WILDLIFE enthusiasts are counting the cost of a devastating fire which destroyed part of a newly-designated nature reserve.

About two hectares of heathland were affected by the blaze, which broke out at Peartree Green, Southampton, on Sunday night and wrecked a large area of natural habitat.

Land near the junction of Peartree Road and Sea Road was left scorched and blackened.

The blaze sent a thick plume of smoke over the area and a sea of flame could be seen from other parts of the city, including the Itchen Bridge.

Cllr Alex Houghton, a member of Friends of Peartree Green, described the area as being “unbelievably dry” after weeks of intense heat and no area.

He added: “The fire affected quite a big area and from the Friends’ point of view the loss of natural habitat is concerning.

“But the fire brigade did a brilliant job in containing the blaze and preventing it from spreading to a much larger area, so it’s not as bad as it could have been.”

However, Cllr Houghton warned that the area could takes months to recover, adding: “It’s not a pretty sight at the moment.”

Earlier this year Peartree Green was awarded Local Nature Reserve (LNR) status by the city council in a bid to give the 20-hectare facility extra protection against development.

It is home to a huge variety of flora and fauna, with scrubland providing habitat for butterflies and moths and a shelter for breeding birds.

More than 200 different plants have been identified on the green, plus about 60 species of bird including Skylarks.

One man living near the scene of the blaze said: “Firefighters couldn’t get to the area very easily but they put it out after a couple of hours. There were flames and a lot of smoke but the wind blew it away from the houses.”

A woman walking her dog on the green added: “It wasn’t as bad as the fire here in 2013 but it’s still awful.

“It’s such a shame because there’s a lot of wildlife down here, including deer.

“There are so many wild flowers, including wild orchids, that you don’t see anywhere else. Fortunately most of them are up the other end.”

Last night it emerged that firefighters had extinguished a smaller blaze on another part of the green a few hours earlier.

But Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service said neither incident was being treated as suspicious.

It follows a spate of similar grassland fires across Hampshire in the past few days, including several in the New Forest.

Last week the Country Land and Business Association warned people visiting the countryside to take extra care in the tinder-dry conditions.

A spokesman said: “Wildfires can be prevented by not discarding cigarettes or other smouldering materials. The same can be said for litter and quite often bottles and shards of glass can spark a fire.”