Consternation grows as farmers fail to apply for support scheme

ONLY one eligible farmer in 10 has applied to join a new hill farm support scheme when it starts at the beginning of July.

The figure is embarrassingly low both for Defra – which set a target of 80 per cent participation – and for farmers' leaders, who said the end of Hill Farm Allowance would cause widespread desperation.

Its replacement, an environmental stewardship option known as the Uplands Entry Level Scheme (UELS), was designed to be open to nearly everyone who claimed Hill Farm Allowance.

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While that was a straightforward subsidy for farming poor land, dating from wartime, the UELS is based on a complicated formula for measuring activities and inactivities helpful to conservation.

Under the leadership of Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn, Defra dismissed all complaints about it on the basis it would suit the vast majority. But it now turns out only 30 percent of eligible farmers have even asked for an application pack – and only a third of those were submitted by May 1, the deadline for first payments from July 1.

Membership can start at any time after that and Natural England, which put huge effort and money into developing and promoting UELS, still hopes take-up will improve. So too do the farmers' organisations, who do not want either the Government or the public to get the impression the money is not needed.

The regional office of Natural England said last night that about a fifth of its potential UELS customers were still seeing out alternative schemes with time left to run.

Even so, the scale of the apathy adds to pressure on the new Defra team to look at the scheme again.

The coalition Government has already declared its intention to "develop a system of extra support for hill farmers".

And Conservative Farming Minister James Paice is on the record – from the NFU conference last February – agreeing to investigate the complaints of Halifax beef producer Frank Chislett, who has been saying since the start that the UELS rules were going to exclude many tenant farmers like him.

Mr Chislett said last night: "Clearly, there is more than one problem."

He said the much-criticised Rural Payments Agency had made it hard to get UELS applications in on time, because it was late with corrections to the computerised maps on which claims must be based.

The NFU said the mapping problems had kept farmers busy with their main grant claims, which are more important than the UELS allowance in most cases.

There is also apparently some confusion about a so-called "transition payment" for hill farmers who cannot join UELS until they have finished contracts with other schemes.

"A lot of farmers wrongly think it means they are all covered for the gap between HFA and UELS, according to an NFU adviser for the Yorkshire and Humber region, Laurie Norris.

"Now lambing is over, we can expect more farmers to get around to applying," she said. "But Natural England still has a lot to do to raise awareness and understanding of the scheme."

It was the Tenant Farmers' Association which raised the alarm yesterday, after getting Natural England to admit only 2,488 UELS packs had been issued and only 886 had come back, compared with the 9,408 farmers estimated to be eligible in England.