Gender and Land Rights Database

United Kingdom

Prevailing systems of land tenure

- In the whole country, 30 percent of farmed land is tenanted and the rest is owned (11).


England and Wales
- The Crown is the only absolute owner of land in England and Wales; all others hold an estate in land. Estates, which derive from feudal terms of tenure, originally took many forms but were reduced to only two by the Law of Property Act of 1925: i. an estate in fee simple absolute in possession, generally known as freehold; and ii. an estate for a term of years absolute, generally known as leasehold.
Apart from an estate, land may have the benefit of or be subject to other interests, which are rights and obligations relating to the land, belonging to the owner or to a third party (12).

In England and Wales, around 33 percent of agricultural land is rented (29).

Around 550 000 hectares of land, i.e. 4 percent of the total land area in England and Wales, is registered common land (24).
In general terms, common land is land owned by one person over which another person is entitled to exercise rights of common, such as grazing animals or cutting bracken for livestock bedding; these rights are generally exercisable in common with others.

The Commons Registration Act of 1965 introduced the first statutory definition of “common land” as “land subject to rights of common [as defined in [the] Act] whether those rights are exercisable at all times or only during limited periods; and waste land of a manor not subject to rights of common”.

Most common land is privately owned. Owners of commons, often the lord of the manor, enjoy largely the same rights as other landowners, except that common land is subject to “rights of common” held by other individuals over the common and to the special statutory controls that apply under commons legislation. Rights of common have their origin in local custom and include, for example, the right to graze stock, to enable pigs to forage on beechmast and acorns, to remove peat for the hearth, to fish and to collect bracken or firewood.

A total of 1 740 commons, other than the 47 in the ownership of traditional estates, are in private ownership, 679 have private owners for parts of the land, 1 230 are owned by parish and other councils and 431 are owned by a variety of organizations including charities, trusts, etc. Many commons have multiple owners. Up to 1 900 commons have no known owners (24).


- The Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. Act of 2000 [Scotland] changed the feudal nature of the land tenure system of Scotland by prohibiting the imposition of new feuduties and providing for the redemption of existing ones.
The 2000 Act also extinguished many feudal deeds, which impose conditions on the property feued. The superiors and their concurrent rights disappeared, though contractual rights and obligations were not affected. Only the owner continued to have a right to the land (14).

Agricultural holdings in Scotland and the relationship between landlords and tenant farmers have been regulated by a series of Acts of Parliament since the 19th century [Agricultural Holdings Act of 1883 [Scotland]].

Prior to the most recent Act in 2003, the only forms of formal farm tenancies permitted within the legislation were either a seasonal let of less than one year, or a secure “1991” tenancy, which is an arrangement where the tenant farmer has a long-term protected tenancy that is heritable and can only be broken by non-payment of rent or any other material breach of the tenancy conditions. These types of tenancy arrangements had remained very much unchanged since 1949.

The Agricultural Holdings Act of 2003 [Scotland] and the earlier Agricultural Holdings Act of 1991 [Scotland], together provide the basis for a modern framework for the tenanted sector in Scotland.
The legislation provides for four types of formal farm tenancies:
i. a secure “1991” Act tenancy, which is a long-term heritable tenancy with security of tenure and a succession right;
ii. a grazing or mowing lease of not more than 364 days;
iii. a Short Limited Duration Tenancy (SLDT) of up to five years duration;
iv. a Limited Duration Tenancy (LDT) for a minimum period of 15 years (20).


- Crofting is a form of land tenure and small-scale food production unique to the Scottish Highlands and the Islands of Scotland. It evolved from the turbulent period of the Highland Clearances, largely as a means of sustaining populations. Within crofting townships, individual crofts are established on the better land and a large area of poor-quality hill ground is shared by all the crofters of the township for grazing.

A croft is a relatively small agricultural landholding which is normally held in tenancy and which may or may not have buildings or a house associated with it. The average croft size is 5 ha. A crofter is the tenant of a croft. Usually, the crofter holds the croft on the statutory conditions, which apply to every croft tenancy, and does not have a written lease. Some croft land is now owned because former tenants have bought that land.

There are 17 923 crofts occupied by an estimated 10 000–12 000 crofting households with a total population of around 33 000. Of the total, 14 200 are tenanted and the remainder are owned (30).

A draft Crofting Reform Bill to reform crofting is undergoing consultation, which will end in August 2009 (27).


Northern Ireland
Land tenure in Northern Ireland can take the form of:
i. fee-farm grant, which is a type of fee simple tenure where land is held in perpetuity in exchange for a yearly rent. This type of tenure offers no reversion to the former landlord and grants secure title to the former tenant;
ii. various types of leaseholds including leases for lives for a certain number of years or perpetuity, rights of residence, i.e. life estate, and conacre. Conacre is a form of occupancy where licence for use of land is given for a specific use, typically farming; this is similar to farming arrangements of the crofters of the Scottish Highlands.

These various arrangements have caused the land tenure system in Northern Ireland to be very complex. In rural farmland, the Land Purchase Acts tended to create single fee owners of land; however, tiers may occur of fee-farm, fee-tail, subfee-farm, and long leases. In the cities, complex pyramids of title are common. For these reasons, title, through the Land Registry, is guaranteed for only 50 percent of properties in the country (15).

Sources: numbers in brackets (*) refer to sources displayed in the Bibliography