Anti-fracking activists are so determined to stop the shale gas industry taking root in Yorkshire they are willing to risk criminal records. Chris Burn meets some of those now facing court.
“I’m making a stand on behalf of my three grandchildren. We need to leave our land in a fit state for them to have a good life.” Artist Sue Gough is not the type of person you would ordinarily expect to see appearing as a defendant at magistrates’ court. But the 62-year-old is among the dozens of often-unlikely activists willing to put their liberty on the line by being arrested for protesting against the prospect of fracking starting in Yorkshire.
In the past five months, 80 arrests have been made in the once-sleepy village of Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire which has become the frontline in the national battle over fracking.
Demonstrators desperate to frustrate the first frack for shale gas in the UK by gas firm Third Energy on the outskirts of the village have been engaged in a vast array of tactics to prevent work taking place; from ‘slow walks’ in front of vehicles heading to the site to jumping on lorries and even encasing their arms in concrete and metal tubes and lying in front of the site entrance until they can be cut free by police using specialist equipment.
Gough, who lives in the neighbouring village of Little Barugh, was one of those to participate in a so-called ‘lock on’ - resulting in her being arrested for the first time in her life after remaining in position for 12-and-a-half hours.
“I was determined to see it through but I was in agony in my arm and my shoulder for around half that time. I don’t believe I obstructed the highway and I would do it again.”
Activists like Gough and Third Energy may not agree on much but both sides are clear on how high the stakes are in relation to the Kirby Misperton operation. Third Energy is awaiting Government sign-off to start a series of underground test fracks using an existing two-mile deep well to produce gas for its nearby power station. If the preliminary work is a success, it will pave the way for the site to operate permanently. Most importantly, it is likely to lead to the rollout of the controversial gas extraction technique across the local area while helping to accelerate it in other parts of the country.
Many of the potential future sites are in Yorkshire, with six other companies also having Government licences to start exploring for shale gas across Yorkshire.
Fracking is designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock using high-pressure water mixture. The Government believes, despite environmentalists’ concerns about the increased use of fossil fuels, as well as chemicals escaping and contaminating groundwater, that “shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with greater energy security, growth and jobs”.
Earlier this month, Gough was among a group of activists facing criminal charges who attended a legal hearing at York Magistrates’ Court ahead of their planned trials. Dozens of supporters greeted them outside court, singing and waving placards as they went inside.
While arrests have been taking place since the first lorries started rolling on to the site in September to prepare for the beginning of the work, the prospect of fracking has been hanging over the village for long before that.
In December 2016, anti-fracking activists set up a camp on the outskirts of the village and remain in position to this day. Articles in the national media claimed there were fears the camp could be taken over by “anarchists and extremists” and there have been repeated accusations about “professional protesters” being among their number.
But Gough says locals campaigning against Third Energy are thankful to those living at the camp. “I’m not a professional protester, I have never protested anything in like this in my life. But we are grateful to the so-called professional protesters - they have the knowledge we can use to help us with our cause. They are there day-in, day-out, living in the cold and the damp and that is putting it mildly.”
But Third Energy sees things in a very different light. Director Alan Linn says there has been a “marked increase in intimidating and harassing behaviour from a minority of protestors”, which he blames on “a small hardcore of protestors, many not from the local area”. Earlier this month, two men were arrested on suspicion of poisoning a guard dog at the site after the animal collapsed after pellets, believed to be aniseed balls, were allegedly thrown over the fence into the site.
But those most closely involved with the protests insist their actions are both peaceful and proportionate. Eddie Thornton, aged 34 and from nearby Pickering, had been working in a Buddhist monastery in France as a videographer before coming back to Yorkshire at the start of last year to assist with the Kirby Misperton camps. He has been arrested seven times in the last 12 months, four at Kirby Misperton and three at another planned fracking site in Lancashire.
Thornton, who is facing criminal charges including obstructing police officers and causing a danger to road users, says: “We are doing things out of a sense of duty and moral purpose. I’m passionate about defending the environment.
The consequences are more fearful to me than the ramifications of this court. We have a rich history of civil disobedience in this country. I’m basically prepared to do everything it takes within the parameters of non-violence.
“Me and my community are prepared to get criminal records for our opposition to fracking because we have tried everything else. We have been totally abandoned by our representatives in Government so we have been left with nothing but to peacefully put our bodies on the line. If that does end up with criminal record ramifications then I for one am going to wear that like a badge of honour.”
Matthew Trevelyan, a 39-year-old from Spaunton, around 10 miles from Kirby Misperton, was arrested for taking part in a ‘lorry surf’ designed to stop the vehicle moving through the village and was on top of it for around four hours. “A friend of mine had gone on a lorry and was going to be arrested. I jumped on straight afterwards, it was completely spontaneous.
The police were trying to negotiate to get me down but I was determined I would stay up there for as long as possible. You have to be prepared to be arrested; there is a greater crime going on. If it requires me to take action, then I will do it.”
Trevelyan is part of Ryedale Farmers Against Fracking, a group calling on local farmers and landowners to turn down any approaches to frack on their land on the grounds that the impact the industry will have on house and land values will outweigh any possible compensation. “Farmers need to take a united stance against fracking because we have the power to refuse them access,” Trevelyan says.
Helen Chuntso, a mum-of-four from West Yorkshire, has been charged with three counts of obstructing the highway, two of which involved taking part in ‘lock-ons’ - one that lasted for seven hours. As gas companies prepare to roll-out fracking across Yorkshire in 2018, Chuntso is clear that protests will follow. “Wherever this industry goes, there will be resistance to it.”
Police ‘facilitating peaceful protests’
North Yorkshire Police have allowed a series of arranged protests to take place at the Kirby Misperton site, including ‘slow walks’ in front of lorries and demonstrators blocking the entrance to the Third Energy site.
Superintendent Alisdair Dey, of North Yorkshire Police, said: “We support and protect people engaged in safe, reasonable and peaceful protest at Kirby Misperton.
“That means balancing the needs and wishes of everyone involved, including protesters, businesses and local residents.”
After 66 arrests in September and October, there has been a fall in the number of people being detained in the past few months. Eight arrests were made in November, none in December and there have been six so far in January.