Brexit uncertainty is putting Welsh hill farms at risk, according to a top agricultural law expert.

The warning comes from Caryl Vaughan, of leading legal firm Swayne Johnson, which has a base in Tattenhall and offices across North Wales.

Caryl, a Fellow of the Agricultural Law Association, says there is concern that farmers could lose valuable markets in Europe if they lose their tariff-free access to the single market.

She said: "The weak pound means that the European market has, so far, remained strong and lamb prices are holding up. However, the Westminster Government seem set on taking the UK out of the Single Market and the resulting tariffs on our exports could see the market collapse.

"The problem is not confined to exports to the Single Market either. The UK will continue to have to follow EU rules during the transition period, which starts in less than a year, but it will not be a Member State.

"Other countries will not necessarily have to recognise it as such for the purposes of the existing EU trade deals which give Welsh farmers access to markets and the UK cannot even begin to negotiate replacement deals with other countries until it has left the EU.

"Exactly what sort of trade deal we will end up with seems to be anyone's guess at the moment but I cannot accept that 'no deal is better than a bad deal' for Welsh farmers.

Caryl, 38, from Pontllyfni, in Gwynedd, is from farming stock – both her grandfathers were farmers and her husband, Eilir, works at Broadleys Farm, near Denbigh.

The Welsh-speaking mother of two went to Ysgol Syr Huw Owen, in Caernarfon, and gained a Law degree from Aberystwyth and Cardiff universities before joining Swayne Johnson in 2003 and becoming a Director in 2009.

She said: "The other huge issue for Welsh agriculture is the funding that comes from Europe.

"It's been a tough time for the traditional Welsh family farm in recent years and unfortunately, without European funding, I fear that a lot of traditional farms would have already folded – their profit in recent years has been entirely dependent on the Basic Farm Payment.

"We must remember that subsidies started because governments wanted to bring down the cost of food in post-war Britain.

"Naturally, farmers would prefer not to have to rely on subsidies – they are proud people and would much rather be paid a fair price for their produce.

"The problem is that, for them to be paid a fair price, there would have to be an increase in the price of British produce on the shelves and the knock-on would affect the whole country. I can't see that the market would tolerate such a price increase.

"Worryingly for the Welsh hill farmer, New Zealand was one of the first countries the UK started talking to about tariff-free trade following the Brexit vote.

"Due to scale, New Zealand are able to produce vast quantities of lamb cheaply which could see Welsh producers unable to compete.

"The EU Withdrawal Bill, which received the backing of the Welsh Government last week, causes me concern as it would see power over agricultural issues repatriated to Westminster rather than to the Welsh Assembly who, since 1999, have had prime responsibility over agriculture.

"The Westminster Government have said that they will maintain current levels of funding for agriculture until 2022 but, after this date, it's anyone's guess.

"Applying the Barnett Formula – which basically means that any extra money from Westminster is allocated according to population – could prove disastrous not only for Welsh agriculture but for the wider rural economy, the local communities and culture and, in turn, the Welsh landscape.

"The beautiful landscape of our countryside isn't an accident - it's down to generations of careful and sustainable farming."

Caryl fears that Lesley Griffiths' announcement that support for Welsh farmers will start to change from next year with the identity of recipients 'evolving' from 2019 will have done nothing to alleviate concerns either."

She said: "To obtain bank borrowing for any development on the farm, or even to keep the bank happy about existing debt levels, now requires a robust business plan and uncertainty about the market and future income from subsidies makes it very difficult for Welsh farmers to plan ahead

"Concern over Brexit is one of the reasons that Swayne Johnson's Agricultural Law division is becoming increasingly busy.

"Farmers traditionally only consulted their solicitors when it was absolutely necessary – say if they needed to buy or sell land, prepare a Will or deal with a complex Probate.

"But they are coming to realise that farm succession is about much more than that. The taxation and financial implications of making any change to the business without proper advice can be huge.

"Unfortunately many farmers have seen first hand the devastation that a lack of forward planning can have on families and the farm business. Perhaps as a result of divorce or the death of a farmer without a valid Will.

"Parents may, for example, want to bring a son or daughter in to the business as part of their sustainable business plan but are concerned about the legal implications of doing so.

"Partnership agreements set out who owns what in the business can help clarify the position and alleviate concerns but at other times a pre-nuptial agreement may be appropriate.

"The advantage we have here at Swayne Johnson is that we have such a diverse range of skills within the company that we have experts in all those fields that we can call upon."

Caryl, who works closely with Farming Connect to offer advice in their free farm succession surgeries, added: "Succession planning is so important. Many farmers see themselves as custodians of the land but very few of them have wills, despite the fact that farming is relatively speaking a dangerous occupation, and your ability to look after the land it can be drastically affected by injury or illness.

"The viability of many small farms is an issue these days with larger farms looking to increase in size to take advantage of economies of scale. Co-operative farming and share farming arrangements are now gaining in popularity."

She added "They are a resilient industry and I am sure we will always have farmers though it will be interesting to see what farms will look like in 25 or 50 years' time."

She also in demand as a guest speaker on legal issues which affect the agricultural industry and has made appearances on Welsh television on the issue of Farm Succession Planning.

She enjoys the fact that her job gets her out and about and she added: "I like to meet a new client on the farm to get a feel for their business, that personal contact is so important.

"It is what is important about Swayne Johnson. We are still a local law firm so we are small enough to know and care about our clients but at the same time big enough to have the range of expertise that those clients need."

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