Farmers with an existing Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) agreement which is due to expire at the end of 2021 may have received a letter inviting them to apply for a new five-year ‘mirror’ agreement.
Previously, Defra had been offering one-year extensions as CS agreements expired, as a way of keeping the land being managed environmentally without farmers needing to make a brand new CSS application.
However, Defra has now decided that offering longer mirror agreements, rather than annual extensions, will be simpler to administer and allow farmers to more easily transition to the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme when it becomes available.
A mirror agreement is different to an extension in that it is a completely new agreement (although under UK rather than EU terms and conditions), but one that mirrors the agreement that was in place previously.
It will be available for both Higher Tier and Mid Tier agreements.
Who is being offered mirror agreements?
Mirror agreements are being offered to farmers whose agreements started in 2016 and were extended for one year in 2021, or started in 2017 and are due to expire on 31 December 2021.
Agreements are only being offered if the current agreement is judged to deliver environmental value and meet certain conditions.
The conditions include:
- The CS agreement must not have expired on or before the date the new mirror agreement is accepted.
- Farmers must agree to follow the current scheme rules.
- There must be no outstanding land transfers at the start date of the new mirror agreement.
- There must be no outstanding breaches related to the agreement that cannot be put right before the start date of the new agreement.
- There must be no unmanaged areas of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or Scheduled Monuments (SM) that need to be brought under management.
Mirror agreements will not be available for organic conversion options OR1, OR2, OR3, OR4 and OR5, or for woodland-only expiring agreements.
This means they will not be offered to Higher Tier applicants if there are no Higher Tier options left once any amendments have been made to remove options that are no longer available, such as the woodland or organic conversion options.
Higher Tier applicants will also be subject to a series of technical checks by Natural England before they make a recommendation that a mirror agreement should be offered.
What are the pros of accepting a mirror agreement?
- It’s quick and easy. The agreement will be based upon a farm’s existing options, so there is no need to think through what options to have and where to put them.
- Farmers can secure ongoing payments for the next five years without needing to make a new CSS application. Remember CSS is a competitive scheme, so there is no guarantee that a new application will be accepted. While most applications have been accepted in the past, if the number of applications rises this year there is a risk that not all will be successful.
- Farmers will be able to terminate their agreement at the end of a calendar year, without penalty, if offered a place on the new ELM scheme.
What might be the cons of accepting a mirror agreement?
- Farmers will only be offered the options they already have in place. Anyone wanting to take advantage of new capital items or woodland options, or who want to add or remove parcels or options from their agreement, will need to complete a new 2021 application.
- Farmers are only being given 20 working days from the receipt of their invitation to respond to the Rural Payments Agency.
The key decision is therefore whether a new CSS application will generate greater returns than a mirror agreement – both financially and environmentally.
Historically, CSS agreements have not covered a large proportion of the farmed area of a farm, despite the terms and conditions being whole farm. If agri-environment agreements are going to replace as much of the cut in Basic Payments as possible, agreements are going to have to be more comprehensive and include management options that cover much greater proportions of the farmed area. This brings some additional costs and reductions in farming income so there is some careful consideration required.
We do not expect the management options available through the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme to be very different than through existing schemes. Therefore, we recommend that farmers think deeply about what they want to do in terms of agri-environment scheme options now, before signing up to a mirror agreement.
If you have been approached about a CSS mirror agreement and would like to talk about whether it is the right approach for you, please contact Jonathan Armitage, Strutt & Parker’s head of farming.