A PILOT agri-environmental scheme for the Barnard Castle area was launched this week when 188 farmers within the scheme's 10,500 hectare boundary were invited to a meeting at Greta Bridge on Tuesday night.

The new entry level agri-environment scheme is one of only four being piloted in the country. Barnard Castle was chosen as the test area for upland farms.

It is designed to run for two years and will then become national in 2005.

The scheme aims to attract a large number of farmers to introduce, or continue, simple but effective environmental management practices on their farms.

Cara Courage, pilot scheme co-ordinator with the Rural Development Service, said eligible farmers could choose a range of options to suit their farm and be rewarded for doing so. The options covered everything from walls and hedges to historic features, through to creating or improving habitats for upland birds.

"It includes the sensitive management of rush pastures for upland wading birds like the snipe, curlew and lapwing," she said.

Enhanced management techniques for hedges could result in more berries for the birds in winter.

"They are simple and sometimes small activities which, when taken on by a large number of farmers over a large area, have a big effect," she said.

Historical features include dry stone walls and hedges - important landscape features in areas such as Teesdale - as well as actual historical remains such as Roman forts and earthworks.

The scheme has the backing of the National Farmers' Union, the Country Land and Business Association, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, English Nature and English Heritage.

David Hirst of the Northern Region RSPB, said the organisation was very excited about having the pilot scheme in the region. "This is a fabulous area for wild life with potential to be even better," he said. "We are testing this exciting scheme here and want it to be a success so that all farmers can get involved as quickly as possible; it could be the last best chance for yellow wagtails, lapwings and skylarks.

"It is a great opportunity and we hope many farmers will want to take part and make it the success it can be."

Alan Hunter of English Heritage was also keen for farmers to realise what features are on their land. "We hope farmers will pick up more on the heritage side than they have before and ask questions about features they have lived with most of their lives but which they have not been aware of."

Farmers within the pilot scheme area can apply to join or receive an application pack from Cara Courage on 0191 214 1800.

Defra advisers are also running a series of workshops for those interested. They will explain the scheme options, requirements, payment rates and rules; outline how to make a successful application; and answer queries and provide guidance on applications.

The meetings are at Romaldkirk Parish Hall on Wednesday and on Thursday, March 27, and at Bowes Parish Hall on Thursday, March 20 and Tuesday, March 25. Each runs from 7pm-9pm.