A flagship Government policy to encourage tens of thousands of farmers to enter environ-mental schemes has become a complete shambles, say agricultural leaders.
The National Farmers Union said inadequate Government computer systems had left 26,000 people unable to apply for the Entry Level Scheme, which offers grants to farmers for carrying out environmental work.
Ministers had hoped the scheme, introduced as part of major reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, would ensure 70 per cent of British farmers would carry out key eco-friendly work.
But Tim Bennett, president of the NFU, told delegates at the Royal Show in Warwick-shire that many farmers had been unable to apply for Environmental Stewardship Schemes.
He said just 2,400 out of the 28,000 farmers who had asked for application forms had been able to join.
"This is a flagship Government policy. The NFU advocated a general environ-mental scheme that would be potentially open to all farmers. It has potentially great merits. It is part of the modern agenda - rewarding farmers for producing goods and services for which there is no normal market," said Mr Bennett.
"So it is very disappointing that so far 28,000 farmers have asked for application forms and only 2,400 have actually been able to apply," he said. Problems have arisen because the Government has been unable to access maps of farms needed before applications can be processed.
"I don't want to be told in six months time that farmers aren't enthusiastic about agri-environment schemes. We have sold it in the NFU - we have got tens of thousands of people wanting to join and so far they have only managed to process 2,400 applications.
"The real important thing is that we can get a guarantee payment date. Cereal farmers, in particular, need to take cropping decisions now to enter the scheme, and they are just not going to do that without some guarantee of reward," Mr Bennett said.
"People need to get this sorted before they get into harvesting - they are livid, they have spent weeks on the scheme, it is a flagship policy for Government and yet they can't administer it."
He dismissed concerns from farmers who believed the failure to enter the scheme was part of a Government plot to prove CAP needed further reform.
"Farmers are saying it is deliberate and they need it not to work because they have got a bigger agenda, but this is far too sophisticated a plot - I believe in the cock-up theory in why it isn't working.
"I can't emphasis enough my frustration about this. We have got to find a way to get as many farmers as possible into the Entry Level Scheme because it is so important."
Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett admitted there had been teething problems with the scheme but disputed the NFU's figures.
She claimed 40,000 farmers had asked for application forms with 29,000 applying.
She added: "There is no doubt that it has not proceeded as smoothly as we wish but 29,000 have applied. We do recognise that there are some difficulties and people are working hard to resolve it. This is the very infancy and inception of the scheme."