Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) 2020 agreement extension

Information for agreement holders about extensions for suitable Environmental Stewardship Higher Level Stewardship agreements due to expire in 2020.

Applies to England

What is a HLS extension?

  • A HLS extension is when the end date of an expiring HLS agreement can be changed to a later date.
  • If your agreement started in 2009 and was extended for one year in 2019, we will offer to extend your agreement for a further year. It will be based on the criteria that was used below for 2019 and you must continue to meet this criteria. You should contact us to let us know of any changes to your circumstances.
  • If your agreement started in 2010 and is due to expire in 2020, Natural England (NE) will assess if it is suitable to be extended using the criteria below. NE will, where appropriate, recommend to us to offer an extension to the agreement for a year.
  • Each year after that, we will consider whether or not to offer extensions to all holders of expiring agreements, depending on value for money.

Why are we and NE proposing HLS extensions for 2020?

In 2019 industry stakeholders asked ministers and Defra to investigate the opportunity to extend HLS agreements. Ministers and Defra agreed to consider the case for an HLS extension process on the basis that it will deliver the following benefits:

  • it will provide a simple way to maintain the environmental outcomes that the public has invested in over the last 10 years, where those outcomes meet the scheme expectations
  • it will secure ongoing payments for farmers who are eligible for extensions that will deliver value for money
  • it will be simpler to administer and is a useful short term measure in anticipation of the new Defra environmental land management scheme.

We have worked with Defra and NE to allow suitable HLS agreements to be extended, if they meet the criteria below.

What are the principles of HLS extension?

HLS agreement extensions can be offered where the current agreement already delivers the environmental outcomes expected and meets the requirements set out below.

If your agreement has a 2010 start date and it expires in 2020, NE will assess it based on environmental outcomes using the criteria below.

If you are not offered an extension for your agreement, we will let you know in time to apply for a new agreement through Countryside Stewardship (CS). Read about the Countryside Stewardship agreements you may apply for instead. You will need to apply using the standard eligibilities and priorities in place at that time.

If your agreement has a 2009 start date that was extended in 2019 for one year, the criteria below will still apply.

Eligibility and regulation

  1. The HLS agreement must not have expired or been terminated on or before the date the extension is accepted by you and received by us.
  2. You must want the agreement to be extended and agree to comply with the continuing rules.
  3. There must not be a need for any further capital works in order to secure the effective delivery of the options under your agreement, during the extension period.
  4. There must be no outstanding land transfers which cannot be completed before the date of extension. In this situation, as an agreement holder, you must make sure all necessary paperwork is complete before the agreement can be extended (including RLE1s).
  5. There must be no outstanding breaches related to the agreement that cannot be put right before the date of extension. In this situation, as an agreement-holder, you must make sure you have responded to all requests for information from us and NE, relating to the breach, and have taken any required action to put right the issues found.
  6. There are no unmanaged areas of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or Scheduled Monuments (SM) on your holding that need to be brought under management.
  7. There must be no other non-compliances with the scheme rules.

Environmental outcomes

Assessments of environmental benefits (outlined in paragraph 1) are based solely on the options in your current agreement.

1) The NE adviser will complete a technical assessment to check the following before making a recommendation to offer an extension:

a. the options in your current HLS agreement remain appropriate for the ES priority target features on the holding

b. at least 80% of the Priority Habitats (PH) on your holding (if applicable) are under appropriate, beneficial options

c. the management prescriptions are being delivered at the point of assessment as set out in your HLS agreement and these options are capable of achieving the required outcomes, as set out in the indicators of success

d. where SSSI land is included in the agreement, the current land management is still appropriate for the SSSI features and NE can give consent without amending the option choices or prescription details and without the need for additional capital works

2) Where your agreement has less than 80% of the PH on the holding under option management in your agreement, it is unlikely you will be offered an extension. The expectation is that you should apply for CS Mid Tier or Higher Tier to bring the unmanaged PH into suitable options. We will only consider an extension for these agreements if there are genuine practical or administrative barriers which would prevent the additional habitat from being managed under a CS agreement. Extension will not be available on holdings with unmanaged SSSI or SM that need to be under scheme options. In that situation you will be expected to apply for Countryside Stewardship.

What additional rules and conditions will apply to an extension?

  1. You cannot use an extension offer to add, remove, or replace options in the current agreement.

  2. Permissive access options HN1-HN7 will be removed from the agreement before making the extension offer.

  3. Educational access items will be retained.

  4. Any incomplete capital works will be removed from the agreement.

  5. Extension is only available for HLS only, ELS/HLS and UELS/HLS agreements.

  6. Extension is not available for Organic ELS/HLS agreement holders;

  7. Extension is not available on any agreement that has no HLS options remaining after any required amendments have been made to remove options that are no longer available. For example, removal of permissive access or woodland options, as described above.

  8. If you have an agreements that has UB17 Stone Walling Restoration you will receive an ELS base map with the revised extension agreement documents. As the agreement holder, you must mark up the stone walling you will be restoring for this extension period on the map. The maximum annual commitment allowed is 40 metres.

  9. You will need to confirm you have management control for the extension period. This means you will need to supply a new Supplementary land ownership and control form with your acceptance declaration if there are any changes to management control under the landlord’s consent for the 2020 agreement year, or if your current arrangements will expire during the extension period. Your landlord will need to countersign the 2020 HLS extension to your agreement. You can download the ‘Supplementary land ownership and control form’.

  10. You will need to supply a new Shared grazing and common land form with your declaration if there are any changes to the commons supplementary arrangements for the 2020 agreement year, or if your current arrangements will expire during the extension period. This includes the associated consultation with all commons rights holders.

If you do not provide new documents to support your extended agreement, we will continue to use the most recent documents you submitted as part of your HLS agreement.

How will woodland be affected by HLS Extension?

If you have woodland options HC7 and/or HC8 in your current agreement with a combined area greater than 3ha, these options will be removed from your extended agreement. The woodland parcels will remain in your extended agreement without HLS payments (ELS payments will continue if applicable). If the HC7/HC8 individual land parcels are less than 0.5ha then the HC7/HC8 option can remain in the agreement to be extended.

However, if you wish to secure funding for ongoing management of these woodland parcels where HC7/HC8 have been removed from the agreement, you will need to do the following.

  1. To apply for CS Woodland Higher Tier you need a Forestry Commission (FC) approved woodland management plan (WMP). You can apply for CS funding to prepare the plan through the Woodland Management Planning Grant (WMP).
  2. Request the removal of those parcels from your extended HLS agreement by contacting us after the FC have approved your WMP, or given approval in principle.
  3. Apply for a standalone Higher Tier Woodland Only agreement. If you do not already have a plan approved by the FC, you should anticipate making your application in 2021 rather than 2020. This is because you need to allow for the time it takes to write a woodland management plan and get it approved (allow at least seven weeks for FC to approve it). Submit your draft plan no later than 31 December to allow enough time to get it approved and make a Higher Tier application. You should also allow for time to apply and receive any Woodland Management Planning Grant agreement if you are applying for funding.

Woodland creation options HC9 and HC10 will be extended.

What if I have a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on my land?

If you are offered an HLS extension and you need a new consent for the ongoing management activities on the SSSI, contact NE to get consent as soon as you receive the agreement extension documents. Then send us a copy of the consent with your signed acceptance declaration. We cannot extend your agreement without the appropriate consent from NE, where this is required.

Will Educational Access be affected?

Educational Access options will be extended. You will need to continue to record and submit a record of these visits, as currently required under the terms of your agreement.

Will extension change the way I meet Greening/ Ecological Focus Areas (EFAS)?

Yes. Where you declare EFAs on your BPS application, you cannot claim certain ELS/HLS options for the same area. This is due to EU rules on double funding. It is still possible to use HLS/ELS hedges for EFA as that is not one of the affected ELS/HLS ‘double-funded’ options. You will need to locate your EFAs accordingly, as you can no longer overlap Environmental Stewardship management options with EFA declared on your BPS application. The Environmental Stewardship options that can no longer overlap are in the table below:

Entry Level Stewardship

Option Code Option Description
EC4/HC4 Management of woodland edges
EC24/HC24 Hedgerow tree buffer on cultivated land
ED2/HD2 Take out of cultivation archaeological features on cultivated
EE1/HE1 2m buffer strips on cultivated land
EE2/HE2 4m buffer strips on cultivated land
EE3/HE3 6m buffer stripes on cultivated land
EE8/HE8 EE8 Buffering in-field ponds on arable land
EE9/HE9 6m buffer stripe on cultivated land next to a watercourse
EF1/HF1 Field Corner Management
EF2/HF2 Wild Bird Seed Mixture
EF4/HF4 Nectar Flower Mixture
EF7/HF7 Beetle Banks
EF8/HF8 Skylark Plots
EF11/HF11 Uncropped Cultivated margins for rare plants
EF13/HF13 Uncropped cultivated areas for ground – nesting birds
EF22/HF22 Extended overwintered stubble
EJ5/HJ5 In-field grass areas to prevent erosion and run - off
EJ9/HJ9 12m buffer strips for watercourses
EJ13/HJ13 Winter Crops

If the options in the table above are declared under your BPS application to meet your EFA requirement, they can no longer be used in your extended HLS agreement. However, if EFA is already declared on your BPS application, you can tell us about any amendments to the EFAs declared. For more information about amendments, read the ‘Basic Payment Scheme: rules for 2019’.

What will happen next?

1) If your agreement started in 2010 and is due to expire in 2020, NE will carry out an initial assessment to see if your agreement may be suitable for extension. If it is, a NE adviser will contact you to determine whether your agreement still meets the rules and continues to provide the environmental outcomes it was set up to deliver. The adviser may arrange a site visit to confirm your agreement is suitable. A site visit may not be necessary if NE already has sufficient knowledge of your agreement. If your agreement includes SSSI land, a visit must be completed.

2) If you do not want to proceed with an extension, you can inform the adviser. You may apply for any of the Countryside Stewardship agreements instead.

3) If your current agreement meets the criteria, the NE adviser will recommend to us to offer an extension to your agreement for one year. We expect NE to complete assessments and make recommendations by December 2019.

4) We will make a decision on extending your agreement and if suitable, we will prepare an amended version of your agreement. To extend your agreement, we will remove any incomplete capital works and any options ineligible for extension. We will send you an extension offer with amended agreement documents, and a declaration for you to sign if you want to accept the extension.

You will need to sign and return the declaration with any relevant supporting documents so that we receive them by the date shown on the covering letter (usually 20 working days).

5) If your agreement started in 2009 and has been extended for one year in 2019, provided you continue to meet the criteria, we will send you updated documents to offer you an extension to your agreement for a further year. You should contact us if there have been any changes to your circumstances. Also, consider whether any changes to your circumstances affect any consents you currently have, for example SSSI consent.

You will need to sign and return the declaration and we must receive it by the date shown on the covering letter (usually 20 working days). Also, include with the signed declaration any other consents and documents if required, for example:

  • SSSI consent
  • Shared grazing and common land form
  • Supplementary land ownership and control form

6) We will record receipt of your signed declaration and your HLS agreement will continue until the new end date.

7) You will need to submit an annual claim by 15 May 2020 in the normal way.

How to appeal if you disagree with our decision about your agreement.

If you are unhappy with a decision we’ve taken about your agreement, you have the right to appeal. You can appeal by filling in a CA1 form with the grounds for the challenge.

For more information read ‘How to appeal’.

You will need to appeal as soon as possible. This is because it may not be possible to extend your agreement after the expiry end date of your HLS agreement, regardless of the final decision.

Published 12 September 2019