Charities have said British farmers are increasingly at risk of suicide owing in part to uncertainty over Brexit and the impact of bad weather.
Distressed farmers have made dozens of calls to crisis networks and some have been placed on “suicide watch”, according to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
The NFU – the UK’s largest farming organisation, representing thousands of agricultural workers – said farmers were still struggling with the impact of the “beast from the east” snowstorms last year and the summer drought.
Alistair Mackintosh, the NFU’s Cumbrian council delegate, said: “I’ve had many worrying telephone calls just in the last two or three weeks from farmers who want to give up, and who are on suicide watch. But what I fear most is those who do not telephone you.”
Mackintosh, a sheep farmer, said he was finding it hard dealing with the cries for help. “When you’re aware of the suicide rate for UK farmers and their exceptional difficulties, there is every reason to fear we will see more such acts,” he said.
According to figures released last year by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), between 2011 and 2015 approximately one agricultural worker a week killed themselves.
Adam Day, the managing director of Penrith-based The Farmer Network, said Brexit had created a “ticking timebomb” in the farming community.
He said: “These are unprecedented times. The farming community is facing a perfect storm, and greater emotional support is going to be needed. Without a Brexit deal, sheep producers have no idea whether they will be able to export this season’s lambs beyond 29 March.
“Whichever way Brexit goes, farmers are facing a £25-30 a head loss on this year’s lambs. It is going to be absolutely dire.We already have phone calls from farmers saying ‘things are not very good and we don’t know which way to turn’.
Georgina Lamb, of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institute (RABI), said the charity was dealing with increasing numbers of cases. She said livestock farmers, in particular, were struggling to cope with winter feed bills and the additional cost of housing livestock.
The charity, which helps farming families in need, reports a 47% increase in the amount of money it paid out last year. It issued grants worth £2.22m to 1,248 farmers, farm workers and their dependants during 2018.
Cumbria received the highest number of donations, with £74,919 issued in grants to 44 beneficiaries, almost half of those being working farmers. The numbers were more than triple for neighbouring Northumberland and County Durham.
Lamb said: “Our job is to nip things in the bud before it gets catastrophic. We try to get to people before they contemplate suicide, but with the uncertainty over Brexit we really do fear for the mental state of some of our farmers.
“We are talking about farmers who do not have enough money to put diesel in their tractors, or food on the table, or pay household bills.”
Last week George Eustice resigned as agriculture minister as a result of Theresa May’s decision to allow a vote that could delay Brexit. The departure of Eustice, who has held the position since 2015, has been seen as another blow to the industry during a crucial time.
Tim Breitmeyer, the president of the Country Land and Business Association, told Farmers Weekly: “He [Eustice] has held the position since 2015, and has maintained a strong voice on behalf of the farming industry during that time.
“His farming background and first-hand knowledge and experience have been invaluable in the many areas of his brief. The farming community has lost a key ally at this critical time for the industry, which faces significant uncertainty and change.”
• In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.