£5 million rescue package for farmers across Northern Ireland affected by snow and freezing temperatures
A £5 million-plus rescue package will be offered to farmers who have lost livestock in the severe blizzards that have hit Northern Ireland, Stormont ministers have agreed.
Affected farmers will be eligible for hardship payments from a pot of emergency funding while the power-sharing Executive has also agreed to pick up the tab for disposing of the thousands of animals killed in the huge snow drifts that have enveloped parts of the region.
Ministers made the commitments at an Executive meeting in Stormont Castle in Belfast as helicopters from both the RAF and Irish Air Corps continued the operation to drop feed bales to those farms still cut off.
Stormont Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill announced the relief package after the Executive meeting.
She said the operation to collect the carcasses would begin immediately while ministers had agreed in principle to the hardship fund proposals.
Ms O'Neill said the payment scheme would be finalised next month but said she anticipated that £5 million would be made available.
The scale of the additional bill for disposing of the dead livestock will not become evident until farmers report their final losses.
It is believed that thousands of sheep and lambs lie dead below the heavy blankets of snow that still cover parts of counties Down and Antrim.
The Glens of Antrim and Mountains of Mourne are two areas worst hit, with reports of drifts approaching 20 feet high.
"The situation over the last number of days has been absolutely dire for the farming communities in Antrim and also in Co Down," said Ms O'Neill.
"A lot of farmers have been left devastated by the impact of the severe weather so I am glad that the Executive accepted my proposals for a hardship package.
"The first element of this hardship scheme will be that the Executive will meet the cost of collecting and disposing of all the dead animals. I know that is something that farmers were very concerned about.
"Further to that over the next number of weeks when we have a clearer picture of the extent of the losses I will bring back another proposal which they have agreed to in principle to allow us to have some sort of hardship package.
"It is hard to quantify at this moment in time but I think we are talking somewhere in the region of about £5 million."
The minister added: "I accept that some farmers are in dire straits. It has been such a difficult year for the farming community. This is not the answer to everything but it is something that's going to help in some shape or form from this Executive in recognising the problems they have."