Half of farms are being bought by 'townies' looking for their piece of England

Constable must be turning in his grave. Britain's green and pleasant land is being bought up by "townies" looking for a rural retreat, estate agents report today.

Nearly half the number of people buying farms in the countryside are not farmers, according to the latest rural land survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). They said "city slickers" had stepped in to support a market battered by the foot-and-mouth crisis and uncertainty over the outcome of a review of EU farming policy, which may impose cuts in production quotas.

"People want to buy their bit of England," said Julian Sayers, RICS's rural land spokesman.

RICS said there was a growing trend for people to buy a small farm in order to turn the farmhouse into bijou abode - without any intention of getting their hands dirty in the fields. Some rented the farmland to nearby working farmers.

Surveyors in the rural sector reported that 44 per cent of buyers over the three months to June were non-farmers. The figure for the South-east of England, where land space is under increasing pressure from the boom in house prices, was 56 per cent.

Mr Sayers said buying a farmhouse was not a cheap option. He recently sold a property with 150 acres and a small bungalow in Oxfordshire for more than £1m. "They are buying lifestyle and they want the land because it gives them their own privacy and a piece of England," he said.

Land prices are at about the same level as a year ago, Mr Sayers said.

A surveyor in Pulborough, deep in the Sussex countryside, said: "Demand is still strong for land in the South-east from mainly non-farming investors."

Others said there was greater interest from buyers looking for an investment, which raises fears that farmland will be hit by the speculative interest that helped to drive house prices to record levels.

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