Photo: Screenshot / VICE World News
Damo and Neil both have day jobs. Damo works in an office and Neil is a mechanic. But for the last eight years they’ve been cultivating large amounts of cannabis, hidden in plain sight, next to some of the busiest motorways in England.
The pair use Google Maps and a 4K camera drone to seek out ideal sites, usually in lightly forested “no man’s land” zones between motorway junctions, where most people have no reason to ever step foot in.
They are part of a rising online community of “guerrilla growers” cultivating cannabis on thousands of secret, open-air sites across the UK. For many it’s a more appealing alternative to growing indoors under artificial lights, or buying weed from a black market tainted by organised crime and exploitation.
Damo and Neil, who are using pseudonyms for fear of being identified, are willing to live with the risk of going to jail for cultivating a Class B drug because they think the country’s ban on the plant is backward, and they don’t like buying weed from dealers.
“There is a sense of adventure involved in doing this,” Damo says. “But the main motivation is a big fuck you to prohibition: to those who uphold it, and those who benefit from it.
Neil agrees. “The best thing for us is to be able to ditch the dealer and grow our own supply. Doing it ourselves we keep fit, we know where our weed comes from and what was used in growing it.”
They first got involved via the online guerrilla growing scene, where members share tips, grow diaries and “my plant’s bigger than your plant” photos of their crops. Damo says there are between 1,000 and 3,000 active guerrilla growers in Britain.
Damo and Neil grow around 100 plants, distributed among five sites around England’s south east, harvesting around 40 ounces of organic, gangster-free weed a year. What they don’t vacuum-seal to use over the next 12 months themselves – both men are big tokers – they give out to friends for free and use to make bubble hash and oil.
But these plants aren’t the battery chicken style tiddlers found growing under indoor lights for quick profits. They are tall, bushy plants averaging 9ft, and sometimes 15ft high, grown using cannabis seeds designed specifically for an English climate that, due to global warming, is growing less English every year. This Spring was the sunniest on record and they had to make weekly forays out to their plots with hundreds of litres of water to stop them drying out.
Harvesting the plants in September and October is the riskiest part, because that is when they end up driving around with transit vans stuffed with bundles of freshly cropped weed. Most of their grows are near motorways, so they reap their harvest under cover of being road maintenance workers, with high-vis jackets and an official looking white van, usually at night.
“Hi-vis is the new stealth,” says Neil. “People do not bat an eyelid. They just see a bloke walking down the hard shoulder of a motorway with a hard hat. Both vans we use are kitted out with flashing lights and fitted with highway maintenance signs. When we are doing our shit, police don’t even look twice.”
The process takes around eight months from start to finish, from finding grow sites in February, planting in April, feeding the plants nutrients such as “fish blood and bone, super manure and chicken shit pellets”, to harvesting in September or October.
“The most important things for us are security, sun, soil, and a bonus is a local water source,” says Damo. “You need to find somewhere that no person has any reason to go to, or would want to go to, or would find it extremely difficult to get to. Strangely enough, there are plenty of places just like that to be found, even in 2020 in the UK.”
They’ve had grow sites near motorway verges and major junctions, near railway lines, quarries, ley-lines between large countryside fields and openings in vast areas of woodland. “The plot needs to give the plants at least six hours of direct sun per day, preferably more. So south facing with a big open sky is ideal. You have to balance being open to let in sun but being hidden enough not to be seen”, says Damo.
They use drones for plot hunting and mid-season plot check-ups. It means they don’t have to hike into the plot and get scratched up by thorns and brambles and avoid leaving a trail. “The drones give us such good detail we can check the health of plants, even spot mould or the onset of flowering, from our eye in the sky,” says Damo.
He says the drones also act as a good cover as to why they’re out and about in the first place. “Flying our machines over our beautiful ganja plots and getting stunning footage back, while standing a mile away smoking a spliff and drinking coffee. We love it.” Cannabis seeds are legal to possess in the UK and are easily bought. They use online stores such as the Real Gorilla Seed Company, which specialises in seeds for outdoor grows.
As with indoor grows, some get found by the authorities. This year one of their plots was found by railway security near the Eurostar train track and destroyed by British Transport Police.
Outdoor grows are harder for police to find because they are not situated in built up areas and are less prone to attracting attention. So far this year the only reported police discoveries of guerrilla grows include 750 plants found in woodland near Mansfield in September and 50 plants found in a small woodland clearing near Lowestoft in May.
But it’s not just the police or random members of the public they need to take into account, it’s also “rippers” – professional cannabis plant snatchers who often use drones and Google Maps themselves to hunt down the rising number of illegal outdoor grows popping up across the British countryside.
“Rippers will steal your harvest,” says Damo. “They will wait for buds to be ready and harvest them before you have a chance to. They know all about guerrilla growing, and are actively out there looking for plots in order to rip them.” Damo and Neil usually lose one or two sites to rippers or police each year.
Damo and Neil both say their British-grown weed is some of the best they’ve ever smoked. Their dream is to be offered work growing outdoor plants in a legal weed industry abroad. For now their only plan is to start distributing their weed to those who really need it. “What I would love to do next year,” says Damo, “is to be able to donate surplus harvested cannabis to medicinal users who are not able to get their medicine on the NHS.”