Changes to stewardship penalties mean there are now two ways in which an agreement holder might mitigate a breach of an ELS agreement, if one is identified during a formal compliance inspection.
If an option – say, a commitment to maintain 50m of hedgerow – is breached because the hedge is 5m short, the shortfall can now be offset if an additional 5m is available in a hedge covered by the same option elsewhere on land under the same agreement.
If such an offset is not possible, then the farmer will lose points relating to the 5m of hedgerow, again making it less likely that a financial penalty will apply. Previously all points relating to the hedgerow option would have been lost.
Paul Egginton, Natural England director of business systems improvement, said the recent changes to environmental stewardship penalties would only affect a small proportion of agreements.
But he added: “Our aim is to ensure that we afford agreement holders the flexibility of offsetting while ensuring that the environmental benefits set out in the agreement are secured.”
“Natural England will continue to work with farmers to advise on the best possible agreement for both the farm business and the environment, it is not our aim to penalise farmers financially or to make it difficult for them to sign up to environmental stewardship.”
The Country Land and Business Association said it agreed that the new system would be more favourable to farmers.