The government has been told that farmers are getting sick and tired of the problems that continue to dog the Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship schemes.

The NFU warned frustration was building among producers after DEFRA announced that technical problems meant the first HLS agreements would start in early 2006 and not on 1 Nov, 2005 as anticipated.

The department confirmed that similar problems to those that have plagued the ELS have slowed progress down on the more targeted HLS.

Junior DEFRA minister Lord Bach said that farmers who had an existing agri-environment scheme agreement that was coming to an end would be offered a temporary extension, so payments would continue.

“While HLS agreements will take longer to establish than we had originally anticipated, every effort will be made in the coming months to maximise the contribution of current agri-environment agreements,” he said.

But Peter Kendall, NFU deputy president, said the announcement showed that significant improvements were needed in the application process for both the ELS and the HLS.

“We are in very real danger of losing momentum unless the painfully slow ELS application process is streamlined and the HLS introduced at the earliest possible date,” he said.

“Frustration is building among farmers who have already fulfilled the requirements of these schemes at significant cost and effort, but whose applications are stalling further up the line.”

DEFRA is celebrating the fact that more than 6000 farmers have joined the ELS and applications have topped 1m hectares (2.4m acres), but Mr Kendall said he was extremely disappointed by ongoing delays.

He called on DEFRA to manually process all HLS applications which have been submitted on time and to use the delay to simplify the application process.

“The Farm Environment Plan, which farmers are required to fill out as part of their applications, is simply too detailed, too costly and in some parts irrelevant,” he said.

For more on environment schemes see p19.

isabel.davies@rbi.co.uk