Land News

The wood for the trees

The Big Issue , 26th October, 2004

When lan and Nina Graham spotted the 'Woods for Sale' sign on the side of the A40 earlier this year the same idea occurred to them both instantly.

"In February, my 93 year old aunt died, leaving me a generous share of her estate" Ian explains. "She was a dedicated nature lover, and her brother had been a professional botanist himself, so purchasing some woodland seemed to be a fitting way to spend the money. It had an element of memorial to if, but also seemed to be a reasonable investment."

Shortly afterwards the couple contacted a company that specialises in the sale of amenity woodland - woodland for leisure, not commercial, use - and just last month they completed the purchase of a five-acre wood in the heart of the Carmarthenshire countryside. It might seem like a strange way to spend an unexpected windfaIl, but the Grahams are far from unique in their choice of investment.

Recent years have seen a big rise in the number of people from across the U K buying woodland for personal use - and Wales is no exception. So far this year,, one of the leading companies in the field, has already sold 25 woods, compared to 12 in the whole of 2001, and the company's director, Angus Hanton is in no doubt as to the reason why.

"The boom in housing prices has meant there's been more money around generally," he explains. "But I think there's a post-September 11 factor as well. It's made a lot of people re-evaluate their lives and try to get away from the rat race, on weekends at least, and spending time in your own woodland is a way of doing that.

Though has only recently begun to bear sizeable fruit, the seed for the organisation was originally sown 30 years ago, after a summer spent searching in vain for just 10 acres of affordable woodland in southern England.

"When I was 12 my parents took me around with them as they tried to find a small plot to buy. But the only way to purchase woodland then was to bid against rich landowners for big chunks of land at country auctions," Hanton says. "I remember how disappointing it was each time we were outbid, and although we did get something in the end, it was much bigger and more expensive than we wanted.

"So after the storms of 1987, when lots of people were selling their woods, I thought that by buying them and splitting them up into affordable chunks we'd be able to make a profit, but also give people the chance to do what we had found so difficult. now offers plots all across Wales, varying in size and price from £10,000 for a couple of acres in Gwent to almost three times as much for around 30 acres in Snowdonia. And given the recent boom in trade Hanton's idea seems to have been well judged - yet even he has been surprised by the variety of reasons people have given for buying a wood.

Alongside those in search of their own private nature reserve has sold to mushroom pickers, photographers, and even a group of naturists. But according to Alex Argyropulo, regional support officer for the Small Woods Association, a national charity committed to safeguarding Britain's woodlands those are just a few of the activities undertaken in Wales' woods by private owners.

"People do everything from green woodworking and craft activities to paintballing and archery; badger-watching and meditation to fire- walking [walking barefoot over hot coals] and pheasant shooting. I've even heard of people building native American sweat lodges [like saunas], and I wouldn't be surprised if new age witches met up in woods too" he says.

Of course not everyone interested in buying woodland is motivated by a genuine love of the countryside. Large sums of money can be made from investing in even the smallest coppice or thicket in the right area, so are companies like, if not exploiting Britain's woods themselves, just making it easier for others to do so?

Steve Hunt, Welsh operations manager for the Forestry Commission doesn't think so. Not only do tough planning restrictions prevent ambitious owners from building houses in the middle of their woods to create expensive country estates he says, but the size of plot sold by would be too small to make it profitable to cut down the trees for the timber alone. And although, with the price of some Welsh woodland doubling over the past few years, a profit can be made from simply buying and selling, Hunt is convinced that the vast majority of new owners aren't in it for the money

"The people coming along now are almost invariably genuinely interested in the environment and in owning a woodland for its own sake as opposed to as a financial asset," he says. "Unfortunately the buyers quite often come from outside Wales but because they've got the money we know that the woods will be looked after for future generations to enjoy and that's the most important thing".

During the Thatcher years it was government policy to sell off much of the state-owned woodland with buyers frequently felling their trees for timber before selling the land on for replanting. It was a form of rural asset-stripping that became a real problem during the Nineties so it's no surprise that the new generation of non-commercial buyers has been welcomed by the Forestry Commission, even if its approval of the new trend does come with a few words of warning

"Lots of people buy without realising the legal obligations that come with owning a woodland. Hunt explains "We had a problem about five years ago of commercial owners saying to people "if you give us access to the woodland until we've finished working it we'll give you the land' without actually telling than they'd then have to replace the trees. And there have also been some unfortunate situations where people have used their last bean to buy woods only to find that they can't afford to look after them. So buyer beware - make sure you know what you're getting into before you go ahead.

lan and Nina Graham were so careful about their purchase that they visited the wood on the morning of completion 'just to make sure no one started squatting or dumped an Austin Metro on the site just before we bought it' but now they're only too glad they didn't let their doubts get the better of them.

"We made some enquiries and spoke to people but in the end we just held our noses and jumped," lan says "and now we've got a beautiful mixed wood with steep escarpments and intriguing flats and a brook that runs right along the bottom into a small lake

"There are some things that need a bit of work, but we both like doing practical things, and as we're both in our fifties we feel we've come to it in time to see some of the fruits of our labours over the next 25 years.

"And it'll certainly be a long time before we're tired of it" he adds with a smile.

Land for Sale from Vantage Land

Vantage Land spealises in freehold land for sale across England. We sell land from 2 acres in size as a tangible asset that could be used for paddocks, farming or recreational purposes.

Call Vantage Land on 01727 701642

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