Four animal rights extremists who stole hundreds of birds, rodents, rabbits and dogs from an animal breeder were today spared jail.

Grace Quantock, 19, Linus Harrison, 20, Sarah Whitehead, 49, and Helen Luff, 39, cut through a wire fence and smashed a window during the daytime raid at the Old Fuel Depot in Merston, near Chichester, on July 3 last year.

Sussex Police said the four were linked to Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) which has been behind a long-standing crusade to close Britain's largest animal research centre, Huntingdon Life Sciences.

Chichester Crown Court heard that about 300 birds, including parrots and finches, more than 40 rabbits and about 50 rats, plus an undisclosed number of guinea pigs, were stolen in the raid which was formed with almost "military precision".

The target was Philip Porter who was the lessee of premises at the Old Fuel Depot and who lived in a caravan on the site.

The court heard that "prime mover and organiser" Whitehead, a nurse, was informed by friends linked with the RSPCA in May last year that animals were being kept in poor conditions, with insufficient water and food.

She was under the impression that the concerns surrounding the upkeep of animals there had been reported to the RSPCA, but that no action had been taken - information which turned out to be wrong.

Whitehead is said to have kept Mr Porter under observation to find out his absences from the premises, and on June 13, accompanied by Luff, made a video of the site, including the caravan where Mr Porter lived with his pet dog.

The court heard that none of them sought to alert the RSPCA about their findings and instead took the law into their own hands. On July 3, a group of about 15 people enlisted by or on behalf of Whitehead met at a disused airfield and drove to the Old Fuel Depot.

The group "worked assiduously" to remove virtually all the animals and birds from the premises, including Mr Porter's dog from his caravan. He said suddenly finding his animals missing felt like "the whole world had been taken away from me".

A substantial number of animals were taken to Whitehead's home but neighbours became suspicious and alerted police who attended together with the RSPCA.

When arrested, Whitehead had papers on her relating to operations against Huntingdon Life Sciences and people who worked directly or indirectly for the company.

All four were convicted of burglary following a four-week trial in July, while Harrison was found guilty of an additional charge of residential burglary for the theft of Mr Porter's dog.

Quantock, of Pondcroft, Yateley, Hampshire, was today handed a community order with a curfew. Harrison, of the same address, was given a community order with 60 hours unpaid work.

Meanwhile, Luff of Kingsham Avenue, Chichester, was given a community order with 100 hours unpaid work and Whitehead, of Thorncroft Road, Littlehampton, was given a nine-month jail term suspended for two years and a community order with 120 hours unpaid work.

Judge John Sessions told them: "All of you participated in a group enterprise which the jury has found to have been dishonest and therefore criminal. It involved a form of vigilantism, all of those involved taking the law into their own hands rather than pursuing matters through appropriate authorities.

"The group was large and had Mr Porter happened to return to the premises whilst the operation was being carried out, it would have been surprising if he had been less than alarmed and unsurprising had some actual violence taken place."

He added that the mitigating factors included the fact the animals were being kept in very bad conditions which could have led to disease or death and no gratuitous damage or offence was done.

Judge Sessions said it was probable the animals represented a loss-making rather than a profit-making part of Mr Porter's business and he was probably committing offences of animal cruelty.

Following the sentencing, a spokesman for Sussex Police said: "We are pleased with the outcome of the hearing and sentencing.

"We hope this will act as a deterrent to activists who are tempted to take their legitimate protests over the boundary into criminal activity."