Buying land in France

Finding potential in land is an exciting journey

Finding potential in land is an exciting journey - Credit: Archant

Buying a piece of the French countryside is an alluring, exciting and rewarding prospect, but make sure you consider the practicalities too, says Alex Schofield

Every landowner's dream: a ride-on lawnmower

Every landowner's dream: a ride-on lawnmower - Credit: Archant

Who could fail to be convinced by the prospect of owning lots of lovely land? There is a fantastic choice of eminently affordable houses for sale in France, from simple stone cottages to grand, imposing manoirs, many surrounded by a sizable chunk of terrain and what a temptation it is to become a proper landowner.

Grazing sheep is a good way of keeping the grass down

Grazing sheep is a good way of keeping the grass down - Credit: Archant

But if your dream of a rural idyll is not to become a nightmare, remember that land doesn’t simply look after itself. From sweeping lawns to hectares of pastureland, little orchards to acres of woodland, regular maintenance is crucial.

Always buy the best machinery your budget can allow

Always buy the best machinery your budget can allow - Credit: Archant

As you gaze in awe at an expanse of wide open space which could all be yours, you may fall into the trap of imagining life in the French countryside to be one lovely long holiday.

How delightful to stroll through a wildflower meadow, stopping only to pick some daisies before sitting out on the lawn to enjoy an apéritif as you look out over your gently rolling fields.

Imagine walking the dog every day through your own spinney, or drinking homemade cider from all the apples in that orchard.

This is all very well, and certainly achievable if you are a keen outdoorsy sort of person, not afraid of getting your hands dirty and philosophical about sciatica-induced twinges from heaving machinery around.

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Or, you might be lucky enough to be able to afford to employ someone else to carry out the endless grasscutting, woodchopping, fencing and all the other jobs that are the lot of the landowner.

Either way, it pays to be ruthlessly realistic from the outset, especially if you are buying a maison sécondaire and won’t be permanently on hand to nurture your plot. Grass, trees, hedges: these are the plants that are going to need the most work if your acres are not to become an unmanageable jungle.

France is a pretty big country and consequently there are variations in growing conditions. If it’s the sun you are after, and some hard-baked earth to walk on in your flip-flops, the south of France is the place to go. Both here and in the continental climate of eastern areas it is easier to keep on top of plant growth: in fact, water supplies and irrigation may be the main factors to take into account.

But in damp, mild parts of France, principally to the west in areas like Normandy and Brittany – popular due to the ease of access to ferries and airports – it’s all too easy to underestimate the speed with which a patch of well-mannered grass can become a waist-high wasteland, especially on fertile soil. And if the grass is growing that fast, what about the weeds?

MOWN AND GROWN

Perhaps you like grass cutting. It is therapeutic, after all, to get the lawnmower out and stroll up and down leaving neat stripes. If you’re maintaining the grass on anything over a quarter of an acre, however, you might find the novelty wears off pretty fast; it’s no fun spending every waking hour at your holiday home behind a Honda.

The greater the area of grass to cut, the bigger the machinery required to cope with it, and this is expensive, even if you opt for something secondhand. The price of pre-owned machinery and vehicles in France doesn’t depreciate as much as it does in the UK, although you can of course bring machinery across the Channel.

Add on the costs of fuel and servicing and you might find it more economical to employ a gardener or landscaper to tend to your land, although the prices charged can come as something of a shock to the uninitiated.

Anyone who is officially registered to carry out horticultural work in France – and to stay on the right side of the law, you should only ever consider employing someone who is registered – has to pay eye-wateringly high social charges to the MSA (Mutualité Sociale Agricole), and the hourly rate reflects this.

It’s a shame to have acres of grassland at your disposal and merely mow it all the time. If you are making France your permanent home you can, of course, get yourself some livestock to munch its way through all those fields you’ve bought, and there are benefits to this too.

Sheep and cows will furnish you with meat, milk and wool. Donkeys and horses will provide entertainment. Even geese are surprisingly good at keeping grass down, provided it is pretty short to start with.

Again, be realistic. If you are not used to the responsibilities of animal ownership, are you going to be content to be tied to the homestead all year round?

You will have to constantly check fencing, administer vaccinations and worming drenches, register your animals with your local Département de l’Agriculture and probably shell out for vets’ fees on occasion.

Once the winter comes and the grass stops growing, it’s vital to have hay on hand to feed those hungry mouths; if you haven’t the wherewithal to make it yourself, it will have to be bought in.

BRANCHING OUT

There are other ways of using those acres of fields and meadows. A good use of land is to introduce trees, whether for fruit, firewood or wildlife, although you will have to be patient as you wait for the trees to grow. It may be future generations reaping the benefits rather than yourself.

A productive orchard is a heart-warming sight and if the trunks are protected you can allow grazing animals to help out with grass control once the trees are of a decent size. You could choose to plant a mixture of fruit trees, concentrate on heritage varieties or set up a cider orchard. Jobs throughout the year include regular staking, pruning and preventing pests and diseases.

If you have a woodburner and fancy growing your own fuel, ash trees grow relatively fast and the wood needs very little in the way of seasoning.

Trees are beneficial for wildlife and planting native species such as rowan, hazel and beech will enhance odd corners and at the same time give nature a helping hand. Regular management includes topping the grass in meadows or coppicing and clearing woods.

It’s understandably difficult to resist the opportunity to become a landowner in France, so one last piece of advice. The MSA is the body that deals with the social charges that pay for healthcare, pensions etc for the agricultural community. It varies according to area, but having land of more than a few hectares may incur une cotisation de solidarité and an annual bill from the MSA. Always check with your estate agent and notaire to clarify the situation before signing that compromis de vente.

Caring for your own land is extremely rewarding, if you are up for the challenge. As long as you are realistic about what is involved, it could be the start of a whole new way of life.