ARSONISTS left three helpless animals to perish as flames engulfed their shelter in a North-East village.

Police were last night treating the blaze at Eldon Lane, near Bishop Auckland, County Durham, as suspicious and immediately appealed for witnesses to what they described as a deeply distressing incident.

Firefighters reached the village allotments within minutes of being called on Sunday night, but were unable to save the animals, which all burned to death.

A seven-year-old black horse, an eight-month-old foal and a pet greyhound, which was due to give birth in the next two weeks, were trapped inside the burning building, unable to escape from the pens they were in.

The alarm was raised at about 9pm when a member of the public living nearby spotted flames coming from the stable, which was in a sheet metal compound in Bridge Place.

Yesterday, stunned villagers looked on as crime scene investigators and fire brigade specialists scoured the scene to establish the cause of the fire.

The animals' owner, Paul Sumpton, of Eldon Lane, walked around what was left of the building with officers and friends trying to take in what had happened to his pets.

The 38-year-old was too upset to comment last night.

One man, who did not wish to be named said: "This is sick. I cannot believe anyone would do this to helpless animals. They want locking up."

Detective Sergeant Ian Sturrock, from Bishop Auckland CID, said: "Obviously, this has been a particularly distressing incident. The horses were in pens and unable to get out.

"Crime Scene Investigators are still at the scene and we have yet to establish a cause. However, I can say that we are treating it as suspicious.

"We would like to hear from anyone who may have seen anybody suspicious in the local vicinity at about 8pm to 8.30pm on Sunday.

"We would also like to hear from anybody who knows how this fire may have started."

Witnesses are asked to contact Bishop Auckland CID on 0845 60 60 365 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.