Land Stewardship

Land stewardship are strategies and instruments through which landowners and land users engage with each other to conserve nature on the property of the landowner. It usually comes in the form of a voluntary contractual or informal agreement between the landowner and public or private association to manage target habitats and/or species on the property of a landowner. Landowners and Land stewardship organisations can be public or private and their actions not only take place on land, but also in fluvial and marine ecosystems. This tool can be seen as a means of mutual understanding between landowners and land stewardship organisations to jointly preserve natural, cultural or landscape values.


Key characteristics

Stewardship contracts/agreements are very heterogeneous in form and scope as they range from informal verbal agreements to written contracts registered in the land registry. Public administrations can be involved in the agreement as (1) the owner of the land, (2) facilitating agents of the agreement or (3) managers of a land for conservation purposes not in their property. If owners or managers of a private estate commit with a private entity to preserve or restore (part of) the natural, cultural and landscape values of the property, the tool to use is a stewardship contract.
In conservation contracts or agreements, a conservation organization and an individual landowner agree to a series of actions to be implemented in the property. For that, an environment of mutual trust between the landowner and the organization is needed. Especially since this kind of contracts, imply reciprocal obligations where usually the landowner grants access to his/her property so that the conservation organization can develop conservation-oriented actions such as protect species, restore habitats, and if desired undertake additional activities such as volunteering, educational activities or research. The duration of the contracts and agreements is temporal in most cases and negotiated between the parties.
Depending on the needs, the contracts or agreements can take the form of management support or management transfer agreements. When the land management is transferred, the owner of the land can still own the goods produced by the property. While stewardship is a popular tool, a structural economic support and an EU wide legal approach are still lacking. Consequently, the legal frameworks between countries might differ and approaches that are of use in one country might not in another country. Additionally, parties often lack the legal knowledge on how to implement a stewardship contract or agreement and how to proceed in the case of an early agreement termination.

Key Characteristics:

  • Contracting parties: a conservation agreement or contract is established through an agreement between a landowner and a public or private non-profit organisation or another kind of conservation organisation.
  • The contractual agreement to establish a conservation agreement or contract is voluntary on both sides.
  • The stewardship agreements can take the form of verbal agreements up to written contracts.
  • The stewardship agreements or contracts are tools specifically designed for conservation purposes, which means that its scope is tailored to the conservation value and objectives of a specific property.
  • Land rights always stay with the owner, in some cases could require an agreement on management support or management transfer, and in other cases some land rights might be previously assigned to any of the parties while setting up the contract and they might not require previous consultation.
  • The duration of the contracts and agreements is temporal and variable, and the duration is negotiated between the parties.


  • Landowner: landowner plays a central role. A landowner can promote the agreement, sees its environmental benefits and maintains the basis of the agreement.
  • Stewardship organisation: public or private, non-profit organisation that carries out initiatives that include the implementation of land stewardship agreements for the conservation of natural heritage and biodiversity. Land stewardship organisations are either private non-profit organisations (associations or foundations: conservation associations, landowner association, neighbourhood associations, cultural associations, etc.) or in some EU countries public organisations such as town councils and consortia for the management of natural areas.
  • Public administration: in some EU countries they can act as owner of the land, facilitating agent of the agreement or managing the land. They can support stewardship through incentives, subsidies or tax deduction.
  • Universities and research centres and technical consultants: stewarded land can be subject of research and education.
  • Land registry: can be involved when the stewardship involves real rights.
  • Notary: can be involved if the landowner and stewardship organisation agree to document de contract establishment (this is not a requirement). 
  • Civil society: can be involved through volunteering activities, environmental education or training. They can also benefit from the goods and services provided by the stewarded land.

Rights and obligations

Conservation contracts or agreements could be subject to real rights or personal rights . The formalization of the contract does not impose conditions upon the landowner as these are the result of the negotiation between the parts within the contract or agreement. In the case of conservations agreements subjected to real rights, there are similitudes with conservation easements in the sense that the contract “runs with the land” regardless of changes in property rights. Land rights always stay with the owner but require an agreement on management support or management transfer. In some cases, the contract or agreement involves conditions to monitor the evolution of the contract and the environmental indicators of the implemented conservation actions.

Duration of rights

The duration of the contracts and agreements is temporal and variable. It is recommended to sign contracts for longer time periods (25) years, but actual duration is negotiated between the parts and must appear in the contract. After the finalization of the contract, the parts can renegotiate and extend the contract/agreement or it can be terminated and therewith all contents of the agreement or contract. Agreements and contracts last from 1 year up to 99 years. (For ex. 10 to 15 years being typical in regions as Catalonia or 5 to 10 years in Czech Republic.) Real rights last up to 99 years and tend to be longer than contracts under personal rights (i.e. 30 years).

Purpose and application

The purpose of stewardship contracts and agreements typically encompasses species or habitat conservation of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal or marine ecosystems. They can also involve habitat restoration and, environmental education or volunteering activities.

Legal basis

It can have legal basis, although it is not present in all countries. It is based on tools of real right or personal right. Examples of legal frameworks are:

  • Civil code of Catalonia (art. 623-34), in this case: freedom to the parties exist to set the contract terms, including obligations and the breach, the duration or guarantees, and the general contents.
  • Law 42/2007 on Natural Heritage and Biodiversity, Spain. The concept and mechanisms of stewardship are integrated into the domestic legal system through article 3 and under Title V on: “Promotion of knowledge, conservation and restoration of natural heritage and biodiversity”.
  • Law 40/2015 of 1 October 2015, on the Legal Regime of the Public Sector of Spain, for stewardship in which the public sector is involved.

Economic transactions and fiscality

Stewardship contracts or agreements are based on the voluntary agreement between the parties and no economic transactions are involved. However, in some countries, governments apply a specific fiscality on these properties, with tax benefits and discounts. Stewardship agreements can involve costs for the conservation organisation as of the writing of the agreement and possible notary costs. Furthermore, the monitoring and enforcement of the conservation actions usually involves material and personnel costs. These costs are not necessarily borne by the stewardship organisation but can come from public budgets in the form of funding programmes or as tax deduction.


Stewardship contracts and agreements have a flexible time frame and can be adapted to each case without implying legal burdens to the landowner. Under climate change scenario the flexibility in time frame of stewardship agreements and contracts can be an advantage to adapt to new environmental conditions. Shared opportunities can be the gain of visibility and public recognition, the engagement in networks of diverse actors or the contribution to the long-term sustainability of a land with environmental values.

Opportunities for landowners

  • Agreements are flexible in their description and duration and, if required, when subject to personal rights it can be ended if the landowner’s interest changes (i.e., succession, cases of disagreement between the parties or changes in legislation). However, it is recommended that parties renegotiate and search new ways for a prosperous dialogue and collaboration, with early termination as last option. In the case of real rights of partial use, contract can only be ended by the landowner after the period fixed by law.
  • The recommendation is to sign contracts for long time periods such as 25 years, which is a generational perspective.
  • Other contracts regarding farmland use, hunting rights, timber exploitation, etc. can be complementary on the same land if they are not against the interest or the objectives of the stewardship contract.
  • In some cases, stewardship organization can
    • Serve as contact point for the landowner to provide information and advisory services on financial, technical or legal nature conservation issues.
    • Provide nature management advice and hence facilitate formation.
    • Act as a broker for financial support to implement nature conservation activities by i.e., capturing public funds or promoting products and services.
    • Support on on-site interpretation, habitat improvement, technical assistance and (public) recognition for biodiversity’s values through a trustworthy cooperation (i.e., voluntary labels).
  • Fiscal incentives with benefits and discount on taxes or access to subsidies.
  • Contribute to the Social Corporate Responsibility strategy of companies.
  • In some countries like Spain, parties can also choose if they want to establish an agreement strictly among themselves or establish rights on the land enforceable against third parties.
  • Both parties decide together on their duties and restrictions in the agreement.

Management transfers are an interesting option when a landowner or nature conservation organization is not interested in the use and management of the land himself/herself or if they prefer to increase the biodiversity value of the land through a specialized management by the organization or if the organization wants to transfer the management to another landowner

Opportunities for conservation NGOs

  • Contribute to establishing a larger framework to achieve conservation objectives in a transparent and formalised way.
  • Promote active nature conservation through volunteers in new spaces.
  • Get involved with research projects and funding for nature conservation on the stewarded properties.
  • Expand high value nature areas without land purchase in a cost-effective manner for the conservation NGOs.


Stewardship contracts and agreements have a flexible time frame and can be adapted to each case without implying legal burdens to the landowner. Under climate change scenario the flexibility in time frame of stewardship agreements and contracts can be an advantage to adapt to new environmental conditions. Shared opportunities can be the gain of visibility and public recognition, the engagement in networks of diverse actors or the contribution to the long-term sustainability of a land with environmental values.

Barriers to landowners and NGOs

  • There does not yet exist a structural economic support to stewardship.
  • Even if in most countries legal recognition of stewardship exists, a comprehensive EU wide approach is lacking.
  • Differences among legal systems throughout Europe could imply that frameworks applied in one country, might not be completely appropriate for another countries. The exact fitting will depend on each country own legal system.
  • Parties often lack the legal knowledge to set up a concrete plan on the commitments of both parties and the procedure in case of an early agreement termination.
  • Need to build up trust with the involved parties, which can be time consuming

Barriers to landowners

  • Lack of examples and references in the surrounding properties.
  • Lack of experiences and hence knowledge on land stewardship tools and contracts. Landowners might need legal or technical advice.
  • In case of early termination, depending on the contractual conditions, a real right is a legal power exercised by a person (natural or legal) over an object, while personal rights are established between persons, it could bear compensation costs to the stewardship association.

Barriers for conservation NGOs

  • While the flexible time horizon can be a benefit for landowners it can pose insecurity to stewardship organizations and the natural, landscape and cultural values of the property.
  • When stewardship contracts are established under personal right (according to the civil code of Spain), if the landownership changes during the duration of the contract, the contract automatically will be cancelled unless specified differently in the contract (this is not the case for real rights of partial use).
  • Stewardship contracts and agreements can be terminated at any moment which can bear costs for the stewardship association if investments in the stewarded land have been made. If contracts are terminated early, the stewardship association might not be able to afford the cost of a legal process. A way to overcome the risk of early termination is to write contracts that foresee this possibility or restrain this possibility.