• U.S.

Biological Warfare: Dark Harvest

4 minute read
TIME

Scattering “seeds of death ”

The first package, carefully encased in plastic, was found outside Britain’s Chemical Defense Establishment at Porton Down in Wiltshire. Inside was a galvanized metal bucket containing nothing, it seemed at first, but earth. A few days later, a second package turned up in Blackpool, where the ruling Conservative Party was holding its annual conference. It too contained a bucketful of earth wrapped in plastic, and apparently nothing else.

The packages, which proved to be part of a curious campaign of what might be called environmental terrorism, were a protest against a government action that took place four decades ago. In 1941, fearful that the Germans might launch a series of airborne biological-warfare attacks against the civilian population, British authorities asked scientists at the Porton Down bacteriological research unit to conduct a series of experiments. The site: Gruinard Island, a bleak, uninhabited, 1½ mile-long patch of land that lies just 600 yds. off the west coast of northern Scotland. The tests were conducted with Bacillus anthracis, better known as anthrax, which has lethal and well-documented effects on both animals and humans. Anthrax is believed to have caused the fifth plague in Egypt mentioned in the Book of Exodus, and an outbreak of the disease swept through southern Europe in the 17th century, killing thousands. The object of the tests on Gruinard Island was to determine whether anthrax bacilli would survive if dropped and dispersed by bombs.

The answer, the scientists quickly discovered, was yes. In the first experiment, a bomb containing billions of anthrax spores was exploded, soon killing 60 sheep that were brought to the island. Occasional tests continued throughout the war. In 1943 a dead sheep from Gruinard washed ashore on the mainland, contaminating several farm animals. Unaffected by the experiments, Gruinard’s rabbits flourished.

After the war, scientists gradually realized that the anthrax spores were difficult to destroy and might stay alive on the island for decades. In 1971, following a series of tests, officials concluded that the spores were no longer on the surface of the ground but had penetrated about 6 in. deep into the earth, where, presumably, they were harmless if not disturbed. As the years passed, the government regularly renewed the signs warning people not to set foot on the island, but did little else. A few visitors disregarded the notices, walked around Gruinard and came away unharmed.

Then in early October, some eight months after an article on the island had appeared in the London Sunday Times, the strange protest campaign began. Several British newspapers and TV and radio stations received typed statements that bore the heading OPERATION DARK HARVEST.The message demanded that the government solve the problem of the island’s contamination by burying the bacilli beneath thick layers of reinforced concrete, sand and other materials, or by removing the soil completely and burying it elsewhere, or by soaking the island in potassium permanganate solution, or by raising “the temperature of the island to about 1,000° C for two minutes.”

With the aim of getting their island back, “properly laundered,” the statement continued, a “team of microbiologists from two universities,” aided by local people, had recently landed on the island and carefully collected 300 Ibs. of soil samples. “Over the next twelve-month period, these bags will be deposited at appropriate points that will ensure the rapid loss of indifference of the government and the equally rapid education of the general public.” Accordingly, the message concluded, the first “seeds of death” were being sent to the place from which they had come: “Porton Down has just received a gift from Gruinard Island, the first of many.”

Sure enough, the first package of dirt, weighing 10 Ibs., was found the same day near the Porton Down laboratories, and analysis showed that it contained Bacillus anthracis. Although the box that showed up at Blackpool did not contain anthrax spores, officials said the soil was similar to that on Gruinard Island.

Several other packages of earth have since been found throughout the country, but all were thought to be the work of pranksters. Scottish police have placed Gruinard Island under observation and continue to search for any recent visitors. Meanwhile, if the people behind “Dark Harvest” are to be believed, there remain 280 Ibs. of contaminated earth hidden somewhere in Britain, awaiting further distribution.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com