A 55-year-old man has been given a suspended prison sentence after he was caught attempting to groom under-age girls in sting operations by two separate groups of vigilante paedophile hunters.

Mark Gaudion pleaded guilty to two charges of attempting to engage in sexual communications with a child and a count of attempting to meet a child following sexual grooming.

Dawn Hyland, prosecuting, told Winchester Crown Court that Gaudion had contacted the fake profile of a teenage girl called Becksy Baby on the online dating website Waplog.

She said the profile had been set up by a vigilante group called Predator Hunters and clearly stated the age of the girl was 14.

Ms Hyland said that the defendant sent 57 messages to the profile, including an explicit photograph.

She said that Gaudion went on to arrange for the girl to come to stay at his home but at the rendezvous in April he was confronted by four members of the group Predator Hunters, and the police were called to arrest him.

Ms Hyland said that when police searched his home, they found that Gaudion, of Bordon, had engaged in similar online conversations with another fake profile, a 13-year-old girl called Amy, set up by a different group called Dark Justice.

Karen Dempsey, defending, said that Gaudion was a "vulnerable man" with borderline learning disabilities and a low IQ.

She said: "He has accepted his guilt, it has been difficult to explain to him, he is a vulnerable man who has challenges both in terms of his learning difficulties and his IQ."

Judge Jane Miller QC sentenced Gaudion to 15 months' imprisonment suspended for two years and ordered him to carry out 200 hours of community service. He was also ordered to sign the sex offenders' register and was made subject to a sexual harm prevention order.

She told him: "This is your first offence, you are clearly a man with difficulties and I believe you deserve at least one chance.

"I think you need some help to understand what you have done so you do not do it again."

She said that the defendant had denied having sexual interest in children and said that the messages had been just his "wicked sense of humour".

Judge Miller said that the defendant had attended a special school as a child and had been "bullied enormously" and she had been advised that he could be subjected to "sexual exploitation and bullying" if sent to prison.

Earlier this week, the BBC Inside Out programmed revealed a rise in similar cases involving online vigilante groups.

Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs' Council lead for child protection, told the programme: "I'm not going to condone these groups and I would encourage them all to stop, but I recognise that I am not winning that conversation and I am not winning that moral argument."