Thoughts on acquiring land to plant trees

[this article is work in progress, needs some refinement to aid readability]

Finding some land anywhere near Bristol (or other urban centres) to plant a woodland is possibly the hardest and certainly the most expensive part of the journey. Here are some things to consider, based on my experience and learnings from doing it twice:

  • Consider whether you need to own the land or would you be satisfied with planting trees on land owned by someone else? Maybe if you have ongoing access to it? And if there’s some assurance that the trees will be there long-term? It could be privately owned land or owned by a local council, railways, water authority, a charity (eg. National Trust), a school, a company, etc.
  • Land might be an appropriate place to invest your long-term savings, it should be a fairly safe investment. It might even be possibly to invest your pension fund (by transferring it into a self-managed SIPP – see here and here and here – but get advice before you mess with your pension). Planting trees on it might reduce the agricultural value of the land but might also increase the recreational value (and when it’s time to thin the trees there should be value in the logs).
  • Land can be bought through estate agents (like David James) or at auction. I understand that most farmland is sold privately between farmers without being advertised on the open market.
  • Land that looks great on paper is often not be a pleasant place to be – maybe it’s under a flight path, next to a motorway or a pig farm.
  • Gradient and aspect matter.  Flat land may be poorly drained or liable to flooding. Too steep is difficult to work on (although if you’re planting trees one and not spending time there after that you may be prepared to put up with it). South facing gets more sun so can be drier but can mean faster growth.
  • Farm land is priced (around Bristol, at the time of writing) at around £8000 per acre, depending on:
    • the size of the plot (smaller plots tend to be more expensive per acre than large ones)
    • development potential (land with potential to get planning permission sells for far higher prices); any existing building will be seen as development/conversion/rebuilding potential.
    • quality of land (agricultural grade 1 land is more expensive then grade 3 – but grade 3 should be quite adequate for growing trees)
    • road accessibility – direct road access (rather than right of way over someone else’s farm) adds value; plots with no clear legal right of access by vehicle can be significantly less expensive, but this may not be a problem for planting trees
    • factors like “a nice view” or a footpath along the edge of the field aren’t relevant to agriculture and so tend not to influence the price, but they may be important if you want to create a woodland paradise
  • You may want to consider whether it’s land that could be used for something more important. For example it might feel uncomfortable to plant woodlands on top grade agricultural land which could be used for food production (maybe you should plant a forest garden there instead?)
  • Read up about how to assess the quality of the soil – you might want to take a spade and dig down a bit or collect a few soil samples to test in an analysis kit. Take a good look around first, if trees and hedges on or around the plot are growing well then that’s a good indicator. Consider how then land has been used in recent years, cattle and horses can compact the land and make it less easy to grow trees.
  • If you’re looking to buy a small plot of land (eg. less then 10 acres) your choice will be more limited, consider forming a consortium with like-minded friends to buy and sub-divide a larger plot. It could be easier and more fun to have others to share the endeavour.
  • Consider forming a larger consortium to buy a larger plot, which could be co-owned by consortium members. Some people might want to be actively involved, others might be philanthropists or investors who don’t want to get their hands dirty. You might need to form a company to own the land, the consortium members then own the company. If you’re doing this let me know, I might be interested. People can be very enthusiastic about planting trees – you might even be able to raise [some of the] funds through crowdfunding. I spotted an ideal bit of land for this in an auction a few months ago, but I only had 3 weeks until the auction day and it would have taken far to long to get a consortium together – consider forming the consortium and working out how you’ll proceed before you find the land to buy.
  • Agricultural land sometimes comes with an “uplift clause” – for example “in the event of the granting of planning permission for any change of use, excluding equestrian, the purchaser or their successors in title are liable to pay 35% of the uplift in value on the grant of planning permission for a period of 20 years from the date of completion”
  • To proceed with the purchase you’ll need a solicitor or conveyancer who deals with agricultural land. The big firms of solicitors in Bristol can do this (might be expensive?), I found a solicitor outside Bristol who did it all by phone/email/post (I never met him but we communicated a lot).
  • The purchase process is much like buying a house: your solicitor will obtain and check the title deeds, do searches (agricultural searched are different from residential), obtain details from the seller’s solicitor and eventually exchange contracts with an agreed completion date.
  • Think about whether you need any public liability insurance (or employers insurance), especially if you’re planning to have lots of volunteers to help plant the trees.
  • Planting trees costs money of course (trees, materials, tools, etc) but this cost is tiny in comparison to the cost of buying land and their may be grants or other support available to help.
  • If the land might turn into a business, you might consider forming a limited company (owned by yourself) and buying the land as a company instead. This might not be viable if you need to borrow money. There may be tax advantages (eg. the company could be VAT registered).

Leave a Reply