The ‘allotment renaissance’ and what it means for local wildlife

A fox explores its allotment home

A fox explores its allotment home - Credit: Archant

Old, abandoned allotments are a haven for wildlife. Paul Hobson considers the allotment renaissance and what it could mean for the creatures who have made them their home

Green amongst the grey - a typical town allotment

Green amongst the grey - a typical town allotment - Credit: Archant

Demand for allotments has never been so high. In many areas of Derbyshire this renaissance is seeing hundreds being revitalised and reinstated to satisfy a new breed of vegetable and fruit growers.

Allotments have suffered mixed fortunes over the last 40 years or so. Originally popular with growers who wanted fresh produce at low prices, many of these then gradually fell into disuse and nature took over as they slowly reverted to a complex mix of wild and cultivated trees and plants.

These old, abandoned allotments – now scrubby woodland – are a haven for wildlife. Bank voles skitter over the leafy floor, sparrow hawks hunt the old paths and bullfinches call from tall unkempt hedges. Rather than new tenants, foxes and badgers increasingly have the right to roam and hedgehogs, suffering greatly of late, find a slug-rich, safe haven.

However, this is now changing. The demand for allotments in many areas of the UK has exploded in the last four years. Waiting lists are long and often new names are no longer taken as those on the lists hang on for up to two years to secure their own patch. This increasing pressure is putting a strain on these old, abandoned wildlife-rich areas to bring them back into cultivation.

Badgers are likely residents of overgrown allotments

Badgers are likely residents of overgrown allotments - Credit: Archant

It’s interesting to speculate, why now? What is the cause of this new driving force? Certainly people are more aware of healthy eating. They are becoming more knowledgeable about air miles, climate change is starting to hit home and there is a demand for seasonal, organic, home-grown food. Back muscles are now feeling the strain as allotments all over our county and in other towns and cities across the UK are being re-dug in a way reminiscent of the old cry of ‘Dig for Victory’ 70 years ago!

Allotments are wildlife havens. In Derby there are hundreds of allotments at more than 25 sites and they help to create a visual sea of green amongst the grey. Along with parks and gardens they are the lungs of many towns. Most allotments have societies that help growers manage their patches. Alongside these are a number of other organisations that can provide both inspiration and information. The Allotments Regeneration Initiative (ARI) was launched by the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens. They offer advice about gardening and running allotments for wildlife. A super example is at Wilsthorpe Road Allotments, Long Eaton, where a seven metre pond has been created to encourage wildlife. The ARI sees allotments as mini, yet vital, urban nature reserves. Many are chemical free, with old hedges and weedy patches dotted with nectar-rich plants and they provide a vital part of the city’s wildlife make-up.

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There are issues for concern. Some areas of allotments have truly reverted back to woodland, in a sense the natural state. Wildlife-rich, they pose a headache for planners. Do they try to bring them back into use? If so, it requires some serious work with bulldozers. Or is it possible to leave them? And if left will they require management? Allotments are protected by law. They cannot be reclaimed and developed for other uses, such as housing, so these old plots slowly turning into woodland pose the question – woodland or allotments? Some allotments are un-lettable at present because of big trees but demand is incredibly high so should we try to bring some areas back or should they be left? Local ecology units, wildlife experts and trusts are fully aware and concerned about this new demand and it’s possible impact on wildlife. They offer advice about the wildlife using abandoned allotments and any potential impact if clearance is being considered.

It is not only old allotments being bulldozed back into use that is adding to the debate. New areas can be earmarked for allotment creation to satisfy the growing demand. On the face of it this is no bad thing unless the land use previously is deemed too important.

Gold finch

Gold finch - Credit: Archant

Unfortunately the new demand for home-grown may see the end of some delightful patches of new, young woodland, although hopefully some of these have gone so far as to be too difficult to bring back. New allotments are clearly needed yet a quick glance at many of the larger allotment areas across Derbyshire sees some patches that look neglected. Some associations rest allotments and often 25 per cent are not worked or ‘rested’. These become mini oases that offer that little extra bit of cover for the foxes’ den or bramble patch for the birds to nest and feed in. The future is bright for allotments and hopefully with the right advice and a little forward thinking it will stay bright for the plentiful urban wildlife that lives in or visits the new, old and abandoned allotments across Derbyshire.

Tawny owl

Tawny owl - Credit: Archant

Allotment wildlife - woodmouse

Allotment wildlife - woodmouse - Credit: Archant

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