A Cumbrian farmer warns challenging times are ahead for an already struggling sheep industry. 

A difficult market with retail wars, a softening of lamb and mutton consumption and the exchange rate have led to many sheep farmers working on very thin margins, with little spare capacity, says National Farmers Union Cumbrian council delegate, Alistair Mackintosh.

“We have free trade markets with Europe, so why would we jeopardise that by leaving the European Union in June?” asks Mr Mackintosh, who farms beef and sheep at Ravenglass, in west Cumbria.

“In 2007 when we had another outbreak of foot and mouth our lamb exports halved overnight. The same thing would happen if we left the EU.”.

Mr Mackintosh’s comments came as Defra Secretary Liz Truss met Cumbrian sheep farmers on Monday to deliver a stark warning about the threat the industry would face if the UK voted to leave the EU.

Mrs Truss claimed tariffs that could be imposed by the EU if the UK leaves could add an additional £155 million to the cost of lamb and mutton exports. This would make British lamb a less attractive prospect for Europeans compared to New Zealand and Australian competitors.

British lamb still does not have access to the US and China markets, so the EU is a particularly important export destination, Mrs Truss said.

Forty per cent of all the lamb and mutton produced in the UK went to the EU in 2014, with the EU accounting for 97 per cent of all lamb and mutton exports. This brings £290m to the industry.

Mrs Truss said: “Sheep farmers in Cumbria and across the uplands are a vital part of the British countryside, but without the benefits the industry enjoys from our membership of the EU the very future of this iconic industry could be under threat.

“The single market is essential for British lamb – 40 per cent of all the lamb reared in the UK goes to Europe. Outside the European Union, farmers could face quotas and tariffs as well as a red tape double whammy of having to follow both UK and EU rules.”

“Less trade could result in significant price falls, damaging the incomes of the 10,000 sheep farmers who depend on it.”

She warned these impacts would be particularly felt by hill farmers such as those in Cumbria, as 40 per cent of the UK’s sheep breeding flocks are based in the uplands.

She added: “This makes a vote to leave the EU a huge leap into the dark for our food and farming industry and threatens the livelihoods of thousands of British farmers.”

John Geldard, the owner of the farm near Kendal where Mrs Truss visited, and a former Chair of the National Sheep Association, said: “An exit would mean sleep walking in to the unknown, a totally unacceptable scenario.

“Many sheep farming and rural businesses are working on very thin margins with little spare capacity.

“To exit the EU with an accompanying four to five years of complete uncertainty would be reckless. To remain in the EU would ensure security and strengthen our current positioning.”

“With all the problems the sheep industry is currently facing, why would we choose to leave the biggest market? If we do we will see no less regulations and red tape,” said Mr Mackintosh.

Lib Dem leader and Cumbrian MP, Tim Farron said it was “shocking” that Liz Truss visited Cumbrian farmers without addressing the fact that many of them were still waiting for their farm payments.

He said commons farmers in the county were particularly very badly hit.

The Rural Payments Agency had initially committed to paying “the majority of eligible claims in December”, and then said that the “vast majority” would be paid by the end of January. The agency then insisted it would pay “between 92 per cent and 95 per cent by the end of March.

The head of the RPA told a select committee that “pretty much all of the commons payments” would be made by the end of March. However, even as late as last week the agency had only managed to complete 91 percent of claims.

Now the Government has said “nearly all” 2015 payments will be completed by the end of June.

“The administration of the Basic Payment Scheme by the Rural Payments Agency this year has been an utter shambles. Farmers are facing a difficult time due to market conditions, as well as the impact of the floods, but the problems have been massively exacerbated by the RPA,” said Mr Farron.

“Commons farmers are bearing the brunt of this failure. Liz Truss must acknowledge the hardship this has caused – farmers need serious action to ensure this is never repeated, not ministerial visits,” he added.