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Diversification special: Rural estates assessing non-farming investments

As rural businesses look to invest in areas away from farming, Alex Black spoke to Laura de Wesselow about the woodland burial project at the Belsay Estate.

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Diversification special: Rural estates assessing non-farming investments

Landowners were looking to invest their money in rural businesses but away from farming enterprises as they look to make their estates fit for the future.

 

A survey from Rural Solutions showed 67 per cent were looking to invest but not in farming.

 

Instead a wide range of diversifications, from commercial lettings to holiday lets to well-being centres, were being invested in.

 

None of the respondents to the survey were planning to diversify within farming and fewer than 4 per cent were planning to start or expand a lease for agriculture.

 

“Enterprising, forward-looking landowners are committing to reshaping and repositioning their business to give it the best chance of thriving in a new era,” said William Fry, Rural Solutions managing director.

 

He added they had priced in Brexit risks, knew support payments would decline and attitudes to tenancy agreements, public good and planning consent may change and were looking to shift away from a farming focus.

 

Laura de Wesselow of Belsay estate in Northumberland was one of the landowners looking away from farming, stating after taking over the running of the estate around eight years ago they wanted to ‘bring the business into the 21st century’.


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The estate included agricultural tenancies, but she wanted a project she could become involved in rather than being a landlord.

 

“Farming has ups and downs and cycles. We were preparing the estate for the future,” she said.

 

“We did not want to put all of our eggs in one basket.”

 

With a lot of holiday offerings already available in the area, Ms De Wesselow felt ‘putting up yurts’ was not the right way to go.

 

“I felt a woodland burial ground was something we could do and we could do well,” she said.

Rather than using ancient woodland sites, they took farmland and turned it into a new woodland.

 

“It is a haven for wildlife. Relatives who come back on a regular basis, they love coming to spend time watching birds, rabbits and hares.”

 

People were looking for alternatives to being buried or cremated in a traditional graveyard.

 

“Not a lot of people have a strong connection with their local church nowadays. I think for a lot of people, our connection with other worldliness is felt most outside in nature,” she said.

 

People planning a burial for a loved one could either get in touch or connect with them via the indicator.

 

They purchased a burial plot or an ashes plot. Plots can also be booked in advance.

 

And the environmental impact was also an important factor for the company and their clients.

 

All the graves were hand dug, bodies could not be embalmed and needed to be clothed in natural fabrics. They could be buried in a coffin, but this needed to be wooden with no brass or plastic.

 

They also offered a pony and cart service which she said was comforting for grieving families.

 

For people thinking about woodland burials as a diversification option, she warned them to think very carefully and research their plans.

 

Corporate funeral businesses were now branching out into buying land for woodland burials, but Ms de Wesselow said people appreciated the personal touch.

 

“Service is so important. I could have set this up and hired somebody or leased the land to a company. They do not have the passion for this part of Northumberland.”

 

She added it was important those running the business had ‘the right skills as they were dealing with very vulnerable people. The families they had dealt with included those affected by child suicide and people with terminal illnesses who wanted to make their own funeral arrangements.

 

“It is about being able to read people. There are so many different ways people deal with grief.”

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