FARMERS’ groups have spoken of their relief after a trade deal was struck between the UK and the European Union but warned new rules will still cause disruption to trade.

More than 60 per cent of the UK’s agricultural food and drink production – worth £14.5bn to economy – is exported to the EU, making it the largest trading partner for British farmers.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) had warned its members could lose access to the EU “overnight” at the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31 in the event of no deal.

NFU president Minette Batters described the Christmas Eve agreement as “very positive news for British agriculture”.

“The EU is our largest trading partner and we have been clear throughout negotiations that maintaining tariff-free access to the EU market is absolutely crucial for our food and farming industry, not only for farmers’ businesses and livelihoods, but for our ability to continue to provide a secure supply of quality, home-grown food for the nation,” she said.

“It does remain the case, though, that our relationship with the EU will experience a fundamental change at the end of the transition period on January 1 2021 and we do anticipate that there will still be disruption to trade at the border.

“New checks, paperwork and requirements on traders will add costs and complexity.

“It is vital government does all it can now to prioritise exports of our high quality, perishable agricultural products to make sure that these products are not left languishing in queues at the border when the changes take effect.”

The National Sheep Association (NSA) also welcomed the deal after fears that sheep farmers would be particularly hard hit if no agreement was reached.

More than a third of British sheep meat is exported and 96 per cent of it goes to the EU, according to industry figures.

A no-deal Brexit would have seen British lamb hit by tariffs of 48 per cent, making it prohibitively expensive to customers in Europe.

NSA chief executive officer Phil Stocker said: “We now have a deal agreed, with third country listings for animal and most plant products, which is a big relief for our sheep industry given that trading on WTO tariffs had the potential to cause serious damage to sheep farming here in the UK.

“It’s right, with Christmas now on us, that we take breath and celebrate this breakthrough, but no-one should think this means that life will continue as it has been.”

He added: “Our trade with the EU makes sense – it’s on our doorstep, it works for both parties and it is a relief that it can now continue.

“We should still expect some disruption to trade and the movement of goods over the first month or so until things settle down and exporters and importers become au fait with new systems, but the relief in agreeing this deal is immense”.

Bryan Griffiths, NSA chair, also described the deal as a “tremendous relief”, but warned some changes “won’t always be welcome”.

“As examples, Northern Ireland is still part of the UK’s trading bloc but is now within the EU’s regulatory bloc, so the movement of sheep between the GB mainland and Northern Ireland will see some major disruption,” he said.

“Similarly, with labour provision – we are a long way from having enough abattoir workers and vets to draw from within the UK workforce, to work in plants and now to an increased workload of signing off export health certificates.

“We have long relied on overseas skills and willingness to work, and the industry is going to have to work hard to maintain efficiency in processing and exporting.”