As the wind felled trees, flooded homes and cancelled ferries this week, much of the nation needed little excuse to stay indoors. But for a group of hardy anti-fracking protesters camped by the M62 on Barton Moss in Salford, near Manchester, going inside was not an option, explained Joe Boyd, a 40-year-old builder from Liverpool who was on not just his first demo but also his first real camping trip.
Before the storms hit the north, Boyd was already wrapped up warm: a coat, a fleece, two woolly jumpers, a lumberjack shirt and a turtleneck base layer, two pairs of socks, pyjama bottoms and waterproof trousers. His tent had a fluffy rug over the ground sheet, he had insulated his lilo and worked out the optimum number of sleeping bags and quilts to sleep under without either roasting or freezing to death. But he refused to moan. The way he sees it, a little bit of discomfort is worth it to avert an “environmental disaster”.
I’ve got two kids – a daughter aged 15 and a son who’s 10. Before long I will be getting grandchildren. I’m doing this for them.”
Boyd, currently studying for a master’s in environmental studies, has been living at the Barton Moss Protection Camp for four weeks, alongside 30 regulars. They have been joined by a revolving cast of at least 100 locals who bob in and out with food and blankets. Many take part in regular slow walks in front of lorries from the energy firm, iGas, which can force the drivers to take two hours over the half-mile trip to the main road.
The camp was set up at the start of November by a handful of veteran protesters, some of whom had made headlines at a similar camp in Balcombe, West Sussex, in the summer. They had pitched their tents by a muddy lane next to the wildlife area of Barton Moss, where iGas has been given planning permission to carry out test drilling.
The popular caricature of protesters is of dreadlocked vegans in need of a good wash. The Telegraph has damned the Barton Moss camp by claiming it is led by semi-professional protesters from out of town who enjoy negligible local support. But walk around any of the estates near the camp and the number of Frack Off posters in the windows tell a different story.
On the Argosy estate in Peel Green on Monday, 74-year-old Hilda Anderson had just taken two trays of mince pies out of the oven. On Christmas Eve, she planned to deliver them to the camp, along with some “snowball” chocolate biscuits. “We are not really equipped for walking slowly in front of every lorry,” explained Hilda’s husband, Brian, 75. “But we like to help out any way we can,” said Hilda.
One of their friends, a lady called Angela, had promised to deliver a full Christmas dinner to the camp on the 25th. Not necessarily a nut roast either. According to one camper, Ian R Crane, an ex-oilfield executive who has decided to devote his life to warning everyone else about the dangers of fracking, someone from Blackburn had pledged to put on a full hog roast over the festive period: so much for the vegan stereotype.
The Andersons say they woke up to the potential dangers of fracking – and what it might do to the price of their house – when they went to a local meeting three months ago held by local environmentalists. “One of the protesters was telling us that the noise from drilling is horrendous,” said Hilda. “We’re worried about the wildlife too,” said Brian. “I walk our dog on Barton Moss and he sometimes eats the grass. What if the groundwater becomes contaminated?”
iGas claims to employ 170 people across the UK in communities where the firm is active – or would like to be – and holds regular meetings to try to assuage fears. At one such meeting, on 27 November in Salford, an iGas representative called Dave Kerr claimed that house prices would not be affected. According to the minutes of the meeting, Kerr explained that drilling at Wytch Farm in Dorset, Europe’s largest known onshore oilfield, had not affected the millionaires’ enclave of Sand Banks nearby.
But as the anti-fracking protesters point out, drilling at Wytch farm is “conventional”, i.e., a proven technology. Fracking, on the other hand, involves “unconventional” methods which have been blamed for a catalogue of environmental and health concerns in the USA.
Greg Grzechnik, a joiner who five years ago bought a house on the Brookhouse estate, which looks out over the iGas test site, said he was worried about earthquakes – test drilling in the Blackpool area caused small tremors in 2011. “I’ve already checked with my insurers and they say they don’t cover stuff like earthquakes,” he said.
At the 27 November meeting, John Morley from the Irlam and Cadishead Community Committee (a local residents’ group) said that some 19- to 25-year-olds had indicated they wanted to set up an iGas “supporters’ camp” to counter the Barton Moss Protection Camp.