Changing face of upland ownership

Two massive property deals in England and Scotland announced this week highlight the changing ownership and control of upland Britain.

In Scotland, the well-known sheep producer John Cameron, a former president of NFU Scotland, has decided to “downsize”.

For most farmers this might mean the sale of a modest area of land, but for Mr Cameron it has meant the lock-stock-and-barrel sale of five of his seven farms to a property investment company.

The farms include almost 37,000 acres of land in Fife and Perthshire and more than 10,000 sheep.

Although larger Scottish sporting estates have been sold in the past, the deal, estimated at 8-10m, is possibly the largest by a commercial livestock farmer north of the border.

The move is also bound to raise concerns about the future of farming in the region, if one of its most successful practitioners is calling it a day.

However, Mr Cameron, who is keeping his 400-acre home farm, mainly used for cattle breeding, said personal reasons were behind the sale.

“We thought long and hard about this because we have no family and direct relatives and we want a little bit more time to ourselves.”

Selling such a large farming business privately lock-stock-and-barrel is unusual and Mr Cameron conceded he might have got a better price selling each unit individually.

“I wanted to leave the farm with my stamp on.

I was particularly anxious that the staff be kept on.

Many of them have been with us for many years and their future is very important.”

Angus Crow, managing director of buyer Edinmore Properties, part of Caledonia Investments, said: “We are very pleased to have reached agreement on this significant purchase and look forward to reviewing all the various aspects of the business.

No further decisions will be made on future plans at this stage.”

A spokesman for NFU Scotland said the fact that Mr Cameron was selling was not necessarily a reflection of the fortunes of sheep farming, but he added: “What will be telling is what the new owner does with the land.

That could be a good barometer of the future of the industry.”

No less indicative of the growing breed of lifestyle landowners in Britain, is the sale of the 17,000-acre Wemmergill Moor in County Durham by the Bowes-Lyon family, related to the Queen and owner of the property for 440 years.

In stark contrast to such an aristocratic lineage, new owner Michael Cannon is a self-made millionaire who was 160th in the Sunday Times 2005 Rich List with an estimated fortune of 160m.

Mr Cannon made his money reinvigorating brewery chains, including Devinish and Morrell’s, before selling them on for a profit.

Wemmergill, historically, is known as the world’s premier grouse moor, but it also includes six tenanted farms and Mr Cannon says he is committed to helping the local communities around the moor.

So far he has invested 3m in buildings, new staff and environmental improvements.

“The purchase of Wemmergill Moor gives me the ability to liaise with the tenant farmers and their families to ensure they have a secure future in agriculture, while working hand-in-hand to further improve grouse moor management.

Grouse shooting in England is an important rural industry that benefits the local economy to the tune of 12.5m.

Ion Stoddart, a tenant at Wemmergill, said: “In this day and age it is difficult for farmers’ children to stay in farming.

However, all our young sons and daughters want to take over from their fathers – despite the real threats facing the viability of upland farming and the way of life.

The uplands need people like Mr Cannon, whose passion and vision is warmly welcomed.”

Such passion and vision comes with a price tag, and Mr Cannon spent 4m securing a 40-year lease for the moor’s sporting rights in 2003.

This week’s move to take over the freehold has cost him an extra 5.25m.

He already owns the 6500-acre High Abbotside Moor near Hawes, North Yorks, which he bought five years ago.
Hill farming focus, p26