LET farmland in Scotland continued to decline in 2016, as more landlords chose not to re-let when tenancies ended, according to a new survey of land occupation.

Published by the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers and the Scottish Agricultural Arbiters and Valuers Association, the fifth annual agricultural land occupation survey for Scotland showed a further net loss of 28,000 acres of let land.

“This is the largest of the year-on-year losses since the first survey in 2012,” said secretary and adviser to CAAV, Jeremy Moody.

Speaking at the association's AGM in Dunblane this week, Mr Moody explained that the survey results covered more than 44,000 acres of let land and a further 17,500 acres of land on grazing and contract farming arrangements where decisions were made about occupation.

“Of the let units that became vacant in 2015, only a third were re-let, with the rest taken back in-hand or offered out on contract farming or other short term arrangements, while a number of newly vacant units were also sold,” said Mr Moody.

Historically, there was a re-let rate of 75% – but that fell in 2015 and it is predicted that, if the trend continues, the pace of the decline in the Scottish tenanted sector will quicken. The survey also showed that 65% of the new lettings recorded were for bare land.

“This will change the character of the Scottish tenanted sector,” said Mr Moody. “It is an important shift for a debate about policy, as it often assumed that a holding will be a fully equipped farm with a house, and this is no longer the case in many instances. Rising expectations for the standards of agricultural housing may encourage this trend.

“The government’s review group said letting land in Scotland was seen as a high risk, low reward activity, and this is being duly reflected.”

For the first time in recent years, a number of landowners had sold holdings that fell vacant – some to their sitting tenants, said Mr Moody. Equally, some land was being ear-marked for forestry and development. None of the few new lettings to new farmers in 2016 reported that they were to those classed as new entrants.

“This figure is usually between 20 and 30%," explained Mr Moody. "2015 saw that rise to 50%, perhaps for BPS reasons, and that may be an influence on 2016."

“The more new lettings there are, the more opportunities there would be for new entrants and then, as importantly, for progressing farmers. Having a vibrant tenanted sector is valuable for the fabric of the farming industry,” he added.

Also commenting on the situation, SAAVA president Rob Forrest said: “We need to make it clear that there is a reduction in the land being let, and that’s what this year’s survey proves. The bigger issue is that there is potential for further reductions in land following the new act, and the new tenancies that that means.

“Out of the land available to be let, the majority of it is now bare land. New legislation is potentially not going to entice new land or new entrants, so it’s a situation that we really need to keep an eye on in Scotland.”