Farmers who have been offered a five-year ‘mirror’ agreement to replace an expiring Countryside Stewardship Agreement will need to carefully consider all the pros and cons before making a final decision.
Many farmers with an agreement due to expire at the end of 2021 have received a letter inviting them to apply for a new five-year mirror agreement.
Previously, Defra had been offering one-year extensions as CSS 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.
Jonathan Armitage, head of farming at Strutt & Parker, said: “Farmers have not been given long to make a decision, but careful consideration is required on the most appropriate way forward. For those that are happy with their existing agreement, the mirror option is quick and easy and there is no need to think about what options to have and where to put them.
“However, on the downside farmers will only be offered the options they already have in place. So 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.”
Mr Armitage said the key decision is 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, so there may well be potential to improve what it offers. 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. But this brings some additional costs and reductions in farming income, so therefore careful consideration is required.
“It also needs to be remembered that 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 chance that not all will be successful. However, applicants can give themselves the best chance of securing a new agreement by picking a mix of options that include those which focus on the environmental priorities in their particular region.”
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.