Why get into rural surveying as a career

The countryside is changing at a rapid rate – making the role of the rural practice surveyor more interesting than ever before, as one Sussex-based land agent explains for APC students and others considering a rural career


  • Jonathan Morris AssocRICS

22 June 2023

Jonathan Morris, rural surveyor, standing in a field

When I started as a graduate surveyor, my mentor gave me a piece of advice I've never forgotten: he said the key to success in rural practice is an ability to wear many different hats, and to know which one to put on at the start of each day.

One of the joys of the job is how broad its scope is. If I had to narrow my role down to three main elements, though, they would be:

  • estate management
  • planning
  • valuation.

The first involves working with landowners on everything from establishing their long-term vision and budgeting, to day-to-day operations and fostering relationships with the communities of which they are a part.

The second can range from straightforward applications for new farm buildings or residential conversions to working with planning teams to provide strategic advice. The third typically involves rural assets and liabilities, often for the purposes of calculating inheritance tax or ahead of a sale or purchase.

Part of the reason the work is so varied is because land use in the countryside is diverse, and is becoming increasingly so.

Personability an important skill

Farming, forestry and residential property were the main revenue streams of many rural estates in previous generations. Nowadays, such estates are involved with everything from commercial property and retail to events and conservation. I've worked on projects from mineral extraction to waste recycling, which can be business-changing for a landowner.

There might, for example, be a strategic opportunity to extract gravel, sand or clay, fill the site with inert waste and restore it with the possibility of then realising development potential. Obviously, this would involve meeting various legislative requirements, environmental permits and agreements with mineral operators.

This means you need at least some insight into various disciplines, such as tax, ecology and PR. However, as you can't be an expert on everything it's essential to know your limits, operate within them, and ask for support if needed to carry out a client's instructions.

Fostering and maintaining good relationships with clients is key. It used to be that business was done around a kitchen table, but now it's as much by computer at a distance – although time spent having a cup of tea with a client is rarely wasted.

At times I have to tell them unpalatable truths, so it helps to be a people person. And while we're mostly business consultants, it can also involve acting as a family counsellor or mediator – discussing, for example, the responsibilities of siblings in a business, or how assets can be passed from one generation to the next while limiting the tax liability.

In most instances, clients want you to use your experience to help them make the best decisions and manage a project efficiently, knowing that you're looking out for their interests. Farming and the rural landscape are under scrutiny from vocal critics, so sometimes the best use of your time is simply reminding a client that they are on the right track and doing a great job.

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Changing landscape rewards greater stewardship

At present, estate owners are focusing on the environment and natural world. This is partly because of changes to the agricultural support system; direct payments for agricultural production are being phased out in favour of a system based on providing public money for public goods, designed to boost biodiversity and protect the environment.

While most estate owners have always seen their role as custodians of the countryside, the new generation is concentrating even more on the environment – so, whether this means planting trees or adopting regenerative systems of agriculture, rural practice surveyors are increasingly having conversations about how to integrate commercial farming with conservation.

The changes to the farm subsidy regime present challenges. Many farmers and landowners are facing a large drop in revenues as a result, so part of my remit is to find new income-generating opportunities. These changes are not without challenges for land agents such as myself either.

In 2015, the introduction of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) had proved chaotic, as it was intended to be automated from the start but initially had to be paper-based. I clearly recall long days and weekends trying to fill out forms by hand before the deadline.

Alongside the BPS came a new-look Countryside Stewardship Scheme, providing financial incentives for farmers, foresters and land managers to look after and improve the environment. However, at the time the rules were vague and many clients were initially nervous about signing up to it.

Rural land managers have only just got their heads round the complexities of both schemes – but now we are in another period of transition, with Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs).

Some farmers have signed up already, but many feel they still have insufficient information to determine how the schemes fit with their business and what changes they might need to make. They are waiting for more details before they commit. However, as the existing BPS subsidies are phased out, more farmers may well feel a financial imperative to sign up.

As well as these sources of public finance, clients are keen to engage with evolving environmental markets in the private sector, such as providing biodiversity net gain units or credits. This means part of my job is to keep abreast of changes in legislation and understand what they mean for individual farms and estates. This includes, for instance, the Environment Act 2021 that introduced BNG, as well as the impact of, say, the Renters (Reform) Bill.

Holly Blue butterfly on blue flower, Holkham Estate, Norfolk

Holly Blue butterfly. © Holkham Estate

Grey partridge on grass, Holkham Estate, Norfolk

Grey partridge, Holkham Estate. © Glynn Herrieven

Thinking through the job – and beyond

As well as the variety of this work, I enjoy seeing projects through from start to finish. There's an element of repetition in any job, but no two pieces of land or clients are the same.

This job can also take you to special places that you might not otherwise ever have seen. For example, I drove to Norfolk to collect some English partridge eggs as part of a trial reintroduction on an estate we manage in Sussex. I anticipated picking the eggs up and driving home. However, after a coffee and a chat, the head keeper offered me a tour of the Holkham estate. It was fascinating to hear about its history, its conservation work in relation to grey partridge and its plans.

Land agency is about servicing your clients' needs and all this entails. This can include making difficult decisions and accepting responsibility for them. It can be tough for example to make a decision that you know will have a negative impact on a third party – if you need, say, to recover vacant possession of a residential property. Your ability to see that through competently and compassionately evolves over time, but there is almost always an element of emotion that you have to manage.

Landowners are preoccupied not only with today, tomorrow and next year, but with what the consequences of their actions will be in decades or even hundreds of years. I try to help them make decisions they can be proud of, and that create profitable and sustainable legacies.

I'm also proud of what I do – playing my part in helping rural land managers produce quality food, maintain and enhance our beautiful landscapes, and protect the natural world.

Black-tailed godwits in flight over Holkham Estate

Black-tailed godwits. © Holkham Estate

Aerial view of Holkham National Nature Reserve, Norfolk coast

Holkham National Nature Reserve. © Holkham Estate

Various paths lead into the countryside

I studied for an RICS-accredited degree at what was then the Royal Agricultural College, now the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester. That course was a foundation, equipping me with a broad knowledge base and helping me secure my first job in a rural firm, John Drake & Co, now Sherwill Drake Forbes.

I hadn't been particularly academic at school, but I found some subjects – such as geography – fascinating. The mixture of statistical analysis and practical, outdoor investigations appealed to me, and my teacher Mr Lavis fostered my enthusiasm for this. My school careers adviser also encouraged me to look at the degrees offered by the Royal Agricultural College and do work experience at a land agency firm. After that, I was set.

However, there are other ways to get into the profession. One of our current graduates at my firm, CLM, studied biology at university followed by a master's in Rural estate and land management at Harper Adams University. This enabled them to qualify for the APC rural pathway.

More people are coming into the profession from a variety of backgrounds and this is likely to continue as rural land use changes. Whether you've studied environmental science, maths, geography or engineering, there's a place for you in this profession.

Jonathan Morris AssocRICS is an associate surveyor at CLM

Contact Jonathan: Email

Related competencies include: Management of the natural environment and landscape

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