‘ELS applications rejected as computer can’t cope’

Farmers are being prevented from signing up to environmental stewardship because a government computer cannot cope with fields that have more than one owner.

Growers who share a field with one or more farmers are finding their Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) applications rejected if in-field boundaries are unmarked and another co-owner has already signed up to the scheme.

Dozens of farmers who wanted to “do their bit” by implementing environmental measures were seeing their good intentions thwarted, suggested Ian Backhouse, chairman of the NFU’s combinable crops board.

Mr Backhouse, who farms at Goole, Yorkshire, said he shared several large fields with his neighbours, including one 112ha block comprising 21 land parcels occupied by 10 different claimants.

“In this area in particular, there are a lot of farmers in this situation,” he told Farmers Weekly. “We’ve been banging on about this for six months, but no-one seems to be listening.”

A recent requirement for farmers to mark in-field boundaries with white posts was unacceptable, said Mr Backhouse. “In some areas, the countryside will become a forest of white posts. What’s more, they are a nuisance.”

The situation could be easily resolved if Natural England’s computer database was adjusted to accept field suffixes. “We are letting the IT system drive what happens on the ground, rather than the other way round.”

Paul Egginton, Natural England director for business systems improvement, said there were a relatively small number of parcels where two land managers share the field but there is no permanent boundary separating the managed areas.

“In these cases the boundary may be distinguished using the long-standing practice of marker stones or posts. Alternatively, farmers could have a shared arrangement under which just one of them applies for ELS on that field.”