After a period of long-term decline, mining in the South West and in Cornwall in particular is experiencing a great deal of renewed interest. From the continued efforts to re-open South Crofty Tin Mine ,to the ongoing initiatives of the likes of Cornish Lithium and British Lithium to recover lithium for battery production on an economic scale, there are several major developments in the pipeline.

Do I own the surface land and the mineral interests? | Mineral rights

This is a question that a landowner client asked me recently. He knew that there was talk about prospecting for minerals on nearby land and he wondered if he owned not only the surface of the land but also the mineral interests in it, or if there was a third party owner of those mineral rights.

The registered titles to his land were not helpful as they were silent on the subject of mineral rights. As the land was in an area with some historical mining activity, we could not automatically conclude that the mineral rights went with the land.

Researching pre-registration deeds and documents

Further enquiry was needed by reviewing any documents from before the land was registered. The family had a long association with the land and they were able to send me a couple of boxes of old deeds and conveyances.

With a little research I was able to identify the chain of title to the farm nearest to the area of interest to the mineral prospectors. From this it became apparent there was a 19th Century Conveyance containing an exception and reservation of mineral rights, in favour of the then current representative of a well-known Cornish landed family.

From my client’s perspective this was not welcome news. However, the ‘devil is in the detail’ with such old documentation. It was clear from the wording (very carefully set out in copperplate handwriting) that the surface owner, on suffering damage, destruction or loss as a result of mining activity founded on the reserved mineral rights, was entitled to proper compensation for such losses.

Indeed, the wording followed a familiar pattern common to many similar 19th Century documents: The view is generally taken that it is safe to proceed to acquire such land without the mineral rights being included, on the understanding that the provision for compensation is considered sufficient in the ‘market place’ and by those advising purchasers.

Therefore, whilst not being overly happy with the potential long-term ‘threat’ to their family’s land, there was some comfort to be gained from the knowledge that if the worst occurred, proper compensation would be payable.

In such circumstances, there is a potential debate to be had, as to whether or not the Land Registry title to the surface land ought to be updated by reference to the exception and reservation of mineral rights, details of the ancillary rights to work those minerals, and the compensation provisions.  On the one hand, it would be good to have that recorded on the present, electronic, record at HM Land Registry.  On the other, it might highlight the fact that the client surface owner acknowledged the minerals were not in their ownership and could potentially be exploited by a third party which either owned or subsequently acquired the corresponding rights.  Given it would usually be an unwise minerals prospector who would proceed without definitive knowledge as to the mineral rights which they were exploiting, on the assumption that no-one but the surface owner had the relevant definitive information, a decision may often be made not to update the Registry and simply ‘sit’ on that knowledge.  Whether that is morally the correct approach I will leave to others to determine but with counterpart documentation often being difficult to trace in landed estate or other archives, it could mean that the surface owner is never troubled by such developments, or is in fact approached on commercial terms to co-operate, as opposed to prospecting being undertaken by right.

The yet further point is, of course, that if you have records of excepted and reserved mineral rights in your archives and are able to assert them, it would make sense to apply to register those rights (and which can be held as a separate minerals title).

In a time of increased activity around the exploitation of mineral rights in the South West, it is advisable to find out if mineral rights are owned by the surface owner or a third party ‘mineral lord’. It is also important to find out whether or not compensation would be payable in the event of mining occurring and resulting in the destruction of the surface of the land. If you need any help to work out who owns mineral rights in your land, please get in touch.  We may not always be able to come up with a definitive answer but it can be just as well to establish what it is possible to confirm.

If you are seeking advice or have any questions in relation to mineral rights, feel free to read our information.