THE STORMONT Exexutive has agreed in principle a £5 million hardship package for farmers financially hit badly by the recent heavy snow storms.
Dozens of farmers have been left stranded and their sheep flocks stranded under the huge snow drifts since last Friday.
Now on Thursday, following a meeting of the all-party Executive at Stormont, Ministers have put their weight behind a hardship package to help bail out farmers who were in the middle of the lambing season.
The Ministers also agreed that the Executive will bear the cost of removing and disposing of dead animals following the worst snow falls since 1963.
While the measures were being agreed, officials were directing four helicopters to deliver emergency food parcels to stranded farmers and their livestocks on Thursday.
Two helicopters from the Irish Air Corps arrived in Northern Ireland on Thurday morning to assist with delivering emergency aid to farmers affected by the heavy snow which has left thousands of sheep stranded in isolated areas.
They have been working alongside two RAF Chinook helicopters which will drop fodder and provisions in one of the worst affected areas in Co Down around Dromara, Castlewellan and Slieve Croob.
The step up in emergency provision supplies came as a Stormont committee held an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the crisis facing farmers over the recent snow storms.
The Agriculture Committee also discussed the department’s response to the recent severe weather which seen an RAF helicopter drafted in to drop food for stranded farmers and the sheep livestock on their land.
Heavy snowfall has caused hardship across much of Northern Ireland, with some areas buried under drifts up to 18ft deep.
Farmers livelihood is now in jeopardy amid fears that thousands of sheep and cattle died in the freezing temparatures.
Politicians were also briefed by Department of Agriculture officials at Stormont later on Thursday.
Compensation for farmers will be one of the issues discussed, as search operations for stranded livestock continue.
“Every day that passes farmers are incurring more and more hardship and loss,” said Committee Vice Chair Joe Byrne, SDLP.
“I called this emergency meeting so we can ensure responses to this crisis are coordinated and communicated as widely as possible.
“We can discuss what immediate measures can be put in place to support farmers, alleviate the hardship of animals without feed and assist with the removal of livestock which has been lost as a result of the bitterly cold weather.
“There are still parts of the north which are completely impassable and a number of farmers remain unable to get to their livestock.
“We must all work together to prevent this crisis escalating further and to provide as much support as we can to help the farmers who have been dealt a hard blow by this heavy snow fall”.
On Wednesday, the first military Chinook helicopter was drafted in to airlift emergency supplies to remote parts of Co Antrim and Co Down.
It spent Wednesday making deliveries to the Dromara hills to some of the most affected farmers, their families and livestock.
A second was called in on Thursday and was working throughout Thursday with two helicopters from the Irish Air Corps in making emergency food drops.
Farmers who need assistance across South Down on Thursday should contact the hotline number on: 0300 202 007 852
Meanwhile livestock feed and fodder has been sourced through the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, and is being delivered to farms on vehicles known as Snowcats.
James McHenry, who has been struggling to reach his sheep near Glenariff, said: “The food drop has helped immensely, it’s a very good effort but if they’re still alive, they’ll soon have that eaten. We desperately need to get to them.”