By Andrew Shirley

CONCERNS ARE growing that farmers wanting to join the Entry Level Stewardship Scheme at the earliest opportunity could miss out because they might not have the necessary Rural Land Register maps.

These are vital because DEFRA is insisting that all land entered into ELS must be registered with the RLR and applications accompanied by its digital maps. The first round of the scheme will start in August, with payment in February 2006, and the deadline for applications is May 31.

A DEFRA spokesman said: “ELS is meant to be an administratively simple and inexpensive scheme to operate. This would not be possible if we did not use RLR maps as the basis for applications.” Farmers still had plenty of time to apply, he added.

However, Anthony Gibson, NFU south-west director, said many were still waiting for their maps. “We are getting calls all the time. Other than set-aside, there are more calls on this than anything else.”

Mr Gibson said DEFRA”s advice to those affected would be to apply at a later date – the scheme has four payment windows each year – and miss out on at least three months of payments, or use earlier maps that didn”t include all of their land.

But, by choosing the latter, farmers could lose valuable payments of 30/ha (12/acre) over the next five years. This is because ELS agreements run for a fixed term and it is not possible to add extra land during that time.

Neither option was acceptable, said Mr Gibson, who knew of one farmer who would lose 3000 if his application was delayed. “I don”t see why farmers should pick up the tab for DEFRA”s shortcomings.”

Philip Butcher, of Wilts consultant Howard Smith, said there were problems with the maps for the vast majority of the firm”s 95 clients. Some had received none at all and those who had needed to amend the original RLR maps had either not received the updated copies or they had been updated incorrectly.

“This is not good at all.” Mr Butcher said the RPA had told him the errors were “glitches” but wouldn”t put anything in writing.

Helen Curnow, of Strutt & Parker, said the delay was partly due to changes in the eligibility requirements for land entered into ELS. “Originally woodland couldn”t be included but now it can be.”

That had spurred many landowners to register extra land, she added. “I would say about 70% of our clients did this and none of their final maps are back yet.”

An RPA spokesman said it had received more applications to register land in the last few months that it would normally get in a year. He said the organisation would seek to prioritise registrations from farmers preparing to enter environmental stewardship agreements if this was made known.