Farmers’ enthusiasm for the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme is being dented by problems dogging the application process, NFU president Tim Bennett has warned.

Opening the NFU conference in Birmingham on Monday (27 Feb), Mr Bennett said it was “tragic” that farmers were being prevented from joining the scheme by computer problems at the Rural Development Service.

An NFU survey has shown that there was a real desire by farmers to join the ELS, but 10% of producers were still waiting for the necessary paperwork.

Over half of the 300-plus farmers who responded to the survey said they had delayed an application because of a lack of confidence in the system.

“It is tragic that the real enthusiasm with which farmers greeted these schemes has been soured by poor implementation,” he said.

“The good news is that despite the shortcomings over 1.6 million hectares are already under environmental agreements, but DEFRA needs to iron out the application system before farmers become disillusioned and give up.”

During his speech, Mr Bennett also drew attention to the problems with implementing the Single Payment Scheme.

Payments had now started but the union was really worried about the long tail of payments that wouldn’t be paid by the end of March, he said.

“It really is nothing short of a tragedy that the CAP reform of 2003 should go so badly wrong on the ground.

“When we should have been thinking about the market, we’ve been struggling with digital maps, reading reams of guidance and trying desperately to get through to call centres.

“For some it is way beyond a distraction, it’s a huge anxiety about the very viability of their businesses as payments have been delayed.”