Country houses for sale

Invest in land and protect a slice of English heaven

You can protect a slice of this green-and-pleasant land, either on your doorstep or hundreds of miles away, and make a good investment, too, says Annunciata Walton.

As a nation of fresh-air lovers, we all want to have our own little bit of Britain, from the postage-stamp garden to the wild, wide moor. In doing so, we can protect our precious countryside (and its plants and creatures), increasingly under threat from urban sprawl, road and rail building and anything else we might deem detrimental. Every little helps.

Understandably, people often wish to buy land near to where they live, farm, shoot and so on. Successful farmers are land-hungry and first-time viewers of new plots to the market are nearly always neighbours. Indeed, as Alex Lawson of Savills (020–7409 8882) believes, ‘people always like to own what they can see from their house—it’s very British’.

However, land purchases can be just that—bare land. There needn’t be a residential building for miles around and you needn’t live nearby. ‘Land is a solid and attractive commodity,’ says Richard Seaman of Scotland-focused Goldsmith & Co (0131–476 6500), ‘and, unlike stocks and shares, it isn’t volatile.’

First, there’s farmland, which doesn’t have ‘the same aesthetic appeal as other land, but is highly productive,’ explains Mr Lawson. Obviously, if you’re an active farmer, the land needs to be nearby, but if you simply want to invest in farmland and it’s big enough to be a satellite plot, it justifies investment in buildings. ‘If it’s the right product,’ says Mr Lawson, ‘you can be confident that there will be someone close by to farm it for you.’

In terms of investment, farmland may be the ‘most expensive’, but it has ‘the highest chance of being the most profitable,’ says Toby Milbank of The Search Partnership (01423 324716). Of course, this varies hugely across Britain. ‘If you want a high yield, expect to pay £10,000 or £12,000 per acre,’ he says. ‘Other land—up in the York- shire Dales, for example—can be 10 times cheaper than in arable areas, with prices for rough grazing on the moorland edge as low as £500 to £1,000 per acre.’

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Forestry is a top performer in terms of capital growth—values have increased by about 50% in the past five years. Mr Milbank explains: ‘With the increase in demand for products such as biomass heating systems added to the tax advantages that land investments can offer and the affordability of forestry running costs, forestry plots offer the highest level of growth in the future.’

Other renewable-energy opportunities, such as hydro or wind, can be ‘a big upside’, says Mr Seaman, who points out that the current uncertainty over farm subsidies, which have underpinned land value in the past, adds to the lure of forestry investment.

Then there’s the great favourite: sport. According to Mr Milbank, most grouse-moor (and forestry) owners ‘live far from their land, often abroad’.

Win Hill, a 612-acre former grouse moor in Derbyshire, which is currently on the market, could be the perfect investment for a sportsman, wherever his abode. ‘This is an unusually small, manageable piece of beautiful moorland,’ says Ben Longstaff of Fisher German (01530 410885). ‘There are no yards or buildings, so it needs to be managed by a neighbouring farmer. The Entry Level and rarer Higher Level Stewardship scheme generate payments of about £14,000 a year, in addition to the basic payments of about £177 per hectare for keeping the farmland in good nick, which will be a help.’

‘Grouse-moor buyers have the golden ticket,’ enthuses Mr Milbank. ‘Buying a moor with low grouse numbers for a low price and managing it carefully can be very profitable. However, the buyer would need plenty of time and deep pockets.’

‘Mostly,’ continues Mr Milbank, ‘grouse-moor buyers invest for their love of wild spaces. As the days go by, they tend to become environmentalists with a deep affection for the other wildlife on their moors.’

The most important thing is to remember that no land is isolated. ‘What you do on your plot affects others and sensitive management will deliver dividends,’ reasons Mr Seaman. ‘I’d always rather buyers kept large chunks of land together, because a unified and homogenous approach is best for the health of the land and everything living on it. These considerations will differ depending on where the property is. For example, in the Highlands, you need to be aware of local deer management.’

In this country at least, we hope that a love of the land will always be a factor. ‘Lots of people buy huge tracts in places such as Scotland and Northumberland simply to prevent it being spoilt by others,’ explains Mr Lawson. ‘It may be too steep for farming or too wooded for anything commercial. It may be no use at all—simply unspoilt Nature.’

Similarly, in Derbyshire, Mr Longstaff suspects that, if the buyer of the Win Hill plot doesn’t turn out to be a local farmer, it will be a countryman who loves the land and simply wants his ‘own piece of England’, without thought of financial return. What price beauty?

** Search for land with Country Life & OnTheMarket