Andy Wightman, in a 2012 scoping study on forest1 ownership in Scotland, observed that Scotland out of 19 European countries had the dubious distinction of having the most concentrated forest ownership pattern; and that Scotland’s forest ownership is dominated by the state, large estates and investment owners (mostly absentee).
We in the Forest Policy Group (FPG) do not believe that this is a healthy state of affairs. Rather we believe that there should be many more resident and local owners and managers of woods. What then can we do to change the current pattern, and achieve a more diverse ownership in Scotland’s forest estate?
We can try a couple of things. Firstly, we can bring more woodland within local people’s reach by encouraging landowners, whether farmers, small estates, large estates or the public estate, to lease woodlands to aspiring, local land managers. And the Scottish Woodlot Association (SWA) is currently pursuing this option.
Next, we can encourage those selling forests, especially large forests, to subdivide or lot these forests into parcels that may be affordable either to individuals or groups of individuals.
This lotting of large forests is not a new thing and sellers of forests have, if there was the potential to earn more money by subdividing a forest, practised this sale method for many years. However the dominant model of forest sale has been as a single lot and often to individuals or corporate investors seeking a tax ‘efficient’2 investment. Selling as a single lot can reduce the time taken for, and the cost of, the sale, as the selling agent does not have multiple title deed issues such as boundaries to contend with.
However small woodlands often realise many times more pounds sterling per hectare than large woodlands, and increasing the number of owners of small woods would achieve the Scottish Government’s stated ambition of connecting more of Scotland’s people with the land.
The price of small woodlands in Scotland largely depends on the location of the wood and the woodland composition (tree species and structure). In theory, the closer a woodland is to one of Scotland’s urban centres, the more accessible it is and the more expensive it ought to be be. And whilst timber value is important, often location, landscape and biodiversity trump wood product value.
If you want to become the owner of a small wood, say 20 hectares, which is about 50 acres, and you go on the ‘open’ market and peruse the properties for sale, on for example the John Clegg & Co web site, you can spend anything from £30,000 to £100,000 to achieve your goal. These sums of money may get you a small conifer wood in North Lanarkshire, or a larger conifer wood somewhere in Caithness, or a very small native wood in the Scottish Borders.
Owning a small piece of paradise in the form of a wood has become fashionable and in the last ten years there has been a trend across the UK for buying and owning bijou ‘hobby’ woods. This trend has been stimulated by companies such as woodlands.co.uk who spotted the potential for marketing small woodlands to the middle classes, and specialised in buying largish forest blocks, breaking them down into smaller, more affordable units and selling them on (depending upon what your definition of “affordable” might be).
This type of small woodland sale does not necessarily allow access to woodland ownership for local people wishing to own and manage woodland , and the high per hectare prices (now averaging about £17k/ha) effectively preclude people whose primary interest is to add to their livelihoods by working the woods. The current fad for lotting may encourage more distant, aspirational middle class “lumbersexuals” to the exclusion of others. Although it may not matter in the greater woodland ownership debate who the woodland owner is, as long as there are more owners and they manage woods well. That is something to ponder.
Such is the allure of owning small woodlands that you can even buy a packet of cereal and enter a competition to win your very own woodland. Seriously folks, Dorset Cereals, which are ‘honest, tasty and real’3 , ran a competition in partnership with woodlands.co.uk, whereby if you matched the code on your Dorset cereal box with the winning code, a woodland worth £50,000 could be yours. In Scotland this might be 6 acres of Holl Wood in Fife , which is retailing for £49,000. Or it might be 5 and ¾ acres of Talorcan Wood near Kinloch Rannoch , which is being sold for £45,000. The high cost of small parcels of lotted woodland not only precludes local ownership, but the relatively small size of woodland on offer, often less than ten hectares, makes them problematic for producing income.
One of the biggest, if not the biggest seller of forestland in Scotland is Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) and since 2014 the Forest Policy Group has been working with Forest Enterprise Scotland (the bit that manages the forest), to explore how the subdivision of big state forests into lots, bite sized chunks, can be done. And to answer the question, will individuals and groups come forward to buy the lots?
A batch of state forests came on to the market in 2014 which included 4 that were lotted as a result of Forest Policy Group joint working (see below) with FCS to identify forests suitable for lotting; and to make recommendations on the size and location of Lots within a forest.
What happened? Kinachreachan Forest sold as lots, bought by the local community and two private buyers, however the forests at Mossmulloch, Lochdon and Shearburn all sold as single units. What does this tell us? Not a huge amount except that there are a couple more woodland owners now, than if Kinachreachan Forest had been sold as a single unit. And, of course, if a bidder puts down enough money they can scoop the whole forest, regardless of lots.
A sobering and topical illustration of the power of individual wealth in relation to State forest land is the recent sale by FCS of Rosal Forest (unlotted) in Sutherland. The sale went through, a year after much public lobbying for a more community/local friendly approach, in June 2015 to Simon Brooke Mackay (Lord Tanlaw) and Rina Siew Yong, both of Queenstown Road, London, for £1,500,000. Thus demonstrating that our attempt to encourage and educate FCS in the merits of forest lotting is still a work in progress.
What next? Whilst Forestry Commission Scotland’s Disposals Programme (sales programme) is winding down and relatively few forests will be sold between now and mid-2016, we will endeavour to work as best we can with FCS to identify properties suitable for lotting – what might be described as a modest contribution to increasing understanding of the need to, and benefits of, lotting sales of state land and creating more small wood owners.
1The words wood, woodland and forest are used interchangeably
2Forestry is exempt from inheritance tax and timber sales and forestry grants are tax exempt. More detail available on most agent’s websites, for example here
3The FPG recognizes that there are other cereal brands on the market that are every bit as honest, tasty and real as Dorset Cereal