August 8, 2007
The Irish plantation of the English countryside is in full swing. It is hard to know what Elizabeth the first — the instigator of the plantation of Ireland — would make of it.
Today, Irish Catholic farmers — descendants of those dispossessed in the Tudor conquest of Ireland — are the largest foreign buyers of English farmland. According to Frank Knight, the British estate agents, 7.3pc of agricultural land bought in England last year was snapped up by Irish buyers.
This is an extraordinary statistic.
The Catholic Gael invasion is turning history on its head. Our story centres on land and religion: the Protestant English took it and the Catholic Irish lost it.
At least this time around, the Catholics have the decency to pay for the land they are taking. English farmland is selling for Â£3,800 an acre — up 27pc on last year.
But this is still a fraction of the cost of Irish farmland, which is trading at â‚¬24,300 an acre. Taking exchange rates into account, Irish farmland is over four times more expensive than its equivalent across the water.
As a result, farmers are selling up here and, with the swag, buying much larger tracts in England.
The EU farm policies work more or less the same in every country, so the Irish farmers are simply transferring production to England and using the much larger farms to engineer economies of scale.
This is a great example of how the EU could work, and mirrors developments in the US more than in the rest of Europe.
Typically in Europe, farming is cultural and farm mobility is non-existent. Irish farmers are also the biggest investors in Scotland, which is ironic when you think that the last great land-grab in these islands was by lowland Scottish farmers who led the plantations of Catholic Ulster in the 16th and 17th century. History aside, why are we seeing the Irish invasion of rural Britain?
Why might Irish land be so much more expensive than English land, rendering the investment decision of Irish farmers a “no brainer”?
Ireland is considerably less populated than England, suggesting that Irish land should be cheaper. Yet Irish land is four times dearer.
Could it be that the productivity of Irish farms is so much higher that we are getting four times more out of each acre of land here than the slovenly English yeomen who till the green pastures of Herefordshire?
There is no evidence of this. So how can land be more expensive in Ireland than in England without any significant differences in yields from farming? Irish farming uses the same technology and is governed by the same EU price systems. Irish wages are higher than English wages, so costs here must be higher, depressing yields further. What explains the price disparity?
The issue again is the ludicrous price of land in Ireland that is driving Irish farmers off the land, leading to the redundancy of the countryside. The reason is as much psychological as economic. We are trapped in a land frenzy. Even now, with house prices coming off the boil, the boom of the last few year’s has been so distorting that everything is out of kilter. Behind the frenzy, is planning.
The â‚¬23,800 per acre price tag owes a lot to the porous nature of our planning laws. Farmers have turned into developers, hoping to sell sites rather than work the land. Everyone who owns a piece of the countryside is praying that one day the land will be rezoned and be worth a fortune. This collective hope is putting upward pressure on agricultural land even when the yield from farming is falling.
This carry-on implies that the Irish planning system is so unclear that everyone with a bit of land is holding out for a windfall. Obviously, the opposite is the case in England, where agricultural land is farmland, full stop.
English zoning is so exacting that there is no hope that land will be revalued upwards at the stroke of a local bureaucrat’s pen. Taken together, the mania and the lax planning procedures are turning the Irish countryside into one large potential building site. Those Irish farmers who actually want to farm are emigrating, or at least taking their business off shore.
To use a popular business expression, Irish farming is being “outsourced”. How nonsensical is that? The Irish farmers in England are also using foreign labour to keep costs down. Like the situation in Ireland, farm labour in England is now largely Polish, Ukrainian or Lithuanian.
Farming in this part of the world has been given a shot in the arm by the mass influx of cheap labour from the East. However, the entry of the accession states is a doubleedged sword for agriculture. In the short-term, these workers bring down costs. But longer-term, the opening up of eastern Europe — by making more agricultural land available — must bring down the price of land.
In addition, the subsidies that the CAP afforded now have to be shared with farmers from the East. Therefore, in the next few years, the only way that Irish agricultural land prices can remain so expensive is if we abandon any vestige of zoning and build wherever and whenever we want. This can’t be what a country hoping to expand its tourist industry to high-end tourism really wants.
Meanwhile, across the water, Irish farmers will keep buying large tracts of the English countryside because that is the compelling logic of the Irish land mania. The Irish plantation of England will continue apace, but such agricultural imperialism is not a reflection of the strength of Ireland, rather a reminder of ludicrous state we find ourselves in.