Farmers who choose to extend their agri-environment scheme agreements ahead of Brexit could be penalised under the terms being negotiated by Defra and the EU Commission.
Industry bodies the CLA, NFU and Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA) joined forces this summer to demand Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements be rolled over as they expired.
In a letter to Defra Secretary Michael Gove, they warned years of valuable conservation work was being put at risk because farmers were refusing to enter the ‘shambolic’ Countryside Stewardship scheme.
But now some fear an extension deal being negotiated by the department could open the door to excessive penalties which will put farmers off rolling over their agreements.
Under the terms of the deal, Government would be able to claw back cash from the very start of any agreement if there was a breach after extension, even though farmers who had previously breached an agreement would not be eligible for such an extension.
TFA chief executive George Dunn said: “The Government has had months of negotiations with the European Commission and we are still facing fundamental difficulties in confirming the arrangements for extensions.
“With Defra handpicking those agreements suitable for extensions and having to confirm agreement holders are not in breach of their existing agreements, we do not see why those offered an extension should be threatened with recovery of funds from the very beginning of their original agreements if a breach is discovered in the extension period.
“In offering the extension, Defra should be able to wipe the slate clean at that point and deal with any breaches only within the timeframe of the extension.
“Adding further risk and uncertainty will only lead to fewer people taking up the option.”
A Defra spokesman said: “We are exploring options to extend a number of agreement holders with HLS agreements expiring in 2019, pending further discussions and approval from the European Commission.
“This would ensure that these agreements continue to deliver important environment benefits, as set out in the 25 Year Environment Plan.
“Customers will be contacted by the end of 2018 to advise them about the options and next steps.”