TAC 49 Index
Leaving aside questions of why the government is closing down the countryside and mass-slaughtering animals when (a) we have untouched stockpiles of vaccine and (b) the disease is largely non-fatal to animals and does not cross the species barrier into humans, Britain's hill-going community deserves urgent answers to the following:
If access restrictions are based on genuine welfare concern (health of the grazing stock etc), and if the virus can be car-carried, as we have often been told is the case, why has it been deemed OK for skiers to drive substantial distances to the various Highland centres when it has been deemed very unOK for a walker to wander up a hill near their house, even though he or she might live far from any contaminated area and hasn't been anywhere near the infection since the outbreak began? Similarly, why have golfers, football fans etc been allowed to carry on as normal? Surely if the crisis as is serious as we are assured it is, then the whole damn country should be made to grind to a halt, not just selected parts of it.
If, conversely, the restrictions are based on economic arguments (farms and associated businesses will suffer financially, even though full compensation is available for slaughtered animals), why are those bunkhouses, hostels, B&Bs, mountain guides, cycle hire centres etc in upland areas outwith contamination zones having to suffer mass-ive financial damage? Is it one law for the farmer and another for the rest of us? After all, tourism and recreational land use make a more substantial contribution to the up-land economy than does agriculture.
Why have certain councils taken a 100% hardline stance in terms of banning off-road 'recreational' activity even though the areas they administer lie considerable distances from any known infection and, in many instances, would not bring walkers into proximity with cows, sheep or pigs? And why have many paths across arable fields been closed, in clear contravention of the Scottish Executive guidelines on such matters?
Why, in areas where the councils have taken a more moderate, 'advisory' line, did agencies such as SNH and the Forestry Commission and charities such as the NTS go the whole hog of 100% closure, a policy that is being maintained as TAC goes to press? This applies to many Highland areas, even though livestock is still being moved surreptitiously, sheep and cows are grazing openly at roadsides and farm tractors are spilling just as much muck on the roads as they ever did.
How can a hill or glen be 'closed'? More particularly, how can Glen Coe be 'closed', as has been claimed by the NTS? Glen Coe has a main road through it, which has remained open throughout. It doesn't seem to be illegal or even frowned upon to stop one's vehicle in the glen, for instance to take a photograph. If the occupants walk five paces from their car, are they liable to be hit with a £5000 fine? What about twenty paces? Fifty...?
Even accepting that hills and glens had to be 'closed' in the early stages of the crisis, why have organisations such as the NTS and SNH not subsequently taken the lead in cautiously re-opening the hills over which they have jurisdiction? The installation of disinfectant pads and boot/ tyre dips would have met with a very conscientious and positive response from the hillgoing community, and would have had the added bonus, for the organisations concern-ed, of boosting the esteem in which they are held by grassroots hillgoers. But nothing of this sort has, as yet, happened: the only hills to be formally reopened have been Aonach Mor and Cairn Gorm where the divergent attitudes taken to skiers and climbers/walkers became too incongruous to sustain. If the NTS truly does have the interests of the nation at heart - as its name implies - why doesn't it take a lead here? The trust could certainly afford to convert a few laybys into checkpoints and splash out on some buckets of dip: anyone who has visited the NTS HQ in Charlotte Square will have seen the amount they are willing to spend on chandeliers and servants.
Who would have predicted that the first decisive moves towards welcoming walkers back to the hills would come not from the publicly accountable quangos/agencies/ charities, but from traditional private estates such as Invercauld? Are the sluggish institutional committees of SNH etc so fearful of losing patronage that they are failing to act for the common good? Are they more bothered about access to MBEs and knighthoods than to the hills and glens?
Given the much vaunted tradition of walkers, climbers and hillgoers standing up to any attempt to 'close' hills, why has there been such complacency and compliance within the outdoor media? By no means everyone has been silenced, but there has hardly been a great public upsurge of anger at this, nor much in the way of debate. 'Sorry folks, but the hills are closed for the time being' has been an oft-heard line. It could be that blanket closure is absolutely the right policy in situations such as this. Then again it might not be. We need to hear a genuine, open, vehemently argued debate - this is, after all, the biggest ever recreation land-use crisis. But the lack of discussion has been remarkable. Why?
What does it say about the underlying and often invisible control of our lives that information boards placed at the foot of the Ochils were spirited away as soon as the re-strictions took hold? Presumably similar 'vanishings' occurred in car parks elsewhere, and this smacks of the war-time policy of removing signposts to make life difficult for invading Germans. Are we happy to see such draconian measures being imposed during peacetime in a supposedly democratic country? And, now that a precedent has been set, what future situations might prompt a similar, or even more severe, response from the authorities?
When will the media, and the non-hillgoing public, stop belittling hill activity - and indeed any form of outdoor leisure - as a 'hobby', something that can be casually set aside the instant any 'serious' crisis hits society? Even discounting those whose livelihoods depend on the outdoors, there are vast numbers for whom access to hills, footpaths and fresh air generally is absolutely and vitally central to everything they do. We live in an age when the benefits of exercise are increasingly emphasised, yet people's health - mental and physical - is now being jeopardised, as is the productivity of those for whom regular access to the outdoors feeds directly back into the quality of work they do in their everyday jobs. Why is such activity being demeaned at the same time that farm-ers are allowed to hold the country to moral ransom in terms of the (undoubted) importance of their own work?
When will it ever end?
Thanks to AB, TC, IM, KS and CT, whose comments contributed to the above. Alan Kimber's website (www.guide.u-net.com) has also been a vital resource. For some more opinions on the crisis, see page 9
TAC 49 Index