Advice on farm incursions by protestors

Friday, 31 January, 2020

Commodity watch by policy officer, Dr Geoff Thompson

In recent weeks, there have been several incursions and mass protests by vegan extremists on farms throughout the UK. Members have been calling the Ulster Farmer’s Union seeking to understand their rights and what actions they can take to protect their businesses and what they can or should do if their farm is targeted.

From our experience to date, typically these extremists will survey potential targets for weeks or months in advance of an incursion. This can include trespassing during the night and placing small video recording devices around the farm which they will periodically check or replace. Once they have gathered enough information, they arrange a mass incursion where activists from all over the world fly in to be part of the action. Each one of these individuals, tends to be a ‘social media influencer’ and some of them will have several hundred thousand people following and funding their activities. As such, they are able to by-pass traditional media such as the TV and stream their footage to an audience of millions around the world instantly. During the incursion, they tend to selectively film sick or injured animals and fallen stock as this generates the most graphic content to further their cause which is ultimately to turn consumers off meat. Reportedly, some also stage shots and cut in footage from other break-ins in order to make farms look worse than they are in order to create a bigger visual impact and more outrage. Following the incursion, they will then edit all of this footage into a five- or 10-minute video montage portraying all of the lowlights and then portray this selective footage as reflective of the entire farm and wider industry. Given these practises, we are only as strong as our weakest link, and each farm is only as strong as its worst moment or weakest animal.

So what can we do to protect our farms and industry?

The most obvious first step is making sure our own house is in order. It is impossible to defend the indefensible and as such we need to be certain we are complying with legal and industry standards. Beyond this, whilst farmers want to give sick animals every chance to recover, in this era of trial by social media, I would encourage producers to think very carefully about the optics of sick, injured, or fallen animals on your farm. Are they clearly in a hospital pen? Is that pen well bedded or on rubber mats? If not, ask yourself ‘how would this image look during the dead of night and then shown on the evening news?’ If you feel nervous about the answer, you may need to review your hospital pen facilities, or it may be better to error on the side of caution and euthanise the animal.

Secondly, these groups seek out footage of fallen stock. Given this, it is advised that the last thing you do at night is to check whether any animals need to be euthanised and upon completion, immediately move the animal to a locked bin or house until they can be collected. Don’t leave these animals over night as that’s when the activists will likely be on site.

One of the aspects of these break-ins troubling farmers the most is the biosecurity risk and sense of violation caused by strangers from all over the world descending on their property. This is a challenging area because as an industry we want to be open and transparent about our production methods with the general public. However, no one should ever have to tolerate incursions of this nature. In order to mitigate this, each farmer should review their site security and consider if it is sufficient to their needs or should it be tighter. Each farm will be different, but you might want to consider perimeter fencing, gates, security lighting or cameras, signage stating ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’, alarms, locks or padlocks on doors, or guard dogs.

If you do come across these extremists on your farm or have suspicions that they may have been on farm:

  • Be aware they may be live streaming the encounter.
  • Calmly and politely ask them to leave.
  • Call the police and alert them of their presence or log the incident if they have left.
  • Inform the UFU, your processor, and quality assurance scheme (they may wish to organise a spot visit of the site).
  • Gather your own photo or video evidence of faces, car registrations, and any damage caused (this will be useful if you wish to attempt to prosecute them and for industry intelligence).
  • Check the site and other sites for hidden cameras.
  • Consider suspending social media accounts if picked up by the press.
  • Do not speak to the press (additional publicity is what these individuals crave).

Several members have also asked us to clarify the legalities surrounding these break-ins. Typically, break-ins of this nature are treated as trespass which is a civil tort. As such, you may want to ensure that your farm insurance policy covers legal expenses. The most common outcome of this avenue is damages and injunctions against the individuals. The court may also issue an order that applies to all future trespassers which can be affixed to gates and fences. Subsequently, anyone found trespassing can be held in contempt of court. Where protestors have entered your property and are intentionally obstructing, disrupting or intimidating you from carrying out ‘lawful activities’, this trespass can be elevated to aggravated trespass which is a criminal offence. In these instances, police officers can order individuals to leave the premises and if they refuse or return this is an additional offence. In these instances, the maximum penalty is three months imprisonment or a fine of up to £2,500 or both. If the protestors cause deliberate or reckless damage (this can be permanent or temporary e.g. graffiti) or interfere with property in a manner that causes loss or loss of profit they can be prosecuted for criminal damages. The magnitude of the penalty depends on whether or not the damage is more or less than £5,000.

Additionally, activists found on their way to an action with bolt-cutters etc have previously been charged with having items with intent to cause criminal damage. A further avenue for prosecution may be theft, which is the dishonest appropriation of another person’s property with the intent to permanently deprive them of it which carries a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment.