WHEN hundreds of ordinary residents in an ordinary small town in Essex became animal rights activists almost overnight, it captivated the attention of people across the country.

For nine months, the spotlight was firmly placed on the seaside town of Brightlingsea, as thousands of people, young and old, fought to stop the exportation of live animals through their town.

The Battle of Brightlingsea, as it is sometimes known, started on January 16, 1995, the day exports began.

Daily protests ensued, as residents launched a fierce and relentless campaign to try to stop the lambs and calves passing through Brightlingsea port, where they were exported to Europe to be slaughtered.

Protesters, who believed the conditions in which the animals were being carried were cruel and inhumane, were often met with police in riot gear, as convoys of lorries were escorted through the town by officers.

Arrests were made and people were injured as police resources were stretched to their limits.

In the end, the people of Brightlingsea were victorious, when, in October 1995, exporters announced they would no longer be taking the animals through the town, because of the cost and chaos caused by the daily protests. Fifteen years later, the Battle of Brightlingsea is not forgotten.

Brightlingsea Against Live Exports, set up during the protests, still exists and continues to hold weekly meetings.

Group member Margaret Tay said: “We are all getting a lot older now, but we still have meetings and, in the years after the exports had stopped in Brightlingsea, we were involved in other campaigns to stop it in other parts of the country.”

Mrs Tay, 69, of Tower Street, Brightlingsea, added: “From January 1995, I went to the protests almost every day. But when I first went, I was very naive about it all.

“It was very frightening when you see all the police in the riot gear, particularly during the night protests when we were trying to stop the lorries going through Colne Road.

“I can remember being very frightened, but sitting next to a young woman who was petrified. Helping her, helped me, and I never really looked back after that. I was so determined, especially after finding out how the animals were being treated.”

Mrs Tay, who became a vegetarian after the campaign, said: “A lot of the younger people had dreadlocks and things like that, but they were young people who were really informed and they told me so much about the cruelty of it all.

“I remember when the lorries would come through and you would see these one or two-day-old calves crying, with their legs sticking out of the lorries, they were in a hell of a state.

“It was very upsetting.

“We were not about to give up and when we found out the exports would stop, it was an incredible feeling.

“We had a big party with a band. It was like winning the war.”