THIEVES have been slammed for stealing signs from a nature reserve in Maldon.

Signs at the Ironworks Meadow Reserve have been repeatedly targeted since it opened earlier this year.

The Chelmer Blackwater Reserve Community Interest Company, which owns the site, says seven signs have been stolen or damaged deliberately.

The latest incident, which happened between September 5-6, is the fourth time signs have been hit.

A reserve spokesman said: "This is not a mere incident of casual vandalism. The person responsible came equipped intentionally to remove the signs.

"The effect of these persistent acts of theft and criminal damage is to cause unnecessary expense to a community interest company formed by local people to establish a community nature reserve for all to enjoy."

The reserve was created on land leased by the group, which was set up two years ago to preserve Ironworks Meadow, between the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation Canal and River Chelmer.

It is paid for by public donations and all those involved are unpaid volunteers.

More than 200 local people are shareholders and supporters of the project.

Bridges and walkways were built to create public access to the site while protecting wildlife, which includes muntjac deer, reed warblers, Cetti’s warblers, cuckoos, buzzards, kestrels and red kites.

It is believed the person taking the signs could be a disgruntled dog owner.

The reserve spokesman said: "Because 'dogs on leads' signs have been a special target, but not the only one, it is suspected that the culprit may be a dog owner who believes that he or she has a right to walk a dog across the land.

"The overwhelming majority of dog owners understand that it is not unreasonable to require dogs to be kept on leads when crossing a nature reserve.

"But the belief in an entitlement is completely mistaken. The reserve is private land leased by the CIC.

"Dogs are not required to be on leads on the crossing path between river and canal close to Tesco, because this has been used regularly for many years.

"The rest of the site was barely used and often inaccessible. It is now accessible only because of the work carried out by the CIC."

Anyone with information should contact Essex Police quoting incident number 42/163976/23.