FIFTY hill farmers in Cumbria have been given emergency payment grants this year in an industry increasingly relying on handouts to make ends meet, according to a farming charity.

The little-known Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution has reported that this summer’s washout weather has seriously affected hill farmers who already operate in the most hostile farming terrain in the country.

It has emerged that a “triple whammy” of substandard hay supplies, inflated corn prices and low returns on lambs this year mean hill farmers are facing one of their hardest financial winters in recent years.

The combination of problems means that the quality and quantity of grass harvested to sustain hardy livestock over the cold snap has been severely reduced, which will lead to more burdens on farmers’ pockets.

To aggravate the situation, the corn-based feed "cow cake," which farmers would use as a supplementary alternative to keep sheep and cows fed during the winter has also soared in price due to a poor corn-growing season and increased demand due to the shortage of good hay, say the Oxford-based charity.

Added to the fact that many farms have not got the right prices for their lambs this season which has affected profit margins, means many are financially struggling and turning to charitable handouts.

The dire state of affairs seems to endorse a chilling report earlier this month from Oxfam, which reported that farmers were more likely to spend on feeding their animals than themselves due to a shortage of money.

Caroline Lamb, the charity’s North West representative covering five counties, says the latest figures showing demand for grant aid during the June to August period in Cumbria was up two thirds on the year before.

The figure amounted to extra payouts totalling £4,000 more than 2011 - with the fear of more to come as the industry enters its leanest season.

The charity has also given more grants out in Cumbria than anywhere else in the North West, including Northumberland, another hill farming hotbed. Caroline said: “There’s a saying make hay while the sun shines, and unfortunately this year, it hasn’t. It’s the relentless rain affecting the quality of the hay sileage coupled with the price of corn. Lamb prices have gone down and hay is about £60 a bale.”

One local hill farmer’s wife, who asked not to be named, said she and her husband farmed cows and sheep and ran a tourism enterprise as well as taking on extra jobs to keep afloat.

She said costs for everything had gone up from repairs to Landrovers, feeding, worming, dipping and the cost of mending walls.

“For us we just keep doing it because it’s in the blood. We don’t do it for the money. The farm is just about paying for itself. It keeps the Landrover going and the electric bill and that’s about it. We wouldn’t be able to live where we do if we didn’t.”