Farm payments make up most of Cumbrian hill farms’ annual income, according to a new report.

Last year, agri-environment schemes, including Uplands Entry Level Stewardship schemes, averaged 52 per cent of Less Favoured Areas (LFA) farm income, at £9,800 per farm, once all costs were allocated.

Similarly, says the report released by researchers from Newcastle University, income from Basic Payment Scheme payments averaged £17,700 per farm, effectively making up 93 per cent of the average LFA farm income.

The new report, which analyses the financial situation of the UK’s hill farmers, highlights Brexit concerns to a sector which is “crucial” to the rural economy and landscape.

University researchers examined financial results from 225 grazing livestock farms in the LFA of England.

It therefore comes as no surprise that 90 per cent of the designated Less Favoured Areas of Cumbria are in the Lake District.

A report for the Lake District National Park Partnership, Farming and Forestry Task Force released four years ago revealed that upland farm earnings on average were £8,000 a year, less than half the income that an agricultural worker would expect.

The results of Newcastle researchers highlight the diverse income streams that top- performing hill farms are reliant on, with 44 per cent of income coming from non-agricultural sources.

Although agriculture generates the majority of revenue on LFA grazing livestock farms, it is generally a loss-making activity once all costs are allocated to the various income streams, says the report.

The average LFA grazing livestock farm income was £19,000 last year, yet the agriculture aspect of the business averaged a net loss of £10,800 per farm.

“Perhaps more than any other sector, grazing livestock farms in the LFA are reliant on non-agricultural sources of income,” says researcher Charles Scott from Newcastle University. Diversification is being regarded as a ‘vital’ source of farm income, yet, says the report, sheep farms in the LFA are relatively ‘un-diversified’.

Income from diversification on Severely Disadvantaged Area (SDA) sheep farms last year was just £1,500, or four per cent of total revenue, in comparison to seven per cent for the average English farm.

Recently, at a sheep farming showcase event, hill farmers underlined the need for a change in emphasis by national policymakers charged with delivering a sustainable future for deeply rural communities and cherished landscapes.

The National Farmers’ Union hill and upland forum chairman, Robin Milton, spent a day with hill farmers at North Sheep at Tow Law in County Durham.

“The overwhelming message from everyone that I spoke to was that a change in approach is long overdue. Policymakers must not only recognise all the goods and services delivered by the uplands, they must also put farmers at the heart of policy development and delivery,” said Mr Milton.

He added: “For too long, hill farming has been measured primarily by its environmental output, but of course as well as producing food we do so much more, and there is real potential to help solve some of the country’s most pressing problems.”

Three issues were raised by hill farmers and these included BPS payments on commons; the impact of Brexit uncertainty on local farm businesses; and a ‘huge fear’ over the direction of agri-environment schemes.

Mr Milton said that despite progress in delivering the 2017 farm payments, many commoners were still waiting for issues to be resolved, and this was placing vulnerable farm businesses under immense pressure.

Cumbrian MP Tim Farron warned that the new Defra secretary Michael Gove must ‘listen to farmers more than he listened to teachers’, or risk putting the livelihoods of farmers at risk.

Former education secretary Mr Gove was appointed Secretary of State for Defra in Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle following the general election.

“Nobody expects politicians to be experts in everything, but it is vital that he listens to experts and to those who are actually involved in British farming,” said Mr Farron.

He added: “The government is about to embark on a new national agricultural policy to replace the Common Agricultural Policy, and this will have massive implications for the future of British farming.

“If Gove only listens to lobby groups in London and fails to listen to farmers in places like Cumbria, we run the risk of losing payments which are a lifeline for many local farmers.”