Defra staff are said to be clamouring to take early retirement after they were offered up to three times their annual salaries plus a bonus to leave their posts.

In a cost-cutting exercise dubbed in some quarters as "the most generous redundancy scheme in history", Defra parliamentary secretary Helen Ghosh has put out an appeal for 300 staff to take voluntary redundancy and ease the pressure on the department's strained financial resources.

A spokesman for Defra insisted it needed to ensure it was running in the most cost-effective way, in line with its commitments under the Gershon Efficiency Review.

"This includes reducing the number of people who work at Defra. We would like to achieve as much as possible by people moving on voluntarily," he added.

The department has had a programme in place to reduce staff numbers by 1,400 since the Gershon review in 2004. The spokesman confirmed that about 300 staff across all levels had already taken voluntary early retirement or voluntary early severence.

Defra stressed its priority was to ensure it retained the people whose skills it needed to deliver a "renewed Defra" and that it was looking at each redundancy request on a value-for-money basis.