released, pelts wrecked and a variety of buildings burnt out. In Austria, two raids saw 150 mink potter off to pastures new from recently established farms. In Italy, 2,000 mink were released from their cages. In Norway, a fur trader’s offices were attacked, dozens of windows broken, locks glued and equipment sabotaged. 110 foxes were dyed with red henna at a farm in Telemark where a car was also damaged, graffiti was sprayed around the place and breeding books were taken. In one night, five separate farms in the Rogaland area lost 20-25 mink each. Fur outlets have typically been targeted too. In Sweden, the DBF burnt five buildings at an unoccupied fur farm processing plant and offices, causing $600,000 damage.

In America, where there was plenty else affecting fur traders, an incendiary device thrown through a window of the two-storey Alaskan Fur Co. warehouse at Bloomington started a blaze which went on to cause $2,750,000 worth of damage. One million dollars-worth of damage was caused to the main office area and four trucks belonging to the Utah Fur Breeders Agricultural Cooperative; also destroyed by fire was a one ton truck belonging to a company that manufactured a pelt cleaning solution used by furriers.

There were, and still are, all manner of less news worthy activities pressurising the fur trade in these and many other countries. Harrods in London have again begun to sell fur coats and attracted a regular animal rights presence, which has cost the business tens of thousands of pounds in legal injunctions alone in an attempt to restrict the protests.

In the UK in 1976, when the first foxes were deliberately freed from a farm in Scotland it heralded the beginning of the end for fur farming. (But not before some controversy. You just can’t abuse animals these days without there being some controversy! It’s inevitably become an essential ingredient in the crusade against animal abuse). Where there had once been 600 fur farms operating by the early 1980s, there were only 68 mink farms and a handful of fox farms left, including one in Wales and eight in Scotland. And the majority of these were closed down during the 1990s down from 52 in 1989 to just 13 in 1999.

While its fair to say that much of the movement had gone slightly soft on the fur trade there were some activists who had kept their eye on what was going on at the dozen or so remaining mink farms still operating in the UK. They’d also set aside an evening or two to remind the rest of society that there were wild mink in cages. There has been an hyper sensitive reaction to the deliberate release of captive animals into the vast expanse of the USA and in Europe but the backlash was unprecedented in the UK when 6000 mink were released into the New Forest in the autumn of 1998. It was in the middle of what they call the silly season for news reporting, and along with the mink, the ALF unleashed a swarm of human prejudices.

Reasoning that there was no point complaining or feeling angry, not even much point voting, one rescue team headed into the New Forest early one evening, aiming for Crow Hill Farm, they got dropped off half a mile away and walked through the pitch darkness to the back of the compound, masked up, then negotiated the ageing mink-proof fence.

Tucked away in a valley, this is an ideal location for something you want to hide, but access is good through the trees from the back if you are reasonably agile. The guard dogs were locked up at the front of the site. The night was young. It wasn’t hard to persuade the mink out of the cages. Most didn’t even have nest boxes attached in which to hide - something even the fur industry now accepts as a necessary extravagance. Two hours later, in a slick operation, the raiders retraced their steps, called transport and left the county. Six thousand mink had the one chance they’d get to do the same.

Within hours of daybreak the following morning, MAFF had a 14-strong team dressed in camouflage clothing hunting down escapees across the New Forest - all 93,000 acres of it. Farmers and landowners were granted free reign to exterminate any that surfaced. Every trigger happy gun toting moron stirred. The Hampshire Mink Hounds were empowered! The do-gooders were out stalking mink, believing they were doing something for society. Everybody was out there trying to get the poor things back into their miserable cage existence. Wanted Dead or Alive! It’s not their fault! The liberators who created this state of near hysteria among so many must have been stunned by the over-reaction to their simple act of sabotage. Suddenly, bored journalists, ‘conservationists’, apologists, hunters, editors and policemen were all qualified to comment on the impending demise of the New Forest. It looks and sounds like a totally reckless act and who would dare to say otherwise? I will!

Local residents armed and protected themselves; they were warned to be vigilant. Some kept themselves and their children indoors as the murderous mink “rampaged” across the Hampshire countryside, as you might envisage a swarm of locusts, devouring everything in their path. One woman reportedly barricaded herself in and blocked up the chimney. It would be funny if it weren’t quite so serious. For the hated mink: small, cute, furry meat-eaters, who are far less scary and dangerous in the real world than the big unattractive hairy ones that keep animals in cages, even the RSPCA were rounding them up. Even! Given their track record, this should have come as no surprise.

So, back into the filthy, stinking hole the captured mink went with the RSPCA inspectors. Back to where animals had been dying of septicaemia from huge open untreated wounds, where live animals existed alongside dead ones, displayed stereotypical behaviour, had limbs missing and broken. Crow Hill Farm was a wretched factory farm festering with the living, the dead and the dying mink packed into cages with maggots, flies and shit everywhere and the most unbearable stench in the air.

An RSPCA inspector had previously visited the farm and found nothing wrong, while animal rights activists were on site covertly monitoring. MAFF officials had made routine visits and found nothing that bothered them either. You would have to be asleep to do this! It was only after video evidence was personally delivered to RSPCA headquarters that someone there finally acted, but it was too little and too late.

The horrors that befell so many beautiful fur-bearing creatures in that place and others like it are too awful to put adequately into words. New Labour politicians knew of the situation, said they would act to end the trade and then, of course, didn’t. I don’t vote for any of them and that makes me feel very angry, so how must those feel who voted for their promises feel? And to whom should they complain? And what about the mink? That was a primary concern for a few deep thinkers.

This obviously wasn’t some “mindless act of terrorism” as it was referred to by some. “It was planned a long time ago. We were waiting to see what the government would do first. If politicians won’t do what they’re told to do then it’s time people stopped talking to them,” said one of the unrepentant raiders when quizzed. His theory was that, while the released mink would surely predate on any other suitably sized wild creature they could catch, there would be a lot more suffering and death in the long term if the cages weren’t emptied once and for always. This was about forcing the issue; it was a mindful act. Shocking.

It wasn’t the ALF that had caused the growth of the population to around 100,000 wild mink in the UK. Ask the fur farmers - they brought them here from North America at the end of the 1920s. It was another 20 years before mink settled the British countryside and began to breed in the wild. Some made their own way out of the farms, while others - shed loads of them - were deliberately released by their erstwhile captors when the pelt profits dropped off. With otters struggling due to modern poisonous farming practices and hunting, and polecats persecuted to near extinction by gamekeepers of the nineteenth century, there was a niche in the countryside. So not only have mink been forced to live here where they clearly aren’t wanted, but in cages! Can’t be right! The government agreed the practice should be banned, then did nothing. This kind of unhelpful, erratic behaviour, or lying, doesn’t instil confidence and encourages people to force the issue, usually by controversial methods.

What of the “Ecological disaster” which the Sunday Times forecast or the RSPCA’s “Environmental disaster”? The Guardian said the mink were threatening eighty square miles of countryside and the Mirror ran the headline: “Mink Go Wild in the Killing Fields” which it qualified with absurd notions about mink on a “countryside killing spree”, leaving a trail of destruction up to five miles away from the farm. The police warned: “Young children, especially babies, should not be left alone, certainly not outside. They will attack babies, young children, cats, dogs, chickens and they will go for the throat.”

Eek! In The Independent’s view, the released mink were: “The Four Letter Word Striking Fear Into The Heart of Hampshire… stalking wildlife in the New Forest, slipping over the border into Dorset. The mink have no shame, and no mercy.” Blimey! Interspersed in this story telling was the token sprinkling of ‘concern’ that not all the poor creatures were equipped to survive in the wild and would die. Was it really lost on them all that the very purpose of their animal’s confinement was to facilitate their premature death? At Crow Hill prior to the raid, one of the workers was covertly filmed swinging mink by the tail and smashing their heads the ground to kill them.

One of the papers carried the story of Ian Sturrock, who had apparently watched in horror as a mink had leapt onto his 18 month-old sons buggy. Strangely enough - given the fact that that Sturrock had feared for his baby son’s life - the article was accompanied by a photograph taken by Sturrock of the moment the mink - if that’s what it was - laid down next to the baby. Surely a doting dad would have leapt to the rescue of his son, if the animal was so dangerous? Was the photo worth a few quid? Or 15 minutes of fame? And dead or alive, was the animal actually doing the child any harm? Obviously not, yet the clear inference was that our children were in danger. Why? Any previous mink attacks to learn from? Another one of the more fantastic stories - and there were bundles to choose from - came from an angler who claimed he was attacked by a gang of mink while he sat peacefully trying to impale fish on his hook. “Mink Mug Angler For His Bait” was the story in The Telegraph. “Suddenly these dark shapes sprang out of the bushes nearby and jumped on me. They were all over me. There were at least four of them, if not more. They were running all over my legs, my feet and trying to climb on my seat. I was screaming. I picked up my landing net to try and beat them off. I hit a couple but it didn’t seem to affect them. They were fearless. I battled with them for about a minute”, alleged fearless fish hunter John Stone, an hour or so after taking the magic mushrooms. The maligned mink’s reputation was sealed, it seemed, to be regurgitated ad infinitum.

Some mink were shot and killed or trapped and returned to the farm. Only a minority escaped; perhaps a few hundred survived the initial break out and not all would have made it thought the winter. Some mink are probably still free and making a better job, I’ll warrant, of living in harmony with the countryside than most modern humans.

There was so much forced concern in these news reports about the mink killing other animals and then taking over the world, that the message in all of this was forgotten. The double standards were unfathomable. Presumably it didn’t take a mathematician to work out the equation: the released mink had been fattened in their cages on the bodies of other animals, killed cruelly by people far more ruthless than the four who’d opened their cages, not to mention the fact that the mink themselves were destined for slaughter if they stayed. All of them! At one Devon fur farm alone, 26,000 caged mink were fed eight tons of chicken, fish, cooked cereals, vitamins, liver and wheatgerm every single day. That is a lot of suffering and a lot of waste: worth a few angry comments, surely? And what of the utterly senseless carnage by gamekeepers on three hundred shooting estates where millions of animals and birds are blasted with shotguns, caught in snares and poisoned for a sport? Lets talk cruel killing!

Mink on the one hand were allegedly on a rampaging killing spree throughout the countryside, or conversely on the other hand starving and fighting to death. So moved were the raiders by this hysterical media reaction, that a week later they returned to Crow Hill Farm and opened a load more cages to release 1000 more mink. Or was it simply that there were still mink in cages to be released? Sometimes there are far more important things to worry about than what others say, but the fact that so many people were talking about mink farming was primarily important because, for all their pre-election wooing promises, the government had stopped talking of banning fur farms.

Very few of the many who had complained about the mink liberation had actually done anything to stop the cruelty and suffering in these farms, and the barrage of criticisms was an obscene exaggeration of the true impact free mink would have on the countryside. Happily, there were one or two voices of reason in the hysterical onslaught of terror tales following the raids. Perhaps not an obvious commentary point but Ben Sharratt of Motor Caravan magazine (Jan 1999), was considered in his opinion: “I was under the impression that the mink was a small but aggressive carnivore with a penchant for voles and young birds, before I read in the paper and heard on the telly that it is in actual fact a baby-killing, dog-slaying fighting machine with mean eyes, a cold heart and relentlessly thuggish tendencies!”

John Vidal, the Guardian’s environmental correspondent, agreed that “The mink got a ludicrous reception from the press. They are solitary animals that mark out territory a mile apart from each other and can travel miles in a day in search of food, ensuring a well dispersed population. They aren’t stupid!” He quoted a New Forest District Council report, two months later, which stated that only 1000 mink were still on the run and that these had all gone to ground with little damage reported. Anyone else notice that?

Mink are the victims of fashion, economic pressure, Political expediency, scientific theory, conservation policy, moral principle, ignorance and prejudice - all ideas with guns. We should show these creatures some respect - so said Paul Evans of the British Association Of Nature Conservationists in 1998. Lots of studies have been commissioned into the mink population and its effects on other wildlife. These have repeatedly shown that mink have not caused a demonstrable impact on other species. Not even to the endangered water vole, whose biggest problem, as always, is man, who continues to wreak destruction on their habitat by overgrazing, grubbing up hedgerows, removing reedy river edges, setting up flood defence and drainage schemes, building houses and roads and hunting the river banks for mink with dog packs. The same goes for the ‘game’ birds, whom many gun-toting farmers are keen to protect from mink. The biggest threat to the lives of these and other birds is man, whose keen observation has led him to decide that rabbits are vermin too, and therefore must be exterminated! Somehow, their keen observations missed something: rabbits are preyed upon by the mink and of course the fox and the occasional raptor and if left alone, would maybe, just maybe control their own populations. Its radical, almost extreme thinking, I know.

Finally moved to act, an RSPCA inspection team visited Crow Hill Farm, with the police in November 1997. Equipped with nine hours of footage filmed covertly by Respect for Animals over a 19-month period. They were availed of every detail they needed to facilitate their tour of the 4000 cages in the numerous sheds. They had the exact location of cages with dead bodies, the injured and mutilated mink and of the overcrowded cages containing up to seven fully-grown mink, which were meant to hold two or three animals. Post-mortem reports from dead animals taken during the investigation revealed their awful suffering. One caged mink had a bare bone for a back leg, the result of a fight. Another taken for post-mortem had nothing but sawdust in its stomach. Others had died from untreated severe injuries. The RSPCA took more bodies for post-mortem examination and killed off the more seriously injured animals. Intriguingly a break-in occurred at the veterinary surgery where the corpses were being stored over the Xmas holiday and a number of them were stolen, the evidence thus removed. Nothing else was taken. Who on Earth would have wanted to do that?

It was all there in black and white for the officials to sort out. They had, of course, each been at Crow Hill Farm before to inspect the conditions about which so many had complained, but somehow, each time, they’d missed the endless trail of horrors they were looking for. How is this possible? Even a cursory look at the footage or the farm itself would tell a moron that things were far from ‘acceptable’, or even legal, but it took the animal liberators to expose what the RSPCA and government inspectors had failed to see. Or maybe just refused to see. This could not be passed off as incompetence or an accident.

And therein lay a way out for MAFF, ironically. They couldn’t be seen to rely in court on evidence obtained illegally by the animal activists so they cut a deal with the farmer, who initially had 29 summonses issued against him. The conclusion was that 73 year-old Terence Smith, who had farmed mink for 50 years and described himself when interviewed following the ALF raid as “an animal lover”, got off with little more than a scarred reputation as the 29 charges against him were dropped. He pleaded guilty on behalf of the company T. T. Smith (Mink) Ltd to 15 counts of cruelty and breaches of animal welfare rules and was fined £5,000 with £15,000 costs. The fall guy, Ian Stroud, 43, the ogre employed by Smith to do the killing, pleaded guilty to six counts of cruelty to mink after he was filmed smashing their heads against the cages to subdue them when they resisted his attempt to be gassed. He was given no more than 150 hours community service and told to pay a token £100 costs by New Forest Magistrates, who said without a whiff of irony that: “Society in this country is always going to treat very seriously cruelty to other living creatures.” Allowing him to walk away with a smile after inflicting such terrible suffering and receiving no deterrent punishment is not the way to persuade those drawn to the ALF to down tools now, is it?

Two weeks after the sentencing of the Hampshire farmer, and while the mink furore rumbled on, it was stoked some more when Kelbain Mink Farm at Onneley in Staffordshire, one of the more secure of the baker’s dozen left, was visited by ALF raiders. Here they set about 3,500 cages with bolt cutters, freeing 8,000 mink, 3,000 of whom made good their escape from the compound. Four days later, around 400 were said by the farmer to be still unaccounted for. He estimated a street value of £50,000. Just a few days earlier, breeding cards had been removed from cages, but the intruders were disturbed before completing the job. Returning the night following the liberation raid, the farmers wife’s £18,000 Audi and his van were doused in paint stripper outside their house.

“It is still horrendous out there,” complained Len Kelsall, the ruffled 60 year-old farmer and Chairman of the Fur Breeders Association, “It looks like a battle field”. We’ve been telling them this for years! “It is just starting to hit me how bad this is”. Len went on. “It is terrorism and cruelty at its worse and the government must act to stop it.” Indeed.

In a monumental meeting of minds, both the Chair of the FBA and the liberators had come to agree that the Labour government was to blame. “They made an election promise to abolish mink farming but have done nothing more,” sulked Len, who was sounding more and more like his adversaries with every comment but also had his eye on compensation. Conversely, Mark Glover, a serial ALF-basher of the group Respect for Animals who documented and exposed the awful scenes in Hampshire, claimed that the liberation of the mink had been, “an extraordinary thing to do”, given the Government’s pledge to ban fur farming. The ALF raiders said they considered it their duty. He reckoned the outcome for the mink was, “equally as bleak outside” as in the cages on the farm, somewhat ironically echoed in a statement by Robert Morgan, Chief Executive of the British Fur Trade Association (explaining in the Observer in June 1997 why mink, who naturally spend 60% of their life in water, are better off in wire cages): If mink have access to swimming water then they would get wet and probably get cold and die.

So give them hair driers. Sure, out there there’s no regular serving of gruel and no terraced housing, but wild animals tend to struggle through and, given the option, few would choose a brief frustrated life in a cage and a certain brutal death over taking a chance on reaching their second birthday in the countryside.

By the following spring, Labour MP Maria Eagle’s Bill to outlaw fur farming in the UK had gained cross party support and had the backing of the National Farmers Union and even the Fur Breeders Association. All but one of the remaining mink farmers were happy to be bought out of business with compensation payments and be spared the hassle that modern life was bringing. Such an opt-out would also save them the cost of a proposed legislation forcing farmers to spend big money on increased security measures. This was a move which had been prompted by the recent raids, which also saw the Government ratchet up the cost of farm licences from £115 to £630 a few months after.

As would be expected, Conservative MPs, who tabled over thirty amendments, talked the Bill out of time. But early 2003 the legislation finally reached the statute books and made what was left of the fur farming industry in the UK illegal. There are no longer any mink or fox farms operating in the UK. A significant milestone. And not the only one.


From Dusk 'til Dawn
An Insider's View of the Growth of the Animal Liberation Movement

© Keith Mann