Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) was introduced in 2005, to provide support to farmers and other land managers in managing land for important environmental benefits. It is run under the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) and contributes to strategic priorities for biodiversity, natural resource protection, sustainable farming and food and sustainable rural communities. HLS agreements are developed by the land manager with support from Natural England (NE) project officers and input from other organisations that give advice to farmers. The scheme closed to new entrants in 2014, but existing agreements will continue for their ten year lifespan. Although the importance of providing good quality advice and support in the achievement of outcomes from agri-environment scheme agreements is widely recognised, the evidence base is largely anecdotal.
This project was set up to generate more substantive evidence of the impact of advice and support on the achievement of HLS agreements and scheme outcomes, in order to inform delivery of agri-environment schemes under the next Rural Development Programme. This project was run in parallel with another project, which complemented an NE desk-based QA exercise and compared with results of a field survey. Whilst both projects studied the impact of advice and support, the other project covered agreements established in 2013 under new Natural England (NE) guidance, whereas this project was concerned with the impacts of agreement set-up and subsequent management, advice and support on progress towards agreement outcomes, for agreements established pre-2009.
The project objectives were:
- to assess progress towards the achievement of intended HLS agreement outcomes, including the assessment of feature condition in relation to agreement Indicators of Success (IoS);
- to assess observed results of management in relation to agreement management prescriptions (MPs);
- to gather and analyse information on advice and support provision in order to assess its quality and appropriateness, including information from agreement holders, NE staff and third parties;
- to evaluate the relationship between quality, appropriateness and timing of advice provision and progress towards or achievement of agreement outcomes.
These objectives were achieved through a combination of interviews with agreement holders, interviews with those providing advice and support and field assessments, and field assessments to evaluate the condition of habitats and features being managed under the scheme and hence the progress towards achieving the intended outcomes of the agreement. A total of 100 agreements initiated before 2009 were assessed, sampled at random across the English regions. The study began in September 2013 ended in January 2015.