Irish Army choppers aid herds stranded in snow
TWO Irish military helicopters have joined the relief mission to help Northern Ireland farmers whose herds have been cut off by the snow.
The Augusta Westland helicopters, each carrying up to 14 personnel, took off from Casement Aerodrome at Baldonnel, Co Dublin, this morning, the Irish Defence Forces confirmed.
They will team up with two Royal Air Force Chinook crews to drop bales of essential food and supplies to stranded animals in the worst affected areas such as the Mourne Mountains and Glens of Antrim.
"Two helicopters took off from Baldonnel and will land at Aldergrove for a briefing. They will work out of Ballykinler and from there they will be tasked by Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) and the RAF to do what they need to, and that is to deliver animal feed to the animals affected by the weather crisis," said a spokeswoman for the Irish Defence Forces.
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 and drifts of up to 20 feet high.
It is understood the Irish Air Corps will concentrate their efforts in the higher ground of South Down. They are able to carry at least two bales from a huge sling under the aircraft.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said: "We are working closely with the Irish resources under the direction of DARD to provide relief to the most affected areas."
The RAF was called in after a request from Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill following urgent appeals from stricken farmers who claim the conditions are the worst they have seen in decades.
Noel Lavery, a senior official with Stormont's Department of Agriculture, said he understood there would be no charge from the Irish Government for the use of the Air Corps helicopters.
But he told an emergency meeting of the agriculture committee he believed the department would face a charge for the use of the RAF.
The Stormont Executive will meet later today to discuss potential hardship payments for those worst affected by the snow.
Members of Stormont's agriculture committee called the emergency meeting with departmental officials at Parliament Buildings in Belfast this morning to be briefed on the current situation.
Mr Lavery, the department's permanent secretary, said the problems facing farmers in the isolated areas affected were "unprecedented".
He said sheep farmers were facing "very considerable loss" of livestock, but stressed that the final toll would not become clear until the thaw came.
"These were exceptional and extremely severe snow storms," he said.
"And they will continue to have a significant and potentially devastating impact on the farming community, and particularly sheep farmers in the areas affected, and while evidence of loss and costs associated won't be known for some time, the full costs, it is expected there will be very considerable loss of sheep and lambs at individual farm level, resulting in loss of income and costs associated with collection and disposal of fallen stock."
The official said as of last night the first RAF Chinook helicopter deployed to the region had made eight flights, making 15 separate supply and feed drops.
He said six more flights were planned for the Glens of Antrim today and eight to 10 in Co Down.
Mr Lavery also highlighted the efforts to reach farms by land and said specialist Forest Service snow-cat vehicles had managed to get feed to 35 farmers.