Woburn Sands Allotments under threat

The EWR threat vs allotment community value

There are plans to rebuild a railway line (East West Rail, EWR) between Oxford and Cambridge which would increase the number of trains on the existing Bletchley-Bedford line which runs through Woburn Sands. The resultant train schedule would mean frequent closures of the level crossing on the main road through the town. New roads and a bridge over the railway line is therefore proposed, but one of the proposed roads would run through the Woburn Sands and District Allotments and the adjacent Edgewick Farm which is sensitively managed for biodiversity and community use. If this EWR proposal went ahead, the destruction of the allotments and part of the farm, which are shared spaces with social, economic and ecological benefits to the community, would be a huge loss.

A study of ten British urban areas, including Milton Keynes, revealed a 65% decline in allotment land since the mid 20th Century, with 47% now urban infrastructure (Dobson et al, 2020). Increased food security is a community benefit of allotments (Barthel and Isendahl, 2013), historically during and after wars, and more recently during the covid-19 pandemic. The physical and mental health benefits of allotment gardening are large and well documented, because working on a plot provides “a stress-relieving refuge, contributes to a healthier lifestyle, creates social opportunities, provides valued contact with nature, and enables self-development” (see Genter et al 2015 for review). They show great potential for preventative healthcare (Soga et al 2017). Multiple studies have shown that people working in allotments or community gardens eat more vegetables and a healthier diet than others in the community (reviewed by McCormack et al 2010). Time spent on allotments increases self-esteem and improves mood (Wood et al 2015). Allotment gardeners typically do more exercise than neighbours without plots and scored higher on five self-reported health measures, particularly among older people (Van den Berg et al. 2010). Healthy ageing is promoted by allotment gardening through stress reduction, showing bigger impacts than social, indoor exercise (Hawkings et al. 2011). Interestingly in a study which found that perceived general health, subjective physical health, and mental health were better in allotment gardeners in comparison to non-gardeners, neither plot visit frequency or work duration significantly influenced health outcomes (Soga et al 2017). Allotments increase community cohesion though connecting people across different cultural backgrounds, engendering feelings of trust and safely, contributing to civic engagement by donating surplus produce (Teig 2009). Contributors to community gardens have reported an increased sense of social connectedness and better able to define their role in the community (Kingsley 2009). Allotments promote and include many sustainable practices (Turner, 2011) including local food production as the most obvious, but also composting, reusing and recycling materials and equipment, companion planting and no-dig mulching. A study in Manchester showed that the species richness of allotments was higher than in surrounding parks and contributed to a range of provisioning, regulating and cultural ecosystem services including pollination, flood mitigation, local climate regulation and knowledge systems (Speak et al 2015). Soils in UK allotments are healthier than those in large scale agriculture, with higher soil organic carbon and C:N ratios (Edmonson et al 2015). In short, allotments “should be viewed as an integral part of the urban infrastructure and as an asset and enhancement” (Perez-Vazquez et al 2005).

The Woburn Sands and District Allotments, specifically, consist of over 170 plots, on a gentle slope on the eastern side of the town. The soil of the allotments is predominantly sandy loam, but with patches of clay, which is excellent for food production. There is a waiting list for plots which demonstrates that the allotments are in high demand and their value recognised locally. The allotments celebrated their 100th anniversary last year. Planned festivities were cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but during this difficult year the benefits of the allotments were especially clear. The Woburn Sands and District Allotments contribute to:

  • Community Health. Plot holders are able to maintain good physical and mental health through gardening, (covid-safe) social interaction and spending time in a green space. With 18.9% of the population in Woburn Sands over 65 compared to 11% in Milton Keynes (MK Council, 2011 census), this is particularly important for the older demographic.
  • Community Identity. The century old allotments are an important part of Woburn Sands’ history, and enhance our connection with and knowledge of the local environment. They are important for people with a long history in the area, but also help embed newcomers into the community. Many plot holders share surplus produce with friends and neighbours and there is a table adjacent to the allotments when people put fruit and vegetable for anyone to take.
  • Community Safety. The networks developed amongst plot holders help people support each other, including older and/or more vulnerable members of the community and single-person households. The allotments link people of many ages and backgrounds, and provide them with a shared purpose over which to build shared experiences.
  • Community Environmental Sustainability. Production of a significant amount of fresh and good quality produce reduces reliance on commercial food supplies. The Woburn Sands Allotment committee organises horse manure from local stables and wood chip from local tree pruning companies to be delivered, showing not just individual, but committee level commitment to sustainable practices. The allotments support a range of species (see below) and ecosystem services such as pollination and pollution reduction. With humanity increasingly disconnected from nature and the climate crisis worsening, the allotments should be considered a critical part of Woburn Sands’ future.
  • Community Knowledge. Historical, horticultural and gastronomical information is readily circulated amongst plot holders. Children are a common site on the plots, learning (through doing) about food production and their community.
  • Community Resilience. The allotments helped many people cope with the covid-19 pandemic, just as they supported the town after WW2 and in other difficult times, through reduced reliance on commercial food supply and multiple health benefits. They can help people adapt to change, as shown by people shifting planting and watering methods in response to climate change. The sustainability, health and safety benefits outlined above also contribute to community resilience.

To protect the Woburn Sands and District Allotments, please find more information about the proposal here and lodge your concerns before 9 June 2021 via this feedback form, emailing consultation@eastwestrail.co.uk, mailing letters to FREEPOST East West Rail and writing to MP Iain Stewart.

An account of what my plot means to me and a list of wildlife recorded on the plots is below.

I really enjoy spending time working on my plot. I grow fruit and vegetables, and I have a pond and wildflower meadow patch too.
Potatoes out, brassicas in. Just look at that soil – it’s a wonderful sandy loam.
A trug of healthy vegetables – beans, peas, courgettes, carrots – and a cup of raspberries.

My plot, a personal perspective

My plot is towards the top of the slope with great views over the town and beyond. I have spent so many evenings, after work, planting, digging, weeding and harvesting. As I walk the 1 km from my house to the plot, all the day’s thoughts already start to become better organised and my mind clearer. Once at the plot, the physical work stretches out muscles tense from hours in front of my computer and the fresh air seems to give me another burst of energy to get more things done in the evening instead of watching television. There is always someone to say ‘hello’ to from a trowel waved in a friendly greeting to good, long natter. Over the months, it is wonderful to plant seeds and seedlings and literally harvest the rewards some months later. Managing watering, the numerous animals which also want to eat the vegetable plants, and weeding out unwanted plants makes a good crop a real achievement. Taking home a trug full of vegetables to make my dinner and for lunch the next day is a fantastic feeling and they are full of flavour. I now have much better appreciation of the benefits of eating in-season food and a swag of recipes for preserving when there’s a glut so that I can enjoy allotment produce all year round.

As a newcomer to Woburn Sands, and an immigrant to the UK, the allotments have been a really important part of learning about my new home and becoming part of the community. I’ve learned much about the physical environment – soils, climate, wildlife – and British history and culture. I’ve also got to know people of different ages, backgrounds, and political views to better understand the place I now live. The kindness of the allotment community from the moment I got my plot was wonderful – I was given tools, lent protective covers, and given great advice whenever I sought it. I’ve made many new friends, joined the local choir and received all sorts of support through allotment connections. It’s made me feel part of a community that I now want to contribute to and protect.

Roger, who showed me where my allocated plot was, recommended “little and often” as a good way to make the most of having a plot and keep on top of tasks. It proved good advice, as I visit my plot every few days and plant a few things, do some weeding, or a bit of pruning. It never feels arduous and always makes me feel better. The benefits extend beyond the allotments themselves. When I’m out walking, often alone, I feel safer because I know many people in the town now and could knock on their door if I needed – and I’m rarely far from the home of a plot holder. I have lived in Woburn Sands for five years, but only had an allotment plot for two. For the first three years Woburn Sands was a nice town where I lived, but in the last two years it feels like somewhere I belong.

I can grow over 100 kgs of food per year on my half plot (yes I weigh it all), while working full time. For several months of 2020 I was able to supply all of my own fresh plant produce, and many other plot holders grow far more than me. Food grown on allotments has a very low carbon footprint, and like many other plot holders often share surplus produce with friends and relatives. My plot was previously used by the same man for 50 years, and then his daughter for a short period. I enjoy knowing that I’m working the same soil as many before me, and I would love to leave the site and soil in good condition for someone else in future.

Soon after I got my plot and started buying things for it, a fellow plot holder gave me some excellent advice: “buying lots of things can make for very expensive vegetables”. It made me think carefully about how much I spent on my plot and how I could find cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives. While plot holders are free to do more or less as they please, there is a general ethos to reuse and recycle in the allotment community. A walk around the site shows many innovations: old windows as small temporary glasshouses over early plantings, broken ladders for runner beans to climb, trampoline frames to keep badgers from sweetcorn. That’s not to say people aren’t investing in infrastructure and equipment for their plots, but rather that they do so carefully and with minimal waste. My pond is second-hand and my compost bins are a combination of second hand gifts and creations from discarded pallets.

A recent experience showed that sustainable behaviours associated with the allotments extends into the broader community. I needed a new shed as the one I inherited with the plot had asbestos in the roof and the committee was organising to have it removed. The very day I discovered a replacement shed was needed, someone posted on our allotment Facebook page that he had a shed in his van which he could deliver for free. This man doesn’t have a plot, but had rescued a perfectly good, second-hand shed from going into landfill and thought someone at the allotments could give it a second life. Twenty four hours later, I had a dismantle shed neatly stacked on my plot, and he left with a couple of jars of jams and chutneys from last year’s produce.

When safe to do so, I’ve had lots of guests on my plots. It is a lovely place to spend time with friends – usually working together, but also enjoying a stroll through the site to look all the plots, or enjoying a picnic. Some of my visitors with allotments of their own have commented on how well organised the Woburn Sands plots are, how good the soil is, and how helpful the committee seem. No-one leaves without something harvested from the plot, even if it is a bunch of herbs or jar or preserves from the previous year.

My plot is such an important part of my life now – supplying fresh food, a source of exercise, helping me cope with problems and a key source of social interaction. While I’ve always known it won’t be mine forever, I hope to pass it on one day for someone else to enjoy as I have. I’d be devastated to see this small but precious patch of land turned into a road.

As a brand new plot holder proudly planting my first vegetables.
With more experience and better established, I produce over 100 kgs of vegetables a year

Wildlife in the Woburn Sands and District Allotments

Although the primary function of the allotments is to grow food, the fruit trees, perennials and the vegetable plants provide habitat and food for a diversity of species. Many plot holders also have ponds and sections of the plot dedicated to supporting wildlife. Several who garden at the Woburn Sands allotments, like me, have biological science qualifications and/or are keen on bird watching, protecting pollinators and have other environmental interests. Below is the start of a list of the invertebrates, birds, and mammals and amphibians that I have either seen others (special thanks to Janet and Ralph) have reported:

InvertebratesBirds (*heard, **flew over)Mammals, Reptiles, Amphibians
Moths and butterflies
Aglais urticae – small tortoiseshell
Anthocharis cardamines – orange tip
Archips podana – large fruit-tree tortrix
Danaus plexippus – monarch
Deilephila elpenor – elephant hawk moth
Gonepteryx rhamni – brimstone
Inachis io – peacock
Lycaena phlaeas – small copper
Maniola jurtina – meadow brown
Ochlodes sylvanus – large skipper
Pararge aegeria – speckled wood
Pieris brassicae – large white
Pieris rapae – small white
Polygonia c-album – comma
Thymelicus sylvestris – small skipper
Tyria jacobaeae – cinnabar moth
Vanessa atalanta – red admiral
Vanessa cardui – painted lady

Bees and wasps
Andrena cineraria – ashy mining bee
Apis melifera – honey bee
Bombus pascuorum – carder bee
Bombus terrestris – buff tailed bumble
Bombus pratorum – early bumble
Vespa crabro – hornet
Vespula vulgaris – yellow jacket

Coccinella septempunctata – seven-spot ladybird
Oedemera nobilis – thick-thighed beetle
Rhagonycha fulva – common red soldier beetle

Helix aspersa – garden snail
Lymnaea stagnalis – great pond snail

Enallagma cyathigerum – blue damselfly
Gerris lacustris – common pond skater
Haplophilus subterraneus – western yellow centipede
Lasius flavus – yellow meadow ant
Lithobius forficatus – common centipede
Nematus ribesii – gooseberry sawfly
Palomena prasina – green shield bug
black aphid
green fly
pond skaters
earthworms – what types?
Anas platyrhynchos – mallard
Ardea cinerea – grey heron
Buteo buteo – buzzard**
Carduelis carduelis – goldfinch
Chloris chloris – green finch*
Chroicocephalus ridibundus – black headed gull**
Coloeus monedula – jackdaw
Columba palumbus – wood pigeon
Corvus corax – raven **
Corvus corone – crow
Cuculus canorus – cuckoo*
Cyanistes caeruleus – blue tit
Delichon urbicum – house martin**
Dendrocopos major – great spotted woodpecker**
Erithacus rubecula – robin
Falco tinnunculus – kestrel
Fringilla coelebs – chaffinch
Hirundo rustica – swallow**
Milvus milvus – red kite**Pica pica – magpie
Parus major – great tit
Passer domesticus – house sparrow
Periparus ater – coal tit
Phasianus colchicus – pheasant
Phylloscopus collybita – chiffchaff*
Pica viridis – green woodpecker 
Sitta europaea – nuthatch*
Streptopelia decaocto – collared dove
Sturnus vulgaris – starling
Sylvia atricapilla – blackcap
Troglodytes troglodytes – wren
Turdus iliacus – redwing
Turdus merula – black bird
Turdus philomelos – song thrush

Apodemus sylvaticus – wood mouse
Meles meles -badger
Muntiacus reevesi – muntjac
Myodes glareolus – bank vole
Oryctolagus cuniculus – rabbit
Talpa europaea – mole

Bufo bufo – common toad
Lissotriton vulgaris – smooth newt
Rana temporaria – common frog

Anguis fragilis – slow worm

A common frog (Rana temporaria) visiting my allotment pond
Great pond snails (Lymnaea stagnalis) mating
Larvae of the comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album) on a hops plant on my plot.


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