Mark Dunick

Organising and movement building: Lessons from the 1980s British Animal Rights Movement 

Centre for Heritage Environment and Politics, University of Stirling 
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand


Mark Dunick earned his PhD in History in 2022 from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His PhD research examined continental European assisted immigrants in 1870s New Zealand. He has also written on labour history, politics and social movements.


Mark Dunick has been based at the Centre for Environment, Heritage and Policy (CEHP) at the University of Stirling. His research aims to provide insight into the internal life of historical social movements and how this can inform the climate justice movement of today.  

This project focuses on the British animal liberation movement in the 1980s and represents one of the first academic inquiries into the history of the modern British animal rights movement. He aims to demonstrate how historians of social movements can contribute to discussions around climate justice. 


Historians can make an important contribution to the environmental humanities by analysing past social movements in order to inform today’s climate justice campaigners. My research project examines a significant animal liberation campaign from 1980s Britain and highlights how the organising methods and internal life of social justice campaign groups plays a key role in their effectiveness. 

In mid-1980s England, the animal liberation movement carried out high profile campaigns against the use of animals in experimentation. Thousands of people took part in mass raids on animal research laboratories. Crowds overwhelmed security, tore down fences and rescued animals, and photos and video evidence gained in these raids led to high profile media attention and enabled campaigners to prosecute organisations for animal cruelty. Eventually, a series of major criminal trials resulted in dozens of activists being sent to prison for their part in these raids and investigations. These events were organised by regional coalitions called Liberation Leagues, short-lived action groups which left little trace in the historical record but had a lasting impact on the animal rights movement and the wider public perception of animal research in Britain. My research investigates how the Leagues were organised and how internal and external political debates influenced the effectiveness of their campaigns.  

The modern animal liberation movement emerged in Britain in the 1970s. The Hunt Saboteurs Association began organising direct action against fox hunting in the 1960s and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) began a campaign of sabotage and property damage in the 1970s. Influential writers such as Brigid Brophy, Tom Regan, Richard Ryder and Peter Singer began publishing books and essays arguing for a radical change in how non-human animals were seen by society. Public protests and campaigns by a wide range of groups followed. When the Animal Liberation Leagues emerged in the 1980s as campaigns against the use of animals in experiments began to attract widespread support.  

The Northern Animal Liberation League (NALL) was formed in 1980 by activists with backgrounds in social justice campaigns in Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool. The NALL developed the tactic of highly coordinated raids on animal research laboratories, actions which were designed to involve large groups of people and obtain evidence for use in future public campaigning. Other regional Liberation Leagues were formed to carry out similar raids around England, and these groups modified and improved their tactics to suit local conditions. Between 1984 and 1985 these leagues carried out six major raids, each involving hundreds of activists, and often aimed at prestigious animal research institutes and corporations. These raids attracted widespread media coverage and public support. The state reacted by prosecuting as many activists as possible, and the leagues were forced to drop most of their campaign work in order to defend their members in court. By the end of 1986, dozens of League activists had been sent to prison and the movement concluded that large scale raids involving masses of people were no longer viable. While larger marches and public protests continued, mass direct action fell out of favour for several years. 

The study of how the movement was organised, how participants thought about politics, developed their tactics and organisations, and dealt with internal and external challenges can inform climate justice activists today as we face an unprecedented climate crisis. Farhana Sultana sees climate justice as a continuous process of learning, building solidarity and taking collective action in order to fundamentally transform our economic and political systems. She writes that our efforts to advance climate justice must draw from a range of academic and activist theories of change in order to rethink our relationships with each other and with the ecosystem (Sultana, 2022). Understanding how social movements grow and interact to create solidarity is an important part of this process. As Aziz Choudry writes in Learning Activism (2015, pp.25-27), insights into the internal life of historical campaigning groups can inform debates within current social justice movements. The climate justice movement is of course international, with local campaigners operating in a variety of political and social contexts. However, climate justice activists organising in western liberal democracies like the United Kingdom can still learn a lot from how the Liberation Leagues mobilised supporters, planned campaigns and dealt with serious legal consequences.  

Image from Animal Liberationist -

The direct-action methods used by the Leagues were controversial but had significant public support. Many League operations aimed to obtain evidence causing the minimum damage possible and leaving animals in cages. Other raids aimed to liberate as many animals as possible. Occasionally activists would deviate from the plan and cause damage, and sometimes activists had to defend themselves when confronted by security guards or staff. All these tactics were debated but the leagues were very clear that the key to success was carrying out militant, often illegal action, while retaining public support and gaining sympathetic media coverage.  

The internal life of the leagues is hard to recover without doing oral history interviews (a much bigger project) but the archives that do exist show that both the leagues and the movement as a whole was more democratic than many current social justice campaigns. In an age before neoliberalism and social media, people had to meet in person and even the large NGOS were far more democratic than similar groups today.  

The leagues occupied a middle space between the ‘mainstream’ NGOS like the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), and more militant ALF. While the leadership of NALL in particular would openly criticise tactics it disagreed with, individual activists moved freely between the groups, and were often active in a range of groups at any one time. The Leagues were after all, coalitions of local activists.  

The BUAV was controlled by its members, and provided resources, office space, and expertise to the entire movement. Many movement debates took place at the BUAV’s often rowdy AGMs, and in the pages of movement newsletters and leaflets. The newsletters of the BUAV, the ALF, and a range of independent magazines all published a range of opinions from supporters, including those that disagreed with the leadership. Popular topics included the merits of various types of direct action, whether to engage with parliamentary politics, how the movement should relate to other social justice movements, media strategy and more. BUAV staff joined trade unions and campaign for better employment conditions, with senior management and the wider membership all taking sides in the debate. Problems with racism, sexism and other forms of oppression within the movement were discussed, not always productively, and between the high-profile protests and raids, there were plenty of public meetings, fundraising events and boring administrative tasks. The movement was messy, argumentative and contradictory, but the debates and the willingness to take risks and try imaginative new tactics were strengths.  

From 1985, the pressure of multiple serious court cases caused most of the regional leagues to focus on legal defence. The NALL almost completely collapsed before its members went to trial for a major raid on the Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) animal testing facility. Despite an inadequate defence campaign, the defendants avoided major prison time. The South East Animal Liberation League (SEALL) had refined its tactics and organised a series of raids carried out by smaller groups of experienced activists, and when they went to trial, the defence campaign was well prepared, organised and overtly political. Nineteen activists faced multiple serious charges. Several gave detailed evidence about their own actions and testified that their actions were justified. Twelve people were acquitted but seven were found guilty of one charge each and sentenced to between six months to three years in prison. The state was determined to make an example of those activists who were still facing charges for a raid on a Unilever animal testing facility. The defendants were split into three separate trials, enabling the prosecution to improve their legal strategy for each trial. Unfortunately for these defendants the movement failed to organise an effective defence campaign and eventually twenty-five people were sent to prison. Many of those had not taken part in property damage at all. 

Image from Animal Liberationist -

After the collapse of the leagues, the movement focused on prisoner support. A group of activists published a book outlining the history of the Leagues and arguing that the prison sentences were a failure of the defence campaigns, but not the League strategies themselves (J.J. Roberts, Against All Odds, 1986). This book serves as the most detailed account of the Leagues histories so far, but it failed to influence the course of the movement. Mass militant direct action campaigns declined, but many of the people who passed through the leagues went on to become organisers of later animal liberation campaigns in the 1990s and 2000s. 

Despite the significance of these campaigns, they remain almost unknown outside of the British animal liberation movement. Historians have focused on the animal protection movement of the nineteenth century through to the 1970s, and there have been no serious historical studies of more recent animal liberation campaigns in Britain. The emergence of the Liberation Leagues and their eventual defeat have lessons for current social justice organisers, particularly those in liberal democracies like the United Kingdom. As governments in wealthy western countries are unwilling to take the steps needed to avoid impending climate disaster, it is up to us to build a healthy democratic mass movement for climate justice and I hope this research will in some small way contribute to this. 

The EARTH Scholarship allowed me to spend several months researching this project. The University of Stirling’s agreed to host me at the Centre for Environment, Heritage and Policy (CEHP) where I have been mentored by Professor Holger Nehring. I also benefited from taking part in numerous seminars at the University of Stirling and the 2023 British Animal Studies Network conference at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. The scholarship funded research trips to England where I carried out archival research using the Kim Stallwood papers at the British Library in London. I also visited the Hull History Centre which houses the archives of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV). Together these archives hold a wealth of historical material on the animal liberation movement of the 1980s. 

The archival work and the time I have spent at the University of Stirling will enable me to produce a range of papers or articles which I hope to publish and will also allow me to continue my research into the history of the British animal rights movement in the form of a long-term book project. The networking and knowledge I have developed in Scotland will inform my future work on social movement histories in Aotearoa New Zealand. 


Choudry, Aziz, (2015), Learning Activism: The Intellectual Life of Contemporary Social Movements, University of Toronto Press.

Roberts, J.J. (1986), Against All Odds, ARC Print, London.

Sultana, F. (2022) ‘Critical climate justice’, The Geographical Journal, 188, 118–124.