Inspectors from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals worked through the night removing more than 800 cats and kittens from Hill Grove Farm, Witney, Oxfordshire, which is closing with its owner's retirement. The animals, due to be sold for experimentation in laboratories around the world, were taken to an RSPCA holding centre, while new homes are found for them.
The Home Office-licensed farm has been a focal point for animal rights protesters over the past two years and there have been violent clashes with police.
Since March 1997 Thames Valley Police has spent pounds 2.8m protecting the farmhouse and policing demonstrations calling for its closure. At least 350 people have been arrested and 21 jailed for public order offences.
Farmer Christopher Brown, 61, who has run the cattery with his wife, Katherine, for 30 years, turned to the RSPCA to help to re-house his stock after announcing he was retiring.The secret operation to remove the cats began at 10pm on Thursday to prevent disruption by protesters.
RSPCA vets health checked, vaccinated and microchipped the cats, which had been reared in virus-free environments, before 33 of the charity's officers took them in a fleet of 16 vans to the holding centre.
Chris Laurence, the Society's chief veterinary officer, said: "Our aim now is to provide a brighter future for these animals by finding loving new homes for each one.
"We are appealing to anyone thinking of taking a cat as a pet to consider an RSPCA cat."
The charity has an emergency hotline for prospective owners to adopt these cats and thousands of others in its care.
Since animal rights protesters first targeted Hill Grove Farm two-and- a-half years ago, Mr Brown and his family have lived in constant fear.
They have been subjected to repeated death threats and had letter-bombs sent to their home, forcing them to install CCTV cameras and hire private security to patrol the farm.
Mr Brown said today: "My car has been firebombed, my house burned and the windows on my house broken. I have been beaten-up and my wife and my staff have been attacked.
" I am surprised by just how vicious some of these people are, but they have been misinformed. I have simply bred cats here and no medical research has taken place here. The cats have received no medication whatsoever, there has been no need."
Mr Brown denied the hate campaign had driven him to give up his business, insisting the violence had made him even more resolute.
Assistant Chief Constable Robert Davies, of Thames Valley Police, said the policing of Hill Grove had undoubtedly affected the service his officers had provided throughout the region.
On 18 April last year more than 1,000 protesters descended on the farm, with many fighting pitched battles against 400 police officers. Police applied for a five-mile exclusion zone around the farm in July last year - only the second time one has been granted on the mainland.
Campaigners were delighted by the closure. Heather James, of Save the Hillgrove Cats, said: "We said we would never go away until it was shut and now that day has come. If it had taken another six years we would have still been protesting. This is one of the happiest days of my life."
Animal activist and TV comedy writer Carla Lane said the news was "magnificent" and "absolutely brilliant", adding: "It is a wonderful day. I am just so happy."Reuse content