It began with protests against the building of animal research laboratories in Cambridge and Oxford. Now those protests have mushroomed to target any construction firms connected with Oxford University, Oxford city or the entire pharmaceutical sector. Sarah Richardson reports on the campaign that turned into a war - and how the industry is trying to fight back

It's Saturday, 25 February, in Oxford. The streets are swamped by animal rights activists accompanied by police cavalry. Four hundred protesters have gathered outside the site of the Oxford University animal testing laboratory to hurl abuse at the 10 ft security fence separating them from the building, and the masked construction workers within. The message is concise and simple. "All murderers must face their crimes eventually. It's only a matter of time. We'll find out who they are. And when we do, they won't ignore us."

Saturday, 25 February, London. The senior director of one contractor thinks he knows how those workers feel. Although he is 56 miles away, and has no involvement in the Oxford scheme, he is considering ending one of his firm's staple sources of work: building offices used by pharmaceutical companies. He has never constructed an animal laboratory, but this does not matter. The clients are almost as nervous. "They've told us not to use their projects for marketing as their directors have been approached by rights activists. Otherwise, they said, we will get their attention."

The director, who does not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, is one victim of what has become a virtual siege of the construction industry by animal rights activists. What began as a targeted protest against Montpellier, the original Oxford contractor, in 2004 has turned into a witch hunt against much of the industry.

Credit: Rex
Workers on the Oxford laboratory wear masks to conceal their identity from animal rights activists. The government is funding security protection at the site

Beyond Oxford

Last week, Building revealed that rights activists had sent warning letters to firms with no connection to Oxford, the laboratory, the university or even the city, including Sussex-based pensions provider B&CE. It was also revealed that prime minister Tony Blair has begun a programme of secret meetings with the industry as part of an international strategy to combat the threat. Since then it has emerged that the entire building programme of the pharmaceutical industry is in jeopardy because contractors are reluctant to retain links to the sector.

It all started when Montpellier was forced to quit the first attempt to build Oxford's animal research laboratory in July 2004 after a campaign by animal rights extremists. Earlier in the year, Cambridge University had been forced to abandon plans for a primate research lab, and the activists were hoping to repeat their success.

Some of the tactics were extreme. One group of activists, acting under the banner of the Animal Liberation Front, warned Montpellier executives that they planned to publish documents that "proved" Montpellier staff had been convicted of sex offences. The activists threatened to circulate these to neighbours of the firm's workers. Under the circumstances, Montpellier took a pragmatic decision to walk away from the contract.

The mail has been very carefully worded, probably by someone with a legal background

Source at a targeted company

The project then lay dormant for 16 months while the university searched for a replacement contractor. The activists maintained their vigilance and did what they could to pre-empt the reopening of the project. Speak, a legal protest group, began writing speculative letters to firms that were known to have links to the university. But it was only after a contractor was appointed in November last year that the protesters stepped up their campaign. Thames Valley Police revealed last autumn that it was investigating more than 30 threatening letters sent to building firms working in the Oxfordshire area, many of which had no links to the university or its work. The campaign against Oxford's firms has not relented since.

Two months ago, extremists attacked the premises of Oxford Architects, a practice that has no connection to the animal laboratory but works on other projects for the university. Activists caused thousands of pounds worth of damage, covering the premises with graffiti and damaging a car belonging to one of the workers.

Partner Brian Sopp said the practice received no warning it was about to be attacked. He said: "We can only assume they saw some of our boards around the university. We aren't downplaying the incident, and have received advice from the local police force, but the attack was pretty arbitrary. The car they damaged belongs to a Polish migrant who has had no involvement on any of our university work. He's incredibly angry and bemused." The practice has stepped up security since the attack, but believes it will be a one-off.

This week, two large firms with offices in the area revealed that they have been part of a mass email campaign targeted at a huge number of firms in the Thames Valley. One of the firms works for the university but not on the lab, but as a result of this has removed its hoardings from university sites. A senior source at the second company said: "There has been indiscriminate targeting. There is no rhyme nor reason for the selection of companies on the list."

The targeting may be random, but it has created a sense of collective insecurity in the industry. "It's the initial reaction that gets you most," says the source. "We are deeply concerned, given what happened to Montpellier. We feel we've been tarred with a brush aimed at a project we've had nothing to do with. It was sent to a number of staff within the company. We have no idea where our addresses were obtained from."

The warning letter sent to B&CE marks an escalation in the campaign against construction firms. Building understands that the letter was part of a batch of about 20 sent to construction firms in the South. The letter warns anyone to do with construction to stay away from the project. Brian Griffiths, the chief executive of B&CE, said he felt the organisation had been targeted purely because it has the words building and civil engineering in its full title.

The emails and letters sent to these firms often appear, at first glance, to be innocuous. The source at the Oxfordshire company that received an email this week says: "The mail has been very carefully worded, probably by someone with a legal background. There's nothing there that would stand up in court as threatening, but there is a very clear underlying meaning."

Credit: Rex
Workers on the Oxford laboratory wear masks to conceal their identity from animal rights activists. The government is funding security protection at the site

It is only a matter of time before the company is identified, in spite of the level of security

Robin Webb, ALF spokesperson

Beyond laboratories

Despite a police investigation and government intervention, this "underlying meaning" has had an impact on the amount of firms prepared to undertake work that could make them a target. Tim Holt, the estates director at Cambridge University, gives an insight into the effect that the protesters can have. According to Holt, concerns over finding a contractor contributed to the university's decision to abandon its own project

in 2004. He says: "Security costs would have increased the cost of the project from £20m to more than £30m. But we never got as far as appointing a contractor, and the concern that we wouldn't find someone prepared to do the work was one of the considerations in our decision."

Oxford University managed to attract a contractor, but only with a guarantee of anonymity and the promise of government-funded security precautions, including police escorts for workers. But the pharmaceutical industry says it is struggling to find contractors prepared to undertake even ordinary building work, unrelated to laboratory projects.

A spokesperson for the Association for the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the trade body for the pharmaceutical industry, said: "Virtually every pharmaceutical company has experienced a problem at some point with its supply chain not being prepared to undertake work for it."

The Construction Confederation confirms that there is an issue with companies not being prepared to work for clients that could increase their exposure to animal rights threats. A spokesperson for the confederation said: "You couldn't deny there is an issue. But estimating the extent of the problem is difficult because of the way these projects are carried out."

The ABPI sees the situation as so desperate that it has issued a direct plea to the construction industry for help to defy the activists. "We call on other groups, including the construction industry, to stand shoulder to shoulder with us. It is time we stood up for our ability to carry out perfectly legitimate work."