Allotment thefts: Digging up the dirt on allotment 'vegilantes'
As growing veg becomes more popular, so too has stealing produce and sabotaging small plots
Charlotte Philby is a writer and reporter at The Independent, currently based on the news desk after six years on the Saturday magazine. She has been shortlisted for the 2013 Cudlipp award for excellence in popular journalism for an undercover investigative into a website offering students up to £15,000 in return for sex. She has also written for cultural magazines including Dazed & Confused and NYLON and contributed to several books, among them a biography of French street artist Blek Le Rat. A mother and born-and-bred Londoner, she spends most of her free time working on her first crime fiction novel.
Monday 21 January 2013
Nearly 100,000 people are signed up to waiting lists for allotments in Britain, with 350,000 enthusiasts already tending plots. But while growing food prices and a nostalgic thirst for the Good Life continue to feed a national urge to pick up a trowel, it seems there simply isn’t enough soil to go around. And as demand for spaces soars, tensions are running high.
Across Britain reports have surfaced of so-called ‘vegilantes’ pilfering produce, sabotaging land, breaking into and even burning down sheds – while disputes over plot-holder standards and eviction rates are growing like weeds.
Tony Mason, 71, has had his prize vegetables sabotaged in a targeted ‘inside job’ going on for four years – once just days before he was due to enter the Torquay Allotment Holders Annual Competition. Another time, as he prepared for the coveted Best Vegetable in Show category, his shed was broken into – with nothing stolen apart from two Bill and Ben figurines belonging to his wife, Janet. They were later found stuffed behind the downpipe in another part of the allotment. Mr Mason, committee chairman at his site in Devon, believes the sabotage was the work of a rival competitor.
“I’ve got a lot of ambitions this year unless someone decides they don’t want me to win,” he says.
His is an all-too familiar story among those documented in Allotment Wars, to be shown on BBC1 tonight.
Michael Rock from Hastings was taken to court by fellow growers who said his choice of fruit trees rather than vegetables threatened a deep-rooted tradition. They won – Mr Rock, 60, was forced to pay £650.
In Manchester, 28-year-old teaching assistant Ben Carcamo recalls how he thought taking up an allotment would be a “friendly” and “harmonious” way of relaxing. But he says: “It turned out far from idyllic. One of my friends said to me: ‘It’s not like Alan Titchmarsh here’.”
The father of two says his dream turned sour when fellow plot-holders turned to “the dark side” through jealousy when they saw his land was perfect for growing whopper pumpkins.
“Once they realised how fertile the land was, they started suggesting maybe it was too much for me, maybe they should give it to someone else,” he said.
Mr Carcamo is part of a new generation of green-fingered folk. With home-grown produce now in vogue, this thriving cottage industry is no longer the preserve of the old and retired. Roughly half of people with allotments are now women – up from 35 per cent to 54 per cent in the past 20 years – according to the National Allotment Society, and an increasing number are young people. Tony Mason, who started out helping his father on his plot at the age of 16, told The Independent that a lot has changed. “Back then it was only the fellows up there, but now you see husbands and wives going together, not only that but you’re seeing much younger people.”
Michelle Stacey in Bexley, Kent, finds her homely shed is regularly broken into – though surely by the world’s most considerate trespasser. The intruder – a man judging by the size of his footprint – makes himself a cup of tea, lights a scented candle and lays back on the sofa, before washing up.
As Lewis, a Torquay plot-holder says: “An allotment is a microcosm of society. You get a lot of doers but there’s always a few people who are going to cause a problem.”
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