Do you have an ambition to own a woodland? Today there is unprecedented interest in owning woodlands, perhaps due to the high profile of forests in the media in the last year. Maybe you’ve had a life long ambition to invest in land or to be a custodian of our landscape and wildlife heritage. There is a lot to consider if you are thinking of investing, and when you are a proud woodland owner, even more to think about, and to do, in the woods. Here’s a brief guide.
Buying a woodland
Private ownership of woodlands in Britain is among the highest in Europe at 82%, compared to the European average of 49.6% (read more). Many of these woodlands in private hands will be traditional large inherited estates; the preserve of the most wealthy. Increasingly however, more and more hobby owners have taken advantage of some of the larger existing woodlands being split and put on the market in smaller parcels. These new, socially-orientated owners, may have little experience of managing woodland.
There are several companies that specialise in selling woodlands. I’m not going to provide these with a free advert here but a simple Google search will reveal some of the main providers. You need to decide whether you want to invest in leasehold or freehold woodland. A small freehold woodland is likely to require an investment comparable to the purchase of a large family car, although prices vary significantly and are dependent on woodland type, region of the country, proximity to population centres, access quality, whether there is public access, shooting rights, lakes or streams, and so on. Larger and/or more commercial type plantation woodlands are typically cheaper per unit area than small woods of high cultural or biological value.
Important aspects to consider when choosing a woodland:
- Location – buy nearby so that you access the woodland regularly with minimal cost and effort. One of the joys of owning a woodland is getting to know it well and watching it evolve through the seasons.
- Investment – making money from a woodland is difficult and requires time and effort. Timber sales are quite complex, whilst firewood is a growing opportunity. Agroforestry, adventure and leisure activities, are likely to yield more income if you have the right skills. In reality it is the land itself that is likely to provide the greatest return on investment.
- Statutory – check for designations and how they may affect your plans. e.g. conservation areas, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Site of Special Scientific Interest, National Park.
- Legal – if leasehold check for any rights retained by the freeholder. Also, access rights for wayleaves (e.g. powerlines, mineral rights are often separate, Public rights of way (e.g. footpaths, bridleways), environmental designations (e.g. European protected species).
- Planning – check local plans for urban expansion or road building.
- Access – is there an all-weather track(s) through the woodland. If so, this can help considerably when it comes to management, which often takes place in the winter. Is there hardstanding where cut timber can be stored?
- Potential – what opportunities are there for development? For example, if you have ambitions to develop shooting, fishing or adventure activities. If you want to live in the woodland, are there services to the site (e.g. electricity, water), and does planning permission exist?
Planting your own woodland
There can be nothing more satisfying than planting your own woodland. You can create the woodland type of your choice and you will only have yourself to blame in the long term if things aren’t to your liking! You will quickly develop a long term view but that’s one of the joys of owning/managing a woodland.
There are a great many issues to be considered in planting a new woodland, that I cannot hope to address adequately here, so I’ll have to revisit these in later posts. Unless you are able to invest in a significant area of land, such as a whole farm, you are likely to compete with many other land investors. If you are thinking of a small area, say between 2 hectares (ha) and 5 ha, you may end up competing with the horse fraternity and their inflated land prices. Slightly larger land areas will avoid this, and so relatively the price per m2 will be less but you will need to invest more capital. You could consider a joint investment with a friend but make sure you receive good legal advice.
Managing your woodland
First get to know your woodland. Conduct some historical research by talking to local people, neighbouring woodland owners and farmers, visiting the local library to look at old maps. Seek advice, often free in the first instance. Try contacting the Government forest service (in the UK the Forestry Commission have Woodland Officers) or if you’re lucky, there may be an extension service operating in your area (in the UK examples include Cumbria Woodlands, Coed Cymru, Yorwoods, Oxfordshire Woodland Project). You may find that there are grants available to help you manage the woodland.
Consider joining an association or society and taking part in visits to other people’s woodlands. Often you will gain a lot from the debates about management between other woodland owners. Perhaps even invite a group to your woodland! A specialist group, such a wildlife interest group, will provide you with very valuable insights into the value of your woodland.
Find out what is in your woodland: the tree species, sizes, condition. Look for archeological features, areas of ecological importance, and the condition of rides and fences. If you would like to map your woodland, and perhaps create an inventory, consider using the free myForest Service provided by the Sylva Foundation. When you know what is in your woodland, and you have a clear idea of what you would like to do with it, then you should consider producing a management plan. myForest can help with this too.
Just remember, enjoy your woodland and don’t over tidy; let nature evolve.
Confederation of European Forest Owners (Europe)
National Woodland Owner Association (USA)
Small Woodland Owner Group (UK)
Books and Guides
Common sense forestry by Hans Morsbach
So you own a woodland? Forestry Commission publication
Woodland management: a practical guide by Chris Starr
I’m quite new to this and still a bit puzzled as to how you make money exactly – if you are able to buy a woodland which has access to electricity and water and allows building, can you for example put up holiday cabins (a mini Center Parcs without all the facilities) or allow camping?
Speaking as someone who tried recently to buy a woodland of a reasonable size; the market is actually very competitive. And as for small woodlands–well there are like zero (at least, for sale.)
Nice article though. You’ve got another follower.
One thing worth thinking about when getting into woodland is covenants. Although when first buying the woods you may not be interested in being the next Ben Laws, you might change your mind and then find actually you can’t build what you want. And all this might be is a building to house equipment (saws, mills etc) in order to make the woods work for their living. Speaking from experience, we want to put a pole barn up, and have planning permission to do this. However there’s a covenant preventing buildings.
Actually related to the previous post: I think I’ve read those same companies that parcel land and re-sell also apply covenants. So 40 acres of mixed deciduous becomes 10 plots. I have a horrible suspicion this includes no-build covenants. In which case the woodland is a whole lot harder to manage.
Thanks James – that is a really interesting insight that I am sure will be very valuable for other prospective woodland purchasers. Perhaps another reader has bought a small woodland recently from one of the well-known companies that split woodlands into smaller parcels, and could confirm whether no-build covenants are typically applied?
Good sources of information for the beginner. Anyone who invests in an ancient woodland may like to contact the Ancient Tree Forum for advice about how best to manage it. They may well point you in the direction of someone local to you who can help point people in the right direction.
What I do find annoying is the division of some very special parcels of woodland which effectively divides the free area of species development and in time brings about landscape changes that would not have occurred if the woodland had remained in one piece. Sad to see this sort of practice being pursued simply for profit. They know who they are and likewise I will not advertise for them.