THIS is Northern Ireland’s worst weather-related farming disaster in living memory.
That is according to the accounts which one rendering plant operator is hearing from elderly farmers, as his factory works to keep pace with the grim influx of bodies arriving from the countryside.
Contractors are facing harrowing scenes of bagged-up lamb carcasses and farmyards full of dead ewes as they collect animals for delivery to the rendering plants.
And Richard Moore, managing director of Linergy, one of the two plants where these lorry loads of animals end up, said: “There’s farmers ringing us up thinking they’ve lost their entire flocks, and there’s others living in hope, thinking its 10 or 20 animals.”
The Dungannon plant has dealt with spates of dead animals from floods in recent years.
“But I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Mr Moore. “Some of the older farmers, the last time they remember the hills being as bad was 1947. It’s a lot of pressure on the plant. The rendering operation is a cooking operation, and putting through that sort of material which is very high in wool content, it doesn’t break down. It makes it much harder on the equipment, and slows it down.
“So far we’re keeping ahead of it. If there’s a very fast thaw I think we’ll struggle to keep up.
“But at the rate that we’re progressing this week, we’ll be able to keep up with it.”
There are still many animals to be found, he believes, as snow continues to melt.
The snow crisis happened in the midst of what is already their busy season.
Most of the material the business gets is from abattoirs, rather than fallen stock.
Normally they would charge the farmer, but the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is paying for rendering and collection.
Ultimately, and perhaps strangely, the fallen sheep and lambs he receives look set to end up as a power source.
Their remains are broken down into meat-and-bone meal which is then shipped to England for use in power plants.
They will also be turned into tallow which can be burned in Linergy’s own industrial boilers.
Tallow can also be put through a process called esterification, which turns it into a component in biofuel.
“I have talked to men in their 80s who have never seen anything like this,” added Mr Moore, returning to the subject of the big freeze.
“In my lifetime there’s been nothing like this from weather-related factors.”
However, he added that things like animal losses to disease were a different matter altogether.
There are only so many drivers able to go out and do the collections, which he thinks could hamper the ability to collect the carcasses quickly if they get a big influx of calls within a short time.
The free carcass collection scheme is due to end on Monday April 15.
But Mr Moore said he imagined that the department may extend the date during which their free collection scheme runs rather than bring down a “guillotine” on the project at that date.
The department had always said it could extend the scheme.
Asked if it expected to do so yesterday, it said: “Arrangements have been put in place for the costs of collection and disposal by approved renderers to be met directly by the department for the period April 2 to April 15, which could be extended depending on the rate of thaw.