Pur­chase a for­est where money can grow on trees

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Front Page -

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.

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