TAC 50 Index
I can recall no other UK event in the last decade that resulted in such collective irrational folly as official responses to foot and mouth disease. An important recommendation from the public inquiry into the previous UK outbreak, not to burn carcasses, was ignored. Policy changed on the hoof, as it still does, and over-reaction became general. The government ludicrously ordered the killing of all sheep and cattle within 3km of a suspected case, yet now admits that hundreds of suspected cases later proved negative, including the Tongue incident. Phoenix the calf and Porky the pig were spared on orders from 10 Downing Street, despite being within the 3km distance. A general election was nigh!
Early on, illiberal minister Ross Finnie announced on TV with grave face and shaking voice: "Don't go into the countryside". Too many took this stupidity as sound advice, and the result was unprecedented economic harm to the tourism industry, far outweighing the relatively minor losses to the disgusting trade in exporting live farm animals. The most fatuous comment came from Ian Grant, amazingly chosen by the unwise Scottish "Executive" as chairman of the undemocratic, redundant Cairngorms Partnership, who warned of the terrible damage to our unique Highland wildlife if the disease spread into the deer population. The most mad-hatter comments were fat lady Clarissa Dickson Wright's press suggestion that animal rights activists opposed to fox hunting introduced the disease, and NFU president Ben Gill's observation that eco-terrorists cannot be ruled out. That the press printed such drivel tells much.
After Finnie's absurd remarks, over-reaction spread quickly, with local authorities, Forestry Commission and many other organisations banning access. For once, officious staff wielded power and got away with it. Some fishing gillies and gamekeepers became self-appointed local bullies, questioning naive visitors in an intimidating manner. The arrogant Finnie should have apologised for over-reacting, but never did, and later had the effrontery to say the countryside was now open, when clearly it wasn't. In early May, an estate notice at the start of a private road on a popular route to hills in upper Deeside read "Is your trip essential?" Even on 26 May, a Scottish Wildlife Trust car park near Montrose was closed off, and straw bales with notices erected by farmers stood on two Angus public roads (one mile and half a mile respectively from the farms concerned), warning of access for farm staff and business only.
Page three of TAC49 was like a breath of fresh air amidst the pollution from the government's huge pyres and burials, and the double-speak from government and other organ-isations that should have known better but fell into a pro-establishment pseudo-populist trap. TAC's legitimate questions have not been answered, and are unlikely to be answered by the arrogant and secretive Scottish "Executive" ministers and officials. There should be a rigorous independent public inquiry into the whole sorry affair, with witnesses under oath. Perhaps then, if the truth is told, blame will be apportioned where it rightly lies and lessons for the future will be learned, including an objective analysis of whether or how taxpayers' money should be spent in agriculture, forestry and other rural affairs. We now have a good opportunity. Ask your new MP to press for such an inquiry and analysis.
Kerrera, late April. One hill-starved TACite crosses to the island in search of some walking. He asks the farmer- ferryman if there are any access restrictions. The ferryman points to a footbath, but adds, "Och, no, just try to keep away from the livestock". It took a while but, at last, a sensible response to the walking/FMD dilemma - and on an island which, unlike much of the Highlands, probably earns more from livestock than from tourism.
Others will rail against MAFF/council/landowner/STB idiocy more eruditely than I. Suffice to say that these are hard times for one who lives on the slopes of the Campsies. In the clear spring sunlight they have beckoned, called, implored as strongly as the Keep Out signs have threatened.
Perhaps a few lessons should be learned from the May Day demonstrators. Once the overblown FMD palaver is in retreat, we need to orchestrate a determined Reclaim the Hills exercise. The frighteningly speedy closures - even of time-honoured rights of way - must not happen again.
I racked my brains to think of a positive aspect of the closures. I recalled the Luss hills a year ago, and motorbike trials inadvertently stumbled upon. Hundreds of bikes roaring along both summits of Doune Hill and the summit of Beinn Eich. Huge churned areas of hill land, scared deer and unbelievable noise pollution. The Interim National Park Committee was unaware of it, but SNH suggested to me that "the landowner was within his rights".
Well - it won't happen this year, and hopefully never again.
It is scary to see that a government can at the drop of a hat take away our fundamental right to walk over our hills. There might be some justification in badly hit areas like Cumbria, but in areas far from any outbreak it is quite unreasonable. In any case, many experts say that there is no evidence of FMD ever being spread by hillwalkers. Can anyone imagine Switzerland or Austria "closing" the Alps because of some outbreak in the valleys? What will the government do next? Reduce crime by imposing a 9pm to 6am curfew on all of us?
We are all sympathetic to the farmers enduring this ordeal, but they are not the only ones suffering. It is affecting all manner of businesses connected to tourism - which is said to bring in ten times as much money as does farming. Also, how about those of us who have saved to retire to a hillwalking area? Farmers will get their compen-sation, but what will we get? Elderly walkers easily become unfit unless climbing hills regularly. Some will probably never climb another mountain. I fear that some landowners will even try to keep walkers out after the crisis is over. One Cumbrian farmer is reputed to have said: "I've been wanting to keep walkers off my land for years".
How am I coping? While at home I am doing more cycling than usual and more gardening. We are taking more overseas hillwalking holidays. Since the start of the outbreak we have taken extra holidays to the Costa Blanca (excell-ent hillwalking) and to Armenia. Next week we plan to be walking in Sardinia. Usually when I drive through the Lake District en route to Manchester airport I am sorry to leave, but now I am glad.
TAC 50 Index