Hill farming leaders have warned the government that reducing the budget that underpins the Hill Farm Allowance will also have knock-on consequences for lowland farmers.

Tightening environmental constraints, rising costs and a severe labour shortage are cited as some of the serious problems faced by hill and upland farmers.

But farming leaders are also warning that the government is failing to recognise the impact on other sectors if hill and upland farms are forced to pull the plug, as a source of premium value livestock for breeding and finishing.

North Yorkshire farmer David Hugill said sheep producers on the North Yorkshire moors were already making big cutbacks in stock numbers.

“Many sheep farmers are now working away from the farm as an easier source of income compared with running sheep.

Labour costs and issues over common grazing are removing any incentive to continue to run big hill flocks,” said Mr Hugill.

And he believed this was the first sign of a voluntary de-stocking that would inevitably affect the availability of breeding sheep for lowland farms.

“If hill sheep flocks decline, the number of Mule sheep bred out of Swaledale ewes – the bedrock of lowland sheep farming in the UK – will also fall. And it’s a similar picture for cattle.

“About 80% of suckled calves bred in Northumberland leave the county for lowland finishing.

If we see a further reduction in the number of hill suckler cows, these finishing cattle will dry up,” said Mr Hugill, who farms near Northallerton and is chairman of North Riding and Durham NFU.

Cumbria hill farmer Will Cockbain, NFU hill farming spokesman, said there were still fundamental issues that needed to be addressed to give hill farmers a fair deal:

“Until such time as Disadvantaged Area land is favoured by the Single Farm Payment and Entry Level Scheme, it isn’t appropriate to remove all upland support.

“We want higher points for stone wall maintenance and we want the removal of the 15ha (37-acre) payment restriction in Severely Disadvantaged Areas and allowances for supplementary feeding.”

Mr Cockbain is calling for a two-year transition period based on the fact that the NFU does not believe the HFA review will meet the January 2007 deadline.

“Any future scheme needs to be implemented for a substantial period to give farmers the confidence and stability to make plans for their businesses.”

The government is considering the responses it has received to its consultation paper on the future of upland support.

jh@jeremyhuntassociates.com