THE Animal Liberation Front (ALF) has claimed responsibility for the release of more than 20 red deer from a sanctuary in Potterne.

The deer escaped from the sanctuary, in Devizes Road, a month ago and at first it was thought to be the work of vandals.

But an anonymous message was placed on an animal activist website and Special Branch are now investigating.

The ALF message on the Bite Back website says: "During the morning of Thursday May 25, we took out our tools, and began to destroy fencing.

"We were at a deer farm in Potterne, Wiltshire.

"We cut down the fencing of one field containing three breeding deer, and then opened up gates, allowing a larger herd of deer to escape from a second field.

"Unfortunately we had to leave a group of baby deer imprisoned at the farm because they were too young to fend for themselves."

Ominously the message ends with the words: "We will return, and these deer will be saved from certain death.

"We will not let these innocent animals end up on the dinner table. This is just the beginning. ALF."

Michael Petley, owner of the sanctuary, has condemned the action and highlighted how little research must have been done by those responsible as the sanctuary has been there for eight years.

Mr Petley, who has recently bought the property in Potterne and moves in with his wife Natalie and their six children next month, said: "What has escaped the perpetrator's attention is that this is a sanctuary for deer.

"It's not a breeding house for meat in the traditional sense of farming or animal testing.

"It saddens me enormously to see our deer sanctuary subject to such extensive and malicious damage.

"I sympathise with anybody whose motives are legitimately to protect any animals they consider as being exploited or suffering from or subject to intolerable cruelty but with us it is purely a case of mistaken identity. The sanctuary has been there for the past eight years and before that was a deer farm.

"I intend it to carry on as a sanctuary to allow these gracious animals to live in peace.

"These deer are not and never were destined for the dinner table.' "

Mr Petley, a fund manager who works in London, revealed that six deer had returned to the sanctuary but one had since died, he thought due to the ordeal of being released.

Mr Petley is also concerned that from August 1, the start of the deer season, more deer will die.

He said: "I don't want revenge. I just hope common sense will prevail once the people responsible realise that it's not an intense breeding farm for the freezer."

The ALF is thought to have covert cells of activists working in 20 countries. A cell can consist of one person.

Anyone with information about the release of the deer at Potterne should ring PC Adam Mulliss at Devizes police on 0845 408 7000 or Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.