Those looking after their land in an environmentally sensitive way have started to reap the rewards of a scheme set up to encourage sustainable agriculture.

Under Defra’s Environmental Stewardship initiative farmers are encouraged to take steps to conserve wildlife, maintain and enhance landscape quality and character, protect the historic environment and natural resources and promote public access and understanding of the countryside.

This week Defra has announced the achievement of two major milestones in the delivery of the scheme.

Firstly, Entry Level Stewardship payments are now underway on the earliest agreements.

In all, some 13,000 land managers have entered into scheme agreements covering over 1.5 million hectares of land since August 2005.

The payments on these agreements will total nearly £47 million over the first year, with over £8m being paid to farmers within the next week.

Secondly, Higher Level Stewardship agreements have now gone live for the first time as first wave of agreements came into effect on February 1st.

Sustainable Farming Minister, Lord Bach, said: “I am delighted that the first Entry Level Stewardship payments are now being made to those land managers who entered into agreements at the very first opportunity in August 2005.

“These agreement holders are now receiving a proper financial reward for delivering effective environmental management on their land.

“The Entry Level strand of Environmental Stewardship is building strongly and we already have over a million and a half hectares of land under five year agreements.”

“I am equally delighted to announce that the first Higher Level Stewardship agreements went live on February 1st.

“These agreements can now begin to deliver significant and targeted environmental benefits, addressing some of our top priorities across England.

“Providing the first financial rewards to the land managers who have acted as pioneers in joining the scheme is a significant step.

“We want to get 60% of farmed land in England under Entry Level Stewardship agreement by the end of 2007.

“Hopefully, the fact that our first agreement holders are now receiving payments will act as an incentive for other farmers, particularly the many thousands who have received application packs but have not yet applied, to join up and help us achieve this target.

“Everyone who does join is adding to the positive impact this scheme is making in protecting our countryside.”

The stewardship schemes present an alternative income stream to farmers traditionally reliant on crop subsidies and similar eco-friendly payouts are available to sons and daughters of the soil prepared to go organic, grow energy crops, turn open fields over to woodland and train the rural workforce to manage land more sustainably.

by Sam Bond

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