Hill farms, traditionally passed down through farming families, have in recent years found a new market; sought after by foresters searching for plantable land, they are attracting stiff competition and significant premiums.
Up until a few years ago, the demand and supply cycle for upland livestock units was low and while some followed parents and grandparents into farming, many of the next generation sought careers elsewhere. As a result, existing farmers found it hard to retire. Three or four years on, the farming challenges may still exist but the forester is urgently seeking land on which to plant trees.
The Scottish and UK governments are clear: we need more home grown timber. The change of land use from agriculture to woodland creates carbon credits, eagerly sought after by CO2 emitting corporations, aspirational institutional investors and business owners all trying to improve their environmental social and governance (ESG) standing. Timber is globally in short supply but demand is rising. Carbon and timber are indeed persuasive forces in land use.
The tree planter is currently paying several times the land price paid by the livestock farmer, driven by a shortage of supply and pent-up demand. Off-market sales do not reach the same premiums; therefore it is vital to bring properties to the open market in order to generate competitive bidding and secure strong prices. Where possible, the planter will look at better land lower down the hill to increase the options for tree species and crop productivity. The use of improved seed stock and Douglas fir are exciting prospects in current planting schemes.
Growing timber does not have to be at the expense of food production. The two commodities can co-exist; new woodland benefits livestock units through enhancing shelter and thus improving stock welfare and easing farm management. An open conversation is essential.