The Scottish Highlands risk "calamitous" environmental damage and mass depopulation after Brexit, a senior EU official has warned.

The top adviser said phasing out farming subsidies – currently paid for by the EU – would be disastrous for Scotland’s remote areas.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has promised “special treatment” for Scotland’s farmers, while funding is guaranteed until 2022.

But critics have raised concerns over long-term uncertainty and warned cutting subsidies could tear apart the very fabric of communities.

The European Commission official, who asked not to be named, said farms could even “stop producing” food.

Asked what would happen if subsidies are taken away or phased out, he said: “The consequences are potentially calamitous for the environment because it’s one thing for farmers to stop producing, but the fact is farmers are critically important stewards of the landscape and of the countryside.

“If you look at what’s happened in the US, where farmers have essentially abandoned land and left it and you have dust bowls and so on.

“If the Highlands of Scotland – which are a very particular eco-system – are to be abandoned by farmers, there is nobody who is going to manage that territory.

“It is very harsh territory, it’s very challenging and clearly it is essentially not economic.”

Speaking to journalists in Brussels, he warned of depopulation if subsidies are axed.

He added: “The reality is all of our territories are becoming increasingly urbanised. People are moving into towns and we need to sustain rural communities.

“I’m not saying farmers are the backbone of rural communities but a lot of rural communities revolve around small agri-food businesses.

“To keep people in the rural countryside you have to keep the services. So the school stays, the pharmacy stays, the local shop stays.

“You take people out, you lose the services, and the whole infrastructure of the rural communities starts to fall apart.”

Farmers across the UK make far more money from EU subsidies than they do from livestock or crops.

In the Highlands and other remote areas, extra funding is provided under the Less Favoured Area Support Scheme (LFASS).

Jonnie Hall, director of policy at the National Farmers Union Scotland, said securing post-Brexit certainty was “uppermost in the industry’s list of priorities”.

He said: “LFASS provides a vital injection of funding for hill farmers and crofters and without the annual £65 million of lifeline support to the most vulnerable areas of Scotland being maintained next year and beyond, many hill farms and crofts would be unsustainable which could lead to much wider ramifications – including the potential for land abandonment.

“This is an unprecedented period of physical and financial challenge for Scotland’s farmers and crofters, imposing huge personal and business stress on many.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman Mike Rumbles insisted Brexit “absolutely must not be allowed to take a scythe to our rural regions”.

He said: “Reduced payments to producers and new barriers to market spells disaster.”

Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing said: “Since my first meeting with the Secretary of State for Environment, I have been pressing the case for our hill farmers and making precisely the arguments that the EU Commissioner is now making.

“The reality is that failure to support our hill farmers will lead to land abandonment and a lack of stewardship, as well as threats to rural communities.”