VEGA Looks at the Options for People and Wildlife
1. Subsidies and a shortage of supply are bringing a return to the soil, according to an illuminating article in a Times market report (16 October 2009), illustrated with a picture of meadows in the West parklands of Moor Park Estate in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, "drawing lifestyle buyers looking to escape City living and play the gentleman farmer."
2. The report continues: "Money and land go hand in hand. The credit crunch might have been expected to put paid to the phenomenon of the lifestyle farmer - the City magnate who dons his wellies, packs his family into a Land Rover and decamps to Gloucestershire to commune with the soil. Very Spring 2007, you might say. Yet it seems that metropolitan money is returning to the counties". One estate agent sold 40% more rural retreats last month than in September 2008. "Maybe this is because farmland has outperformed the FTSE 100 share index over the past 15 years, or perhaps bankers are simply seeking a more socially acceptable job title," says the report.
3. Andrew Shirley, head of rural property research at Knight Frank's country house department associates the recovery at the top end of the housing market with the "ability of financiers to fund farm purchases with the sale of Notting Hill townhouses". Shirley reckons that lifestyle buyers make up 25% of the total purchasers of farmland. Another expert puts the figure closer to a third.
4. Limited availability of land has caused values to rise. Supply is probably down by 16% across the UK, compared with August last year. Another assessment shows that there are 15% fewer acres available for sale this year than last, and that farmland values in England rose by 3.2% to just under £5,000 an acre in the third quarter of 2009, the second successive quarterly increase.
5. Farmers also benefit from the weakness of sterling, as their subsidies are initially calculated in euros. However, collection of subsidies in the UK is a slow, bureaucratic chore, with a lot of paperwork. Demands for land for production of biofuels, golf courses, cricket pitches, shoots, and angling can provide other "nice little earners" and with steady incomes, rather than fluctuations associated with traditional farming and seasons. Leasing for wind farms can be an attractive option with perhaps horticulture on the intervening patches of land. Such areas might mean useful investments for animal sanctuaries, relieved of some dependence on charitable donations, and there are always possibilities in cultivating grants and subsidies from cross-compliance and corridors for wildlife.
6. A country estate would come in nicely and the Times market report offers a glimpse of what would "draw lifestyle buyers looking to escape City living and play the gentleman farmer." Moor Place, "a Georgian manor house with 781 acres in the well-heeled village of Much Hadham, 6 miles from Bishops Stortford in Hertfordshire, has form in this area. In 1886 it was bought by a former Governor of the Bank of England, Montagu Norman. Four subsequent generations of Normans lived at Moor Place, but his great-nephew, Bryan Norman, also retired from the City, is now downsizing and selling up. The Grade I listed house and estate are on the market with Strutt & Parker for a cool £17 million." reports the Times.
7. "For this you get a beautiful red-brick manor house built in 1779 with 14 bedrooms plus dining room, drawing room, library, kitchen, breakfast room, nursery and playroom. The total interior size is 18,891 sq ft, including two basement staff flats. Separate accommodation includes a four-bedroom house with its own walled garden, five cottages and a two-bedroom flat in the Grade II* listed stable block. In the grounds are a pool, tennis court, walled kitchen garden, Grade II listed summer houses, plus an 85-acre park, 38 acre of woodland and a small shoot. Then there is the farm - 640 acres of arable land and several agricultural buildings." The Times excuses the price: it is "due to proximity to London, which is 40 miles away, and 45 minutes on the train from Bishop's Stortford. This raises the value of the land to £7,000 an acre, well above the £5,000 average… A buyer will need to take time out from farming to redo the interior decoration, which is English country house at its chintziest."
8. Pity about that. But land prices have been rising steadily over the last decade, so a 100-acre farm/sanctuary in the Home Counties should be yielding, even in a recession, a least £5,000 in interest, which could be augmented by sales of crops and leisure and sport facilities. Outputs of food would, however, be poor in terms of "locally grown" and sustainability - and relations in the country-town existence are not happy at the moment; and even the bankers might begin to feel the pinch of recession. The countryside may change in ways that nobody likes, overseas may still prove attractive sunny sites for second homes and big estates may increasingly fall into disrepair or be broken up. And if the prophet's warnings are confirmed, austerity must take over in the nation's dietary fare. Unrest in the Shires may leave little sympathy for foxes, stags, badgers, and game birds, let alone for the poor man (and his family) at the gate. Such farming as survives will intensify into livestock in feedlots and in
the care of robots in zero-grazed units sustained as near as possible to the ports to reduce the costs of shipping in imports of concentrates of soya and "prairie meal" to boost outputs for a human population crowded and cowed in feedlots and factories that once rejoiced in the styles of cities, parks, towns, and villages and with the appurtenances of joyous living.
Citizens! Arise from your complacency! Treat the next election day as tomorrow!