Rare species die in heathland blaze

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One of Britain's most precious nature reserves was devastated at the weekend by a fire that may have been started deliberately.

Rare birds, insects and reptiles were wiped out when more than half the heathland at Thursley Common in Surrey was burnt in a blaze that took 100 firefighters to control. The heather, tinder dry after the recent hot weather, burned fiercely with the flames fanned by high winds. The reserve, located near Godalming and among the finest and most wildlife-rich stretches of lowland heath in the country, may take years to recover.

Surrey Police said yesterday that a 52-year-old local man had been arrested on suspicion of arson and released on police bail pending further inquiries.

The fire began on Friday, burned all day Saturday, and yesterday was still smouldering, with 60 firefighters trying to damp it down. It consumed between 70 and 60 hectares of the 180-hectare heathland, which is home to very specialised wildlife communities. Rare birds present include Dartford warblers, nightjars and woodlarks: the first two species are thought to have been very hard hit, although the woodlark chicks have already flown the nest.

Several colonies of the silver-studded blue butterfly were destroyed, although one was saved. Other rare insects, such as the wood tiger beetle, are thought to have been affected, while two of Britain's rarest reptiles, the sand lizard and the smooth snake, also suffered.

"This has been a devastating blow to one of England's finest lowland heaths," said Simon Nobes, the English Nature site manager for Thursley Common.

* The Met Office has issued a "heat health" alert with a heatwave likely this week in the southern part of Britain, with temperatures reaching 30C (86F) or higher. The Government has already issued a smog warning for today.

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