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Livestock haulier Michael Speechley won't forget 23 June this year. That was the Sunday his Dry Drayton, Cambridgeshire yard was firebombed—and the blaze reduced two of his five trucks to blackened, smoking wreckage.
He still doesn't understand why family firm KJ Speechley & Sons should have been targeted. He and his family don't have any enemies so far as he is aware, and they haven't provoked the wrath of animal rights extremists by taking veal calves over to Europe. "In fact we don't do any Continental work at all,"
he says. , "A bloke who lives over the road heard a bang at about a quarter to two in the morning, and came across to the depot to try to wake my mother," he says. Her house adjoins the Speechleys' yard.
"But she was away on holiday, so he went next door to where one of my drivers lives and woke him up.
"The driver went to see what was going on while his wife rang me—I live in the next village—and I got here just as the fire engine arrived. I just couldn't believe what had happened, but I knew it was a firebomb because the cabs were burning.
"I went straight to where the keys are kept, grabbed all of them, and ran over to the trucks. I could see that two of our Scan as were beyond rescuing—our two best lorries as it happened—so I gave the keys to a Seddon Atkinson 311 to a fireman, jumped int() one of the untouched Scanias, and moved it forward out of harm's way. "Afterwards we found out, there was a bomb on it, but luckily it didn't go off."
Does he believe animal rights activists were behind it? "That's the only thing we can put it down to, but as yet nobody has owned up," says Speechley.
The three bombs planted at Dry Drayton were quite advanced and fitted with simple timing devices.
"One went off as planned, and the police reckon that the second was timed to explode 20 minutes later," says Speechley. "The third was set to explode 40 minutes after the first bang, which suggests that whoever planted them meant to harm people."
Each bomb had been placed on top of a tyre, beneath a cab, "My brother was looking around his truck, and saw one of the unexploded bombs on a wheel," he says. "One of the firemen told me that if one went off while you were getting into the cab, you'd be in a hell of a mess. You'd probably be burned from head to toe."
The fire brigade was rapidly followed by the police, bomb disposal specialists, and forensic experts. The entire experience was a massive shock for the Speechley family.
"My brother and I have been involved in this business since we were 21," says Speechley. "I'm 42 now, Peter's 44, and I've got to say that the next morning we looked at each other and said 'let's call it quits'. [think if it had destroyed all the vehicles we'd have packed it in."
But the brothers have decided to soldier on, despite the fact that this latest blaze brought back unpleasant memories of another incident which occurred 15 years ago. On that occasion arsonists set light to a barn full of straw on Speechley property—one of a series of similar incidents that occurred in the area around that time. The fire spread to an adjacent workshop, and damaged a trailer.
What heartened the Speechleys after the most recent blaze was the way in which other livestock hauliers rallied round once they heard what had happened.
Many of them rang to express their sympathy, and offered help.
"What we've done is buy another truck—a Volvo FL6—to replace one of the burned ones, so we'll run four for the moment, and see how it goes," says Speechley. 'At present we've got people on holiday anyway—my brother's away in America—so there's no point in getting a vehicle and have it sitting in the yard."
The FL6 was initially loaned to him by a haulier in Ipswich who heard about his plight. "It's getting on a bit, but after running it for a week I decided to buy it off him anyway," says Speechley.
Acquiring a new truck was ruled out because of the wait for a specialist livestock body. "If I'd placed an order for a livestock container with Houghtons the week after the fire wouldn't have got it until September," he
says. "1 must admit the insurance company—
Norwich Union has been good about all this, An assessor was here on the Monday, prices were agreed on the Tuesday, and a cheque appeared the following week," Speechley's father started the business in 1954; his grandfather had a farm and an abattoir. Originally the firm was based in Madingley, a few miles away, but moved to Dry Drayton in the mid-sixties. The site is a former pig farm, and pigs are sometimes kept there overnight.
The closure of many of the small local livestock markets ("Kings Lynn has just finished," says Michael), not to mention small abattoirs shutting down countrywide, means the Speechleys have to transport livestock over longer distances.
"We have been taking animals up to North Yorkshire for slaughter, which seems stupid really," he says. "In the past we'd just go into Norfolk and Suffolk, and bring them back to abattoirs around here."
Livestock has to be loaded with great care. says, Speechley: "Give pigs too much room and they'll fight one another if they've come out of different pens." The driver has to have the correct documentation. "All our lorries are littered out with straw on both decks, and we have hydraulic ramps so that the . animals don't have a stressful climb on board," he explains.
"We do not tolerate them being mistreated, and none of my drivers behaves like !hat anyway. The customers wouldn't tolerate it either because the value of a marked or bruised animal is ii dueled from the payment I hey receive—and the vets 'old meat inspectors at the ihattoirs keep a close eye on what's being unloaded.
"A dead beast can cost our customers money because the abattoir will charge maybe £25 to £30 for disposing of it. So it's in everybody's interests to do the job right," he stresses.
"All our lorries are washed out two or three times a day, and we put disinfectant and detergent through the wash pump. I don't think the animal tights people realise how much care is taken."
The RSE crisis has hit KJ Speechley because it's reduced the number of cattle handled. "We used to do ,ur or five loads a week -...rnetimes, but now there ;II e some weeks when we . :.)n't do any," he says.
The company moves pigs • , far greater numbers, but reduction in the cattle business liasal 1..1..,11 compensated for by a big upswing in pig traffic as housewives switch to pork, because the national pig herd has shrunk.
"It's reduced considerably over the past four or five years," lie explains. "And because people aren't moving curie there are more hauliers 'looking for pig work."
The Speechleys only move small numbers of sheep; just a4i well perhaps given that the ESE scare has extended to include them. "On the day they started talking about she ESE, they reckon that lamb prices immi ly dropped 10p a kilo," says Speechley He's deeply unimpressed by the g ment's policy over BSE and cattle slau ing, "It's seems chaotic," he says. European Union wants so many at killed that the abattoirs can't cope."
The Speechley fleet is made up ( wheelers plated at 23 to 25 tonnes. "T ideal for pigs because most of our loa 100 to 110 pigs at a time, and a pig will a maximum 100kg," he says.
He has run bigger vehicles. "One trucks that got burned was a 6x4 which I downplated to 22.5 tonnes, and I used to pull a drawbar trailer," he says Scania was an ex-tipper chassis, and alt it only had a 24ft body on, it was just rii us. I've sold the trailer now, but I have th about attaching a close-coupled draw one of the other six-wheelers," One of the surviving Scan ias—a 19E tage 82 –had covered 1.5 million kilo' before it had its engine changed for a powerful unit, and it's still soldiering average each vehicle covers a 120,000km a year, and the Speechleys d own maintenance, He's also thought about diversifyim livestock, and taking on other types of "We've always made a profit out of wl do, hut you don't make a vast amoi money out of it," he says.
"Livestock's a funny game, and a lot vei-s don't want to do it," he reflects. "All drivers have been with us for a long t one worked on the land before he came another is an ex-slaughterman --and t pretty good with the animals. But son vers don't like hauling pigs. They dor having to put a pair of wellingtons on, the back, and wash the body out.
"We once took on a bloke who'd been ing to join us for years, and when he lasted a week. He reckoned his wife mac stand at the back door and strip off his ing gear before she'd let him in the because she couldn't stand the smell. Sh him an ultimatum, and he had to lea even though he liked the job!"
E by Steve Banner Al the time of writing Cambridgeshire had yet to catch whoever was responsii the 23 June firebombing Anybody with mation should ring 01480 456111.