Country houses for sale

Buying British woodland

IN this age of short-term thinking, there is something splendid about harvesting a crop that was planted 30 years or more ago, and then replanting for the next generation. That is part of the emotional appeal of owning British woodland, but now there are sound economic reasons as well. As forestry expert Richard Stirling-Aird of Savills points out: ‘After years in the doldrums, there is increased demand for forestry from private investors, estate owners and trustees. The latest report from the independent Investment Property Databank (IPD) shows that, in 2006, forestry performed better than almost any other form of property investment, showing average growth of 20.6%, on the back of 14.4% the previous year.’

Ownership of commercial woodland offers substantial tax benefits, notably exemption from inheritance and capital gains taxes. And tax-free timber sales provide an additional incentive for buyers of older woodlands, who are looking for income to supplement their existing pensions. The UK’s forests currently produce about eight million tons of timber a year, about 15?20% of the country’s needs, and with demand worldwide far outstripping supply, home production of timber could rise by at least 50% in the next 15?20 years.

Other incentives that encourage buyers to invest in woodland include its amenity and sporting value, as well as increased opportunities to diversify into less traditional uses, such as tourist development, leisure activities or even wind farms. And with ever-greater focus on carbon footprints, the credentials of sustainably grown UK timber is hard to beat, whether as a replacement for carbon-intensive plastic, steel and concrete, or directly as a fuel source. As a result, UK forests, which currently make up 12% of the land area, continue to expand, especially in the main growing areas of Scotland, Wales and the north of England. But with half of Britain’s forest owned by the Forestry Commission which currently has a policy of not selling woodland opportunities to purchase large acreages of forest are rare.

The sale of the scenic 466-acre, Esgair Forest, with a further 146 acres of hill-grazing land at Machynlleth, Gwynedd, within the Snowdonia National Park for which Smith Gore (01823 445030) invite offers over £750,000 is a notable exception. The forest, originally sessile oak with conifers introduced in the early 1900s, was bought in the 1950s by the Wyndham family from Somerset, who pursued a progressive planting policy aimed at creating a commercial enterprise through the production of high-quality timber, at the same time as encouraging the proliferation of wildlife through a ban on the use of herbicides. The land, which includes a number of water courses, is being sold on behalf of the Wyndham family trust with full sporting rights (as far as these exist) and inclusive of all standing timber.

These days, there is a growing appetite for ownership of British woodland among buyers from all walks of life, says Colin Gee of woodland specialists John Clegg & Co (01844 215800), who have sold no fewer than seven areas of woodland in the past month. They ranged in size from a eight-acre Chiltern beech wood near Henley-on-Thames, sold to a private individual for £40,000, to a major commercial forest in Scotland, bought by a British manufacturer for £3 million.

The ideal for many purchasers is a residential estate with its own private forest set in glorious unspoilt countryside, of which the West High House estate (Fig 1), at Hunstanworth, near Blanchland, on the Durham/Northumberland border, is a fine example. For sale through Smiths Gore (01434 632404) and Savills (01904 617800) at a guide price of £3.17m for the whole, the estate comprises a substantial, 4,650sq ft, four-bedroom main house with an indoor swimming pool, a one-bedroom annexe, four holiday cottages, 42 acres of pasture and paddocks, and some 600 acres of commercial and amenity woodland, split into 19 separate blocks.

Down in Hampshire, Savills (01722 426810) quote a guide price of £5.25m for 946-acre Fox Farm at Amport, near Andover, where a serious farming enterprise sits beside 311 acres of woodland amid the rolling Hampshire country-side. The estate, which has a four-bedroom main farmhouse, three cottages, plus a modern grain store and outbuildings, is for sale as a whole or in eight lots. The main woods were felled during the Second World War and replanted in the early 1950s with beech and douglas fir, and now have ‘considerable sporting and wildlife value, as well as solid commercial potential’, the agents say.