Farmers pick up the pieces after snow wipes out thousands of animals in Northern Ireland

Attention turns to cost issues after worst late-March weather in 50 years

Northern farmers and the Stormont Executive are braced for a spiralling bill for large-scale livestock losses following last month's devastating two-day snowstorm.

The Department of Agriculture estimates that, as of yesterday, more than 18,000 sheep died after being caught in the substantial snow falls of March 22nd and 23rd. Some 13,797 of them were new season lambs. Some 537 cattle were also lost, more than 200 of them calves under six months.

Some were buried in drifts, others froze or simply starved to death in isolated fields as roads were blocked due to the worst late March and Easter conditions for 50 years.

What started as “an extreme weather event”, in the words of agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill, with heavy rain, plunging temperatures and spot flooding, soon worsened as snow arrived with the biting easterly winds originating in Siberia. Problems were made worse by power cuts which left 35,000 homes and farms without electricity after the storm abated. Many farmers lost buildings as the weight of the snow brought roofs crashing in on sheltering animals and machinery.


Emergency drops
Emergency fodder drops were made by helicopter crews from the Air Corps and British army following requests by Ms O'Neill to Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers and Minister for Justice Alan Shatter once the blizzards had passed. Some 46 emergency drops were made over the course of three days from March 26th, but for more than 600 farms, chiefly in the Mournes area and in the glens of Antrim, it was too late despite best efforts.

Fodder distribution continued for days thereafter by land with Forest Service “soft track” vehicles being pressed into action to assist 94 isolated farms, according to the department.

The death toll is rising steadily, with the number of fallen stock jumping by some 10,000 in the last week alone. With the thaw now finally established after three weeks of freezing conditions at altitude, many more dead animals are expected to be uncovered, with attendant health and welfare risks.

Incredibly for anywhere in Ireland, and especially in April, avalanche warnings remain in place on mountain roads in the Mournes where the Spelga Pass is expected to remain closed for some time as temperatures rise and snow conditions become more unstable.

Attention is now turning to cost issues and the Stormont Executive is considering plans for emergency compensation along with officials from the North’s two main farming organisations, the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) and the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association (Niapa).

Early estimates suggest that farmers will receive some £5 million (€5.9 million) for stock losses and the costs of dead animal collection and rendering. But that is expected to rise substantially. It is widely estimated that although the maximum compensation allowable under EU rules – about €7,500 – will be agreed, the losses suffered by farmers will exceed even this. What is more difficult to estimate are the longer-term costs. The losses are felt hardest in south Down and in the glens of Antrim, although farmers in the Sperrins area of south Derry and north Tyrone were also hit.

Tough conditions
Sheep farmers have had it rough in the past two years although margins were beginning to improve. According to the department, numbers of ewes remained stable despite difficult weather and less favourable trading conditions throughout 2012. Ewes currently reach prices of about £85 (€100 at Northern marts with lambs achieving about £60 (€51).

“Ewe lambs entering the breeding flock at the end of 2012 are down by one-third compared with the previous year, indicating that breeding flock numbers are likely to ease back slightly during the first half of 2013,” a spokesman said.

That forecast will now be reviewed with a severe knock-on effect feared for next year following the loss of so many ewes.

Ms O'Neill told the Assembly last week: "The poor growing conditions of last year, a prolonged winter period, poor grass growth due to low temperatures and difficult conditions could compound the practical difficulties for some farmers. I am also conscious of the cash flow demands arising from this crisis and restocking. I will be inviting representatives of the National Sheep Association, the UFU and Niapa to a meeting to discuss the way forward."

She is also pressing badly affected farmers to act now in relation to farm payments claims to prevent losses extending into next year. Her fear is based on EU funding rules which set farm payments on current livestock densities. The loss of thousands of animals at a time when flock sizes are being estimated for Less Favoured Area grants purposes could prove doubly disastrous.

“Claims are made on the 2013 Single Application Form (SAF) and require the farmer to have the appropriate stocking density between April 1st and October 31st, 2013,” she said.

Farmers are now working to bureaucratic deadlines as well as coping with devastating farm losses.