Much of the multimillion-dollar government funding for schemes to manage three ecologically important sites on private land could end up in the hands of canny villagers who drive a hard bargain for rent. Environmentalists gave this warning yesterday as green groups chosen to run three pilot projects prepared to open rent negotiations with the landowners. The groups have been awarded $4.6 million from the Environment and Conservation Fund to design and run the two-year projects in Tai Po and Long Valley in partnership with farmers and landlords. The Tai Po Environmental Association was awarded $1.74 million to take care of an area of 170,000 sq ft at the butterfly haven in Fung Yuen, where more than 160 species of butterflies have been recorded. It has reached agreement with villagers on good practices for butterfly conservation that require them to protect vegetation and refrain from hunting butterflies. The Conservancy Association and Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, awarded $1.61 million and $1.36 million respectively, will have separate programmes in Long Valley, where more than 210 bird species have been recorded. The two organisations have pledged to improve farming methods, set up a direct-sale network of organic crops and introduce new crops to keep and attract birds. The Conservancy Association will manage 238,000 sq ft and the birdwatchers 250,000 sq ft. All three groups have yet to strike a deal with landowners on site rental, though they have initial ideas on the exact plots to rent. Ng Cho-nam, of the birdwatching society, admitted the rent could take up a substantial amount of the money. 'If it is $1 per sq ft, it amounts to $500,000 of the funding,' he said. The Conservancy Association's Lister Cheung Lai-ping said the group might face a rent increase when it entered talks with villagers. Yau Wing-kwong, of the Tai Po group, refused to speculate on the possible rent. Environmental Protection Department assistant director Eric Chan Sui-wai said the exact rental would depend on the nature of activities the organisations would introduce but admitted individual groups might have to pay more. The department would consider releasing the rental payment amount once the organisations successfully entered a deal with villagers.