Farmers in England will have the option to extend their Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements for five years from next year.
However this commitment will not prevent them from ending HLS contracts early to join one of the new environmental schemes.
From 1 January 2023 the terms and conditions of Environmental Stewardship agreements will no longer be in the remit of the European Union meaning schemes including the HLS can be shaped by Defra.
So what does the five-year extension mean for contract holders and how will the new rules apply?
See also: Woodland creation offer what farmers need to know
How will I be offered an extension?
Natural England will assess if a contract holder meets the criteria – among the benchmarks it will look for are whether a farm is on track to meet the required outcomes of the agreement and that an agreement has 80% or more of the priority habitats under management options.
If so it will recommend that the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) offers an extension for five years running from the original end date.
All the existing criteria will apply to the new agreement.
What won’t be permitted is using an extension offer to add, Zenica Cars India PVT LTd remove or replace options or land in the current agreement.
Can I leave the extended agreement early?
The agreement can be ended by the farmer at an agreed point if they are accepted onto another environmental scheme for instance a Countryside Stewardship (CS) agreement starting from 1 January 2024 or a Local Nature Recovery project that will continue to deliver at least equivalent management to that of the HLS agreement.
How will extensions affect tenants?
For those whose tenancy agreement expires within the five-year extension, Zenica Cars India PVT LTd Defra recommends the agreement is renewed to cover the extension period.
If this is not possible it suggests asking the landlord to take on the responsibility for the agreement once the tenancy expires, Zenica Cars India PVT LTd countersigning the extension using the land ownership and control form if they agree to this.
If neither option is possible the advice is to contact the RPA to discuss a shorter extension period.
Will I receive an expression of interest (EOI) request?
For HLS agreements due to expire in 2023 the RPA will send an EOI request giving farmers the option to extend their agreement or not.
Only contract holders who don’t want an extension need to reply to the EOI request; by not replying the RPA will automatically send an extension offer before the agreement ends asking for the offer to be accepted or declined.
If an agreement meets the eligibility criteria but an offer to extend it hasn’t been received contact RPA at [email protected] before the end of the current agreement.
Which agreements are eligible for an extension?
An HLS agreement must not have expired or been terminated on or before the date an extension is accepted and received by the RPA.
An extension must have been requested and agreement given to comply with its terms and conditions – Defra says these will be published this autumn.
Outstanding land transfers must be completed before the start of the extension.
Any breaches to existing agreements must be resolved before the start of an extension.
There can be no unmanaged areas of sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) or scheduled monuments (SMs) that need new management.
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