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COUNTRYSIDE rangers have hit out at sledgers who left a protected beauty spot strewn with rubbish.

Catherington Down, near Horndean, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest with wild flower meadows used by farmers for grazing cattle.

But since the snow began falling it has become a magnet for youngsters who want to make the most of the landscape.

Although the rangers at Horndean Parish Council say they have no problem with the area being used for sledging, they do object to people leaving rubbish behind for someone else to clear up.

It took two countryside rangers four hours to clear up the mess, which included beer cans, home- made sledges, tyres and inflatable dinghies.

Vandals even ripped down the large wooden sign at the entrance to use as a makeshift sledge.

Now the council is calling on residents to clear up their rubbish after they have enjoyed the snow.

Senior countryside ranger Oliver Saunders and his team are responsible for managing a total of 150 acres of public land within the parish.

He said he was pleased to see people out on Catherington Down having fun, making the most of being outdoors.

But he said the sheer volume of rubbish was a major concern.

He said: 'We expect small amounts of rubbish - it's normal.

'However the amount that has been left on the Down is very frustrating.

'We have to keep the site very clean because we manage the flower meadows by grazing them with cattle every autumn and therefore cannot afford to have fragments of rubbish lying on the ground that could be ingested by the livestock.

'We will be picking up some of the smaller fragments of broken plastic sledges for weeks to come.

'The sign must have taken two or three people to lift out - it would have taken some force.

'It's just vandalism.

'Nationally it costs councils millions of pounds a year to clear litter which is a huge waste of time and money.

'Horndean Parish Council doesn't want people to stop having fun, all they ask for is some care and consideration, and to please take your litter home with you.'

Catherington Down is a highly protected nature reserve.

It is a rare area of steep chalk grassland and its slopes are a major draw in the snow.

The land was given to Hampshire County Council by Captain Peter Long of St Catherine's, Catherington, in 1963.

It was given under the agreement that it will never be built on.

Control of the land was passed to Horndean Parish Council in 2004.