Almost one in four English farmers are unlikely to renew environmental stewardship agreements when they end, suggests a survey.

Low support payments and too much paperwork top the reasons among the 23% of farmers who say they are unlikely to sign up again when Entry Level Stewardship agreements expire over the next two years.

In a further setback to the government’s agri-environmental policies, fewer than 40% of farmers questioned said they were willing to take land out of production now set-aside had been abolished.

The state of the nation Farmers’ Voice study was carried out by ADAS farm business consultants. Senior consultant Mark Temple said: “The findings are a timely insight into the views and perceptions of the farming industry.”

Survey results were published on Monday (17 August). But the survey itself was carried out in February this year – before the government abandoned controversial plans for a compulsory set-side replacement.

Even so, conservationists said the findings were a useful indicator of attitudes ahead of this autumn’s launch of the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, aimed at encouraging more producers to implement voluntary environmental measures.

Gareth Morgan, RSPB head of agricultural policy, said the survey highlighted much more needed to be done “These results confirm that “do-nothing” on set-aside was never a viable option,” he said.

The fact that some growers planned to leave land out of production to benefit wildlife was encouraging. But Mr Morgan added: “The figures on ELS renewals are worrying as this scheme is central to getting more wildlife into the farmed countryside.”

A planned awareness campaign highlighting the importance of ELS would be vital this autumn if the government was to meet its target of having 70% of English farmland within an agri-environment agreement, said Mr Morgan.

Officials at Natural England, the government’s landscape agency, are already looking at the report with interest. Producers needed to double the uptake of key ELS in-field options and progress would be closely monitored, said a spokeswoman.

“Farmers are aware of the need to play their part in order to avert a regulatory approach in the future and, therefore, the work of the campaign will also include encouraging farmers with expiring agri-environment agreements to renew.”

A DEFRA spokesperson said ELS and previous schemes had been extremely effective in delivering environmental benefits on farmland. Information on additional measures farmers could take would be published later this autumn.