Key information for agri-environment scheme agreement holders

Environment and climate
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We've outlined key information and changes for those already in ES (Environmental Stewardship), CS (Countryside Stewardship) and HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) agreements. A important change that creates a range of flexibilities for agreement holders is the move of all existing EU agri-environment agreements onto domestic T&Cs (Terms and Conditions).

Changes to T&Cs

All existing EU agri-environment agreements moved to domestic (UK) T&Cs (Terms and Conditions) on 1 January 2023.

The move allows for a simplification of the schemes which in turn will help to create greater flexibility and opportunities for agreement holders, an ask the NFU has continued to lobby for. These flexibilities are outlined below. 

Affected agreement holders should have been contacted directly by the RPA (Rural Payment Agency) about this change. Agreement holders should read the updated T&Cs however no further action is needed.

A summary of the main changes to the T&Cs is available on GOV.UK for each scheme:


Site visits and administrative checks

There is greater flexibility to the RPA's approach to site visits (previously called inspections) and administrative checks.

This includes a longer notice period given to agreement holders before a site visit and in some cases virtual site visits.

The field officers (previously called inspectors) will take a new supportive and farmer focused approach. More information about this approach can be found on this RPA blog: RPA’s new supportive, partnership-based approach to visits | GOV.UK

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Breaches, repayments, and penalties

Where there is a difference between what is being delivered in the agreement and what is being claimed the RPA, following checks, will recover any difference.

If the RPA has already paid the agreement holder, they will recover the difference.

Additional penalties however will not be applied but reductions will still apply to late payment claims.

There will be no payment recovery for exiting an agreement early and entering another environmental scheme.

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HLS extensions

The RPA is offering up-to five-year extensions to eligible HLS agreements expiring in 2023.

Eligibility for the extensions is assessed by Natural England. It is expected that the majority of extensions expiring in 2023 will be eligible.

The RPA will be in contact with agreement holders whose HLS expires in 2023, in many cases extension offers are already being sent out. The extension offer will run from the end date of the agreement and will be like-for-like. Options or land cannot be removed, replaced, or added.

The RPA have confirmed that if a scheme breach is identified in the extension period, any recoveries will only be applied back to the start of the new extension.

If you receive an extension offer you should consider whether there have, or will be, any changes to your circumstances including if current consents or arrangements expire during the 5-
year extension period. If you would like to proceed with the extension, you will need to accept the extension and provide up-to-date consents (e.g., SSSI) and supporting documents.

Agreement holders requiring a shorter extension period should contact the PRA.

You can find more information on HLS agreement extensions at: GOV.UK | Higher Level Stewardship 2023: agreement extensions.

If you think you're eligible, but haven't received an offer, or you change your mind, you can contact the RPA by emailing [email protected] before your current agreement expires. If you're not eligible, the RPA and/or Natural England will you know in time to apply for a new scheme.

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Transferring between schemes

The ability to move between agreements is another one of the flexibilities created as a result of existing EU agri-environment agreements moving to domestic T&Cs from 1 January 2023.

This flexibility has initially been applied to applicants with a new five-year HLS extension looking to move to a CS 2024 agreement.

Agreement holders can now leave an agri-environment agreement early if they are successfully accepted onto another environmental scheme that provides as a minimum equivalent environment management.

The process for transitioning between other schemes, such as from CS to SFI, is still being finalised.

Leaving HLS for CS

Guidance on leaving HLS agreements early to move to Countryside Stewardship has been published by the RPA.

To allow those thinking of leaving an HLS agreement to apply for a CS 2024 agreement, an ‘intention to move between land management schemes form’ had to be completed. The deadline to complete this was 1 July 2023. Applications for 2024 CS Higher and Mid Tier agreements have now closed.

For more information on transferring between schemes, visit: GOV.UK | How to leave your Higher Level Stewardship agreement early to apply for Countryside Stewardship

For more information on Countryside Stewardship, visit: NFUonline | Everything you need to know about Countryside Stewardship 2023/24

Barn Farm example – leaving HLS for CS

Barn Farm has a HLS agreement that expires in June 2023. The farm has the choice to extend their HLS agreement for 5 years and/or apply for CS Higher Tier agreement starting in January 2024.

Barn Farm could accept the 5-year HLS extension offer from the RPA and apply for a CS agreement to start in January 2024. If the CS application is accepted it will be possible under the new T&Cs to transfer the HLS land into the CS agreement, removing any gap between one agreement finishing and the other starting. This will require a CS application to be submitted in the early part of 2023.

Barn Farm will need to notify the RPA that they intend to leave their HLS extension early and will be applying and starting a CS agreement from January 2024 onwards. Barn Farm will need to read the RPA guidance and complete the ‘intention to move between land management schemes form’ before applying for a Countryside Stewardship agreement during the 2023 application window.

If accepted this agreement will start on the 1st January 2024. More information about CS 23/24 can be found at: NFUonline | Information on Countryside Stewardship 2023/24

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Agreement co-locating

The block preventing more than one agreement in a parcel will be removed.

  • From 2023 onwards a CS revenue application (Higher Tier, Mid-Tier...) can be submitted for any unused land in a land parcel with an existing HLS or CS agreement on.
  • This will allow multiple agreements on the same land parcel as long as there is no overlap, agreements would essentially sit side by side.

Further key updates:

CS option GS4 on land parcels containing an historic feature

Following NFU lobbying CS option GS4 (legume and herb-rich swards) can now be offered on land parcels that contain a historic feature, as long as the option is not on the historic or archaeological feature and there is a suitable buffer area.

This will be offered to applicable CS agreements that start from 1 January 2023.

Where GS4 has been removed in 2021 and 2022 agreements because of the presence of a historic feature, the agreement holder can request an amendment to their agreement in line with this change.

Amendments for these agreements should be requested. Visit: RPA Minor and Temporary Adjustment Form | GOV.UK

If agreed, the amendment will take effect from the 1 January 2023.

Stacking CS/ES/HLS and the SFI

Defra will not allow payment for the same action twice. Some of the scheme actions are however different, this means that some options and agreements can be stacked in the same area. Interaction between an SFI agreement and CS depends on the standard and type of agreement (revenue or capital).

More information about how SFI interacts with CS/ES/HLS can be found at GOV.UK | How an SFI standards agreement interacts with other funding schemes.

Defra is aiming for a single integrated online service where farmers can select the combination of actions across SFI and CS that work for them. 

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