SNOW NEED FOR COPTER FLIGHTS; Air support for farmers stood down.
THE Department of Agriculture last night defended its decision to stand down air support giving relief to stricken farmers here.
Two RAF Chinooks and Irish Air Corps AgustaWestland helicopters were being used for essential food drops in parts of Counties Antrim and Down where snow drifts topping 20ft left livetsock stranded.
The department said efforts were being refocused on the ground.
A spokesman added: "Over this week we have worked tirelessly to assist many farmers who have experienced difficulties due to the severe weather.
"We have assessed the situation on a continuing basis and air support has been stood down for today.
"Given road access has been dealt with we are redirecting our resources from aerial support to ground support, and over the next few days will continue to offer farmers help to move their fodder to inaccessible stock."
Since Monday, 22 helicopter flights have delivered 46 drops to animals isolated on high ground in the Mourne Mountains and Glens of Antrim.
A further 45 farmers transported feed to remote areas using DARD's Softrak vehicles.
Thousands of cattle, sheep and lambs are believed to have died when blizzard conditions hit last weekend, although the full extent of the crisis will not be established until the thick blanket of snow thaws.
DUP MLA Paul Frew, chairman of Stormont's agriculture committee claimed it was too soon to stop aerial support. He added: "This is a fundamental error of judgment by the minister [Michelle O'Neill].
"The only explanations are she has either taken a deliberate decision to ignore the continuing plight of farmers or has completely misjudged the scale of the problem.
"Has she not seen the despair on the faces of farmers as they try and get feed to their stranded flocks?" Sinn Fein MLA Oliver McMullan, who lives in the Glens, said farmers were in a better position because roads had been cleared.
On Thursday the Executive unveiled a PS5million-plus rescue package to help those who lost livestock.
The two-pronged scheme will see DARD pick up the tab for the collection and disposal of dead animals as well as providing hardship payments for those farmers left out of pocket.
It has also emerged a charge would be incurred for use of the RAF Chinook helicopters while the Irish Air Corps had provided assistance for free.
The department has not yet calculated the total cost for calling in aerial support.
Has she not seen the despair as farmers try and get feed to their flocks? PAUL FREW a
RELIEF n RAF Chinook