1 November 1996

Integration of stewardship scheme call

By Tony McDougal

MAFF is to look at integrating three of its smaller agri-environment schemes within its countryside stewardship package.

The habitat, countryside access and moorland schemes, which have all suffered from poor uptake, could be integrated within countryside stewardship once their five-year pilot phase is completed in 1998/99.

It follows growing concern from farm unions and environmental groups that the multiplicity of schemes within the agri-environment package was confusing farmers and in danger of duplicating conservation efforts.

MPs argued MAFFs £70m agri-environment package would be unable to achieve its objectives while farmers receive sizeable headage payments, which led to a massive over-production of sheep in upland regions.

Edward Leigh (Con, Gainsborough and Horncastle) told the Commons agriculture select committee meeting on Wednesday: "When one considers the totality of environmental damage as a result of support schemes, the agri-environment package acts merely as a palliative."

There was also concern expressed at MAFFs takeover of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, which has seen ADAS staff advising farmers but MAFF regional service centres administering the scheme.

Ann Winterton (Con, Congleton) criticised the lack of public accountability in the scheme, while Ieuan Wyn Jones (Plaid Cmyru, Ynys Mon) expressed Countryside Commission concerns that there had been a duplication of costs.

There were pleas by Robin Corbett (Lab, Birmingham Erdington) for a higher level of expertise among advisory staff, while Colin Pickthall (Lab, Lancashire West) said it was time MAFF came to terms with the problems of getting commons into environmentally sensitive area schemes.

Peter Boiling, head of MAFFs countryside division, said ESA ADAS project officers had made 8800 visits to applicants and agreement holders in the past year.

Mr Boiling told MPs that socio-economic studies had shown that 220 full-time jobs had been created during the duration of the pilot countryside stewardship scheme.n