Department defends decision to stand-down air support for stricken farmers across Northern Ireland
The Department of Agriculture has defended its decision to stand-down air support providing emergency relief to stricken farmers in Northern Ireland.
Two RAF Chinooks and Irish Air Corps AgustaWestland helicopters were being used for essential food drops in parts of Counties Antrim and Down where snow drifts topping 20 feet had prevented farmers from reaching their animals.
The department said efforts were being re-focused on the ground.
"Over this week we have worked tirelessly to assist many farmers who have experienced difficulties due to the recent severe weather.
"We have assessed the situation on a continuing basis and air support has been stood down for today. Given that road access has been dealt with we are now redirecting our resources from aerial support to ground support, and over the next few days we will continue to offer farmers help to move their fodder to inaccessible stock," said a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD).
Since Monday, 22 helicopter flights have delivered 46 fodder drops to animals isolated on high ground in the Mourne Mountains and Glens of Antrim. A further 45 farmers have transported feed to remote areas using DARD's Softrak vehicles.
Thousands of cattle, sheep and lambs are believed to have perished when blizzard conditions hit last weekend although the full extent of the crisis will not be established until the thick blanket of snow thaws.
DUP MLA Paul Frew, chairman of the Stormont Agriculture committee claimed it was too soon to stop aerial support.
"This is a fundamental error of judgment by the DARD Minister (Michelle O'Neill). The only explanations are that she has either taken a deliberate decision to ignore the continuing plight of farmers or she has completely misjudged the scale of the problem. Has she not seen the despair on the faces of the farmers as they try and get much needed feed to their stranded flocks?" he said.
Sinn Fein MLA Oliver McMullan, who lives in the Glens of Antrim, said farmers were in a better position because roads had been cleared.
Yesterday the Executive unveiled a £5 million plus rescue package to help those who lost livestock during the weather crisis.
The two-pronged scheme will see DARD pick up the tab for the collection and disposal of dead animals as well as providing hardship payments for farmers left out of pocket.
It has also emerged that a charge would be incurred for use of the huge RAF Chinook helicopters while the Irish Air Corps had provided assistance for free.
The department has not yet calculated the total cost for calling in aerial support.
DARD also said it would keep the situation under review.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said air crews would be on stand-by in case they were needed.
"We continue to plan and maintain a capability should it be required by DARD as they continue to work to relieve the stress and anxiety within the farming community," he said.