DELIBERATELY started grass fires in Gwent have put lives at risk, destroyed dozens of acres of grassland and wildlife habitats, and cost South Wales Fire and Rescue Service almost £150,000 - all since the beginning of March.

The recent dry spell has brought a spate of grass and mountain fires, 77 in Gwent alone from March 1-18, a staggering 75 of which have been started on purpose.

Now South Wales Fire and Rescue Service has issued stark warnings about the dangers of starting such fires, including a hard-hitting poster campaign that focuses on the wildlife aspect and features a photograph of a badly burned lamb, a pertinent image at this time of the year, when lambing is taking place.

It also warns that those caught lighting a grass or mountain fire could face up to two years imprisonment and a £5,000 fine if prosecuted.

Blaenau Gwent has experienced the majority of the recent spate of deliberate fires, with almost half (38) being reported in the county borough.

The average cost of an initial attendance is £1,970, meaning the call-outs during March 1-18 have cost the service at least £147,750 in Gwent alone. But with more than one crew often being called out, and other emergency services sometimes becoming involved, the wider cost is likely to be higher.

Thankfully, no-one has been injured, but grassland and bracken has been destroyed, and most likely the food, nests and shelter of wildlife and farm animals.

"The people responsible for starting these fires need to understand that these fires severely damage much of the countryside, concerned their communities, and they are putting lives in danger as it can take a few minutes longer to respond to incidents in the towns and villages of South Wales," said Alison Kibblewhite, head of risk reduction with South Wales Fire and Rescue Service.

"Deliberate grass fires are dangerous and unpredictable, and can quickly get out of control.

Firefighters battle against them in arduous and conditions with fires spreading across difficult and sometimes unstable terrain.

"This has got to stop."

Many of this month's deliberate grass fires occurred during the period March 13-18, with crews across South Wales busy, particularly in Valleys areas.

During that period in Gwent, crews responded to deliberate fires in areas as diverse as Rassau in Ebbw Vale, Nantyglo, the mountain above Upper Cwmbran, Pantside in Newbridge, Sirhowy mountain in Tredegar, Trefil Quarry, Oakdale, Abertillery and Talywain.

* Anyone planning to have their own bonfire - known as a controlled burning - is asked to inform South Wales Fire and Rescue Service beforehand on 01443 232380, to prevent an unnecessary call-out.