THE looming spectre of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could spell an end for some of the county’s hill farmers, a leading academic has warned.

Professor Lois Mansfield, a director of University of Cumbria’s Ambleside campus and one of he country’s foremost experts on upland farming, a hard departure from the EU could push significant numbers of hill farmers out of business.

Her claims were backed by Viv Lewis, secretary of the Federation of Cumbria Commoners, who said a 30 per cent tariff on sheep, as has been suggested, would make UK exports more expensive - meaning less competition.

“Some farmers will survive and some won’t,”said Ms Lewis.

Prof Mansfield’s stark predictions come as she prepares to embark on a major fact-finding visit to Japan this week on a prestigious Churchill Fellowship, which will see her looking at similar areas to the Lake District and probing how marginalised farmers survived against punishing odds.

She said: “There will be many parallels and I want to find out how Japan has operated outside a major trading block since 1945, when they found themselves as an isolated archipelago at the edge of a huge continent.

“A hard Brexit would spell harsh prospects for our hill farmers, who are part of the very fabric they have invested in, continuing the traditions that have shaped our iconic upland landscapes.

“Generations have given a lifetime’s commitment to land and livestock. They have produced, and continue to produce, a huge range of benefits, such as flood management, climate mitigation, biodiversity and recreational opportunities. However, our hillsides, countryside and agricultural system as a whole are now at serious risk.

“Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payments will end when we leave the EU and although government is saying it will continue the funding until 2022, if we crash out tariff difficulties will result in acute levels of hardship.”

Prof Mansfield claimed the loss of hill farming would not just have an adverse affect on the uplands.

“There’ll be a knock-on effect on the lowlands and the whole food industry, resulting in serious supply chain issues. Food we currently produce will have to be imported.”

Prof Mansfield said she needed to find out what made Japanese farmers resilient, the different ways in which they were supported, opportunities World Heritage Status brought to upland agriculture in Yoshino-Kumano national park and alternative income streams.

She added: “In 1946, Japan teetered on the edge, dealing with massive post-war trading blocks and having to go it alone. I want to know how farmers became resilient, their part in cultural heritage, whether that’s art, literature, landscape, food, or whatever to keep farming.

“Here, we have relied upon western systems developed over the last 40 years and need some fresh thinking around culture. I want to develop new ideas for support, based on cultural and social capital, feeding into Cumbria Local Enterprise, the Lake District National Park, World Heritage Site Partnerships and any other areas where hill farming is struggling.

“The real job begins when I get back but I hope that whatever I learn can be of benefit to our hill farmers and the nation as a whole.”

Ms Lewis said lack of clarity over Brexit was eroding confidence among Cumbria’s farmers.

“Hill farmers are already struggling on a low income, and we have the huge problem of some farmers still waiting three to four years for stewardship payments. It doesn’t bode well for the future. If environmental payments are excellent it might be ok.”

She added: “We had two Defra people out last week. We were trying to explain how difficult things are for hill farmers who are incredibly restrained, weather-wise and from quality of land.You cannot just switch to beef from sheep.”