A Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter has started dropping feed to thousands of farm animals stranded in huge snow drifts in Northern Ireland as the agriculture crisis triggered by blizzards deepens.
Thousands of animals are feared dead, but the extent of the losses is still unclear as most of the missing livestock are buried below the thick blankets of snow that have enveloped parts of counties Antrim and Down. In some areas the drifts have reached 20 feet high.
The Ministry of Defence provided the helicopter after a request from Stormont's Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill.
With many farmers describing the conditions as the worst in memory, Ms O'Neill has pledged to explore the potential for providing special hardship payments for those affected. The minister said she would table the issue with colleagues in Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive on Thursday.
The helicopter flew in from England on Tuesday morning and after stopping at Aldergrove airport to refuel and load up with its first cargo of feed bales, it set off on its relief mission, beginning with some of the worst-hit areas in the Glens of Antrim. A senior official with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) was on board to help direct the crew to the likely locations of stranded animals. A surveillance helicopter was also deployed.
Medication and food have already been delivered by helicopter to people left snowbound by the severe weather. The emergency services, Red Cross, RAF and others are co-operating to provide basic supplies like bread and milk to people snowed in for days. Forest Service tracked vehicles known as Snowcats have also been used to access farms.
Ms O'Neill visited affected farmers in the Kilcoo area of Co Down, and said: "I appreciate that in some cases the devastating effects of the weather have resulted in sheep perishing. I encourage affected farmers to keep good records of any livestock losses and additional expenditure incurred.
"DARD does not have an emergency contingency fund to deal with extreme weather events but I will explore the issue of hardship payments and support for disposal of fallen stock with the Executive this Thursday."
More than 140,000 electricity customers who lost power when the wintry blast struck the eastern counties of the region last Thursday and Friday have had supply restored. The Department for Regional Development (DRD) said it had spent more than £80,000 trying to combat the adverse conditions, gritting around 4,350 miles of roads with 1,000 tonnes of salt.
Meanwhile, a police spokeswoman warned hillwalkers that there is the risk of avalanches in the areas affected by the snow. "All walkers, even those with winter experience, should bear this in mind and consider the potential risks before embarking on any walks in these areas," she said. "Do not place yourself in unnecessary danger."