Livestock producers advised on farm break-ins

Farmers have been warned of break-ins, following an increase in the industry being targeted by animal rights protestors. 

At a National Farmers’ Union (NFU) meeting at its Stoneleigh headquarters, delegates were advised on how to tackle the issue.

A recent spate of incidents has raised the concerns of the industry. Activists have been able to gain access to chicken sheds at night and have taken pictures or videos of the birds in poor lighting to release to the public. Several farmers were not even aware that the break-in had taken place until they were contacted by the media.

One delegate at the meeting told attendees that his ventilation systems had been dismantled and fencing cut by activists to gain access. It wasn’t until they looked back at CCTV footage that they realised they had had intruders.

Another attendee explained of being targeted following the publication of a planning application, with another taking on an employee who went into the facility on their lunch break and staged pictures.

Last year, the National Pig Association (NPA) spent a third of its time dealing with members who had been victimised by break-ins. “The activists come around looking for injured animals that haven’t been separated and they are not finding them, so they are going after farming practice,” warned NPA chief executive Dr Zoe Davies.

“They are breaking in at night and finding sows giving birth in farrowing crates, and there is a bit of afterbirth and perhaps a dead piglet. To them this is gold dust, but we can look at that and say ‘this is farming’. Sows often farrow at night because it is a safe time, or it is supposed to be.”

Delegates were told by DC Matt Langowski-Gadd that they should not attempt to reason with extremists, but instead have a robust action plan in place to deal with the issue if it arose. Langowski-Gadd is part of a specialised police unit that deals with domestic extremism. During the conference, he explained there had been a spike in activity since last year.

The NFU noted that while activists were claiming to act on behalf of the welfare of the animal, it often took them a while to report any suspected welfare issues to the authorities. By the time they had made the effort, it was too late to make any impact on the practices they claimed to have uncovered.

Following this type of break-in, farmers were advised they should audit their farm as soon as possible. If any auditing bodies could give a clean bill of health, it could help defend their business. Davies told victims to inform their customers, and to collect evidence and suspend any social media activities.

In the aftermath of the avian influenza outbreak, there are added biosecurity concerns. It is believed activists are likely to break into more than one facility, which could increase the likelihood of the spread of the disease.

However, it is not a criminal offence for someone to trespass on the farm, or in poultry sheds filming birds. Trespassing is, instead, a civil offence, said the NFU’s chief legal adviser Nina Winter.

Break-ins tend to happen at night because there are no people around and the perpetrators cannot be accused of aggravated trespass. They also do not bring their own tools to avoid aggravated burglary charges; instead they use tools they find on-site.

While harassment of distress to an animal cannot be pursued in the law, farmers who have had repeated break-ins can employ anti-stalking laws. Farmers are able to sue for defamation or causing loss by unlawful means in the civil courts, although it is unlikely that activists would have the necessary funds to pay for any damages.

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