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BOB HALL: You've got to hand it to our Heath volunteers

PUBLISHED: 10:46 22 September 2008 | UPDATED: 15:23 07 September 2010

This column has frequently made the point that Hampstead Heath is as it is today because of human intervention in the past. Continued intervention in the natural processes is essential if the Heath s diverse fabric is to be retained and preserved. Part I

This column has frequently made the point that Hampstead Heath is as it is today because of human intervention in the past. Continued intervention in the natural processes is essential if the Heath's diverse fabric is to be retained and preserved.

Part I of the Strategic Management Plan, recently adopted after extensive consultation, provides a structure within which such intervention can be organised in a coherent and cost-effective way. A vital and increasingly central feature of this arrangement is the work undertaken by volunteers to support the City's ownership and management of the Heath.

The volunteering is managed through the truly remarkable body known as Heath Hands. A registered charity, it was established in 1999 with its first principal objective being to "promote the conservation, protection and improvement of the physical environment of Hampstead Heath."

Heath Hands is funded by the City (at present £25,000 per year), English Heritage (free accommodation at West Lodge) and its own fund-raising efforts. It provides immensely valuable and varied work on Hampstead Heath and the Kenwood Estate, and has developed a strong partnership with both.

The founding members based their approach on the New York Central Park model of volunteering, with which the first chairman, the late Bobby de Joia, was very familiar. It has become a glittering example of best practice in the volunteering field. It is run by a trustee body drawn from a wide range of relevant interests.

The range of work surpasses all original expectations, ranging from assisting at the Hill Garden and the pergola in Golders Hill Park, helping with horticultural maintenance at Parliament Hill and many conservation tasks (scrub/hedge, woodland, grassland and wetland management, sycamore seedling and sapling removal, transplanting azaleas, willow coppicing and wildflower planting).

Special projects have been tagging all veteran trees on the Heath, management of the new butterfly house at Golders Hill Park, assisting in the establishment of the Heath education programme and restoring the planting in the garden of Keats House.

Heath Hands now has some 260 active volunteers from all over London. Work sessions by members have increased significantly. The hours spent by volunteers for the year ended 31 March 2008 were 6,289, a 14 per cent increase over the previous year. Because of the demand by volunteers to "do their bit", work sessions now have to be booked well in advance and attended. Considerable effort is now being made to organise additional work sessions on the Heath and at Kenwood.

We say that the ambassadorial role provided by Heath Hands volunteers is immensely valuable. Since 1999, some 800 individuals have sampled the Heath Hands experience and this has been of huge benefit to management. It represents a significant and crucial stakeholder group. Their involvement helps to enhance national and international recognition of the Heath as an open space of outstanding character. We are immensely grateful for all that they do.

Their help however reflects a deeper reality about the Heath and Kenwood. Both areas have fortunately been preserved for public use - in the case of the Heath after a seriously perilous process when it seemed that the interests of development might outweigh the public interest. Our duty is to preserve both for future generations to enjoy in a way which provides the current generation with much pleasure. Heath Hands reflect the desire by volunteers to make their contribution to preserving and enhancing these wonderful spaces.

If you are interested in joining, you might like to contact the Heath Hands' office on 020 8458 9102 or by e-mail info@heath-hands.org.uk to make enquiries. It is serious work but it provides immense fulfilment.

Your comments about Hampstead Heath are always welcome. An online system known as GreenSTAT (www.greenstat.org.uk) seeks comments on the quality, management and maintenance of open spaces.

This enables site managers to compare the results with others up and down the country. We look forward to hearing from you.

Bob Hall is chairman of

the Hampstead Heath

Management Committee

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