In Suffolk there are now around 5,700 allotments in towns and villages in urban and rural situations. Allotments play an important role, not only as a useful space for socialising, relaxation and of course cultivation, but also in providing a fantastic area for wildlife in an environment where habitat has shrunk and fragmented.
Allotments may be the only wildlife habitat in urban areas. You can enhance the wildlife value of your allotment by making a few small changes to its management and design which can really bring your allotment to life. Being wildlife friendly also means using fewer chemicals, saving you money and helping the environment.
Provide a variety of habitats
The greater the variety of habitats you provide on your allotment, the more wildlife you will attract, so try to provide both structural variety and different features at different times of year. Climbing plants on fences and walls make nesting and roosting sites for birds, and a haven for insects and small mammals. Plants such as honeysuckle are a good choice as they have nectar-rich flowers followed by fruit. Ivy is particularly valuable, as it is evergreen, providing resources for wildlife all year round.
Hedgerows are one of the most important habitats for wildlife and with correct management will support a good variety of birds, small mammals, insects and plants. Hedgerows also provide corridors along which wildlife can travel, which is particularly important in urban areas that may have very few wildlife habitats.
By leaving some grass margins of at least two metres on your allotment, you will provide a refuge for small mammals, reptiles and invertebrates. If possible, leave some areas uncut throughout the year, varying the areas left on a three year rotation to avoid the development of coarse grass and scrub.
A range of nest boxes with different sizes and entry holes will encourage different birds such as robins, tits and thrushes. Solitary bees will make use of bundles of hollow plant stems or paper straws or holes drilled into blocks of wood. Carefully positioned bat boxes offer an additional option for bats searching for a roost site.
Natural 'pest' control
You can have a productive and attractive allotment without using chemical herbicides and pesticides, which damage the environment. Natural predators of species considered as pests can be encouraged by providing them with suitable habitat and food.
Decaying plant material seethes with insects, worms, mites and other invertebrates. The addition of a compost heap to your allotment may provide a refuge and feeding area for insect and slug-eating creatures such as hedgehogs, birds, toads, grass snakes and slow-worms.
By making your own compost you will also be helping to protect our precious peatbogs and reduce pollution – as well as saving you money.
A pile of logs or dead wood in a shady corner will feed beetle larvae and shelter many other animals, including frogs, toads, hedgehogs and slow-worms. Sheets of corrugated iron laid down provide places for reptiles and amphibians to shelter and warm themselves.
Try companion planting to incorporate a variety of native plants and shrubs into your allotment, especially those of local provenance. Certain plants, mixed with fruit and vegetables, will add variety and support a wider range of wildlife. They can help to reduce damage by pests by attracting pest predators or by acting as hosts for beneficial insects such as ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies, which all feed on aphids.
Try to use environmentally-friendly products where possible. The use of chemicals on your allotment should, if used at all, be kept to an absolute minimum.
Don’t be too tidy
You can provide year-round habitats for many species by avoiding the temptation to be too tidy on your allotment. Areas of grass left uncut and piles of leaves are all valuable shelters for amphibians, insects, spiders and small mammals, whilst hollow stems left over the winter provide homes for insect larvae and pupae. Try leaving some windfall fruit to provide a valuable autumn food supply for mammals, birds and insects.
Look again at the plants that you normally pull up as weeds – many of them are beautiful wildflowers and are very important food plants for butterflies and other insects. Allowing some plants to go to seed will provide food for seed-eating birds, whilst a patch of nettles (in a pot to stop them spreading) will be valuable for some beautiful butterflies such as the red admiral, peacock and comma.
Don't underestimate the wildlife value of allotments.Whilst individual allotments may be relatively small, together they form a patchwork across our landscape, linking urban green spaces with nature reserves and the wider countryside. Even disused allotments are valuable, so if there are any vacant plots on your allotment, perhaps you could consider laying them aside for wildlife?