A PUBLIC appeal has been launched to fund practical support for crisis-hit farmers in rural County Durham.

Hill farmers, especially those in upper Teesdale, have been dealt a double-blow in recent months, with unseasonal cold spring weather coming after one of the wettest summers on record.

In some cases, up to ten per cent of stock has been lost on snowbound fells and the lambing season has been severely affected.

Ewes have been aborting and those which have given birth have been in such poor condition they have been unable to produce enough milk to feed their young.

Farmers whose flocks comprise hefted sheep – which spend all their lives outside on the fells – have been particularly badly hit.

Any hefted lambs saved this spring will have to be kept to replenish flock numbers rather than sold later in the year, affecting income.

And with farmers forced to concentrate full time on young lambs and sheep, they have been unable to keep up with the day-to-day tasks of running their business.

In response, Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services (Utass) and the County Durham Community Foundation has launched a Helping Hands scheme.

The community foundation is providing some initial funding and the Prince of Wales's Countryside Fund has donated £4,000 to pay for a pool of qualified farm workers who can give support to those in need.

However, organisers say more donations are urgently needed to help far-flung farming communities through such a difficult time.

Utass project manager Diane Spark said the scheme was not about giving cash hand-outs to farmers.

“Looking after the sheep and lambs is a never-ending job – there is still no grass up here and there is even still a bit of snow in gullies on the fell tops,” she said.

“This means farmers are struggling to keep up and everyday jobs, such as mucking out the byres and maintenance, are backing up.

“We are trying to provide them with the additional day-to-day help they need.”

Ms Spark said part of the pool of qualified agricultural workers would be made up of young people who had completed Utass's Farmers of the Future project, but she appealed for any other suitably qualified farmhands who were willing to help to get in touch.

“We have launched this scheme in response to what we have seen out there,” added Ms Spark.

“Farmers don't readily ask for help, but if we can't help one another at the moment, it's a pretty bad job.”

Victoria Elms, manager of The Prince's Countryside Fund, said the cold spring had simply added to problems for rural farmers.

“Due to the wet weather last year, the grass was terrible so farmers had to buy in extra feed. Then the snow has made a bad situation absolutely terrible.

“Donations such as that from our emergency fund show there are organisations willing to help.”

Any suitably qualified people willing to join the pool of farm workers should contact Diane Spark at Utass on 01833-641010.

Anyone wishing to donate to the Helping Hands fund can do through the County Durham Community Foundation by the following methods:

BACS: Account number 23670894; sort code 52-30-44; Ref FCCA.

Cheques: Payable to County Durham Community Foundation, with reference FCCA on the back.

Online: Go to www.justgiving.com/fcca Text: Text FCCA99 with the amount £1, £2, £3, £4, £5 or £10 to 70070.