The Agricultural Land Occupation Survey for Scotland showed a net loss of 4,850 hectares (12,000 acres) of let land – the largest loss since the first survey in 2012.
Uncertainty around land reform and changes to the CAP are thought to be the two biggest factors prompting land owners to choose not to re-let holdings.
Published by the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers (CAAV) and the Scottish Agricultural Arbiters and Valuers Association (SAAVA), the results covered more than 18,615 ha (46,000 acres) of let land where decisions were made about occupation and revealed a worrying trend for the already declining Scottish tenanted sector.
Jeremy Moody, secretary and adviser to the CAAV, said: “Of the let units which fell vacant in 2015, just half were re-let, with the rest taken back in-hand or offered out on contract farming or other short-term arrangements.
“This has fallen from an historic re-let figure of 75 per cent and if sustained the decline in the Scottish tenanted sector will accelerate.”
NFU Scotland legal and technical policy manager Gemma Thomson said the figures came as no surprise, with the lead up to the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill involving detailed discussion of contentious issues around agricultural tenancies, including right to buy.
She said letting land was seen as a high risk activity, forcing more landlords to ‘batten down the hatches’.
“While the Bill has been passed there is now a huge amount of work to do with the issues which it has not been possible to resolve and which have been left to regulation," said Ms Thomson.
“This will not assist with the confidence which landlords require in order to let land. As a result of this, in addition to changes with CAP, many landlords and their advisers are viewing letting land as too great a risk, and acting accordingly.“
It came as the Scottish Parliament debated the final stage of the Bill on Wednesday.
Scottish Land and Estates made an eleventh hour plea to the Scottish Government to scrap plans which would enable secure tenant farmers to assign their tenancies to other farmers.
While the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association has been pushing for the amendment to remain, SLE said it would be another knock to landlords’ confidence.
Mr Moody added: “A good tenancy system not only offers opportunities to new entrants and retiring farmers, it provides a simple flexibility for farmers to grow and thrive.
“If the Scottish Government does not find a way to reverse this worrying trend, then farming will find other less regulated ways – such as contract farming – to look to its future.”