DETECTIVES were today probing the possibility that animal rights extremists stole the body of an 82-year-old woman from her burial plot.

The family of Gladys Hammond have been subjected to a long-running campaign by activists, suffering hate mail, malicious phone calls, hoax bombs, a paedophile smear campaign and arson attacks.

Mrs Hammond, who died in 1997, was the mother-in-law of one of two brothers who run Darley Oaks Farm in Newchurch, Staffordshire, where guinea pigs are bred for medical research.

Detective Chief Inspector Nicholas Baker said that officers were keeping an open mind, but were focusing on the obvious line of inquiry that animal rights protesters were responsible.

Relatives of Mrs Hammond

made a poignant plea in a note accompanying floral tributes placed on her grave at St Peter's Church in Yoxall, Staffordshire.

A note, signed The Hammond Family, read: "May God forgive these evil people for what they have done."

Earlier, Staffordshire Police disclosed that at least two offenders were involved in digging up the grave of the pensioner.

Det Chief Insp Baker appealed for the offenders themselves to examine their consciences and give themselves up.

He believes that at least two people would have been required to dig up the grave and may have spent up to four hours at the site overnight.