A statement by a senior DEFRA official has prompted speculation that cuts will be made to the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme as part of the department?s 40 per cent budget reduction. The spokesman was reported as saying: ?We are not going to scrap HLS altogether. What we might do is cut the growth in HLS.? About 3,500 farms were expected to sign up to the scheme in the next 12 months, but it?s now uncertain whether the agreements will go ahead. It is thought the 5,100 deals already in place should not be affected by any possible cuts.

The HLS scheme, which aims to deliver environmental benefits in high priority situations, can be worth up to £20,000 per year to farmers. Dr Stephen Tapper, director of policy at the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, said: ?HLS is the flagship stewardship scheme and so any reduction in funding will be a very disappointing set-back for our farmland birds and conservation. However, if this is the case, then the lower Entry Level scheme will need to have a major shake-up in order to ensure that wildlife are not the ultimate losers of funding cuts.?

Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance said: ?Though it?s a shame if the HLS is restricted, we would rather see funding maintained for the Entry Level Stewardship scheme, which applies to more people. The countryside needs less subsidy and less interference. It needs to cut red tape to free people to maintain the rural economy without relying on handouts from the Government.?

The rest of this article appears in 25th August issue of Shooting Times.

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