A UK Government minister’s suggestion that sheep farmers could switch to beef farming in the event of a post-Brexit lamb price crash has been met with fury from UK farming bodies.

Comments made by the secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice on BBC One’s Andrew Marr show, have sparked concerns over his lack of understanding of UK sheep farming enterprises ahead of a crucial week of trade talks between the UK and EU.

Mr Eustice caused further upset by stating that the imposition of no deal tariffs would only have an impact on the sheep sector and not other agricultural sectors.

In spite of this, he refuted claims that sheep farmers would be devastated in the event of a no deal Brexit.

“Tariffs do have an impact on prices," said Mr Eustice. "The price of lamb would rise in the EU, that would mean demand in EU would go down and there would be a fall in prices in the UK in the short term. But, if we are not importing as much beef from Ireland then those mixed beef and sheep enterprises would be able to diversify into beef.”

The sheep industry made no attempt to hide their disdain at his suggestion: "To begin with, to suggest that many of our sheep farmers are mixed farmers is wrong," said chief executive of the National Sheep Association, Phil Stocker. "This assumption will enrage sheep farmers across the UK who have structured their farms to focus on sheep, and it will particularly antagonise our devolved nations where the landscape includes more remote areas of countryside, especially suited to sheep, and where buildings, machinery and farm infrastructure simply would not suit a sudden switch to cattle farming.

“I find it hard to think that George Eustice really believes what he said, and this interview leaves us thinking his comments could either be part of creating a ‘we don’t care’ attitude to bolster trade negotiations, or, and this would be highly concerning, that it exposes an underlying willingness to see our sheep industry go through a restructure to reduce its size, scale and diversity.”

Responding to questions over future financial support to those farming businesses impacted by Brexit, Mr Eustice said that the Treasury will do what it can to help, but offered no solid commitment.

“In the case of sheep, the big peak export months are September and October so we would have a period of leeway for six months before the impacts would be felt."

This act of 'kicking the can down the road' was not received well.

"The industry has been calling for support packages to be put in place for compensation for the sheep sector in the event of a no-deal," said NSA Scotland chair Jen Craig. "However, there continues to be a complete lack of clarity and guidance for our industry to plan for the next few months. If the UK government cannot reach a deal with the EU and if Mr Eustice believes we will be unaffected then I see absolutely no reason for the UK Government not to have a compensation scheme ready and waiting."

NFU Scotland president Andrew McCornick added: “The Minister’s remarks ignored the commonly held understanding of the impact that a ‘no deal’ outcome would have on the thousands of farming and food businesses across the United Kingdom. Suggesting that in the event of no deal, sheep producers could simply ‘diversify into beef’ to protect themselves from market disruption showed a lack of understanding of sheep production in much of Scotland," he stressed. "It should have been obvious to the Minister that sheep farmers, who will be hammered by no deal, cannot simply avoid this outcome by diversifying into another sector of production by January 1, 2021."