FIFTY hill farmers in Cumbria have been given emergency payment grants this year in an industry increasingly relying on hand-outs 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 with ‘cow cake and pellets’ has been severely reduced, which will lead to more burdens on farmers’ pockets.

To aggravate the situation, the corn-based feed 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, says 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 Aug-ust 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.”