Silence of the lambs' champions

The foot and mouth cull should have animal rights activists out in droves. Where are they? David Cox

It's an animal holocaust. More than two million creatures wholly dependent on our guardianship have now been condemned to a traumatic and degrading death. Though many may anyway have been destined for the abattoir, the victims include ewes with ten years of life ahead of them, and even domestic pets. The disease of which most of them are in fact innocent has been spread mainly by human folly. The decision to fight it through massacre rather than vaccination appears to have been thrust upon supine politicians by a small vested interest concerned only with profit. In a situation like this, a sane society can turn for deliverance only to its saviours of last resort - the crazed fanatics.

Britain is hardly the home of direct action - except when animals are being abused. Then we normally lead the world. Animal liberation terrorists come here to be trained. It is just six weeks since masked assailants attacked the managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences with baseball bats, for daring to preside over drug tests on animals. Six years ago, the live animal export trade was stopped in its lorry tracks by an army formed largely of housewives and pensioners. Today, pro-animal organisations, fresh from the triumph of the fox-hunting bill, are among our largest and best-funded pressure groups. As smoke from the pyres darkens the Cumbrian skies, and more and more harmless beasts tumble into mass graves, the Big Day for our animal activists seems finally to have dawned. So where are they?

The macabre pantomime entitled "The Cull" boasts an ever-growing dramatis personae. Hugh Grant and Sean Connery, in cameo roles, beg tourists to visit the killing fields. Our Great Leader is principal boy, and Her Majesty's armed forces make up the chorus line. Yet virtually no animal champions seem to have found their way on to this crowded stage. Just when we most need Britain's pro-animal movement, it stays eerily silent. Why?

It isn't that the reality behind the pictures filling our television screens is any less horrific than the appearance. On the contrary. In abattoirs, animals are not allowed to witness the slaughter of their fellows, as they have to during the present massacre, because this is known to cause them particular distress. More alarming still, those stun guns that you see on TV do not necessarily kill their victims outright. The law therefore requires that bolt-gun stunning must be followed by "pithing", that is, the insertion of a metal rod right through the brain. There is plenty of evidence that, in the mad scramble to get animals killed, pithing is being skipped. As a result, some of the creatures being tipped into those giant pits are apparently being buried alive.

Activists cannot claim they are waiting on the popular will. For once, the consciousness of the masses seems higher than that of the supposed revolutionary vanguard. Animal organisations have been deluged with calls from troubled people, some of whom have had to stop watching the news. Yet still nothing seems to happen. Or almost nothing.

Last week, a demonstration against The Cull did take place. At the door of the Death Star itself, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), a total of 37 souls hurled limp abuse at understandably unbothered ministry suits. Mass media coverage was provided exclusively by the New Statesman. Afterwards, in the pub, I asked the organisers, a couple of organic farmers, where everybody else was. They were as baffled as me. One of them suggested darkly that perhaps fighting Maff's death squads lacked the class-war appeal of the struggles against toff fox-hunters or capitalist drug companies. I felt there must be more to it.

So I rang Carla Lane, the sitcom queen turned Britain's answer to Brigitte Bardot. She told me that she, too, had wondered where everyone was. She asked the activists she knew. The answer was that action is impossible because of the foot-and-mouth restrictions on movement. Stranger and stranger. Animal terrorists routinely resort to letter bombs and car bombs, and are said to regard prison sentences as a badge of honour. Yet, at this great Moment of Doom, are activists really holding back for fear of fines for infringing footpath closures?

Parliament's best-known animal champion, Tony Banks, offered me a more persuasive justification for inaction. "There is a particularly good relationship between animal welfare supporters and the government at the moment. We don't see ministers as the enemy." This view chimes with the widespread suspicion that the activists' real priority is their beloved hunting bill: now they have it, and want its implementation in Labour's manifesto, this is no time to rock the boat. Yet still I wasn't wholly satisfied.

What about the vast animal welfare organisations, into which so many pour their contributions and legacies? Compassion in World Farming has sent several letters to Maff. Their impact? "We haven't had a reply." The RSPCA prides itself on its practical measures on the ground. Its officers are busily rescuing sheep stranded by the movement restrictions, and brokering feed supplies. As for the big picture, well, that's not really their thing.

Nowadays, our increasingly professionalised campaigning bodies are reluctant to take strong positions on policy issues for fear of splitting their memberships and alienating the establishment institutions with which they seek to negotiate incremental improvements. According to Marion Shoard, the former rural pressure group campaigner who has gone solo as an author and lecturer, "inside these organisations, rage gets sapped by compromise, bureaucracy and endless internal politics".

Time, then, to turn from the softies of the welfare world to the animal rights hardliners. And here, at last, I felt I was getting somewhere. The largest animal rights group is called Animal Aid. Andrew Tyler, its director, told me: "Terrible things go on in abattoirs in normal times. What's the difference between being beheaded and being electrocuted? The real point is that factory farming treats animals as mere products." Instead of mounting protests against The Cull, Animal Aid has been concentrating on Veggie Month, as it always does at this time of year. Tyler explained: "The only message that makes sense is: Go Vegetarian. Why do you want 5,000 of us to gather in a field and scream about animals who are going to die anyway?"

Some animal hardliners put the point even more bluntly. The Cull, they imply, is rather to be welcomed. It is shortening the time its victims would otherwise have to spend under the cruel yoke of modern farming. If television viewers don't like what they see, they should stop eating their fellow creatures.

This approach is logical enough. Unfortunately, it's also futile. Just now, Animal Aid's veggie leaflets are apparently flying off the trestle tables; yet they are unlikely to change the diet of our omnivorous species in the longer term. During the BSE scare, which threatened meat-eaters' lives rather than merely touching their consciences, meat sales fell slightly before quickly returning to their former level. People don't want to stop eating meat. They just want the creatures involved to be treated with compassion and respect.

The animal movement could have leafleted every household on the pithing scandal and held a weekly demo against it in every town. This might have been enough to convert the inchoate horror evoked by the pyres and pits into a national urge to stamp out all mistreatment of farm animals. Tony Banks wants to see a licensing system which would close farms that abuse livestock. By capitalising properly on The Cull, campaigners could have made demands like this unstoppable. Instead, the moment has been lost.