South west farmers are calling on the government to pay farmers the money they are owed for work that has been done on environmental schemes, without further delay.

Hundreds of farms across the region are part of ‘stewardship’ agreements, which pay farmers for delivering additional work like caring for hedgerows, planting wildflower margins in fields, managing flood risk and providing nesting plots for birds including skylarks, lapwings and stone curlews.

Following an application process, agreements generally commence in the autumn, with agreed payments being made in two parts in November and then the following June, after the extra work has been carried out.

But in the second half of 2017 an attempt to update the maps used to record which hedges and boundaries are included in the scheme backfired spectacularly, causing scores of errors. At the same time Defra announced changes to the scheme for 2018 to make it ‘streamlined’ and ‘simpler and easier’ to apply.

Ironically, the opposite proved to be the case and, between them, these blunders mired the 2018 application process in delay and confusion and caused enormous delays in payments to farmers who had signed up in 2017.

Hundreds are still waiting for payments to be made. Against the background of a difficult winter which has brought increased costs, this has made balancing the books even more difficult than usual.

Mark Pope, a Somerset farmer and chairman of the NFU’s environment forum, said farmers were growing increasingly frustrated at having to wait for an indeterminate length of time to be paid large sums of money for work that had already been done, on top of day-to-day farming work.

“As farmers, if we enter into a contract it will say we agree to pay someone by a particular time and then we will stick to it. In fact if you don’t, you will soon be in trouble. But we have to sign contracts with no payment date.

“The environmental work we have done costs money, having to wait for sums of £10,000 to £20,000 is not uncommon and that has a big on cash flow and the bottom line.

“If after Brexit we are moving to a situation where more emphasis is going to be placed on environmental schemes, then I have to say this situation is certainly not going to inspire people to sign up.”

Mr Pope said he believed the problem was one of chronic under-resourcing.

The NFU is calling for:

• Full payment to be made now, rather than (as was originally proposed) a 75% payment in November, followed by 25% in June.

• Extending the May 15 claim deadline for those waiting for 2018 agreement offers.

• 2018 applicants to have more time to submit soil samples, currently expected by May 15.

• Guidance to agreement holders/applicants on dealing with the impact of remapping.