Defra unveils Countryside Stewardship mirror agreement plan

Countryside Stewardship scheme farmers may be able to apply for a new five-year mirror agreement when their contract ends, Defra has announced.

Mirror agreements will replicate eligible options and payments in an existing contract and are, therefore, simpler to administer while allowing environmental benefits to continue.

The move affects farmers with agreements due to expire on 31 December 2021. Defra said agreement-holders who had one-year extensions on contracts set up in 2016 could also apply, but one-year extensions would no longer be offered.

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CS mirror agreements

  • Help agreement holders to transition to the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes
  • Domestically funded agreements that maintain payment for environmental work
  • Based on eligible parcels and options in the expiring deal
  • Simpler to administer than a new agreement
  • Include a no-penalty break clause when ELM is introduced

Alice De Soer, independent consultant at Rural Response, said the mirror agreements were ideal for farmers who were happy to continue with the detail of existing options.

Those who wanted to tweak options would have to submit a new application for a CS contract instead, Ms De Soer said.

She welcomed the flexibility of the arrangements, which come under domestic regulation.

“Unlike the previous EU-administered system, the new agreements will allow farmers to opt out without penalty when ELM is introduced,” she pointed out.

However, she stressed that there were eligibility criteria which had to be met before Defra or Natural England would offer an agreement.

Mirror agreements will be offered only where the current contract delivered the environmental outcomes expected and met certain requirements, she said.

These requirements are:

  • CS agreements must not have expired or been terminated before the mirror agreement is accepted
  • No outstanding land transfers and all necessary paperwork has to be completed
  • No unresolved breaches related to the agreement
  • No unmanaged areas of sites of special scientific interest or scheduled monuments
  • No other non-compliances with the scheme rules.

Higher Tier agreement holders will be subject to further conditions and checks by Natural England to ensure contracts achieve the target environmental outcomes.

In particular, at least 80% of the priority habitats on a holding must be under appropriate, beneficial options.

Holdings with less than 80% of these habitats under option management are unlikely to be offered a Higher Tier mirror agreement.

What has been left out

Mirror agreements will not be available for:

  • Organic conversion options
  • Woodland-only expiring agreements
  • Woodland options in mixed agreements 

This means any Higher Tier agreement that has no Higher Tier options remaining after options such as woodland or organic conversion have been removed will no longer be eligible.

Next steps

Defra will write to invite farmers to apply for a mirror agreement to start on 1 January 2022. If accepted, this new agreement will include all the revenue options in the current agreement that are eligible under domestic funding rules.

Higher Tier agreements due to expire on 31 December 2021 will undergo initial assessment by an NE adviser. The adviser will decide whether an agreement still meets the rules and provides the environmental outcomes it was set up to deliver.

A follow-up site visit may then be needed to confirm an agreement is suitable. Where this is the case, farmers will receive a letter inviting them to apply for a mirror agreement.

Further information

Full details are available on the Defra website