18 February 2000

Stewardship recruits

GOVERNMENT policy on farm support took a further step towards environment and rural development-related payments as MAFF announced it wanted 3000 new recruits for its Countryside Stewardship Scheme.

Junior farm minister Elliot Morley said on Monday he wanted to double the number of farmers joining the scheme – which offers payments to farmers to carry out conservation work such as providing and protecting habitats and maintaining hedges and dry walls

The target reflects the extra £16m available for new agreements through the modulation of direct subsidy payments this year. New recruits this year will receive grants in October 2001.

Mr Morley said expanding the scheme fulfils the governments desire to protect the farm environment and develop the rural economy. "It is part of our new direction for agriculture," he said.

He said it will be a "challenge" to attract the extra applicants needed to fill the scheme by the deadline of May 31, although he insisted the scheme was very popular with farmers. Last year, around half the farmers who applied to join the scheme were turned down because of a lack of resources.

The announcement was broadly welcomed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which called the funding "the most important step this government had taken towards securing a viable future for farmland birds and other wildlife".

NFU president Ben Gill welcomed the move but said his only regret is that part of the funding of the scheme comes from the "nearly empty pockets of farmers". It is widely accepted the stewardship schemes do little to enhance profitability.