Farmers are pulling out of the Higher Level Stewardship scheme because of frustrating delays during the application process, according to wildlife management consultants.

West Country region Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group consultant Adam Lockyear said: “It certainly can be a long and drawn out affair, although progress varies around the region.

Edward Gallia, a farmer and independent consultant in Dorset, said his clients were extremely frustrated by the delays. “We have a contract that we hoped would begin in October. After a year’s discussion with Natural England, we only received an application pack on 15 December. With wheat at £200/t I’ve got clients who are understandably ready to throw in the towel.”

Other issues were conflicting guidance given by project officers, and demands for farmers to adopt priority ELS options or face rejection of their HLS application.

“It’s very difficult to tell whether advisers have too much on their plate, or are struggling with bureaucracy, lack of support, or the computer system they have to deal with. But we were having exactly the same problems six or seven years ago.”

Robert Lasseter, outgoing chairman of Dorset NFU, said he had spoken to many farmers who were no longer proceeding with HLS applications. “It’s just not worth the hassle. We were in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme for 10 years and tried really hard to get into the HLS. But Natural England wanted me to do so many more things with a larger area of land that it became untenable.

“Fixing a large proportion of your land at rates relating to costs forgone for 10 years makes the scheme uncompetitive. The environment is worth more than just the cost of farming foregone; it’s invaluable. And that’s the crux of the problem – how do you value something invaluable? Not using the current system, that’s for sure.”

David Hirst, spokesman for Natural England, said that setting up new HLS agreements could be a complex procedure. “We hold regular meetings with agents and industry representatives to discuss the application process and keep them up to date with the schemes and the progress of individual applications.

“We are aware that application packs for some stewardship agreements due to start in 2013 have been delayed because of the need to produce revised handbooks. This issue has now been resolved. Our advisers are working hard to ensure that all HLS applications are on track to start on the dates agreed.”

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