HARD-pressed hill farmers in the Yorkshire Dales must prepare for tough times ahead with potential reductions in subsidy payments likely to push yet more farmers out of the area and cause irreparable damage to its unique countryside, it is warned.
A major study into the viability of hill farms in the Dales has said all producers must prepare themselves for a drop in public support following a revamp of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in two years.
Currently all UK farmers receive subsidies to provide them with a guaranteed income not linked to production via the CAP, something many upland farmers rely upon to stay afloat in the face of poor prices from retailers and processors.
The current CAP budget only runs until 2013 and its future is being debated. Some predict hill farmers will receive as little as half of the support money that they do now.
The study, produced on behalf of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and Nidderdale Area of Outstanding National Beauty, said there were already signs of decline taking place in the Dales, with levels of livestock having reduced significantly in recent years.
Its authors, Yorkshire-based farm consultancy business Andersons, said any reductions in the number of farmers would have a serious economic impact upon the area, as well as causing significant ecological and environmental changes.
Greg Ricketts, one of those behind the report, told the Yorkshire Post that concern was mounting on the matter.
"The industry is expecting support will decline," he said. "There is no magic answer but there needs to be market prices which support the cost of production and historically this has not been the case.
"A lot of incomes are not sufficient to cover the cost of farmers' own time and labour."
Mr Ricketts stopped short of saying this was the end for farming in the Yorkshire Dales, however, pointing to the resilience of farming throughout history but warned some may have to look at cost-cuttting measures to survive.
Uplands account for around 30 per cent of the British landscape and the report states much of the sector's dependency on subsidies is due to retailers and food processors choosing to pay farmers for their food based on commodity markets rather than the cost of production, resulting quite often in farmers having to make a loss.
Another major concern of the authors is that farmers who quit the area will only be able to sell their farmhouses and not the land, meaning more commuters, lifestyle buyers and retired people will move to the Dales with fewer farmers operating in the area.
Should more farmers quit it would mean a trend towards larger operations and less labour being used, it said. Any reductions in labour it said would mean a drop off in routine maintenance of quintessential Dales characteristics such as dry stone walls and hedges and the traditional skills of maintaining them will be lost.
And a lack of a viable hill farming sector will result in less attraction to new entrants, it added.
One Yorkshire hill farmer, Stephen Ramsden, from Middlesmoor, near Pateley Bridge, said that farmers did not want to rely on subsidy payments but that returns from farming were simply not strong enough to allow this.
"The financial situation in hill farming is dire and the medium to short-term outlook could result in economic meltdown for the uplands," he said.
"Young farmers cannot get in. The reduction in livestock has been dramatic in recent years on the back of poor returns. There needs to be a better relationship between farmers and government."