Farmers are suffering severe hardship as prolonged cold weather, animal disease and soaring feed prices combine to produce a "perfect storm" of problems, industry experts have warned.
Families are falling deeper into debt, with some forced to go without essentials such as heating for their homes and school uniforms for their children.
The Prince of Wales' Countryside Fund has pledged an extra £219,000 in disaster relief aid to ease the burden as forecasters predict no end in sight to the cold weather.
Livestock farmers in Devon and Cornwall already devastated by bovine TB and the Schmallenberg virus now face escalating bills to feed livestock driven indoors by icy blasts.
Welfare organisations have welcomed the extra cash but say the problem is beyond their means and could require an injection of as much as £1 million.
Applications for help with hardship grants have risen almost threefold this year as struggling businesses run up debts of as much as £60,000.
Ian Bell, director of the Addington Fund, which provides emergency grants and homes for those families leaving the industry, said the crisis was more serious than the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001 as almost every business in the country was now affected.
"It is beyond the capabilities of the farming charities – it is too much for us," he added.
"I am not a doom-monger but having to deal with this on a day-to-day basis, the whole thing is very depressing."
The second-wettest year on record in 2012 left livestock underweight and prices for forage high, prompting a rise in casework for rural charities.
The Countryside Fund, which is now more than halfway to a targeted £1 million emergency relief fund, provided £150,000 in emergency cash in December. But as the situation worsened, it has now released a further £219,000 to help alleviate the economic woe.
Victoria Harris, director of the fund, said farmers already under pressure from 12 months of poor conditions now faced more weeks of misery while they wait for warmer weather.
"The snow and blizzards are creating real hazards for upland farmers as they come into lambing season, but livestock farmers across the board are facing the prospect of paying for more feed, with prices already astronomically high," she said.
"We are hearing reports of farmers having to go cap in hand to the banks to see them through the latest episode of poor weather.
"We are still waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel."
Her views echoed those of NFU president Peter Kendall, who said the weather was "knocking the stuffing out of the farming industry".
"This time last year it was 20 degrees and grass was growing well," he added. "Instead it feels more like January.
"The grass isn't growing and farmers are faced with yet another month of paying for expensive winter cattle feed."
The Farm Crisis Network (FCN) said lambs lost to hypothermia was an increasing problem as stocks of fodder dwindled to desperate levels, added to the huge numbers of cattle contracting bovine TB.
Peter Clarke, Cornish FCN spokesman, said many farmers were "philosophical" and "don't expect to have it easy".
However, the 76-year-old said things were especially difficult. "This is one of the longest periods of bad weather that I have ever known," he added.
"Lambs are surviving then dwindling away after three or four days – they are being blasted frozen by cold winds and there is nothing we can do to stop it," he added.
"This means they have to be kept inside and that is a drain on the short supplies of fodder – we are really in a perfect storm situation."
The Countryside Fund, which was set up in July 2010 by Business in the Community and is the brainchild of The Prince of Wales, has given over £2.1 million in grants to more than 60 projects nationwide. Despite some "extremely generous donations from corporate and private donors" recently, the anticipation of increased demand has prompted a plea for more funds.
A spokesman for the fundraising team said: "Emergency funding well placed can mean the difference between a farm going under or continuing as a viable business."
Mr Bell said the Addington Fund welcomed the recently announced cash but backed the request for donations. He said hardship grants could only last so long and calculated at least £1 million might be required just to satisfy the current applications stacking up.
"The original £150,000 from the Prince of Wales was split between three charities in England and Wales as well as in Scotland and Northern Ireland – we got £31,000," Mr Bell added. "It is very much appreciated but when it is split between so many charities it is almost spent before we have got it."
'We're seeing high levels of depression'
Farmers are being driven to despair by a crisis more widespread than the foot and mouth epidemic, charities have warned.
The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) said cries for help from the Westcountry in January and February were “two to three times” the number it saw in 2012 – which in turn was a remarkable period and also up on previous years.
Devon was second only to Yorkshire in the national county assistance table.
Regional manager for the RABI Pam Wills said animal disease had also “wreaked havoc”, with bovine TB remaining a major problem,
and the “appalling effects” of Schmallenberg virus emerging in cattle as well as sheep.
“The toll that this takes on people’s emotions, as well as their incomes, is huge,” she added. “We’re seeing high levels of depression, family breakdowns, and several people have said they have been driven to such despair that they have even thought of taking their own lives.”
The RABI handed out £332,000 to farmers in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset and Dorset last year, up from £282,000 in 2011. In January and February this year alone 62 families received a total of £41,000 – last year during the same two months 44 families got £21,000, with calls to the helpline more than doubling.
Ian Bell, director of farming charity the Addington Fund, which provides emergency grants and homes for those families leaving the industry, said he had seen a 265% increase in calls over the past five months.
In some cases families had called after running up debts as high as £60,000.
“Things were bad but this snow and cold weather on top of it has seen losses of up to 50% in lambs – people are tearing their hair out and don’t know what to do,” Mr Bell added.
“We were praying for an early spring and now the forecast says the cold will last into April. I don’t know what some people are going to do.
“It is more serious than the foot and mouth crisis as it has affected every business in the country.”
Mr Bell said one family had this week showed him unpaid bills dating back six months, adding that it was “a wonder” that feed merchants are still supplying the business.
“The overall picture of farming is bright – we just have to get through this period.”
Family sinking into debt amid floodwaters
One struggling couple were left without heating and unable to buy school uniform for the children after their farm was hit by a positive test for bovine TB followed by a £5,000 rent hike.
The-husband-and-wife team, who farm in Devon, spent years building up a pedigree dairy herd but say problems over the past year have “pushed them close to the brink”.
The father, who is now working in the village shop to make ends meet, spoke of his plight, only on condition that he remained anonymous.
He said he spends the bare minimum on food and cannot find £700 to fill the oil tank.
“I don’t how long we can keep going,” he said.
“The stress is taking its toll on us all and asking for help
is hard, because it seems like you’ve failed.
“You know you get good and bad years in farming but this is like nothing I’ve ever seen and it’s pushing people to the limits.
“You wonder how long you can cope.
“You work seven days a week, 365 days a year – we’ve not had a holiday in 15 years.
“But farming’s in your blood... it’s all you want to do. We just need to be able to make a living from it.”
A twice-flooded Somerset family saw their debts soar to £11,000 when their land was left too wet to graze cattle.
“They’ve been inside for the winter,” the father said, “It’s costing us thousands in extra feed and now we’re up to the limit of our overdraft.
“Normally we’d have been able to grow enough in the summer to feed them, but we couldn’t do that either.
“You get to think, what’s the point? We’ve no income, just debts which are getting bigger every day.
“At the start of the year we thought we’d try and put 2012 behind us and try to be positive, but we’re already in spring and there’s not much sign of things getting better.”
Livestock farmers facing crisis on multiple fronts
Livestock farmers are scraping by on a “pittance” as they contend with frost, rising feed prices, the Schmallenberg virus and low farm-gate prices, a leading sheep farmer in Devon claims.
Colin Rowland, who keeps 1,000 ewes at Wick Farm, Bampton, believes the current crisis is on a par with the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001.
He claims to be “one of the lucky ones” having diversified into game farming, though he calculates he has been forced to pump £40,000 into his loss-making sheep operation.
Mr Rowland has lost just three or four lambs and avoided Schmallenberg, but says others have seen flocks decimated, losing 70 or 80 lambs to hypothermia or disease.
“Farming has taken a hell of a clout and the mood is much worse than I have seen it for a good while – nobody likes working for nothing,” he added.
“Sheep farming has had a bad 12 months – last summer was wet, the winter was horrendous.
“When things are going disastrously and you are going round picking up dead stock it is hard to carry on, never mind the financial implications.”
Mr Rowland said his ewes have eaten 30 tonnes of more costly extra feed this year compared to 14 tonnes in 2012, sending his bill soaring from just over £3,000 to close to £9,000. People are not paying their bills – you only have to talk to contractors who work for farmers to know that.
“Many are finding it hard and unless people have a very kind bank manager some will have to get out.”