Armed for battle of Mainshill mine

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THE tree-houses have been built, the tunnels dug, the barricades erected and the arm-locks secured to branches.

Mainshill Wood, in the Lanarkshire countryside, is expected to become Scotland's new environmental battleground this week when an army of bailiffs moves in to evict protesters against a huge opencast mine.

Scottish Coal was last year given permission to extract 1.7 million tonnes of coal from the site located on Lord Home's Douglas estate. If it goes ahead, South Lanarkshire will become one of the most intensively mined areas in Europe.

But first the company will have to remove around 50 protesters who made their home in the centre of the wood six months ago.

They have spent the time industriously, constructing a complex of tree-houses and interconnecting underground tunnels. Arm-lock devices – in which arms are threaded through a pipe and chained to a tree – have been installed at heights of 50 ft above the ground.

The main camp itself has been fortified and the access roads blocked with heavy metal scaffold pyramids.

Confrontation is expected, and protest leaders last week issued a e-mail alert for supporters to mass this weekend in advance of Scottish Coal's anticipated move on Tuesday.

One of the protesters, who calls himself Magpie – real names are not disclosed – said: "There is a risk that somebody could get hurt but we are absolutely determined to stop the opencast.

"We were served with an eviction notice three months ago and we have been told that an eviction team will be sent in this week. All in, we expect the security team to be around 100-people strong.

"With the gathering here at the camp we are expecting people from all over the UK and beyond, so we hope to have around hundreds of people here ourselves."

Another young protester, Fiona, from Leith but now living permanently at the camp, outlined the "battle" plan.

"When the eviction team arrive we will have somebody in every one of the tree-houses, attached to the tree with an arm-lock device. We will be up there with enough food and water to last for weeks. They will have to saw through them to get us down."

Sawing off an arm-lock pipe means putting the protestor's arm at risk, which eviction teams are wary of doing.

The protesters say they have been encouraged to endure severe winter weather to make a stand at Mainshill because of the support of some members of the local community in nearby villages such as Douglas.

The camp itself includes a network of caravans and crudely constructed wood and tarpaulin huts, with a communal living space in the middle. With no mains electricity or running water, living conditions are basic with a wood-burning stove the main source of heat.

One of the activists, Ross, said: "There are a lot of people here from all over the world, but more importantly we also have the support of the villagers. They have been absolutely fantastic and even brought us all a cooked Christmas dinner.

"Without their support we couldn't get by. They have been a lifeline for us."

Already there have been acts of sabotage. In the early hours of 13 January a drilling rig at Mainshill Woods was destroyed. A week earlier 13 vehicles and machines were damaged at the nearby Poneil opencast. Four machines were sabotaged at the Broken Cross open cast site, five miles from Mainshill, on Christmas Day. Although police have investigated, no arrests have been made.

Specially trained climbers, abseillers and tunnellers with experience of clearing campaigners from other protest camps are likely to be deployed to clear the area.

South Lanarkshire Council received almost 700 objections from local residents, claiming it would destroy an area designated by the government as an Area of Great Landscape Value. They also claimed the mine would produce tonnes of coaldust, extra traffic on narrow roads and yield a fuel that would pour more climate-changing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Pressure group MORAG (Mainshill Open Cast Rejection Action Group) was set up by local residents to oppose the mine and they have been supporting the campers with food and donations.

Group chairman Kenny Sludden said: "The fact that the Scottish Government and South Lanarkshire Council approved the Mainshill application was extremely disappointing for local democracy.

"It's another example of a complete lack of environmental protection by local authorities and national government."

However, some residents say the mine could bring much needed jobs to the area. One local businesswoman said: "The campaigners will be gone soon but we have to stay here and make a living.

"The jobs and income that would come from the opencast is much needed in the area. It's like a ghost town here sometimes."

A spokesman for the Douglas Estate said: "The protesters' occupation of Mainshill is both illegal and hampering the Estate's activities on the site."

Scottish Coal refused to confirm details of the planned eviction, but added: "Preparation for site operations continue in accordance with our business plan."

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