The body representing the North’s farmers has welcomed a relief package worth up to £5 million for the heavy losses incurred from recent bad weather, particularly in the Glens of Antrim and the Mourne regions .
Harry Sinclair of the Ulster Farmers' Union said the two-pronged scheme, which involves a service to dispose of dead animals and the giving out of hardship payments, "goes some way to recognising the difficulties that some farmers are currently facing".
Under the deal, the Northern Ireland Executive will foot the bill for collecting the carcasses of the thousands of sheep that became stranded in the snow and died of exposure and starvation. This service, calculated at £20 per ewe and £10 per lamb, is estimated to total between £300,000 and £1 million.
A further £4 million has been set aside by the North’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (Dard) for one-off payments to the worst-affected farmers, although the detail of this scheme is not yet available. There have been calls for these individual payments to be at least £1,000.
'Worst losses in decades'
Mr Sinclair said the recent heavy snowfalls in the North, particularly on higher ground in counties Down and Antrim, had seen farmers suffer "some of the worst losses in decades".
He said: “I’ve heard of farmers who’ve lost over one third of their stock – that won’t be easily built up again. Many farmers will have no lambs to sell this year. That puts them in serious financial difficulties.
“Obviously, we are waiting to see the detail, but so far we are satisfied with this announcement.”
Meanwhile, the department Minister, Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill, has come in for criticism for yesterday standing down two Irish Army and two RAF helicopters which between them carried out 46 emergency fodder drops to marooned farm animals since last Monday.
Chairman of the Stormont Agriculture Committee, DUP MLA Paul Frew, said the withdrawal of air support was "far too soon . . . This is a fundamental error of judgment by the Dard Minister. . . she is either ignoring the plight of the farmer or she has misjudged the scale of this crisis," he said.
The department countered that the ongoing thaw meant road access was now much better. A statement said: “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.”