THE New Forest is on full alert amid fears it could be hit by a devastating fire as visitor numbers increase.

A "severe" fire warning is currently in force and barbecues in the open have been banned as part of a strategy to prevent blazes breaking out.

This week more than 150 firefighters tackled a massive blaze which engulfed 470 acres of heathland at Wareham Forest in Dorset.

Forestry England, which manages the area, says it could take decades for the area's habitats to recover.

Now the National Park Authority (NPA) is warning that a similar fire could occur in the New Forest, which is home to rare wildlife.

Visitor numbers have already risen since the lockdown eased and a large number of families are expected to enter the Forest over the bank holiday weekend.

NPA chairman Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre said: "Barbecues are not allowed as there's a high risk of forest and heathland fires.

"We are also very concerned about the amount of verge and gateway parking in recent weeks and are asking people only to park in designated car parks.

"Verges are protected wildlife habitats and are an important source of grazing for ponies.

"In line with government restrictions, and to ensure public safety, local attractions, pubs, campsites, restaurants and hotels remain closed, along with public toilets."

Cllr Alison Hoare, the council's cabinet member for the environment, issued a similar message.

She said: "We have been reviewing how and when we re-open our facilities whilst still keeping people safe.

"It’s a balancing act and we would ask people to use common sense and to treat the area with respect.

"We want people to be able to get outside and enjoy our coastline and open spaces, but would urge everyone to continue staying at home as much as possible to stop the spread of the coronavirus."

Meanwhile police say vehicle crime has risen since many of the car parks managed by Forestry England car parks reopened earlier this month.

A spokesman said: "Please don’t leave valuables in your car and don’t hide them either because you never know who is watching."