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Those pigs in Westminster: inside London’s most central urban farm

Peter Watts – Thursday 4 August 2016 07.00 BST – Read the full article

If you stand on a planter made from old potato boxes in London’s most central city farm, you can see the flag flying from the Houses of Parliament. As a military helicopter rumbles overhead, two lambs caper around the yard. A pregnant sow snores in the shade. The animals seem remarkably blase about their high-profile location. “The animals enjoy it in London,” says farm manager Sally Scantlebury. “Some of them really like the attention. I did worry about the noise on New Year’s Eve – we are right next to the London Eye and the fireworks were very loud. But they didn’t bat an eyelid, so we stayed and got a great view.”

There’s something slightly surreal about Oasis Farm Waterloo, a tiny working farm wedged into a slender strip of land owned by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, who permit use pending redevelopment for the hospital. Overlooking the polytunnels, portable cabins and three animal sheds with pigs, sheep and chickens, are a pair of tower blocks, some office buildings and a bleak railway viaduct. Next door is a Victorian school containing artists’ studios.

When the farmers first arrived, the site, which had been empty for decades, was completely enclosed by a huge metal fence. They had to angle-grind a hole to get access. The ground was covered in rubble from bulldozed prefab housing; sprouting out of it was a forest of brambles and Japanese knotweed. It took five years to clear and decontaminate. “The ground was covered in used needles, and I took a massive bag of wallets and purses to the police station,” Scantlebury says. “Robbers had been chucking them over the fence for years.”

The plan was to use the Waterloo site as a sort of “urban retreat” for vulnerable animals that otherwise reside on Jamie’s Farm in Wiltshire. It was conceived by Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis charity, after Guy’s and St Thomas’ abandoned a plan in 2010 to turn the long-vacant space into housing. It’s now administered by two charities, Oasis and Jamie’s Farm, which is run by former Croydon teacher Jamie Feilden and uses working farms to engage with disadvantaged children.

Contrary to what you might expect, this inner-city farm, less than half a mile from Westminster, is actually able to give animals more attention than they would get on a larger working farm. At the same time, it provides educational opportunities for urban schoolchildren who have no direct access to green space or living animals. This is in keeping with the principles of the city farm movement, which began in Kentish Town, London in 1972. Since the 1970s, city farms have spread throughout the UK – around 120 are represented by the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG) – but the highest concentration is in London.

The city farm movement is largely educational, providing a link between urban and rural life, but also aims to improve health and wellbeing. City farms are now also used to hothouse innovations in food production, self-sufficiency and cultivation. A 2007 report found they promoted a number of worthy goals: environmental benefits, healthy eating, exercise and learning, boosting the local economy, volunteerism, and community engagement – particularly with young people or those with behavioural problems or learning difficulties.

In depopulating American cities such as Cleveland or Detroit, city farms can provide an alternative use for unwanted residential space. Detroit now has more than 1,350 farms and community gardens, including the huge Hantz Woodlands, a 140-acre tree farm on abandoned land on the city’s east side. Smaller, hip cities such as Portland and Austin also have thriving urban farming scenes, tied in with a culture of community involvement, the local food movement and sustainability.

The Waterloo site occupies inner-city land that is clearly valuable, but has so far proved tricky to develop – and is a welcome variation in London’s dense urban fabric. Although the animals’ permanent home is Wiltshire, some are born and grow up in London. One blind Gloucestershire Old Spot pig is preparing for her third London litter. “This is her maternity ward – it means the piglets get a London birth certificate,” says Scantlebury. “In all seriousness, there is a lot of paperwork with Defra for non-resident animals.”

The animals travel regularly between Waterloo and Wiltshire by trailer. Although it’s rare for live animals to be transported in and out of London – most city farm animals are permanent residents of their urban homes – the animals themselves don’t appear to mind too much. Instead, it’s the humans who have to deal with the logistics and paperwork.

The city farm tends to take those animals that need that extra bit of TLC, hence the pregnant sow, as well as two sheep who were orphaned as lambs and bottle-fed since birth – a task that is surprisingly easier to perform in the tight confines of Waterloo than the open space of Wiltshire. One empty pen will host two calves, or possibly a ram and ewe, so Scantlebury can teach the reproductive cycle to wide-eyed children.

At some point, the sheep and piglets will go back to Wiltshire. Some will breed, others will be slaughtered. The schoolchildren who visit here are told of the animals’ potential fate, but are usually phlegmatic about it: teaching where the food on your plate comes from is a core part of the city farm concept. But the farm also endeavours to show how this should be done humanely. In the yard are six chickens rescued from a battery farm.

“We collected them from this massive articulated truck crammed with cages of dying birds,” says Scantlebury. “They pull out the ones they think might live. There was a queue of people with cat carriers and cardboard boxes, waiting to rescue chickens.”

At night, the chickens are locked away in a coop to protect them from foxes, though there have been some gruesome raids, albeit from somewhat unexpected quarters. “One day we went in and a chicken had been decapitated,” says Scantlebury, who grew up on a farm and has three farming brothers, so isn’t particularly squeamish. “We thought a fox had got in, but then realised the other chicken was absolutely fine. Pest control think it was a bird of prey: it flew through a hole, chopped the head off a chicken and pulled its guts out.”

The rest of the farm is given over to crops, such as the broad beans that Sadiq Khan planted when he visited in February while campaigning for mayor. Dozens of planters contain berries, peppers, tomatoes and courgettes; one of the polytunnels holds an aquaponics system, which pumps effluent-rich water from a tank filled with tilapia fish directly into planters. It’s ideal for confined spaces and urban farmers.

As long as we don’t get a cockerel, we’re OK

Food – growing, cooking, eating – is at the heart of the urban farming movement. A makeshift classroom here is filled with cookery books, and there is a temporary outside kitchen. Sustainability and recycling is central, and the garden space has even been designed so water from the animal pens will drain into a small wetland. Elsewhere, manure from the animals is added to a growing compost pile. Scantlebury is exceptionally proud of the farm’s new toilet, specially suited to inner-city farming. “There’s no drainage,” she explains, “so we bought this. It has a composting space under the loo, it goes into a tank, you cap it, leave it for a year and move the entire system to the other tank. The tank can be lifted out, fully sealed. I’m looking forward to my first compost harvest.”

There are other quirks that make farming bizarrely well suited to SE1. The surrounding tower blocks act as shelter for the crops, keeping out wind and helping foster a fertile microclimate. It’s also a branding opportunity: once her supply is more consistent, Scantlebury hopes to sell food, plants and compost from a farm shop, using the central London location as a unique selling point. Architects Feilden Fowles (Fergus Feilden is Jamie’s brother) are constructing an office space for themselves to the north and designing a barn to the south for the farm to use as a permanent classroom, where events could bring in extra cash.

For now, however, it’s mainly a teaching space. Local primary schoolchildren are weekly visitors, and the farm also hosts pupils facing possible exclusion from secondary school: they spend a week living on Jamie’s Farm out in Wiltshire before returning to Waterloo for six weekly top-up sessions. Because the children need their own space, the farm cannot operate an open door policy – yet. But Scantlebury hopes that will become possible when the site is completed.

“We are in a very highly developed area, crammed in with all this concrete,” says Scantlebury. “Our neighbours like having us here. I was worried about the noise of the sheep, but everybody I’ve spoken to seems to love it. As long as we don’t get a cockerel, we’re OK.”