A NEW environmental stewardship scheme for farmers has been generally welcomed by organisations concerned with the countryside.

Some have tempered their enthusiasm, however, with a warning that the three-part scheme announced by the Government must be adequately funded if it is to be a success.

The D&S Times last week reported fully on the principles and practices involved in the new scheme, described by Defra as a watershed in the way England is farmed and designed to allow all farmers to earn money by looking after and improving features on their land.

They will be able to receive payment for looking after hedgerows, making habitats for birds and small mammals and for creating wild flower plots for bees and other beneficial insects on arable set aside.

Payments will also be made for protecting ponds from pesticides and fertilisers, for encouraging amphibious creatures and for a wide range of other environmental measures.

The aim is to reduce the decline in wild bird populations, increase all other forms of wildlife on farms and cut pollution.

In one of the three categories, entry level stewardship, a pilot scheme for upland farming was conducted in the Barnard Castle area and was said by the Campaign to Protect Rural England to have proved ideal for local conditions.

About 100 farmers and representatives of country organisations attended Rudding Park, near Harrogate, when the scheme was officially launched in the Yorkshire and Humber region by the rural development service of Defra.

It replaces the current countryside stewardship scheme and the environmentally sensitive areas scheme.

CPRE said it was pleased that one of the key recommendations of the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food had been realised with the introduction of entry level stewardship.

Senior rural policy officer Ian Woodhurst said: ''Unlike previous agri-environment schemes, environmental stewardship presents all farmers across England with a real opportunity to receive financial reward for the many hours of work they put into managing our landscapes, wildlife habitats, rights of way and the historic environment that provides so much pleasure to people who live in or visit the countryside.

"CPRE is particularly pleased that the maintenance and enhancement of landscape character is a primary objective of the scheme. Applicants to the more demanding higher level environmental stewardship will be asked to complete a basic landscape character assessment of their holding."

Mr Woodhurst warned: "Now the scheme has been launched, the key issue is to ensure that the UK receives a bigger and fairer slice of European rural development funding when decisions on this are made in the next few months."

Douglas Chalmers, Northern regional director of the Country Land and Business Association, also welcomed the new scheme but said: "The only cloud on the horizon is whether Defra will be successful in its negotiations with Europe to have enough money in the pot to fund the scheme from 2006."

Andy Bunten, regional director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: "Environmental stewardship recognises that farmers have a vital role to play in safeguarding wildlife and that they need public support for this important job.

"The loss of wildlife from our farmed countryside over the past 30 years means that the song of the skylark and the call of the corn bunting are a distant memory for many people.

"Farmers have also been concerned at the dramatic decline and this new scheme is a great opportunity to reverse it."

The origins of the new scheme can be traced back to the report by Sir Don Curry after foot-and-mouth, calling for a system which was easier to administer and could attract more farmers.

It is expected to require the annual budget of £150m for environmental land management to be more than doubled in the next few years.

Stokesley environmental farmer Robert Campbell, who chaired the Rudding Park launch, said the new scheme offered a wonderful opportunity and farmers ''must grab it with both hands,'' although there would be problems and difficulties.

Mr Campbell said he was one of 57 farmers eligible to apply for higher level stewardship but warned: "The application process is far from straightforward and made infinitely more complicated by the internet and electronic application form."

Meetings to explain the new scheme to farmers are held at Chop Gate on Monday, Catterick on Wednesday, Danby on Thursday and on April 9, Easingwold on April 7, Northallerton on April 20 and July 6, Leyburn on April 20, Reeth on May 11 and Nawton, near Helmsley, on May 18.

Farmers should call 0113 2303749, and attendance is on a first-come first-served basis.