ALMOST 1,000 acres of “secret forest” which is home to threatened birds including wood warblers and hawfinches has been taken over by the RSPB.

Franchises Lodge, in the north of the New Forest National Park, is a woodland of deciduous and conifer trees which has largely been inaccessible to the public for many years.

The new nature reserve, which is home to a wide range of birds, invertebrates and plant life, as well as an important collection of lichens, will be a bridge between two other key natural areas in the national park, the RSPB said.

Its acquisition is the result of the land being given to the nation in a tax settlement by the previous owner, a generous legacy and support from the New Forest National Park Authority and the Friends of the New Forest.

The 953 acres will be managed to maintain existing broadleaf woodland, enhancing areas of wood pasture and recreating open heath, the charity said.

Initial surveys reveal it is home to birds such as wood warbler, hawfinch, spotted flycatcher, firecrest and redstart, as well as plants, beetles and butterflies.

Nick Bruce-White, RSPB regional director in south-west England, said: “We think it might hold some real wildlife treasures.

“This is hugely exciting. While we know the sorts of things to be expected, and we know its potential, until we start exploring the site we don’t know for sure just what the site contains.”

He added: “We have to understand much more about its nature and ecology and consider the views of local communities before making any decisions about access beyond the existing rights of way.”

RSPB chief executive Mike Clarke said the acquisition of the land would allow it to work with other organisations to deliver “landscape-scale” conservation, and will be launching a public appeal in May.

“This is one of the most significant purchases in our 129-year history. It is also our first nature reserve in the New Forest,” he said.

“We are delighted to take on the land from its previous owners, who we know are passionate about the site, and we hope to build on their work, safeguarding it for future generations.”

He added that much was still to be discovered about the site as it “has been off the radar for years”.

Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, chair of the New Forest National Park Authority, which put £200,000 into the acquisition, said it would secure a large area of the Forest.