DAMAGE caused by a massive wildfire at a RSPB reserve yesterday will take ten years to recover, the charity have said.

The RSPB team at the reserve have also called on people to stay away from the site, saying the "fragile area cannot cope" after an increase in antisocial activities since the coronavirus lockdown.

As previously reported, dozens of firefighters descended on the reserve, near to Hartley Wintney, last night after a massive fire covering 20 hectares - the size of 37 football pitches - broke out.

According to the RSPB, the blaze has "wiped out" the breeding ground of nesting birds and "devastated" reptiles and habitats that volunteers have worked to bring back.

They say that the heathland "cannot cope" with the amount of people using it, which has increased since the coronavirus lockdown.

In a post on Facebook yesterday evening, the RSPB team said: "Well it had to happen, 20 hectares of the best bit of Hazeley Heath caught fire this afternoon.

"Breeding ground [of] nesting birds have been wiped out, reptiles have been devastated and habitat that volunteers have tried to bring back, completely gone in two hours of madness.

"The fragile area cannot cope at present with the amount of people coming to the heath. There has been a lot of anti-social activities on the heath since the virus, people ignoring the signs, letting dogs wander all over the ground nesting birds area.

"Now you have lost part of the heath. It will take ten years for it to fully recover.

"If you really want to keep this fantastic place safe, please stay away and protect it and take notice of the government's orders.

"Don't be selfish please stay away."

Yesterday just after 3.30pm, fire crews from Hartley Wintney, Fleet, Rushmoor, Odiham, Basingstoke, Yateley, Alton and Bordon, supported by colleagues at Surrey Fire and Rescue Service, descended on the scene after the wildfire took hold.

Gorse and undergrowth were involved in the blaze, which was extinguished using one high pressure lance, beaters and knapsack pumps, a spokesperson for Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service told the Gazette.

However, one firefighter issued a warning to the public after saying that people were still trying to walk and cycle through the heathland that was burning.

Ryan Thurman, group commander of North Hampshire Group, tweeted: "Fantastic work from all the crews, hard work prevented escalation. Unbelievably, people still trying to walk/cycle through the heathland that was burning. Please stay at home people!"

He added that the cause was "still being looked into".