Social workers and environmentalists have urged the government to identify more land for bored retirees to use as hobby farms. The call comes in response to a sharp increase in illegal farming last year and the problem of the city's ageing population. But Lands Department officials gave a lukewarm response to the idea, saying hillside farming by retirees should be curbed as the sites are potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The department said 68 unauthorised hillside cultivation 'black spots' had been identified at the beginning of last year, but there were 173 by the end of the year. There were 33 sites in Kowloon East, 29 in Sai Kung and 25 each in Tsuen Wan and Kwai Tsing. In the first quarter of this year, 59 clearance operations were carried out, according to the department. Eric Chan Kei-fung, a social worker at the SKH Lady MacLehose Centre, which oversees community development in five Tsuen Wan villages, said clearing illegal farms was not always the best approach. 'The government has to think carefully why the number of unauthorised farming cases keeps rising,' he said. 'The issue at risk here is that more elderly people are bored at home and there is not much provided for them in the community. 'Farming for them is fun and healthy, and it also does not cost much.' Mr Chan, who offers organic farming classes at his centre, said the government should lease out unused hillside land for amateur farmers, provide them with basic training and a licence. The demand for farm sites is reflected in the popularity of the Agricultural Land Rehabilitation Scheme set up by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. The scheme helps displaced farmers or those intending to cultivate land to identify land for farming. But only one of the nine applicants this year had succeeded in securing land, a department spokesman said. There were 97 applications in 2003 and 2004 but the department only managed to locate land for 22 of the applicants. 'Landlords are increasingly unwilling to lease their land to farmers as the property market has been recovering in recent years,' the spokesman said. Stella Chong Ho-yan, education officer at Produce Green Foundation, which set up Hong Kong's first organic farming programme for the elderly two years ago on government land in Tsuen Wan, said it had a long waiting list. She was concerned the programme would have to end when the government wanted to sell or develop the land. 'We hope to expand our programme to benefit elderly people from other districts,' Ms Chong said. 'However, we do not have enough manpower and resources to locate suitable land. I hope that the government, district councils and community organisations can help in that,' she said.