AN RAF Chinook helicopter has been called to help as part of an emergency operation to reach farms and families cut off by huge snow drifts in Northern Ireland.
It is due to refuel at Aldergrove, near Belfast, this afternoon and then begin airlifting fodder and provisions to the Glens of Antrim where thousands of livestock are feared to have died.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers asked for the helicopter because of the growing plight facing farmers struggling to trace missing sheep who have vanished in snow drifts of up to 20 feet high.
A senior official with the Department of Agriculture will be on board the Chinook to identify areas worst affected by the snow and freezing temperatures. Farmers said the conditions, especially in the Glens, are the worst in living memory.
Police and mountain rescue teams are already heavily involved in operations to reach isolated farms.
Estimates suggest that up to 10,000 animals have been buried beneath snowdrifts which reached up to 18ft (5.5m) high in parts of Counties Antrim and Down.
Northern Irish Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said: "What we have done is we have asked the MoD to provide a helicopter because there was no helicopter available anywhere on this island that would be capable of taking the feed up and distributing it.
"We put a call into Theresa Villiers, the British Secretary of State, and asked for the MoD helicopter which could provide the service. They have agreed to come in and there were talks late into the night last night to make sure everything was ready to go.
"Anything that helps get food and aid out on the ground then that is what we need to do."
Many farmers have been particularly badly hit by the severe weather, suffering livestock fatalities and damaged properties. There have been calls for a compensation package to be agreed.
Ms O'Neill said she would press for a hardship payment for farmers at a ministerial Executive meeting on Thursday.
The number of animals killed by the freak weather is unclear.
Ms O'Neill said she would also be talking to the banks because affected farmers faced lost income.
Medication and food are already being 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.
More than 140,000 Northern Ireland Electricity (NIE) customers who lost power when the wintry blast struck the eastern counties of the region last Thursday and Friday have since had supply restored.
Two helicopters were used to assist in the operation to get engineers to the affected properties, all of which are located in rural and exposed areas.
Julia Carson, communication manager with network operator NIE, said: "NIE emergency crews, supported by lines staff from the Republic of Ireland and Scotland, are carrying out repairs to over 100 remaining faults on the electricity network.
"These are in areas where access has been very difficult with snowdrifts and abandoned cars hampering the restoration process.
"We have been using a helicopter to patrol remote areas and have commissioned an additional helicopter to deliver NIE emergency crews, engineers and equipment into these areas today by air."
The Department for Regional Development (DRD) said it had spent more than £80,000 trying to combat the effect of adverse conditions gritting around 4,350 miles (7,000km) of roads with 1,000 tonnes of salt.