Whatever happened to the ALF? A look back at 40 years of radical direct action in the UK

This year marks the 40th birthday of the Animal Liberation Front. The ALF is one of the most important direct action organizations of modern times and probably the most influential animal rights group to have ever existed. That almost goes without saying.

Why then is it that in early November I can find no mention of this important anniversary? 2016 is disappearing fast and with it the opportunity to celebrate four decades of a movement that had the audacity to want to change the world. Not by asking politicians or people in power but instead through self organisation and striking back against the Animal Abuse Industries.  As no one else seems to want to do it, I suppose I’ll have to have a go.


The first thing to understand is although the ALF began in 1976, direct action in the name of animal rights is far older and goes back to at least the nineteenth century when concern around hunting, vivisection, and the like came to the fore.

The Band of Mercy – a radical offshoot of the RSPCA – carried out low-level actions such as damaging traps and disrupting shoots. A century later the name would be revived again by hunt saboteurs like Ronnie Lee who decided that sabbing alone wasn’t enough and carried out actions on hunt kennels and vans, etc.

For the next three years the Band of Mercy upped the ante by attacking vivisection targets –burning down a laboratory causing £45,000 damage – and destroying a boat used for seal hunting. For the first time animals were rescued too, including two of the famous ICI “smoking” beagles by Mike Huskisson in 1975.

The ALF is formed

According to Against All Odds the ALF was set up in June 1976 after Ronnie was released from prison and it “took up where the Band of Mercy had left off, and carried out ten raids against vivisection targets in the remainder of 1976.”

It’s important to remember the context in which this took place. The sixties and seventies were decades of upheaval in which the old order was under siege. Black liberation, feminism, gay rights and environmental activism were on the rise and the radical left questioned the existence of capitalism itself, with groups like the Angry Brigade and the Red Army Faction undertaking campaigns of bombing and political assassination.

While the ALF grew out of this ferment, it differed from the two groups named above in maintaining a policy of strict nonviolence towards sentient beings, including humans. Damaging property used to abuse animals was legitimate, however, and in 1977 activists caused £80,000 damage to a laboratory in North London, which went bust afterwards.

The 1980s: a decade of militancy

 As the new decade dawned the first attack on a vivisector’s home took place – a scientist employed by Wellcome. Then in January 1981 coordinated nationwide actions against the homes and cars of 40 vivisectors drew national tv coverage.

The effect of all this was to energise the wider AR movement, with new organisations like Animal Aid set up and older national societies like the BUAV radicalised by new members. In its newsletter, The Liberator, the latter carried reports on direct action such as the ALF raid on Boots the Chemist’s animal breeding centre in which 12 beagles were saved.

1982 was pivotal for the ALF as the press office and Supporters Group were launched that year. Ronnie Lee became the first press officer, his job to publicise the ALF through the media, while the SG carried reports on actions and listed prisoners’ names and addresses. The press office and the SG even had office space at the BUAV HQ in central London.

The same year saw a number of large daylight raids, the most famous of which at Life Sciences Research in Essex, codenamed Operation Valentine, rescued numerous animals and caused £76,000 damage. There were also attacks on laboratories following legal marches, such as at Huntingdon Research Centre and Porton Down, where thousands tore down the fence and flooded onto Ministry of Defence land.

By 1983 the ALF was growing rapidly. Alongside it were local animal rights groups in most towns and cities and sometimes the two worked hand in hand to devastating effect. One of the prime targets was the fur trade.

In 1983 Croydon Animal Aid (CAA) and the local ALF cell decided Croydon should go fur-free. Two fur shops quickly closed down – one due to leafleting alone, the other after its windows were smashed. A hotel was “gas bombed”, had its windows smashed and slogans daubed on its walls. That ended its fur shows. Debenhams’ fur department closed after a campaign by CAA. That left just the mink farm and Allders.

The farm was raided just before Christmas. Nearly 3000 mink were sprayed – rendering them economically worthless – and 30 were released. Tractors and fences were also damaged. The owner went bankrupt shortly afterwards.

The Allders campaign was a model of collaboration between a local group and the ALF. CAA leafleted the store and obtained 600 boycott pledges while the ALF turned to timed incendiary devices. The first attack in February 1986 caused £500,000 in water damage by setting off the sprinkler system. Then 27 windows and six doors were covered in glass etching fluid. Fearing another attack, two of the company’s directors slept in the store. When it came, however, it was the turn of its lorries to be destroyed at a cost of over £60,000. Two day’s later the fur department closed down.

Incendiary devices were increasingly popular but alongside them came a colossal increase in low-level actions against high street targets such as butchers, burger bars, Boots the Chemists, furriers, cancer charities and even fishing tackle shops. These were reported in the“Diary of Actions” in SG newsletters – page after page containing reports of damaged windows and cars, painted slogans and glued locks.

In November 1984 the ALF claimed it had injected Mars Bars across the country due to the company funding tooth decay experiments on animals. Millions of bars were removed from shelves at a cost of over £3m to Mars. Later the ALF admitted the it had been been a hoax. Similar contamination claims were later made against L’Oréal and Lucozade.

ALF under attack

Just as the ALF appeared on a roll, it came under attack. First from the national societies who’d previously supported it – up to a point. The move from rescuing animals to economic sabotage, especially arson, worried the likes of the BUAV. They also resented criticism of their political campaigns such as Mobilisation for Laboratory Animals and the amount they spent on wages. As a result the press office and SG were evicted from the BUAV’s premises in 1984.

More serious was state repression. In 1986 Ronnie Lee and Vivien Smith were arrested along with an ALF cell in Sheffield due to a successful campaign of direct action, including an incendiary device left at Rackhams store, which sold fur.

Ronnie got 10 years in February 1987 and several others received lengthy sentences. The judge, a former member of the British Union of Fascists, called Ronnie “the general” and dubbed them enemies of society. This show trial was intended to fatally undermine the ALF but it failed. Due to the way it was organised – in autonomous cells – the ALF carried on as before.

Just a few months later three branches of Debenhams were attacked with incendiary devices. Damage totalled £9m because on of the store’s sprinklers were switched off. The following year Dingles department store in Plymouth was gutted and soon afterwards the same happened to a branch of Dickens & Jones in Milton Keynes.

Andrew Clarke and Geoff Sheppard were sentenced for Debenhams. In 2011, however, they said undercover police officer Bob Lambert had planted a device in the Harrow store and are appealing their convictions. By the end of the 1980s, there were no department stores selling fur and the number of fur shops and farms had declined sharply.

Robin Lane succeeded Ronnie as press officer but when he too was imprisoned in June 1988, the press office was suspended. Former prisoner John Curtin occasionally gave media interviews such as to ITV’s World in Action in 1989.

The ALF was also criticised in certain quarters of the movement for its attitude to violence. Since the early 1980s the Animal Rights Militia (ARM) had been sending letter bombs and it was claimed the ALF condoned this, especially as Ronnie Lee suggested in 1984 that activists set up “fresh groups … under new names whose policies do not preclude the use of violence toward animal abusers.”

In 1989 an unknown group called the Animal Abused Society said it had carried out an explosion at Bristol University. The following year two incendiaries detonated under cars belonging to vivisectors and a 13-month-old child was injured by one of them. The SG released a statement saying: “The ALF has, and has always had, a strict policy all members adhere to when carrying out ALF actions. This policy is to take all possible precautions not to harm any human or animal life.”

The 1990s: the “second wave”

1990-91 saw a renewed ALF carry out large-scale raids on animal abuse targets, especially laboratories and lab animal breeders. The first in March 1990 saw 82 beagle puppies and 26 rabbits rescued from Harlan Interfauna, supplier to some of the country’s main vivisectors, for example Boots and Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS).

Boots itself was raided in November and eight female beagles were rescued from its laboratory in Nottinghamshire. With hundreds of stores up and down the country it quickly became a major target and it was reported that 60 of its branches were damaged by the ALF every month.

1991-92 saw a massive onslaught against the meat trade in northwest England with up to 100 lorries destroyed at a cost of over £5m. All this renewed activity meant another press officer was required and Robin Webb assumed this role in November 1991.

This period also saw a change in ideological direction for the ALF. Whereas it had previously adhered to broadly anarchist principles and saw itself as part of the wider struggle for revolutionary change, now ideologues such as Barry Horne frequently expressed contempt for anyone who wasn’t involved in direct action.

Barry had been part of the Interfauna raid and also went to prison for possessing incendiary devices. While there he edited the Support Animal Rights Prisoners bulletin and in the final edition in 1993 he railed against his fellow activists:

The animals continue to die and the torture goes on in greater and greater measure. People’s answer to this? More veggieburgers  more Special Brew, and more apathy. There is no longer any animal liberation movement. That died long ago. All that is left is a very few activists who care, who understand and who act.”

Ironically the movement, including the ALF, was on an upward trajectory in the mid-1990s. In 1994 when Keith Mann was sentenced to 14 years for conspiracy to commit arson against meat lorries (reduced to 11 on appeal), the Daily Telegraph reported there had been over 600 ALF actions in the previous 12 months. That year Boots also announced it was closing both its laboratories.

After being released from prison Barry began working as a one-man ALF cell and in the next two years there were arson attacks against branches of Boots, cancer charity shops and shops which sold fur and leather. Barry was eventually arrested in June 1996. In December 1997 he received 18 years, the longest sentence ever handed down to an animal liberationist.

Barry Horne’s hunger strikes and new campaigns

While on remand he began his first hunger strike to demand the end of state-funded vivisection. This led to major demos at lab animal breeders with large amounts of damage and animals liberated. A campaign against Consort had already begun and after a series of protests – two of which turned into riots – home demos and ALF attacks, the beagle breeder threw in the towel in 1997.

The organisers, Greg Avery and Heather Nicholson, then turned their attention to Hillgrove Farm, a breeder of cats for laboratories. This campaign took two years and during that time Barry went on two more hunger strikes. Their purpose was to force the new Labour government to keep the promises it made on animal testing, especially its pledge to set up a royal commission, but they led to unprecedented levels of activism, much of which was ALF-style actions.

According to the animalliberationfront.com website “there were 1200 fire bombings, acts of vandalism and physical attacks in the UK in 1999, connected to animal rights activism, according to the BBC.”

Barry’s third hunger strike lasted 68 days and almost killed him. He never fully recovered and went on countless more in prison “without any cohesive strategy and with little support”. His final fast began on 21 October 2001 and he died on 5 November from liver failure, after signing a directive refusing medical treatment. The Guardian called him: “The first true martyr of the most successful terrorist group Britain has ever known, the animal rights movement”.

By the time Barry died, the nature of the campaigning had changed. Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) had almost finished off HLS earlier that year, the laboratory only surviving due to government intervention. That campaign and similar ones against Newchurch guinea pig farm and the construction of a new laboratory by Oxford University had shifted priorities. Now the movement was focused on them, low-level ALF activity of the past against high street targets had fizzled out.

In 2002 Ronnie Lee wrote a guest editorial for the SHAC newsletter in which he claimed SHAC-style campaigning had been the most important development in AR over the last 30 years and went on:

“I’m best known for being one of the founders of the ALF but it doesn’t really matter to me that ALF-type actions seem to have become fewer in recent years because during that time I’ve witnessed the emergence of a campaigning strategy…that is much more effective than ever before. In the early days of the animal rights movement there was a very scattergun approach to campaigning against animal abuse, with people hitting out in all directions, with no real hope of closing any establishments down, because there wasn’t enough concentrated effort against any of them. People held demos outside vivisection labs and other centres of animal abuse very much as a token gesture, with no one really believing that such protests could have any effect.”

 This analysis was factually wrong. There were plenty of examples of determined campaigning prior to the late 90s, otherwise the fur trade wouldn’t have been decimated and Boots’ drug division wouldn’t have been sold off. Ronnie, like a lot of people, was caught up in heat of the moment, inspired by SHAC’s claims of “We always win and we never give in”. For a while the group and its methods did seem unstoppable and in fact its successes did rely a lot on direct action, much of it of the ALF kind.

The tide turns

The demise of Newchurch guinea pig farm in 2005 was the last hurrah in terms of this form of campaigning but it came at a cost. An ALF raid had led to the formation of Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs in 1999. Hundreds of protests were held and the police said they logged more than 450 separate criminal incidents over a two-year period.

The farm’s closure was precipitated by the removal of the remains of the mother-in-law of Christopher Hall, one of its owners. These were eventually found in May 2006, the same month as four activists received sentences totalling 52 years for their part in the campaign. The state never proved they took the remains but said they used the incident to put pressure on the family.

By this stage repression was taking its toll. New laws had made it increasingly hard to protest effectively, especially against vivisection. Campaigners predicted making such protests illegal would lead to a rise in direct action. This did happen to a degree with SHAC and also the Speak campaign against Oxford University.

Work on the new Oxford laboratory was halted for 18 months due to threats to building contractors. After it resumed in late 2005 there were two arson attacks against the university that were claimed by the ALF. Speak organiser, Mel Broughton, was arrested in 2007 but at his first trial he was cleared of keeping an explosive device with intent and the jury failed to reach a verdict on the other charges.

Mel was retried in 2009, convicted of conspiracy to commit arson and sentenced to 10 years. He appealed on the grounds that DNA evidence was unreliable and judge’s summing up unfair. He was successful and his conviction quashed but he was convicted again after a third trial and served the remainder of his sentence. In the meantime the new laboratory was opened in November 2008. Speak still protests there occasionally.

Although home demos and office occupations became unlawful, ALF activity against HLS continued. In September 2005 a firebomb was detonated outside the home of Paul Blackburn, a CEO for GlaxoSmithKline who were a customer of HLS. In 2006 the ALF firebombed a car belonging to the finance director of Canaccord Capital, a brokerage firm acting for a company that used HLS for contract testing. In December Donald Currie was jailed for 12 years and given lifetime probation in connection with these and other offences.

In May 2007 the police launched the Operation Achilles raids against SHAC. Thirty-two people were arrested, including the group’s leadership, and 12 of them eventually went to prison. The prosecution argued they had links to the ALF and even the ARM thanks to emails and spreadsheets that were discovered.

Since then there has been little direct action against vivisectors. An exception took place in January 2008 when, in a raid reminiscent of those of the 1980s, 129 rabbits destined for laboratories were rescued from Highgate Farm in Lincolnshire by the ALF. It was also reported that £75,000 damage was caused to vehicles and equipment. As a result of this the farm installed a £60,000 security system to deter potential intruders.

In January 2010 Lewis Pogson was sentenced to three years for eight offences in relation to the raid. He was released on probation in November that year but was then subject to a Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangement (MAPPA), originally designated for sex offenders and Islamic terrorists but now extended to those deemed “domestic extremists”. The purpose of a MAPPA is to control an ex-prisoner’s life and in the case of an animal rights activist to stop him reintegrating with the movement.

Once upon a time, ALF prisoners would be treated pretty much the same as other non-political cons but by the noughties the mood had changed. Under Labour, new political policing bodies such as the National Public Order Intelligence Unit and the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit were set up to specifically target campaigners, especially those in animal rights. This meant more surveillance, spying by undercover officers, harassment for protesters and for those convicted of offences, more interference and restraint, even to the point of lifetime ASBOs for Greg and Natasha Avery and Heather Nicholson of SHAC.

Where we are today

The current situation is that the ALF, in terms of the number of actions carried out,  is weaker in the UK than at any time in the last 40 years. The main cause is undoubtedly state repression. Not just longer sentences, MAPPAs, ASBOS and the like but also a climate of fear which has descended upon the entire movement and which stifles militancy.

There are still isolated actions going on. A recent issue of Bite Back magazine and the website www.directaction.info reveals a few examples of poultry liberation, some glued locks and slogans daubed, etc. There was also a claim that supermarket milk had been contaminated by the ARM in 2013, to coincide with the first badger cull. But these are very much exceptions.

In fact by far the most militant examples of recent direct action weren’t carried out by the ALF or any other animal rights group, they were the work of insurrectionist anarchists. They took place in the Bristol area and included an explosion which damaged the offices of a company building a laboratory at Bristol University, the firebombing of several vehicles, including one with pro-hunt stickers, and an arson attack which devastated a police firearms training centre – timed for the start of the badger cull.

The last of these was described by rabble.org.uk as “probably the biggest single anarchist act of sabotage in the UK in many years (since the 1970s Angry Brigade?), reportedly causing several millions of pounds worth of damage to this police firearms training building, which was under construction.” Nobody has been apprehended for any of these actions.

Despite the lack of activity in Britain, there is still a great deal going on in other parts of the world. In fact the ALF has spread to more countries than ever before. Covering this is  beyond the scope of this article (otherwise the word count would be even higher) but to find out what has been happening see: www.directaction.info

So let’s raise a glass of our preferred beverage to the courageous men and women of the ALF who for 40 years have been saving animals from exploitation and cruelty. We cannot thank you enough!

Further reading

 Against All Odds, Animal Liberation 1972-1986 by JJ Roberts (ARC print 1986)

From Dusk till Dawn by Keith Mann (Puppy Pincher Press 2007)

Terrorists or Freedom Fighters edited by Steven Best and Anthony J Nocella II (Lantern Books 2004)

Numerous back issues of the ALF SG Newsletter, Arkangel and other AR magazines can be found at http://thetalonconspiracy.com

And, not forgetting www.alfsg.org.uk


  1. Full respect for the activists we did what we had to do
    ,was with Greg and Natasha on a demo in London the day before they were arrested
    How disgusting that they can have know contact with animal caring people they were going to help us at the animal rescue centre but they are not allowed
    Keep the passion the animals need us

  2. I am always amazed that loving people who are trying to do good and stop animals being abused, can receive such long prison sentences. Punished for caring? I’m sorry, but I don’t understand….
    Barry Horne…..RIP. I admire your true dedication to animal liberation. You will never be forgotten. A brave soldier in the fight to put this world right.

  3. Yes..one lesson to learn from those brave people is, anyone who cares about animals ought to be doing something to help animals

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