Traditional Scottish farmland is now under pressure of growing demand - Andrew Arbuckle

There are just over eight million hectares of land in Scotland, which seems quite a lot when the population is just over five and a half million people.

In quality, that ranges from bleak, inhospitable lumps of rock in mountainous areas to small parcels of very fine, productive soils.

The reason for mentioning this is because estate agents are saying there is an “unprecedented” interest from individuals and organisations in buying land.

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Before going further, it is important to qualify what these professionals say, as they have a vested interest in a buoyant land market. Or, put another way, I have never heard them describe the market for land as being as flat as a very flat pancake.

Looking more closely at where the unparalleled demand is coming from and where it might lead is interesting, as we all have a vested interest in how the countryside is used and safeguarded.

Up to the present day, the main use of land in Scotland has been for the production of food, but the clamour for land ownership now comes from a range of organisations aimed at satisfying a whole range of ambitions, some of which clash with producing food and this puts pressure on what is left as farmland.

Currently there is quite unified political support for more trees to be planted in Scotland; the only difference in the politicians’ various ambitions being how large an increase there should be.

The issue of how much woodland we have in Scotland has been around for most of the past 100 years, with fluctuations in demand depending on tax incentives and environmental objectives. Today, tree growing is not just about timber production, it is also the more abstract concept of carbon capture that is attracting land buyers.

The Scottish Government aim to increase plantings from the current 12,000 hectares a year up to 18,000 by 2024/2025. Some may fear that with that ambition we will all be lost in one big future Scottish forest. But the latest planting projections will still leave less than one in five Scottish hectares under woodland. If that seems a lot, then compare it with the one in three hectares of land in Europe which is afforested.

There is hardly a farm in Scotland coming onto the market nowadays which is not being assessed for its capability for growing trees. Only the best of farms, with land values over £10,000 per hectare and the poorest of land on the mountain tops are being ignored by the forestry sector.

Incidentally this interest in buying land for growing trees has brought about a financial bonus for all landowners who have seen their properties increase in value well above the rate of inflation.

Recent examples of more land going into growing trees range from squeezing out small scale, so-called starter farms, to plans for large scale forestry. One example of the latter is on a skelp of Aberdeenshire near the Cairn o’ Mount. The aim, backed by a finance company, comes with plans to plant 3000 hectares of trees - one third being commercial forestry, with the balance going into native woodland.

And it is with deals like this that the previously civilised debate between farmers and foresters has become a little tetchy.

There is also a demand for re-wilding land, which is anathema to anyone whose ancestors have laboured mightily in order to get land into food production, whether by drainage, liming poor soils or erecting protective fencing.

And there is an ever-expanding area of land now owned by local communities, most of which has been taken over for reasons totally un-associated with producing food. With more than 200,000 hectares in Scotland already owned by local residents, this may not seem significant, but it is growing. Witness the 2023 hectares of land formerly owned by Buccleuch Estates, near Langholm in the Scottish Borders, now being owned and managed by community groups.

Then there is the regular loss of farmland going under bricks and mortar as building more houses is a big priority for government.

It is, therefore, quite easy to see how traditional farmland appears to be being squeezed on all sides and farming leaders are pressed into commenting on the loss of food-producing land.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​


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