ONE of Britain's biggest retailers is supporting a barbecue ban that aims to prevent wildfires breaking out in the New Forest.

Co-op has decided to stop selling disposable BBQs at stores in or near the New Forest National Park and similar areas across the country.

It follows a spate of wildfires in the district last summer, many of which were started by barbecues.

Nearby Wareham Forest also also hit by a devastating blaze that destroyed more than 200 hectares of heathland.

The fire is thought to have been caused by a disposable barbecue or a campfire.

Last year Co-op refused to follow the lead of other retailers and remove barbecues from its shelves. The decision was criticised by Cllr Jack Davies, who accused it of putting the district's unique environment at risk.

Now Co-op has done a U-turn in a bid to protect the Forest and other environmentally-sensitive sites.

Adele Balmforth, the company's buying director, said the decision applied to branches that were either in - or within a one-mile radius of - a national park.

It follows concerns raised by the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) over the number of fires caused by disposable barbecues.

Paul Hedley, NFCC lead for wildfires, said: “Most people manage to enjoy instant barbecues with no issues. But the upward trend in wildfires caused by these devices cannot be ignored and action has to be taken.”

Co-op's decision has also been welcomed by the New Forest National Park Authority.

Nigel Matthews, head of recreation management and learning, said: "We are delighted with Co-op’s decision to withdraw the sale of disposable barbecues in stores in or within a one-mile of any national park and hope more national retailers will follow suit.

"The New Forest is a great place for a picnic.

"But BBQs, gas burners and fires are banned because of the risk of causing a wildfire. All BBQ facilities have been removed from Forestry England sites.

"More than half the New Forest National Park is internationally protected because of its rare wildlife and habitats.

"The woods, heathland and mires also have peaty soils that store carbon and help reduce climate change.

"Wildfires at this time of year would cause immense damage to the fauna and flora and release carbon into the atmosphere.

"It’s vitally important that everyone plays their part in helping to protect the Forest’s landscapes and reduce the risk of wildfires."