Philip Lymbery and Laurens de Groot, Swindon Festival of Literature

6 May

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Danger, murder, anarchy and Hollywood-style celebrity – the audience was in for a roller coaster ride at this evening’s Swindon Festival of Literature events at Swindon Arts Centre. And an unexpected endorsement for fast food chain, McDonalds.

Philip Lymbery and Laurens de Groot had two completely different approaches to campaigning for animal welfare, but both with – ultimately – the same message: “Don’t eat a product that’s inflicted cruelty.” And they have both rescued chickens.

Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming and patron saint of chickens (or would be if a chicken was the Pope), gave us some stark facts wrapped in a hopeful message.

“A land mass the size of the EU is used to grow animal feed,” he told us. That’s seems a lot of land, just to create another form of food.

Philip wants to “Stop talking about the amount ‘produced’ per hectare but the amount of ‘people fed’ per hectare.” Apparently if we eat the food produced directly from the land, it’s ten people versus six if the crops are fed to animals. Which is why it’s more efficient to eat the crops, than to feed them to the animals and then eat the animals.

Farmageddon, Philip’s book, tells us how cheap meat has hidden costs: “You pay for it at the supermarket check out, then you pay for it in taxes through [farming] subsidies, and again through environmental and health clean up costs.”

Philip owns eight former battery hens and say they remind him daily how important it is for animals to be on the land: “Animals belong in fields.” And this is the reality of modern, intensive farming. The vast majority of animals are kept in barns and cages – not just chickens but pigs, cows, even fish. And it produces tasteless, fatty meat packed full of medicine. 50-80% of the world’s antibiotics are fed to intensively farmed animals to keep them disease-free in unnatural conditions, vastly contributing to a real possibility of a ‘post-antibiotic’ era, where germs have become immune to the health revolution of the twentieth century.

The biggest surprise of the night was an endorsement for burger chain McDonalds, who use free-range pork, pasture-fed beef and organic milk. “They’ve made it work,” said Philip.

The hopeful message: return to diverse farms, and if you must eat meat, eat less of it and make it free-range and organic.

As the quietly spoken CEO of Compassion in World Farming, Philip works from the top: changing government policies the world over, turning them away from outdated 1960s intensive farming food policies and EU subsidies.

Not for Laurens, though. Laurens de Groot, author of Hunting the Hunters: the War on Whalers, was a Dutch police detective. One of those cops who was in it for justice, but he didn’t feel he achieved that working within the system. Frustrated by a lack of results, he wanted to make a real difference. So he turned from gamekeeper to anti-poacher.

He packed up his job and house; sold everything to move to Australia and join Sea Shepherd – benevolent pirates who see themselves as enforcing international law on Japanese Antarctic whalers exploiting the ‘scientific research’ loophole.

But first he freed Australian battery chickens, just to see if he really had the mettle to be an activist. Reassured, he overcame sea sickness, no income and – at first – no room on the Sea Shepherd boat.

On the second time of trying, Laurens secured his place as a volunteer crew crew member and set out for the last frontier on the planet.

And it was dangerous stuff: if they fell into the water they would die from the cold. The boat wasn’t an ice-class vessel so Antarctic ice could puncture the hull and sink it. The crew had to employ some hard core tactics to stop the harpoon ships from whaling including arming and scuttling whaling boats.

And just when I was thinking it was exciting enough to turn into a Hollywood movie, Laurens told us how they’d been the subject of a US reality TV show, Whale Wars, which had turned the Sea Shepherd crew into celebrities. Although it was a bizarre world to find themselves in, Laurens said, it brought in much needed donors to upgrade their anti-whaling vessels.

But this wasn’t the real shocker. Laurens has since left Sea Shepherd and is concentrating on developing new technology to defeat poachers.

Using UFO-style drones with thermal cameras ( to seek out night time African wildlife reserve poachers, Laurens showed us a film where the played his part in the identifying and fatal shooting of two poachers: the drones found the two men who then died in a shoot out with the park rangers. Laurens wanted us to see the dark side of what he dealt with. The audience was shocked. Host and Director Matt Holland commented: “Good literature disturbs…but not this much, please, Laurens.” The first question was about how Laurens could get away with murder, and when was animal life worth more than human life?

Laurens calmly explained that most poachers were like mobsters – earned big bucks and came across the border armed with AK47s. They would kill anyone who came between them and their rhino horn and elephant ivory. Rhino killings had risen from 13 in 2007 to 1004 in 2013, mainly due to the rise of the Asian market. He, on the other hand, was supporting the park rangers who were authorised to use deadly force.

I was as shocked as anyone, but wondered how else to save these animal victims on the verge of extinction? It was a sobering way to end the evening.

Words by Louisa Davison. Philip Lymbery photos by Calyx Pictures.

2 Responses to “Philip Lymbery and Laurens de Groot, Swindon Festival of Literature”


  1. Literary festival ‘roller coaster’ « - 7th May 2014

    […] but both with one message: “Don’t eat a product that’s inflicted cruelty.” That was how the Festival Chronicle described our performances from the podium at Swindon’s Festival of […]

  2. It’s crucial to prepare for the zombie apocalypse | Agent Louisa - 19th May 2014

    […] we could wise up, as told by Philip Lymbery and Jonathon Porrit in this very festival. We should set sensible worldwide targets for halting […]

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