Purchase a forest where money can grow on trees
Ask children about their favourite toys and games and you’re likely to be bombarded about Fingerlings, Lego Chain Reactions and Star Wars merchandise. But, thanks to a man named Bill Blight, there’s now a chance that they might want to tell you how to recognise different trees, too.
Blight has played a key role at one of Britain’s small number of forest schools, at a particularly beautiful location at Haldon Park near Bishopsteignton in east Devon. It’s now for sale, along with 128 acres of land, in three lots, for £670,000.
The school started in 2014, with weekly groups of pre-school children introduced to forests and outdoor life. They experienced open fires, group singing and a basic explanation of wildlife and biodiversity, including the native shrubs and conifers in the area.
In 2016, consent was given for the school to operate daily with larger, purpose-built premises. This has not yet happened, but the hope is that the new owner will pick up the baton.
“It would be a dream come true,” says Blight, who also gives lessons to children in nearby Exeter, teaching them to recognise trees by using mature parkland in the Heavitree area of the city as their commune-with-nature classroom. “Children want to learn, and they love nature. It’s especially important for kids in cities to experience a side of life that they don’t see every day,” he adds.
The forest sits within the Little Haldon Heaths site of special scientific interest, and is home to some unusual plants, including the Devon whitebeam tree, which is rarely found outside the county.
The sale is a rarity; specialist agency John Clegg & Co has never had one before in half a century of woodland transactions. It comes at a fortuitous time too, says John Clegg of the estate agency. “The Government has just launched its 25year environment plan. One of its priorities is to reconnect people with the environment, and that’s exactly what the school can help to do.”
Part of that plan includes creating what Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, calls “nature-friendly schools”, in a bid to ensure future generations become “stewards of our natural world… to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it”.
This dovetails with other initiatives, including the launch of a £200million, 25-year project to create a Northern Forest – a ribbon of trees going through Manchester, Leeds, Bradford and Hull. The Forestry Commission is planning to try to encourage new visitors through its “Forest Live” concerts, which will take place this summer, and feature Paloma Faith, George Ezra, Kasabian and Gary Barlow.
Woodland is attracting investors, too. Commercially managed woodland qualifies for 100 per cent business relief from inheritance tax, while timber sales are free of income tax and capital gains tax. Unlikely as it may seem, a few disgruntled buy-to-let investors, saddled in recent years with a raft of new taxes, are beginning to see a future in forests instead.
In the 10 years since 2017, UK forestry produced a remarkable annual average return of 17.4 per cent, according to Strutt & Parker, double that of residential lets on 8.4 per cent. It’s not all pure profit, of course: it costs around £1,500 a year to manage five acres of trees to be used for timber, plus insurance and transport costs when they are cut down.
In addition, any investment takes literally years to grow and sometimes has “lock-ins”. For example, the new buyer of Haldon Park would have to pay the former owner 50 per cent of the value added to the site if they won consent for a golf course there before mid-2027. On some sites, there are also limits on the number of trees that can be felled per year, reducing potential income. Even so, many investors are keen. Savills says the latest data show that more than 45,000 acres of woodland were sold in 2016, and it forecasts a 32 per cent growth in woodland values by 2021. “We’ve seen more family investors, in addition to the usual institutions. They’re drawn because woods are tangible things to buy and they can be fun,” explains Joe Fielding, director of Woods4Sale, which sells small forest sites.
Families often buy just a few acres for £20,000 to £30,000. “They build a tree house, use it for camping and picnics, then sell when the kids grow up. In five to 10 years it’s likely to have doubled in value.” Professional long-term property investors pay £150,000 for a larger acreage and, if they want regular tax-free returns from timber sales, perhaps every five years, they will need £500,000 as an initial investment.
Past performance is no guarantee of future returns, of course, but history suggests that for this particular investment, money can grow on some trees at least.