21 February 1997

Stewardship raise tempered by delay

INCREASED payment rates within the countryside stewardship scheme, announced by government this week, have been welcomed by farming and wildlife groups.

But praise has been tempered by calls for MAFF to sort out delayed payments, over-subscriptions and problems in administering the scheme, which it took over from the Countryside Commission last year.

Government has provided an extra £5m for new agreements as part of a three-year £15m pledge announced last year. Junior farm minister, Tim Boswell, said increased payments will apply from Oct 1 this year to farmers for managing lowland hay meadows and pasture, chalk and limestone grassland, recreating grassland and regenerating heather on improved land.

"We are determined that successful applications will offer the best environmental value for money for both the countryside and the taxpayer," added Mr Boswell.

Andrew Clarke, NFU environment adviser, welcomed the extra funding, which helped place payments for hay meadows and grasslands on an equal footing with environmentally sensitive area rates.

Mr Clarke added that it should be MAFFs priority to handle applications properly. Last year, the scheme was vastly oversubscribed with only 1335 applications approved out of 2545.

Farmers who had their applications approved last year have had to postpone work because of payment delays. But they have received a letter of apology from MAFF.

Nick Milton, Wildlife Trusts agricultural campaigns officer, welcomed the new £2/m hedgerow payments, which now cover laying, coppicing and restoration.

But he hoped MAFFs budget would be better linked to demand. "The trusts work hard to promote the scheme and it can be heartbreaking when applications get turned down because of lack of funding."n