NI agriculture committee holds emergency weather meeting

Snowy fields beyond a gate Many sheep farmers have been unable to get food supplies to their livestock and are facing significant losses

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The assembly agriculture committee has held an emergency meeting to assess the damage caused to NI farms by the severe weather.

The committee was briefed by the department of agriculture's permanent secretary.

The Glens of Antrim and parts of County Down have been particularly badly affected by snow drifts.

Two RAF Chinooks and two Irish Army Air Corps helicopters are helping deliver food supplies to stranded animals.

During Thursday's meeting, members of the committee clashed over the use of the helicopters.

Arrangements have been made for Irish Army Air Corps aircraft to join the operation at the request of Agriculture Minster Michelle O'Neill

Trevor Clarke of the DUP said he did not care if it was the Irish Air Corps or the French air corps, but he believed politics was being played with the matter.

His party colleague, Paul Frew, who chairs the committee, asked the senior government officials who were briefing the committee, whether the minister had requested help from the Territorial Army (TA).

Chinook Military helicopters are being used to deliver feed to stranded livestock

Noel Lavery, permanent secretary at the Department of Agriculture (DARD), said he did not believe the assistance of the TA was requested and "that was purely a matter for for the minister and other ministers".

Sinn Fein's Oliver McMullan asked if there would be a cost for the use of helicopters.

Mr Lavery said he believed there would be a cost for the use of RAF helicopters but there would be no charge for the Irish Army Air Corps aircraft.

Mr Clarke interrupted to say this was a "planted question".

Committee members criticised DARD for the delay in its response to the heavy snowfalls, which started on Friday 22 March.

DARD director of finance Gerry Lavery told the committee that on Monday 25 March "we started to become aware of the extent of the problem".

Joanne Dobson of the UUP described the plight of farmers in her Upper Bann constituency who were struggling to cope, and said she was "quite cross to hear that you started making plans on Monday".

"I just find that truthfully hard to take in," she added.

Mr Lavery said a central civil contingencies group, chaired by the head of the civil service, had met to discuss the severe weather on Sunday 24 March.

Concerns

Earlier, Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said she would raise the concerns of farmers she had met on the ground over recent days.

"There's a few key issues that keep coming up and one is the issue of fallen stock, so how to deal with our dead animals and that's something that's quite expensive, so that's one of the areas I'm bringing to the executive on Thursday," she said.

"I believe that there is a scheme that can be put in place that can help meet the cost of that and then also secondary to that also looking at some sort of hardship payment."

She also welcomed the assistance from the Irish Army Air Corp.

"Two of their helicopters are coming along and that is in addition to the Chinook that has actually been out over the past number of hours," she said.

"So we'll have a lot more people delivering feed to animals, which is something I'm sure farmers will very much welcome."

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