Years of valuable conservation work could be put at risk as many farmers reaching the end of agri-environment schemes are unable to start new agreements, three leading farming organisations said today.

A backlog of farmers awaiting payments for environmental work, some up to nine months, is also unacceptable and needs to be sorted quickly.

The NFU, CLA (Country Land and Business Association) and TFA (Tenant Farmers Association) are calling on Government to make Countryside Stewardship fit for purpose and enable farmers to continue their good environmental delivery through stewardship schemes.

NFU Deputy President Guy Smith said: “As recently as 2014 we had more than 70 per cent of farmland involved in environmental work through entry and higher level stewardship schemes. The vast majority of farmers wanted to continue doing it when their current arrangements ended.

“Huge investment has gone into achieving environmental gains on farmland. But farmers are telling us as their agreements end that they don’t see the current scheme as a realistic option - the risks of falling foul of the rules is too high and Natural England are struggling to convert sufficient expiring HLS agreements into Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship.

“Government must seriously consider alternative approaches to securing continued delivery of agri-environmental schemes, including the continuation of ELS and HLS agreements." We need to make sure that Stewardship is fit for the future.

“It’s also totally unacceptable that farmers are being forced to wait for payments. How can you run a business when payments for work that’s been carried out aren’t made on time?”

Tim Breitmeyer, President of the CLA, said: “As farmers and landowners, we are rightly proud of the environmental delivery we have achieved through agri-environment schemes – many farmers delivering Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) or similar schemes for more than 20 years.

“Alongside producing affordable food for the nation, these schemes allow us to deliver for the environment; managing and maintaining 70 per cent of the landscape; planting or restoring 30,000km of hedgerows, creating 37,000km of grass margins. I know just how passionate our members are about nurturing and enhancing our countryside. But it is critical that the government fulfils its contractual obligation of timely payment.”