Perhaps not surprisingly, uptake of the Higher Level Stewardship scheme has not really taken off so far.

Most land managers are looking at Entry Level Stewardship first to ensure that scheme dovetails into their business before contemplating filling in the rather daunting Farm Environmental Plan and making the jump to HLS.

The rather limited options in HLS are also putting farmers off.

While ELS applies to the whole farm, HLS schemes are applicable only to areas where an environmental feature can be enhanced or maintained.

It is vital that it also enhances the core business, whether it is conventional farming or game management.

But as the positive effect that ELS has on farm businesses becomes more apparent to land managers, and as existing stewardship schemes come up for renewal, HLS will become more popular.

Indeed, some projects are already under way.

For example, a group of keen duck shooters has purchased an area of land in the River Arun valley renowned for its wildfowl population, from under the noses of the RSPB.

With the aid of an HLS scheme and summer grazing lets, the group has developed a self-funding duck shoot on a well-managed wetland habitat for winter wildfowl.

A second scheme on the South Downs has recreated a wild grey partridge manor, which fits in well with the existing business and is rewarding financially and environmentally.

Many land managers will be forced to look at agri-environment schemes to bolster incomes, particularly if the single farm payment declines in monetary value.

They need not be shy in coming forward – there is little to fear and much to gain.

However, HLS is not for everyone.

The plan must fit with what DEFRA is looking for under the Joint Character Area criteria, and while farmers can make ELS fit the farm, with HLS the situation will determine the plan and how best the land manager, and the taxpayer, can get some benefit.

fwarable@rbi.co.uk

Patrick Godwin, a former farm manager in West Sussex, is now an independent consultant specialising in agri-environmental schemes.