Animal rights activists look to be the prime suspects following a night of fires and desecration in Stocking Pelham.

"Fox killers" was scrawled in red paint over the village church and a nearby animal feed business _ which supplies the Puckeridge Hunt _ was razed to the ground in a £250,000 suspect blaze during the early hours of Sunday.

Police and fire experts have launched an inquiry into what happened just days after the Puckeridge Hunt's Boxing Day meet at Brent Pelham. "It's being treated as suspicious at this stage," said a Herts police spokeswoman. "We are investigating a possible link with an anti-hunt slogan that was daubed on a nearby church."

The emergency services were alerted about 4am as the fierce fire raged through an historic Grade 2 listed timber barn housing the feed business plus adjoining buildings at Stocking Pelham Hall.

It was just 70/80 yds (64/73m) from the family homes of Edward Hitchcock and his father, Arnold.

"The heat was extraordinary, you could not get within 50ft of the building, it was ablaze from end to end," said Mr Hitchcock jnr. There was nothing firefighters could do to save the 1828 barn or lean-tos. "Everything that was associated with the animal feed business was in that barn and was lost," he said.

Tiggy the farm's tabby cat has not been seen since.

The fire was discovered by Mr Hitchcock snr at about 3.45am. He heard a noise, looked out and saw the building burning.

As investigators sifted through debris, Edward said: "We do supply the hunt yard with horse feed and tenants on some of our land are one of the masters.

"Whether it was a case of mistaken identity or not, I don't know. As far as damage to the hunt, it has done none.

"If it's going to be an arsonist's attack, the obvious place would be to walk past the church to get to the barn."

Graffiti on the church steps was found by someone going to a service on Sunday morning. The paint was still wet.

James Lambie, spokesman for the Puckeridge Hunt, was yesterday awaiting information from police. He did say the hunt had not had any trouble with saboteurs for nearly two years.

* This year's Boxing Day hunt was widely expected to be the last traditional such event. There were 1,000 followers at Puckeridge's, and an estimated 200 at Essex Hunt's meet at Matching Green, said its chairman Michael Herbert.

Mr Herbert has called on MP Sir Alan Haselhurst to vote against the bill to regulate hunting, which will ban the pursuit of stags and competitive hare coursing on the grounds that they are cruel. He said that the bill was a "fudge" and routed in political expediency.

The Countryside Alliance claims support remains staunch for hunting in East Herts and Uttlesford.