Cumbria's struggling hill farmers will not be left high and dry when direct payments are phased out in four years’ time.

That was the pledge made by farming minister George Eustice at a high-profile farming conference.

It is claimed some of Cumbria’s uplands farmers are forced to survive on less than £7,000 a year.

Mr Eustice said a number of options were being looked at.

He said they could make available grant-aid to help uplands farmers invest in their farms, improve genetics and infrastructure.

Earlier, Mr Eustice, who had been addressing the future of farming at the Northern Farming Conference in Hexham, faced fierce criticism of the “shambolic” way the farm payments system operated in England.

A representative from the National Sheep Association said scores of uplands farmers, including some in Cumbria, had yet to receive their 2015 farm payment.

“It has got to a critical point where many have had bailiffs at the doors, and are forced to accept donations from recent harvest festivals,” the conference was told.

Mr Eustice said that as far as he was aware all commons farmers had now received their 2015 farm payments – and part-payments had been made earlier in the year.

The farming minister, who first spoke at the event three years ago, updated delegates on the Government’s plans for a future for food and farming post-Brexit.

He said he saw leaving the EU as an opportunity to move to a “totally different way of supporting farming”.

George Eustice He added: “One of the things we’ve floated is whether we could move to a totally different type of system where you help farmers manage risks. We could look at insurance schemes to protect farmers against collapse, and tax incentives to help them set up a cash reserve, and instead of spending it on machinery, it could be set aside for a rainy day.”

There was also the potential to reward farmers who committed to practices such as “catchment sensitive farming”, which aims to reduce water pollution, said Mr Eustice.

“Obviously these schemes would be more tailored to individual local eco-systems,” he added. “Cumbria is very different to Cambridge, for example in the differing types of rainfall and soil management.”

Doing so would support farmers in a “more more natural, holistic way” than the Common Agriculture Policy system.

During question-time Mr Eustice was quizzed on the problem of bovine TB, which it was said had migrated into Cumbria and was now moving into neighbouring Northumberland.

He was asked if the EU funding given to combat the devastating disease would still be available post-Brexit.

Mr Eustice said he was committed to making low risk areas, like Cumbria, bovine TB-free by 2020.