Britain's largest ice cream makers, Richmond Foods, today predicted an eight per cent rise in profits but admitted it had been hit by falling sales and increased competition.

In a pre-close trading statement, the maker of Nestle-branded products based near Northallerton, North Yorkshire, said it expects pre-tax profits for the 53 weeks ending October 2 to be around £14.4m.

The company said sales had fallen by two per cent to between £141m and £142m, with its share in the total ice cream market dropping from 36.5 per cent to 34.8 per cent due to increased competition.

Financial director Andy Finneran said that while sales in the number of people buying ice cream at the supermarket and taking it home had increased slightly, the number of impulse buys had dropped.

"Impulse buys are basically when people buy an ice cream on a stick from a shop, particularly when they are on a trip out or by the seaside, for example," he said.

"The number of sales through impulse buys has been declining across the industry for the past 15 years. It is also weather related and it could be that when petrol prices went up in August not as many people travelled away to leisure events."

He said Richmond Foods had re-launched a number of its Nestle products, including Yorkie ice creams, and introduced new lines due to the increased competition from other brands.

The firm has seen success with its Skinny Cow range of ice creams, with sales increasing from £1.3m last year to £6m this year.

"Our Skinny Cow range is a healthy alternative to other ice creams. It is low in fat and calories, yet still tastes great and has proved really popular," said Mr Finneran.

"In 2004 we just sold the products through Asda, but it has rolled out over the year into all the supermarkets. We just used to do the ice creams on a stick, whereas now you can get it in a cone and in a tub."

Richmond employs about 950 people at three UK sites - at Leeming Bar, near Northallerton, which is Europe's largest ice cream plant, Crossgates, near Leeds, and Wigan.

Last week the firm released a short profit statement in advance of yesterdays announcement following what it described as "volatility" in its share price, after shares fell 16 per cent.

A full preliminary announcement of results for the year will be made on November 29.