Farmers in low-lying coastal areas should be helped to maintain sea walls – even when it is deemed too costly to do so, the government will be told.

Landowners should be allowed to repair walls, even when Environment Agency officials believe doing so is economically unviable, suggests a two-year project looking at ways of managing coastal change.

Farmers who agree maintenance is too expensive should be encouraged to consider alternative responses, the study found. This could include the creation of wildlife habitats, such as saltmarsh, and diversification into enterprises such as marinas.

Some 200 Essex farmers were involved in the study, which set out to uncover ways that coastal landowners can best adapt to increased flood risks caused by climate change and rising sea levels. A final report is expected this week.

Stretches of the East Anglian coastline and adjacent farmland have already fallen victim to government decisions that have seen sea walls and flood defences purposely abandoned as sea levels have risen.

But NFU regional policy advisor and project leader Paul Hammett said: “We want to make sure all farmers on the coast have a choice. They need to be given some control over their own destiny.”

Mr Hammett added: “If one day the Environment Agency decides to walk away from maintaining a stretch of sea wall, then farmers should be given the opportunity of maintaining that wall themselves.”

Andrew St Joseph, who farms at Tollesbury, said sea levels were rising by 4mm annually. By carrying out simple maintenance tasks, farmers could leave Environment Agency officials to concentrate on more complicated repairs, he said.

“A lot of farmers already maintain sea walls as and when necessary. But by encouraging more of a ‘stitch in time’ approach, we can help maintenance budgets go further at no extra cost to the state.”

The Environment Agency said many factors influenced sea wall maintenance. These included how long defences would be sustainable or affordable. In some locations, investment in defences may cease to allow for managed change of the shoreline.