Urgent help needed for snow-hit farmers

Urgent help needed for snow-hit farmers

There is increasing pressure on the Agriculture Minister to help farmers who have been affected by extreme snow and winds, as thousands of animals are feared dead and access to many more is still restricted.

Blizzards hit farmers last week at a crucial time in the agricultural calendar, which has left many unable to reach their animals in the middle of the lambing season.

James McHenry, of Dieskirt sheep farm, near Glenariff, says there are scenes of total devastation across his fields.

He has hundreds of sheep - many heavily pregnant - and the first of his newborn lambs stranded on the Co Antrim hillside. He and his family cannot get to them and the animals have no food.

They are dying of both starvation and the cold.

"It's the worst case scenario - you couldn't even dream about how bad it is. It's terrible here," the distraught farmer said.

His main shed for housing his animals collapsed under the weight of the snow. James' wife had just left the shed only moments earlier after helping a ewe give birth to triplets.

He now has no shelter for the livestock on lower ground - many are giving birth, but are dying of the cold.

"I just feel sick and so sad about the whole thing. I've worked with sheep all my life," he said, on the verge of tears.

James told UTV that farming on the whole wasn't getting any better and he was finding it very hard to cope.

Pleading with the Department of Rural Development to help, he said he won't know the extent of the damage until the whole area has thawed - that could take weeks due to the height of the snow drifts, some of which are up to 18ft.

However, he said that for him this set back could spell the end of his farming career.

Minister Michelle O' Neill, who visited a farm at Glenarm in north Antrim on Monday, revealed that she has requested urgent access to helicopter support from the NI Secretary of State.

She added that her department is currently sourcing livestock feed for those most affected.

"These are some of the worst weather conditions these areas of the north have seen in many decades and I am particularly concerned about the situation of farmers with livestock which may not have access to feed.

"I have asked that all resources available to the Executive, including those of the emergency services, are made available to help those affected.

"Good information will help my officials ensure that other utilities are alerted to problems, and prioritise their assistance."

The Sinn Féin minister continued: "It will also allow us to assess what sort of additional help the Executive could offer."

Ms O' Neill said that a main priority is to ensure roads are cleared to help farmers in dealing with the effects of the severe weather.

She continued, saying that she had been liaising with Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy on how the two departments can work closer together on this issue.

Much of Northern Ireland has been blanketed in snow since Friday when some of the worst blizzards in years struck the region.

A large number of agencies have been involved in the clear up operation, including the RAF and the Red Cross.

The First Minister Peter Robinson has praised the multi-agency effort saying everybody involved "performed to the very highest level."

The DUP leader was in the Dromara hills to witness for himself the sheer devastation in the fields.

He said : "It is heartbreaking for farmers with sheep and lambs dying in the fields, the inability to get them in and even if they get them in now there is probably not much chance left for them.

"The Executive is meeting again on Thursday and I think they are going to have to look and see what assistance they can give because this isn't the normal circumstances that we can expect farmers to endure."

Admitting that farmers had a very strong case, he continued: "If we can give people in the city and urban areas assistance when they are flooded, I think there's no good reason why we shouldn't be giving some form of help to those in the rural community who face the kind of horrendous conditions that we've seen over the last number of days."

Speaking on the farmers' desperate plight, Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) spokesperson Ian Marshall said: "These men and women work continually in challenging conditions so forecasts for snow and adverse weather conditions is not uncommon.

"The severity of this break of weather that we've had is leaving them in a very difficult position.

"They don't usually house livestock at this time of year," he added.

"Ewes and lambs are taken onto the hills where they graze where we should be in nice spring conditions, if you cast your mind back to this week last year, it was around 22 degrees, it was sunny, it was bright.

"Some of the farmers moved sheep and lambs to lower ground, but just to bring animals down to lower ground hasn't actually helped the problem."

He said a coordinated effort was needed across all public bodies to keep roads clear and restore access to livestock.

"This isn't just about farm business, the farmers are very very concerned about the welfare of the animals. You've got animals that are isolated without feed and water and they are doing everything they can to get out there (to get to them). "

He said that farmers need assistance to get through this period and ensure the survival of livestock.

The UFU President Harry Sinclair visited farms in the Glens of Antrim on Monday to assess the problems faced by farmers as a result of this weekend's severe weather.

Farmers have already had a challenging number of years and any loss of animals, damage to farming equipment and or buildings would be financially devastating.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell

SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie has warned the loss of animals will have a "devastating financial impact in the months to come" and has called for compensation for farmers.

"The situation for many is grave and requires the NI Executive to look immediately at a package of practical support to enable access to hill areas and livestock now before any further losses are incurred," the south Down representative said.

"In the weeks ahead the Northern Ireland Executive need to look at financial compensation that will assist these hill farmers in the year ahead and compensate them in some way for the loss of these animals.

"These losses are not covered by insurance and they will have a very real impact on the lives of many farming families, who depended on the sale of livestock as their main source of income."

Earlier, Ms Ritchie called on the Agriculture Minister to put in place emergency measures to help those affected particularly the hill farming community in the Mournes, Slieve Croob/Dromara Hills and Co Antrim.

TUV leader Jim Allister has questioned whether DARD is doing all it can to help.

"Conditions over the weekend in some rural parts of North and East Antrim have been beyond belief," the north Antrim MLA said.

"Whereas, NIE and other agencies have done sterling work in atrocious conditions, some farmers are facing massive losses, particularly in the middle of lambing season.

"I am aware of several farms where the losses are disastrous. The question now is what has and will DARD do to help?"

SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell has also put pressure on Minister O'Neill to take urgent action.

"We are already hearing extremely tragic cases of a lambing shed collapsing due to the heavy snow fall and animals distressed because of a lack of food," Dr McDonnell said.

"The Minister needs to give immediate assistance to farmers and work in a joined-up manner with the Minister for Regional Development so that we can avoid any further loss of livestock for farmers."

Alliance Councillor Patrick Clarke said a major crisis had developed in the remote Slieve Croob area of Co Down, with no services being able to reach the area covered in snow.


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