Hundreds of hill farmers face missing out on vital environment payments because they are being locked out of a five-year agreement for looking after the uplands.

Farmers will have to sign a five-year agreement if they are to be rewarded for delivering environmental and landscape benefits under the proposed Upland Entry Level Scheme, which is due to replace the Hill Farm Allowance in 2010.

But many tenant farmers will be unable to sign the agreement because they rent land on an annual basis. Their landlords refuse to enter longer-term tenancies – especially in areas where there may be opportunities to sell land for redevelopment.

Scheme requirement

Frank Chislett, NFU council member for West Yorkshire, said up to 300 small-scale farmers in his area rented land under short-term agreements and so stood no chance of meeting the scheme’s first requirement.

“The scheme is effectively open to landlords rather than farmers and many producers have no chance of taking part,” said Mr Chislett. “It is pitching farmer against farmer and farmer against landlord in a way that was never intended.”

Lib-Dem shadow DEFRA secretary Tim Farron said the hill farming allowance accounted for a quarter of the average farm’s income. Urgent action was needed to ensure a future for upland producers, he added. “As it stands, the draft replacement for the hill farming allowance does not protect hill farmers.”

Bleak future

Hill farmers faced a bleak future unless the scheme was made more accessible, said Mr Farron. “The proposed rules are excessive and will leave most hill farmers at risk of losing their funding.”

DEFRA acknowledged that there may be a “barrier to entry” for short-term tenants, who would be unable to access the new scheme unless they had their landlord’s agreement to a five-year commitment.

But this was a national issue for all agri-environment schemes, rather than specific to the uplands, it insisted. The new upland scheme would not come in until 2010, so farmers had time to adapt their business practices if they wanted to be eligible.