Interview: Jonathan Meares, trees and conservation manager, Hampstead Heath and Highgate Wood

Jonathan Meares, trees and conservation manager, Hampstead Heath and Highgate Wood.

Juggling the demands of thousands of daily visitors with the conservation needs of sensitive habitats can be a constant pressure for those who manage green spaces.

It is a pressure perhaps felt most keenly in London, where many of the millions of residents have little or no outdoor space of their own. City of London trees and conservation manager for Hampstead Heath and Highgate Wood Jonathan Meares has to grapple with the issue every day.

The 275ha Hampstead Heath is designated as a site of metropolitan importance for nature conservation and contains amenity areas to cope with its visitors. "People are very protective of the heath so we keep them informed on everything we are doing," explains Meares, who lives on site at Highgate Wood in north London.

"The Parliament Hill section of the heath is the most intensively used part, which is good because it takes the pressure off the more wild areas."

The Parliament Hill triangle area was due to be redeveloped to bring it in line with the wilder, more natural feel of the rest of the heath. But the project, planned by Land Use Consultants, lost its Heritage Lottery Fund bid to another City of London site, Epping Forest.

While the project may now be on hold, the conservation work around the rest of the heath is very much alive and kicking. Caring for the green space's 7,000 trees - including 800 veterans - is a central part of that, along with maintaining the areas of acid grassland that can be easily lost through nutrient enrichment.

Techniques used include coronet cutting and fracture pruning, with the aim of creating a more natural look in the woodlands. "It is about mimicking the natural breaks in branches and hopefully generates more regrowth," explains Meares. "It does actually work."

The use of more traditional techniques is an approach the City of London advocates, having sent a team of tree specialists to Spain's Basque region earlier this year on a research mission.

"They are trying to find out whether there's a difference between cutting with an axe or a chainsaw," he adds. "One of the things being looked at is whether the lubricant inhibits growth."

Meares's team has also been working to combat compaction problems by creating dead hedging around some of the veteran trees. "Compaction is one of the major problems we have to deal with because of the sheer number of people," Meares reveals. "When we first did the work there was some opposition, but we put up signage to explain the reasons and now people accept it."

A large team of people - including conservationists, ecologists and arboriculturists - works at the heath. But the space is not immune to the threats facing other local authorities.

Although the City of London funds the £7m-a-year site through a long-established investment pot called City Cash rather than through taxpayers' money, there are still likely to be more tricky times ahead. "We are looking at cuts of around one to two per cent next year, which is quite small, so we are lucky," admits Meares.

"The reason we are having to realise those cuts is because the investments have been slightly hit. The pressures are still there, but luckily we are not in the position of other local authorities, which may be having to see cuts of up to 20 per cent. The only thing that will suffer is that we probably can't employ as many temporary staff."

Living and working in Spain, where much of the coastline has been damaged by extensive development, served to compound Meares's interest in conservation. He was able to further that during time working for a contractor in Richmond Park - a green space with a similar feel to the wild atmosphere of Hampstead Heath.

"Although I've been in horticulture for 25 years, I came into it quite accidentally," Meares explains. "However, I always wanted to get into conservation work, so it has worked out well."

The heath's history as a piece of typical countryside was threatened in the early 19th century, when Lord of the Manor Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson attempted to develop part of the site by building luxury villas, but there was intense local opposition. "We think all that sort of thing started in the 1980s, but it has been going on for hundreds of years," laughs Meares.

Age-old pressures intermingle with modern ones, but fortunately for Meares, the problem of dog damage to trees - a blight in much of the capital - has been minimal. "We don't have real problems with dogs, although there are thousands that come to the site every day," he says. "In my previous work I have experienced whole areas of trees destroyed by dogs attacking them."

Work on paths, reed beds, clearing ponds and slowing water flow are all regular tasks, along with a rolling programme of tree inspection and care. "People do not realise the huge amount of work that goes into maintenance to make the area look natural," Meares points out.

1986-87: Team leader, Bevan Landscapes
1988-93: Self-employed landscape gardener in Spain
1993-94: Horticultural correspondence course
1994-98: BSc in environmental conservation, University of London
1994-2000: Assistant contract manager, Wood Giangrande
2000-02: Assistant contract manager, Sodexo Land Technology
2002-08: Area parks officer, London Borough of Lambeth
2006-09: Technician's certificate in arboriculture
2008: Hampstead Heath and Highgate Wood trees and conservation manager,
City of London

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