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Five-year extensions will be offered to farmers with higher-level environmental stewardship agreements, Defra has announced.

Five-year extensions will be offered to farmers with higher-level environmental stewardship agreements, Defra has announced.

The move aims to give agreement holders greater certainty and clarity – and remove the burden of having to apply for an annual extension every 12 months. Five-year agreements are already offered to existing countryside stewardship holders.

“We recently wrote to everyone with Environmental Stewardship agreements to outline some changes that we plan to introduce in 2023,” said Defra. “Rather than offering an extension of a single year, we’re offering extensions of five years.”

The decision could benefit some 8,500 higher-level stewardship holders. Defra says the scheme continues to deliver important environmental benefits on some of England’s most valuable habitats, including Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

“Under European Union rules we could only offer annual extensions for HLS agreements,” said Defra. “Those in Environmental Stewardship told us that although annual extensions are welcome, longer extensions offer greater flexibility and certainty.”

The government said the move would reduce bureaucracy – and help ensure the continued delivery of environmental benefits as Defra rolled out its new environmental land management schemes (ELMs).

Helping transition

“For that reason, from 2023 onwards, we will offer existing agreement holders extensions of five years, it said. “In exceptional circumstances, agreements could be extended for fewer than five years.”

To aid the transition to ELMs, all countryside stewardship and higher-level stewardship scheme holders will be able to leave their agreements early, without penalty, if they are offered a place on another environmental scheme.

Defra said this would include higher-level stewardship agreement holders offered a place  on countryside stewardship in 2024, as well as stewardship agreement holders offered a place on the new Local Nature Recovery scheme.

“We plan to roll Local Nature Recovery out gradually,” said Defra. “It will be offered, in full, from the end of 2024. This flexibility gives continued stability up until then. It has no impact on our roll-out plans.”

New approach

It added: “We are able to bring all existing higher level stewardship and countryside stewardship agreements on to these new domestic terms. This means our new flexible, supportive approach to controls will apply to all agreements from 1 January 2023.

For holders of environmental stewardship agreements beyond 2023, Defra said it would set out your options for extensions later in 2023 or 2024. “We’ll also share more details for the extension arrangements for your agreement.”

The new ELMs scheme is expected to be fully rolled out by the end of 2024. Defra has pledged to make it as smooth as possible for farmers in existing agreements to transfer to the new schemes – if they want to.

“Anyone in an existing agreement can also enter into the new environmental land management schemes – so long as the actions are compatible and we’re not paying twice for the same actions.”