Defra Secretary Liz Truss was due to meet Cumbrian sheep farmers on Monday to deliver a stark warning about the threat the industry would face if the UK voted to leave the EU.
Lamb prices could crash and the entire sheep industry would be under threat if the UK vote to leave the European Union in June, Defra Secretary Elizabeth Truss has warned today.
During a visit to meet Cumbrian hill farmers, Mrs Truss claimed tariffs that could be imposed by the EU if the UK leaves could add an additional £155 million to the cost of lamb and mutton exports.
This would make British lamb a less attractive prospect for Europeans compared to New Zealand and Australian competitors, she said.
But Farming Minister and leading Brexit campaigner George Eustice has responded to his boss’ claims by arguing the UK be able to negotiate a new free trade deal with the EU, which would avoid the imposition of new trade tariffs.
British lamb still does not have access to the US and China markets, so the EU is a particularly important export destination, Mrs Truss added.
Forty per cent of all the lamb and mutton produced in the UK went to the EU in 2014, with the EU accounting for 97 per cent of all lamb and mutton exports. This brings £290m to the industry.
Mrs Truss said: “Sheep farmers in Cumbria and across the uplands are a vital part of the British countryside, but without the benefits the industry enjoys from our membership of the EU the very future of this iconic industry could be under threat.
“The single market is essential for British lamb - forty per cent of all the lamb reared in the UK goes to Europe. Outside the European Union, farmers could face quotas and tariffs as well as a red tape double whammy of having to follow both UK and EU rules."
“Less trade could result in significant price falls, damaging the incomes of the 10,000 sheep farmers who depend on it."
She warned these impacts would be particularly felt by hill farmers such as those in Cumbria, as 40 per cent of the UK’s sheep breeding flocks are based in the uplands.
She added: ""This makes a vote to leave the EU a huge leap into the dark for our food and farming industry and threatens the livelihoods of thousands of British farmers.”
John Geldard, the owner of the farm near Kendal where Mrs Truss was due to visit and a former Chair of the National Sheep Association, said:
“An exit would mean sleep walking in to the unknown, a totally unacceptable scenario. Many sheep farming and rural businesses are working on very thin margins with little spare capacity.
“To exit the EU with an accompanying four to five years of complete uncertainty would be reckless. To remain in the EU would ensure security and strengthen our current positioning.”
But Mr Eustice dismissed the claims, insisting the EU would be keen to negotiate a new free trade agreement.
He said: "Putting in place a free trade agreement once we leave will be very easy to achieve.
"We export £7.5 billion worth of food to the EU but we import food worth £18 billion from the EU. We have a trade deficit with the EU in food alone of £10 billion.
"They need us more than we need them and that gives us the upper hand in any subsequent negotiations about market access.
"Why would the EU give up another £10 billion when they would have already lost the £350 million per week that British tax payers donate to the EU budget?"
According to Mrs Truss, sheep farmers enjoy a number of benefits from EU membership.