Set-aside proposals add to doubts over ELS renewals

As the first five-year Entry Level Stewardship agreements approach their renewal date, concern is growing over how many farmers will sign up for the scheme again.

According to Andersons, just 60-70% of those who took part in the pilot ELS scheme – which began in 2003, ahead of the national ELS launch in 2005 – have so far re-signed for another five-year term, meaning 30-40% have effectively dropped out of ELS.

“We don’t know whether they’re simply lapses by omission where people haven’t got around to filling in the forms yet, or whether there’s been a conscious decision not to go back into ELS,” Andersons’ Richard King told delegates at a seminar in London last week.

“Either way, Natural England’s target of 70% of land into environmental stewardship will be very challenging if, say, 25% of those already in it decide not to stay. We have a number of clients looking at ELS renewal very hard, especially if the compulsory set-aside comes in.”

The pilot ELS was launched to test the practicability of the ELS design on a range of farm types, and to gather information which could be used to revise and improve it before making it available to all farmers in England.

In total there were 275 agreements across four pilot areas chosen to represent the four different English farming types. The pilot areas were in Tiverton, Devon; Market Deeping, Lincolnshire; Barnard Castle, Durham and Mortimer, Berkshire.

Natural England said it was working to reduce any difficulties that agreement holders may face when renewing existing agreements or entering into new agreements, now or in 2010.

“Those who entered the pilot scheme in 2003 were not renewing into the same scheme,” a spokesperson said. “They have renewed into mainstream ELS which does have some significant differences from the original pilots. This and other factors, such as market conditions at the time of renewal – higher crop prices for example – all influence an agreement holder’s decision on whether to take out a replacement ES agreement.

“We are working on a number of developments to ensure ELS remains attractive and accessible to farmers when the bulk of agreements come up for renewal from 2010.”

The loss of management plans from the ELS was a major factor in dissuading farmers from signing up again, particularly on large arable farms which could struggle to achieve the points requirement in other ways without compromising production too much, added Mr King.

In relation to the set-aside mitigation under discussion currently, Natural England acknowledged that the consultation could lead to some cases of individual uncertainty, but said it was happy to look at individual cases as many agreements would be unaffected. “We are also pleased to see the strong support for ELS from farming representatives which is arising from the voluntary option currently being discussed as part of the consultation,” the spokesperson said.

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