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Biodiversity and Allotments: Gardening in harmony with Nature

Biodiversity and Allotments: Gardening in harmony with Nature

Gardening and growing our own food, has increased in popularity as the restrictions of lockdown have taken their toll. Sandy Paterson, Natural Environment Officer at Glasgow City Council, explains how his team have helped raise awareness of how allotments can support wildlife in the City.

In May 2019 Glasgow City Council declared a climate emergency which lead to the development of a working group consisting of elected members, citizen activist groups, key policy leaders and the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce. 

As part of the wider recognition of the climate emergency, the council also declared an ecological emergency in May 2019 in the knowledge that up to one million species across the world face extinction because of human actions.

According to the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the loss of pollinating insects and other ecological disasters are no lesser a threat than climate change

The 2019 State of Nature report; highlights that of the 8431 species assessed 133 have already become extinct from Great Britain and an alarming 11% of species in Scotland are threatened with extinction from Great Britain: https://nbn.org.uk/stateofnature2019/

Since 1970 we have also seen a third of wildlife being recorded in fewer places and around 48% of species populations decreasing in the last 10 years. Some of the threatened species are garden visitors, for example song thrushes, bullfinches, tree sparrows and some types of bumble bees and butterflies. (Science vol. 303. p1879)

Allotments, especially those in cities are important habitats for wildlife as they provide food, shelter and breeding sites. We do not really know the full consequences of the threatened extinction of so many species except that it is likely to diminish the quality of life for all of us. By gardening in harmony with nature, people benefit as much as the other species belonging to the planet.

15 years ago officers from Glasgow City Council’s Biodiversity and Conservation Team worked in conjunction with Glasgow Allotments Forum(GAF) to develop the “Allotments and Biodiversity – Gardening in harmony with nature” booklet. Several Scottish local authorities requested permission to replicate the booklet for their own areas and we were only too happy to support this request.

The objectives around the development of the booklet were to raise awareness of how allotments could support wildlife in the City, influence the behaviour and practices of allotment plotholders and share this knowledge through existing networks. 

The aim in designing the booklet was to ensure it was user friendly, was simple to put into practice and would stand up to the test of time. As it’s now 15 years old we are intending to review the booklet as there are some gaps around pollinator decline, limited recognition of the benefit of moths as pollinators and the need to provide habitat for pollinators.

If the booklet was to be of value, it had to be accessible and so it sought to include simple effective interventions for both the individual plot holder and the wider association as both have a role to play, as do we all.

Some of the simple interventions highlighted were, to mention a few, an understanding of the importance of soils, composting, crop rotation, companion planting, growing a wider range of fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs, the benefits of ponds, leaf and logs piles, nesting boxes, encouraging native species for planting hedgerows and the importance of providing shelter through the late autumn and winter months to mention a few. 

In the sense of the wider site, associations were encouraged to allow perimeter edges and common areas to become naturalised or increase wildflower planting in these areas, using fences and hedgerows in a more biodiversity friendly manner by encouraging climbers such as ivy (which provides an early pollen source and provides shelter), and reviewing materials used on sites for building structures. 

The booklet has proven influential in encouraging conversation in associations and amongst individual plotholders around organic approaches to allotment gardening. Though some plotholders were receptive, others found it difficult to initially accept or to change their habits. Some were perhaps sceptical that increasing companion planting could be as effective as chemical control regimes. Old habits die hard and if you’re coming from a lifetime of growing experience using chemical controls it can be difficult to switch to a way of growing that might require more labour from you, no matter how much more beneficial  it would be to the environment.

At the time it would be fair to say that organic gardening techniques were not as well understood by plotholders as they are these days, and perhaps the image of organic gardening being for the “prickly jumper brigade”, as they were affectionately referred to by one plotholder, was off-putting to many who were keen to adopt more environmentally-friendly approaches to their plot but were unsure where to start. 

However since the introduction of the booklet, many more conversations were initiated amongst plotholders, associations and the wider forum. Some associations made the choice to move to organic practices only, the number of ponds on individual plots increased as did ponds in common areas, with Croftburn Allotments (image 1 below) being an excellent example providing pond dipping opportunities for local schools and community groups.  

More common areas were allowed to run a bit more wild than might be acceptable in traditional horticultural, and a few sites now have sheds with living roofs. (see image 2 below)

Our site in Tollcross Park ( see image 3 below) drew admiration as recently as August for the innovative edible hedgerow which not only contributes to biodiversity within the park but also provides a foraging opportunity for park users, plotholders and local wildlife alike, whilst also bolstering site security.

The booklet also opened up wider conversations around sustainable practices and, supported by funding from the National Lottery, led to GAF introducing the Sustainable Allotment Awards, which provided awards to peer assessed allotments sites who could demonstrate exemplars of sustainable practices being utilised by plotholders.

Future plans include reviewing the booklet and bring it up to speed for our current time. Promotion of practices that improve biodiversity via allotments and growing spaces in the City will continue to be supported across the City. Very early discussions have commenced between GCC officers and the Scottish Allotments and Garden Society looking at design models for sites based on Permaculture practices but this is still in its infancy.

We are also developing cross departmental collaborative working models involving community groups, third sector organisations, commercial operators, Police Scotland, local GP’s surgeries and academics that allow us to record monitor and provide data on biodiversity (among many other metrics), proving the effectiveness or otherwise of these approaches and allow us to adopt nature based solutions to site development now and for the future. •

You can download the booklet here. 


Sandy will be speaking on this topic at the APSE Allotments Seminar on 7 October. Click here for programme and booking information. 

Glasgow City Council currently supports the city’s ecology through implementation of the Local Biodiversity Action Plan and Pollinator Plan and its land management; and through related policies and strategies including the City Development Plan, the Glasgow Open Space Strategy and the Parks Vision.

  • Image 1: Croftburn Allotments Pond supported by Froglife
    Image 1: Croftburn Allotments Pond supported by Froglife
  • Image 2: Living Roof Merrylee Allotments
    Image 2: Living Roof Merrylee Allotments
  • Image 3: SACRO plot Tollcross Park Allotments with foraging hedgerow at rear
    Image 3: SACRO plot Tollcross Park Allotments with foraging hedgerow at rear

Promoting excellence in public services

APSE (Association for Public Service Excellence) is a not for profit unincorporated association working with over 300 councils throughout the UK. Promoting excellence in public services, APSE is the foremost specialist in local authority frontline services, hosting a network for frontline service providers in areas such as waste and refuse collection, parks and environmental services, cemeteries and crematorium, environmental health, leisure, school meals, cleaning, housing and building maintenance.






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