An RAF Chinook helicopter will carry out food drops for livestock stranded by huge snow drifts in remote areas of Northern Ireland during an emergency operation on Tuesday.

Estimates suggest up to 10,000 animals have been buried beneath drifts that have reached up to 18 feet (5.5 metres) in parts of Counties Antrim and Down, where thousands of sheep and cattle are already feared to have died in the cold at the height of the lambing season.

The transport helicopter left its base at RAF Odiham in Hampshire this morning, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said, and will refuel near Belfast before airlifting fodder to remote areas.

Northern Ireland's Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill had requested the use of a transport helicopter from the MoD to carry out airlifts after visiting farms in the worst affected areas on Monday.

"What we have done is we have asked the MoD to provide a helicopter because there was no helicopter available anywhere on this island that would be capable of taking the feed up and distributing it," O'Neill said.

"We put a call into Theresa Villiers, the British Secretary of State, and asked for the MoD helicopter which could provide the service. They have agreed to come in and there were talks late into the night last night to make sure everything was ready to go.

"Anything that helps get food and aid out on the ground then that is what we need to do."

More than 140,000 people who lost power when the unseasonal wintry weather struck the eastern counties of the region last Thursday and Friday have since had supply restored. Around 50 homes remain cut off.