What a marvellous thing the Great British allotment is. The idea of urbanites growing their own food perfectly combines all sorts of contemporary ideologies – it’s local, it’s low-carbon, it’s recession-friendly….For me, it appeals to my Romantic side: wanting to feel earth beneath my nails; to commune with the birds and the bees (the ones that are left); to get up-close-and-personal with the famously erratic British weather. It also appeals to the almost-passe Socialist in me – the ideal of sharing land to the common good, collaborating with my local community to create something beautiful and also supremely practical – food.
Did you know there is legislation promoting every British citizen’s right to an allotment, going back to 1908? Other important Allotment Acts have also been created, specifying in amazing and generally positive detail how best we should all endeavor to make our allotments work. The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG) is the place to go for detailed information on all this; I have ambitious plans to get to grips with allotment legislation, especially in the wake of the National Secretary’s sudden death on March 1.
Geoff Stokes had been campaigning on behalf of British allotment gardeners for more than 20 years. When I phoned him about my chicken hassles last year, he was extremely supportive, not to say ebullient, about my going ahead. He promised legal support if the city council got nasty; seemed absolutely on the ball about how to combat any negativity from fellow plot-holders (especially the committee). He had seen and heard it all before.
We agreed that chickens were the best allotment assistants. He was so keen on their manure (above any other) that he regularly stopped by the local chicken farm to load his trailer from the pile of droppings behind their sheds. The farmer had refused to give the manure to him in any official way (some fear of Health and Safety controls, no doubt) but didn’t at all mind his stealing it.
We agreed that the so-called ‘communal’ land at my allotment site where an orchard was planted a few years ago (so far yielding very little fruit, alas) was an ideal place for chickens. He was of the opinion that leaving them free to roam (ala Hugh Fearnley-Withingstall) was all very picturesque but entirely impractical. Either their lack of gardening sophistication meant they scratched up precious seedlings along with the weeds, or else the fox hopped in and got them. On the allotment site, there was the added problem of their potentially ranging over everyone else’s plots, unwelcome.
In Geoff’s opinion, the perfect thing for the orchard would be chicken arks – several maybe – that could be moved across the pasture beneath the trees. Unlike plants, chickens (being jungle birds) like being in the shade of trees. Unlike mowers, they keep the grass short with a zero carbon footprint. As long as the arks were rotated frequently enough, the grass could be fertilised and cropped; in return, from an initial three hybrids the allotment community could expect to share at least a dozen eggs a week. And according to research from the US Ministry of Agriculture, pasture-fed chickens produce eggs more than 30% lower in cholesterol than industrially-fed ones.
Now all I have to do is convince the committee that the late National Secretary’s idea was a good one.