Northern Ireland farm authorities may use agricultural drones to spy on money grabbing farmers.

A report in the Londonderry Sentinel newspaper claims that the drones are currently utilised to monitor larch trees.

But the report says the unmanned planes could also be used to ‘snoop on fraudulent farmers claiming too much in EU farm payments.’

The province’s Farms Minister Michelle O’Neill told the paper: “Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) may offer an effective and efficient solution to the mapping of these remote commons areas which in turn could help improve compliance with EU Single Farm Payment rules.”

The report says Ulster’s Forest Service already intends using a UAS to monitor areas of larch trees that may be affected by ramorum disease.

Minister O’Neill added: “Work on using near infrared aerial photography to improve early detection commenced late last year and will be resumed in spring as weather permits.

“There is further potential for the use of ‘drones’ in a range of forest management situations involving surveys.

“These would include the mapping of forest areas destroyed by forest fires, monitoring the extent of wind damage to plantations, monitoring the success of reforestation, and to assess the spread of invasive plant species on important unplanted habitats.

“These and other uses will be explored throughout 2013.”

O’Neill added: “The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) is actively considering the procurement of UAS to use in two other areas of work, namely to assist with work in the surveillance and statutory control of quarantine organisms harmful to plants; and to help with mapping of areas such as commons.

“Commons tended to be large inaccessible areas that are difficult to map because of their remoteness and terrain.”