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24 September 2014

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The day the eco-warriors took to the trees
River Teign
Saved for future generations: the river at Teigngrace
It is now five years since eco-warriors took to the trees at Teigngace in protest at plans to divert the rivers Bovey and Teign. Of the many environmental direct action campaigns of the 1990s, it remains one of the most notable victories.
More stories in our nature section

Swampy first became famous when he dug himself into a tunnel on the route of the new A30 at Fairmile near Honiton.

Of all the direct action campaigns in the 1990s, the victory at Teigngrace was the most notable in protecting the natural environment.

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In June 1997, Devon ball clay firm Watts Blake Bearne won permission to move a stretch of the rivers Bovey and Teign at Teigngrace in South Devon.

It meant they would be able to divert the route of the rivers, so they could reach untapped deposits of clay, and extend their adjoining Southacre Quarry.

Tree camp
The eco-warriors made their home in the trees along the river
The decision by Devon County Council to allow the development came despite fears over the damage to habitat, and concerns from the people of Teigngrace that the change might make the hamlet - already prone to repeated flooding - even more at risk from the rivers bursting their banks.

The ruling also followed months of lobbying against the move, by local residents and Teigngrace Parish Council.

But their protests fell on deaf ears, and they were resigned to the fact that they had lost the battle:the rivers WOULD be diverted from their natural course, the claypit would be extended, and their local environment would be changed forever...

Protest march
On the march: locals make their view known
Until, that is, the 17th of July 1997, when a group of so-called eco-warriors moved in and set up camp in the trees alongside the rivers.

They were dubbed "tree-people," after some of them made their "homes" high up in the trees.

Among the 20 or so protesters at the start was Swampy, who had already become known nationally for his campaigns against development - including the A30 in East Devon.

Their efforts were backed by environmental groups such as the Devon Wildlife Trust, and experts such as TV personality, Prof David Bellamy.

The protesters formed an unlikely alliance with the residents of Teigngrace, and together, they organised a march along the river - and a march to London, where their views were handed in the Department of the Environment.

Many of the protesters walked the entire distance to London, and they were joined by a coachload of locals, headed by the chairman of parish council, John Martin.

The intervention of the eco-warriors proved crucial, as, on July 31st, the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott ordered a temporary halt to WBB's plans.

Then, in October, he announced the issue had to go to a public inquiry - even though the plans had already been approved by the county council.

It was during the public inquiry that it emerged that WBB had got its figures wrong in calculating the impact of changing the route of the rivers. Studies also found that rare species lived along the affected route.

River Teign
The eco-warrors were instrumental in the threat being lifted
The clay firm pulled out, and the "tree-people" had won. The rivers were saved for future generations, and the village was saved from the development.

Five years on, and the eco-warriors still regularly pop back to the village to meet the people they got to know so well during their amazing campaign.

And the locals admit that without them, the battle would have been lost. One of them, Joy Coombes, said villagers would always be indebted to the tree-people: "I remember the day they moved in like it was yesterday! It was a day before my 50th birthday...17th July, 1997.

"At that time, our backs were to the wall and we'd lost the battle. No-one would listen to us, and the plans had been passed.

"Then these wonderful people arrived, and they really turned things round for us. They had the brains and the know-how, they knew who to lobby, and how to deal with the media. We learned a lot from them, and it was an honour to work with them.

"It was a wonderful experience, those days. Our lives were turned upside down. Everything went by the wayside. Things went mad for months.

"It was a worrying time, but it was also very exciting, and I will remember those days for the rest of my life.

"The eco-warriors showed that you have to work really hard, and make sacrifices to get anywhere at all."

Joy added: "Without the eco-warriors, we'd have lost, and I think all the villagers believe that. We'd have had that awful development, and the environment would have been ruined forever. Our lives here would be very different.

"These people were taking part in protests like this all over the country at the time, and this was their big victory.

"We will always remember what they did for us - and some of them still come back to see us. They'll always be welcome here, and they'll always be our friends."

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