Northern Ireland agriculture minister Jeff Rooker is being urged to reverse plans to delay the introduction of the entry level scheme (ELS).

In a joint letter from the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the World Wildlife Fund in Northern Ireland, the minister is told that there was widespread expectation the ELS would come in this year.

“Many farmers decided against applying for the more detailed Countryside Management Scheme on the presumption that ELS would by now be available,” says the letter.

The fact it was being delayed until 2008 was a “major blow”.

The problem first came to light earlier this month, with publication of the department of agriculture’s draft budget.

That called for a 16.4m saving, to be made by shelving the ELS for another two years.

“The ELS would have helped engage the more intensive end of the farming industry in small-scale environmental projects,” said RSPB conservation officer Giles Knight.

A DARD spokesman said that the draft budget was up for consultation until 5 December and the views of all interested parties would be taken into account.