Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons has said he is considering financial support for organic milk producers and sheep farmers affected by the downturn in wool prices resulting from Covid-19.

However, the minister’s comments come just a week after it emerged his department had failed to bid for any of the latest round of Covid-19 relief money set aside by the Assembly.

Speaking during Minister’s Questions on Tuesday (March 2), Minister Lyons said legislation needed to grant £4.2 million of previously-announced payments for pig and poultry farmers would come through the Assembly over the next few days, adding that he hoped the money could reach farmers by the end of the month.

To date, he explained the department had made Covid-19 support payments totalling almost £19.2 million to approximately 11,300 businesses in the beef, dairy, sheep and potato sectors.

“Work is ongoing to assess and process remaining claims from about 20 applicants,” he said.

Cull sow money

In response to a question from his party colleague Jonny Buckley, Lyons also said he was still weighing up whether support could be granted for cull sows.

“My officials continue to monitor the impact of Covid-19 on the market and are reviewing evidence to determine the loss incurred. However, there are other factors impacting on the market, and I will consider the issue carefully,” he said.

He also hinted support could be on the way for organic milk suppliers.

“The organic milk scheme, in particular, is an issue that I have been involved in,” he said.

“I recognise the issues with it, the differential loss that has been suffered and the need to provide support. I hope that an announcement will be made soon so that we can get that support to where it is needed.”

Wool support

Commenting on the potential for a payment for wool producers, Lyons said that while wool makes up a small proportion of sheep farmers’ income he wanted the department to “help where we can”.

“I am aware of the impact that Covid-19 has had on the global market for wool, although I am pleased to hear that wool markets have reopened and that local wool from the 2019 and 2020 clip is being marketed, albeit at a much-reduced market price,” he said.

“On February 15, I met representatives of Ulster Wool, British Wool, the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) and the National Sheep Association for an update on the impact that Covid-19 has had on global wool markets and the consequences for local sheep farmers and Ulster Wool.

Representatives of British Wool detailed the figures that they had on the financial impact that Covid-19 has had. Those figures are now being submitted in writing to my department and are being carefully considered.

“With markets for lamb remaining strong this year throughout the summer and autumn, the reduced wool price will have a relatively small impact on total profitability, but we want to help where we can.

“In the longer term, I intend to work closely with stakeholders from the sheep industry and Ulster Wool on recovery and to see what we can do to develop a strategy for sustainable wool production.

“Meetings have taken place with my officials, Invest NI and industry stakeholders who use wool as part of their business to discuss options for a long-term strategy to increase wool utilisation.”

No bid for Assembly Covid money

However, it comes just a week after it emerged that no case had been put forward by the department for further Covid funding in the last funding round.

It makes it likely any further support payments will have to wait until new allocations are made in the new financial year.

Speaking in the Assembly last Monday, West Tyrone MLA Declan McAleer said: “It was really frustrating that, when the Finance Minister announced a number of weeks ago that £251.1 million of funding was available for allocation and specifically implored the AERA Minister to come forward with proposals, he did not.

All we got were excuses that their need could not be identified and a fear that, had they got
additional funding, they could not spend it by the end of the financial year.

“That, to me, was a lame excuse, particularly when all of the other departments were bidding for funding and were in the same position as DAERA.

“In that regard, I feel really strongly that the agricultural and rural communities have been
let down by the department on many of these issues, particularly that last one that I mentioned.

“I hope that the minister and, indeed, his party reflect on that in the time ahead.”