Old MacDonald had a farm...

With British agriculture in decline, many farmers are taking a look at their books and accepting that their best asset is not crops or livestock but a large country house surrounded by land

It is a sad reflection on the confidence of farmers that so many farmhouses are finding their way onto the market. While the glossy brochure picturing a lovely property surrounded by land is a dream for the buyer, it marks the end of an era for the seller.

It is a sad reflection on the confidence of farmers that so many farmhouses are finding their way onto the market. While the glossy brochure picturing a lovely property surrounded by land is a dream for the buyer, it marks the end of an era for the seller.

Increasingly, farmers are looking at their books and deciding their most sensible course is to cash in their biggest asset. Demand for a period house in its own land has kept values high, with many farms reaching well above the asking figure. The very qualities that residential buyers recognise as commanding a premium exist only because the land has been worked for generations. Three years ago, Brian Ashmead would have laughed at any suggestion he might sell his farm, near Miserden in Gloucestershire. He has farmed for 50 years and is in partnership with his two sons. His wife also comes from a farming family. But now, after some hard thinking and two feasibility studies, he sees no alternative.

"We agonised for two years, but one has to be a realist. Our income has fallen dramatically over that time and I cannot see how it will improve. We have expanded to the limits and the alternative to selling is that the farm will disintegrate. We can slog our guts out but it won't make any difference,'' says Mr Ashmead.

What clearly does make a difference is the saleability of his listed house. "We have the good fortune to own a home that is half a mile from the village and about two hours from London. We have built up a good shoot on the estate and it will appeal to someone who doesn't have to rely on income from the farm to maintain the property," he adds.

One hurdle has already been crossed. "The cattle went two months ago. I know everyone thought that would be very hard, but they sold well. I didn't like to see the increasing demands we were making on them."

The Ashmeads are selling Honeycombe with 115 acres, plus a cottage, barns and woodland at a guide price of £1.5m, but are keeping about the same acreage of arable land in the family. The sale of small farms often means that the bulk of the land is sold separately from the buildings.

For Jamie Dalrymple Hamilton, of Jackson-Stops & Staff, who is handling the sale, the scenario is increasingly common. "It is a decision made from necessity and farmers despair at having to sell. A farm is not normally seen as a fluid asset but as something to be treasured and passed on."

Few of the new breed of landowners intend to work the land themselves but buy it for its amenity value. The value of agricultural land has generally remained high, particularly where it can be added to an adjoining farm. These prices, which are not expected to last, combined with the booming residential market for country properties close to London and provincial centres, suggest to those farmers who stand to benefit most that the present is the right time to sell.

In the country estates and farms department of Knight Frank, William Morrison says they have upwards of 1,000 people looking to buy at any one time, the highest proportion in southern England. Of those, 40 per cent want a residential property and its location is crucial. A 375-acre farm with an eight bedroom Georgian house in Carmarthenshire, currently on their books at £1.1m, would be £3.5m on the other side of the Severn.

In Devon, Albert Kilfedder is selling Week Farmhouse and a range of barns but keeping the farmland. "Our biggest asset is the house and we can use the money to buy more land." Behind the farmhouse is a courtyard of listed buildings with planning permission for eight dwellings and five holiday cottages. It is being sold for between £450,000 and £500,000 by Jackson-Stops & Staff.

At Strutt & Parker, James Laing has more farms for sale than is usual - 25 at present. "Values are high and there are always people who want to own a plot of rural Britain. Our only advice to farmers is don't keep the cottage at the end of the drive since that is the kiss of death for everyone. They won't enjoy seeing what is done to the farm and the new owners don't want to hear how things used to be."

This point is not lost on the buyers either, finds Mr Laing. "Nearly all are extremely sensitive to the emotional upheaval of selling up a family heritage and will go out of their way to make it easier for them."

The trend has been running against small farms for some years, but its acceleration will, in the opinion of many, dramatically change the structure and ownership of land in the country. Ian Denton, of Jackson-Stops & Staff in North-ampton, says the fabric of farming communities is changing beyond recognition. In a village where there were five or six farms, only one or two are actively farming.

But that is not necessarily to the detriment of the countryside. "Those that buy with rose-tinted spectacles soon find out what it involves. They may at the beginning have enjoyed the status of owning land where they can race about on quad bikes, but a couple of years down the road they see that it needs to be managed," says Mr Denton. "Once they have swallowed the pill, they become excellent custodians. Because they don't rely on the land to provide an income they are happy to rebuild hedges, plant trees and put in grass tracks to benefit the wildlife.''

As for the role of the traditional guardians of the countryside, Mr Ashmead has an answer. "If politicians want farmers to look after the countryside, then they have to look after us."

* Jackson Stops & Staff, Cirencester, 01285 653334 ; Exeter, 01392 214222

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