HUNDREDS of rare animals and plants were killed in a fire which destroyed heathland the size of two football pitches.

Winfrith Heath is home to threatened wildlife and is home to all six species of reptile, including the sand lizard and smooth snake.

Ground nesting birds including lapwings and skylarks and the rare Dartfold Warbler are also found there, along with common heather, meadow thistle and the rare bright blue marsh gentian wildflower.

The cause of the fire, which took place on Sunday evening, is not yet known but fire crews and the Dorset Wildlife trust fear it may have been started deliberately.

Five crews tackled the blaze and now warnings have been issued to members of the public.

Dorset Wildlife Trust Chief Executive Brian Bleese said: "A fire on a nature reserve at any time of year is devastating for wildlife, but spring is a key time with the bird nesting season beginning in March, so this is especially worrying.

"We are also concerned for the safety of visitors on the site. We are very grateful to Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue for acting so swiftly to try and save as much habitat as possible but the fact remains that possibly hundreds of animals and plants have perished in this fire, and the damaged habitat will make it harder for the surviving species to thrive on."

Fire service Tactical Wildfire Officer Andy Elliott added: "It is a great shame to have to attend these incidents. The nature reserves are beautiful places and they contain some very special wildlife.

"Unfortunately, many of these fires are either deliberate or through carelessness. Please take great care when visiting the countryside and only do so if the site is close to your home. Stay at Home, protect our Emergency Services and Save Lives."

Mr Elliott said such incidents put firefighters at greater risk from coronavirus because it brings many people together to fight the fires.

Dorset Wildlife Trust has urged the public to use nature reserves responsibly during the Covid-19 crisis. This includes adhering to social distancing whilst on a nature reserve, keeping dogs on leads and returning another time if the nature reserve is busy.

For more advice about using nature reserves for daily exercise, go to