Does buying woodland instead of property make financial sense?

There is a frightful interval between the seed and the timber.” So said the 18th-century wit and writer Samuel Johnson, but wait patiently for your forest to flourish and you could see a significant return on your investment. Forestry has been the top-performing asset class in the UK over the past three years, with total returns of 14.7 percent, according to the market, beating returns on commercial property, homes, equities, and bonds. As investments go, though, is it a little unsexy? “It’s an asset you can enjoy.” People looking for shooting estates, for example, or may want to invest in one with a portion of commercial woodland. For Richard Davidson, investing in woodland is about the bottom line. He bought a 740-acre forest in Scotland in 2004. “At the time, the cost was the same as a two-bedroom flat in West London, so it didn’t feel like a huge expense,” he says. Thirteen years later, he owns forestry across southern Scotland and Aberdeenshire, all of which has been commercially planted with Sitka spruce, the species that dominates the forestry industry in the UK. Sitka spruce is a large, coniferous evergreen, originating from the US. It produces the most sought-after timber, because, as well as being a species that grows quickly and in poor soil — it reaches maturity in a relatively rapid 35 to 55 years — it has few branches, meaning few knots. Then there is Douglas fir, which was brought to the UK in 1827 by David Douglas, and Scots pine, the only native softwood. Scots pine can take more than 70 years to reach maturity but its distinctive shape and ability to attract wildlife make it an attractive choice for those who care about enjoyment as well as the commercial benefits of the forest.

Plantations in Argyll and Aberdeenshire, southern Scotland, upland areas of Wales and the north of England are considered prime, especially for spruce trees. The reason is not just the quality of the woodland but how near they are to sawmills. With sawmills in Aberdeen, Inverness and nearby Huntly, the lot is well located for getting timber to the point of sale. After two years commercial forests are entitled to 100 per cent business property relief, no capital gains, and relief from inheritance tax. Anyone looking to preserve capital that way may want to leave the trees in the ground. Excess profit from timber sales is essentially recreating taxable cash. Yet, with Brexit on the horizon, many forestry investors have a new spring in their step. The UK imports 80 per cent of the wood it consumes, according to Confor, the forestry trading association.

With sterling weakening, countries that were selling their timber to the UK are looking elsewhere. “Less imported supply has boosted domestic timber prices.” What is more, the Forestry Commission forecasts a 30 per cent decline in timber availability, mainly due to the budget of 1988, when Nigel Lawson was Chancellor, which effectively ended the tax incentives associated with planting. This has led to forestry aged 21 to 30 years increasing in value by about £800 an acre over the past two years. Also, reports renewed interest in land suitable for forests of spruce and Douglas fir. With most global prime property markets showing only meagre growth or decline, according to the market perhaps UK forestry is a more exciting prospect than first thought.

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