Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill defends department handling of blizzard crisis for farmers
Stormont's Agriculture Minister has delivered a robust defence of her department's handling of the farming crisis that hit Northern Ireland after last month's blizzards.
The carcasses of more than 8,300 farm animals which died when snowdrifts, some as high as 20ft (6m), enveloped parts of the region have so far been collected from 440 farms in a state-funded disposal scheme established by Michelle O'Neill.
The death toll includes 8,153 sheep, of which 6,246 were recently born lambs, and 240 cattle. With snow still covering swathes of high-lying farmland, the tally is expected to increase.
Ms O'Neill today faced a series of questions in the Assembly on why it took three days after the snow started falling for a relief operation to deliver feed to stranded animals to get under way.
Helicopters from both the Royal Air Force and the Irish Air Corp, and specialist snowcat vehicles, were involved in getting bales to the affected farms, which were mainly in counties Down and Antrim.
The minister insisted the first priority when the blizzards struck was to help people in need, not animals.
Pressed on the matter by Democratic Unionist MLA Paul Girvan and then the Alliance Party's Kieran McCarthy, the minister replied to Mr McCarthy in strong terms: "I don't agree with the assertion that there was a slow start.
"I don't how many other ways you would like me to put it - there was a humanitarian issue that needed to be dealt with. Surely you are not saying that people shouldn't be dealt with first? Surely you are not saying that the priority shouldn't have been getting water, medical supplies and food to people? I am quite sure that's not what you are indicating but you can clarify that for yourself."
The minister added: "When the humanitarian issue was being dealt with over Saturday and Sunday (March 23/24) then we started, as the figures emerged and we began to get more contact, we could very clearly see that there was an animal welfare issue emerging, so that's where Dard (Department of Agriculture and Rural Development) again stepped up and started the discussions, we got involved with the Civil Contingency Group, we made sure we started to work towards securing helicopter assistance - all the things that needed to be done.
"So I am very confident that Dard responded to the crisis in an appropriate manner - when they should have, how they should have.
"Are there lessons to be learned? In any crisis there will always be a lesson, so whenever we get to the end of this, and we are not at the end of it because it's still ongoing, there's still a lot of hardship out there, we still haven't collected all the dead animals, but when we get to the end of this then of course we'll sit back and take a look at: is there anything we need to learn, and we'll learn lessons from it if that's the case."
The Stormont Executive agreed to pay for the carcass recovery operation as part of a multimillion-pound aid package for the farmers worst hit by the snow storm.
As well as free disposal, farmers who have lost animals will also be in line for a hardship payment from a £5 million-plus Executive emergency fund.