TAC 50 Index
It's not like TAC to devote most of one issue to a single subject, but these are strange times and the half-centenary edition is, almost inevitably, a foot and mouth disease / access special. A few non-FMD things might lurk within these pages, but the spectre of the lurgy will never be far away - a bit like the real world just now, in fact. Rather than banging on editorially, it seemed sensible to provide a forum for views on the crisis - and so, throughout the magazine, the opinions of 35 hillgoers can be found. The basic questions asked during the canvassing process boiled down to this: what do you think about it all, and how have you been coping? Here's what the people said...
It's odd how you pine for what you cannot have. Today, as I write, a good part of the Cairngorms is open for access (thank you, Invercauld and Mar Estates), but what I most itch to do is Ben Macdui, an impossibility until the military has finished scouring the sites of the recent jet crashes. But at least things are better. A few weeks ago, in a state of shocked dudgeon, I walked the dog along the side of football pitches in an Aberdeen park in a state of disbelief.
Normally the walk would have been on Lochnagar, Morrone, Bennachie even. Playing fields, for heaven's sake. The last time I'd been to that park was as a sulky adolescent on the number five bus. There had been a zoo with a fox and white bunnies and a hot chocolate machine ... but you see I'm having a flashback. And as the various government bodies, institutions and the self-elected uttered pronouncement after pronouncement at the height of the media frenzy, it was like being swept back in time to an era when the peasants had to stay in their appointed places.
There was also an added flavour of Alice in Wonder-land: words whirled a snowstorm of confusion around us all. Words mean what you mean them to mean: "terrible disease", "monstrous virus" - and surely the most meaningless word of them all, "responsible". How quickly we learned what being responsible meant. It did not mean (although it does now) using common sense and discretion while still accessing the countryside in a lightly controlled and thoughtful manner and continuing to contribute to its economy. No sirree. It meant staying indoors like factory mushrooms, whitening and bloating.
What I most resented was the frequent and explicit assumption, freshly garnished as fact, that those who spend a great deal of their time climbing hills and dreaming of hills do so as a mere whimsical alternative to a trip round B&Q of a Sunday. Life should be more than existence and the great outdoors forces us to distinguish between the two. I don't want to sound like a Thoreau, but anyone who tiptoes downstairs in the early hours and comes back after a day on the hills drenched, happy, aching, sunburnt or just plain knackered carries a little of that day and its contrariness with him or her for evermore, and is the better for the burden.
I am looking out of my window at sunset light on Skiddaw and thinking that it is just getting towards that time of the year when we should go and spend a night in the tent amongst the fells. Almost every day since this wretched business started the sun has shone. At first there were marvellous snow conditions. Now it is the bright greens of spring breaking out on the hills. It seems so eerie that they are completely empty, and unbearably frustrating. I feel that my whole lifestyle has been destroyed and instead of waking up wondering if it's a good day and if so what fell I shall climb, I wake every morning miserable with the knowledge that it really doesn't matter about the weather. I actually long for rain because then I can settle down more happily to indoor activities.
One thing which particularly infuriates me is that if I grumble about the situation people think I am being damned selfish when farmers, hoteliers etc are suffering much more. Indeed exactly this was said to me by other members of the rambling club committee, who surely should be the first people anxious to get back to the hills. There is a lot of sympathy for those who are losing money because the tourists are not coming, but no sympathy at all for those tourists who long to come if only they can go on the hills. Money matters, but hillwalking is definitely an optional indulgence.
Ironically, there was recently a report that someone had "discovered" walking to be the best form of exercise, so I think people must be getting less fit. I know that I am, not only physically but mentally as well. It's particularly hard for older people who can only keep up their fitness for the hills by regular walking. Some of our club members are over 80 and will find it difficult to get back on to the hills when this is over.
I do understand why we are kept off the fells as we are surrounded by FMD here, although it is quite likely that walkers don't spread it anyway. This however doesn't make it any easier to put up with. The opposite actually, as if the nearest case was 100 miles away one would feel justified in active protest.
As for coping, we are going on foreign walking holidays but this doesn't suit me as well as Rowland. I am getting to hate hanging around airports and not really looking forward to the trips. When at home it's just cycling, as I hate tarmac walking and get sore soles from it. I am also very frustrated by not being able to put hillwalking pictures on my web page. However, the counter shows more hits now that it's showing just another cycle ride round the local roads. I hope this is because folk are looking for good news from the area rather than because they prefer valley pictures!
I write this having just returned from Meall Gainmheich, a 564m hill which receives nothing like the attention of its more famous neighbour, Ben A'an, which has been open for two or three weeks now [written 30 April]. Problem is, it is just Ben A'an. The sign at the foot of the path makes it plainly clear that you are not welcome to wander beyond the summit. This sign does not have any basis in law, but how many know this?
Following the Comeback Code, I "respected the local sign" but chose to ignore it. The only sheep I saw were 2km to the east on the other side of a loch and 300m lower than me. So why did I feel guilty? I was doing nothing wrong and was following government guidelines at all times. Why did I approach the ridge cautiously, before sticking my head over in full sight of anybody who might be there?
The hillwalker has become an outcast. Not welcome in the countryside unless visiting one of the unfortunate thousands who have seen their livelihoods hijacked by the landowners. Getting into the hills is not a hobby, it is a way of life. A way of life that is greatly upset if you can't get out. Your occupation and all your available time are spent either in the hills, talking about them or thinking about them. Your relationship is strained as you drive 150 miles to a hill with the intent of climbing it - within the Comeback Code guidelines of course - only to find that when you get there your partner cannot bring themselves to get out of the car because 200 metres away is a cottage. What if someone can see us?
This feeling that you are doing something wrong is commonplace just now. It is time for people to get out again. By following the Comeback Code you are following the best governmental advice. It is time to remove intimidating (and illegal) signs from up and down the country. Act on the Comeback Code. "Obey official signs" of course and "respect local signs". It should be obvious on the ground which landowners/farmers deserve the respect and which are just using FMD as an excuse to keep hillgoers away.
I was affected from the start as, in the circumstances, I felt obliged to cancel a week in Galloway at the end of February. The general message was: "if you could avoid going on to the hills for the next few weeks, then please do so - and it will all be back to normal shortly". Fine, no problem. Work took me to Dundee on the day of the first Scottish case.
I was to repeat the drive north at four-weekly intervals. On the next trip, FMD had taken a grip of northern Cumbria and Annandale. Grey smoke drifted low and lazily across bare, muddy fields, rising slowly to merge with the scraps of grey cloud. Sheep were clustering in the corners of the fields, almost if they were looking for mutual support prior to the coming onslaught. By the time I returned south, the culling operation had been stepped up, the number of smoke columns had trebled and the fields were emptying. The countryside was not so much burning as smouldering with the ashes of destruction. By Easter, there was barely a sheep to be seen between Moffat and Penrith. The fields were empty.
Witnessing the consequences of FMD, albeit from the insulated environment of a passing car, is far more telling than viewing pictures on television. It allowed me to view the "closure" of the countryside with some degree of equanimity, at least for the first month or so. Anything, please God, anything but this blanket destruction for the Highlands.
It was less easy to accept restrictions within urban environments. Shortly after visiting Dundee, I went to for a run based on canal towpaths near Stockport, only to find them shut. Total closure of footpaths was probably the easiest option to implement, but a little thought applied here and there would have alleviated my increasing sense of imprisonment.
Over time, the gap between official advice on sensible precautions and reality, in terms of land being closed, has grown. As a result, my residual sympathy with the precautionary approach is being rapidly eroded. This adds one more layer of frustration and of course there are few opportunities to relieve the resultant stress through fresh air and exercise. In this regard, it is the little things I've missed: the ability to go for a run over the Clent/Waseley Hills just south of Birmingham, or in Lyme Park near Stockport, or the odd trip out the Roaches, or to some Welsh hills. The canal banks in Birmingham have taken a pounding as a result - not just from me but from a large number of serious-looking walkers (poles have been sighted). My legs and feet have suffered from the unaccustomed pounding on tarmac, and every time I'm feeling less than fit and well my patience and temper shorten. The run-up to Easter was particularly trying.
So, will I obey the Keep Off signs when next in the Highlands? The risk of my passing on the infection is low to non-existent. The establishments and the people I care about - the shops, the campsites, the tea shops - need custom. I need the fresh air. So, despite all I've seen, the answer could be No, so long as there's no chance of getting caught - but this does rather go against my normal instincts. Desperate times, though.
Just back from Oban last night [30 Apr], weather excellent. Managed Sunday on the Wee Buachaille: a fine day and very pleased to get on the hill again. The good news for Ireland, just been announced on TV this evening, is that hillwalking can resume on 11 May. YES!!!
At the start of the outbreak the Irish government's response was: "All hillwalking was not advised". I am reasonably certain that all mountaineers have acted re-sponsibly and have not been out. The Irish Mountaineering Council along with local clubs have "shown their solidarity with the Irish farmer" during this crisis. Access is now a serious issue in some areas and I think the IMC wanted to show that mountaineers are a responsible body. There would seem to be a closer affinity to "the land" here and I think it is fair to say that a number of the population have a tie to the land or the farming community and any serious outbreak would have a very serious effect on the economy and rural life as a whole.
I have not ventured out while the ban is on, and as far as I am aware there have been no cars at any of the car parks for Mount Brandon or the Reeks. I have tried to keep fit by cycling and walking. You can walk on the beach but not on the dunes. I tried walking along the back roads but I find this sore on the knees and there is risk of attack by some savage dog (a serious issue for casual walkers).
When the weather is bad and I cannot get out for weeks on end I do get quite frustrated, but now I am not allowed out I don't feel quite as bad. Tralee MC managed to get extended use of a local climbing wall as some sort of alternative, but I never liked walls as such and you seem to have to be possessed of superhuman strength to survive even one assault never mind the whole night.
I have asked others how they are coping, and what a lot of people seem to miss is the company, the meeting of people on the day, the craic. The TMC goes out every two weeks and the organised walks sometimes attract big groups, so if you are into this sort of thing then you can chat. Personally I am into the smaller group of two or three. One is even better.
The outdoor shops are certainly feeling the pinch as equipment for angling and shooting (also banned) are usually sold in the one shop. If you cannot get into the countryside there is no point in going and if you are from the UK or beyond there is no point in coming at all. I am sure that this official opening of the countryside is a response to the tourist industry which must be coming apart at the seams. Agriculture is big business but tourists are even bigger.
I was at a funeral when someone told me that FMD was back in the country after an absence of over 30 years. It was a nasty shock to say the least and the speed of its spread geographically and the number of cases was unlike anything I'd thought possible. I can remember the 1967-8 outbreak but it seemed to be so far away and therefore less of a threat to us in Highland Perthshire. The TV pictures brought home the seriousness of the situation, while our more mobile society meant that the next outbreak could have been on my own farm. It was this fear that led to an almost instant closing of the countryside.
How did this affect me? It seemed very strange living in a land devoid of people. Looking up at the Ben [Vrackie] and seeing nobody and no footprints on the path for weeks on end was weird to say the least. I was amazed how walkers kept away and they deserve great credit for that. It was also a strange feeling being hemmed in on my own land. I remember early in the crisis wanting to go for a low-ground walk round Loch Faskally with my wife as it was such a great day, but then realised we couldn't.
Like many hillwalkers, I was puzzled why skiing was allowed and walking was not. Before the outbreak, I had taken my two boys to Glen Shee to ski and they really enjoyed it, especially as conditions were the best for years. We stopped going as it wasn't right us going skiing and then expecting people to keep off my ground.
As time went on and as the risk diminished, I felt more uneasy about keeping the Ben Vrackie path, the bealach walk and the low-ground rights of way near Pitlochry closed. These walks would have been opened sooner than they were had the slaughter policy been different. The fact that all stock within 3km of an infected farm were to be culled would have meant that 20 farming units would have suffered had my farm got FMD. It would have been bad enough having my own stock killed but the thought that over 12,000 ewes and 1,000 head of cattle belonging to others would go was a worry to me.
In April, as confusion reigned as to what was open in the countryside, more people were about and I didn't like asking walkers to turn back - especially two I knew 25 years ago when I stayed in Angus. As soon as the paths were opened, I phoned them up as I hope the countryside never again has to be closed for FMD or any other reason.
This crisis has shown us how many businesses apart from farming depend on access to the countryside and how much people enjoy and have missed this access.
I am a nearly 57-year-old GP in Penrith plague centre (hoping to become a 58-year-old ex-GP), and have for many years come to rely on the Lakeland fells as my personal playground - so the sudden loss of this amenity has come as a profound shock both physically and mentally. I'm sure I'm not alone in this, but there has been minimal recognition of such problems round here.
I have always liked to have targets in life and one of these in recent years has been preparing for and entering the Long Distance Walkers' Association 100-miler at the end of May. Normally early spring is the time for training, reccying and generally honing my body - ha ha. This year has necessarily been a big blank void so far, made even worse as my "knackered knee" syndrome has not really improved with the lack of downhill work. Walking/running on roads seem to be just as bad for the poor old things.
Naturally the main sympathy locally has been with farmers (and possibly tourism), and any hint of showing lack of solidarity or daring to suggest hill walking might not be so dangerous is definitely Politically Incorrect. Two walkers were arrested on Skiddaw and I heard a police-man stating on the radio that they had been made to strip and disinfect - "and serves them jolly well right".
The apparent lack of logic and thought about footpath closure is very obvious here. The path across the golf course just above my house had been closed for the duration until it was reopened as one of "100 best-loved walks" available for Easter (half of them were car parks, for heaven's sake). This path was closed again after Easter despite the golf course remaining open throughout - although I've no argument with that as I quite enjoy the odd game of golf! I spoke to a man from the council who said that the path was in direct contact with a field containing sheep. Not so, said I: no sheep there now. "Oh well, sheep were there not so long ago", he said, and therefore the path would have to remain closed for six weeks if they had been infected.
What about the fells then?, I asked him. "We are advised that the hefted sheep are safest left where they are and there is a risk in allowing walkers on the fells." So for another 4-6 weeks that will remain the picture here. There does not seem to be any rational risk assessment (are you all right if you don't wear wellies, perhaps?) and, while all paths were closed at the drop of a hat, reversing the situation is looking far more difficult. Even more depress-ing is the apparent unquestioning acceptance of it all by the organisations I belong to or have contacted. The LDWA, the Fell Runners' Association, the Ramblers, the National Trust and the Cumbria Tourist Board are all toeing the line and have accepted the received wisdom about non-access.
A pre-Easter trip to Crieff had been planned long ago: some of us need hills for our health and sanity. My route to Scotland from Cambridge (clean area: no foot and mouth outbreak within 35 miles) was chosen to minimise the distance travelled through infected areas. I found Strath-earn almost entirely closed, no landowners having followed the good example set by Crieff in re-opening the municipal walks. The atmosphere of fear in the countryside was palpable and it came as a real shock to feel so unwelcome.
Knowing myself and my dog to be "clean", by careful map-reading I was able to find ways on to three new Grahams and one repeat Corbett, where there were no forbidding notices. I sought out hills which were largely forested, to minimise possible contact with livestock. Interestingly, on two of the hills I was observed by (evident-ly) locals who made no attempt to eject me. Nevertheless, knowing I was there by sneak and subterfuge definitely made the whole thing less relaxing and enjoyable.
The aspect which most annoyed me was seeing the rights of way closed (eg Glen Almond west of Newton Bridge). There are so few of these in Scotland that I really feel the effort should have been made by local authorities to keep them open and provide boot / bike-tyre dips. Anyone planning a through trip at Easter is almost bound to be the experienced, conscientious type who would use disinfecting facilities where provided. Nobody I know wants to spread the disease, and it was galling to be so careful myself and then hear about the Sutherland crofter who had been regularly visiting the infected area in Cumbria.
Finally, MAFF has had a lot of stick, but its website and the SERAD equivalent have been two of the very few reliable sources of information. Also a bouquet to www.walkscotland.com for keeping its news page up to date.
In trying to find out about FMD, I found several excruciating images on the net of animals showing symptoms. Can my discretionary ticking spread such pain? I don't know, but am not comfortable with the risk. I'm no vegan tree-dweller, being totally relaxed about humane stock management and dispatch for food and clothing. I'm also party to the hillgoers' jihad on the midge unto the 700th generation. But is my discretionary release worth the possibility of inflicting such misery on any higher animal for pure fun? No way.
While I live in an uninfected area and environment, and want to spend time in another, my risk assessment says to carry on. If not, I won't walk. I have cancelled pre-FMD booked full-week holidays in Yorkshire and Cumbria later this year at a cost of several hundred pounds in deposits. Happy about this? No. Live with the possible alternative of bringing the bug somewhere else? 'Fraid not either. Most are capable of their own judgement on this. If you don't share mine, that's fine. I only have to be happy with my actions to sleep at night.
Has the state jumped on an opportunity to mess us about? I prefer to view most of the elected as decent people with real problems to manage that the rest of us have shirked. Don't like their performance? Go stand and do a better job.
Have the forces of conservatism jumped on an unwarranted bandwagon? Absolutely, but so what? Marilyns will be at least a 30-year game for me. Eventually this Get Off My Land excuse will be beaten, the hills will still be there, and we'll all get back to our spiritual homes. How in the long run is the current pause different from the annual 8-10 week hiatus we all endure in the name of stalking?
I sympathise with those huts, B&Bs and gear shops driven to the brink by this mess, even those where my treatment has been abrupt, shoddy or patronising in the past. I couldn't have been in the great situations I've enjoyed without them, and hope that most of the good ones pull through.
Am I less effective in the daily professional routine with-out a regular hill fix? I shouldn't be, try not to be, and am after all paid the same even if my heart isn't in the job on a particular day. How about home life? I have certainly been a more present parent through FMD. The enforced reduc-tion in hill time has meant more contact time with the tribe, which I hope hasn't stressed them as much as two months without an eagle or an orchid, rock, snow or waterfalls has hit me. The views of non-walking partners and colleagues will make interesting reading!
Admission: Foot and mouth has altered but not halted my hill plans. This is because I live in Perthshire. I sympathise with those people living in FMD affected areas. In late February the hind shooting season closed and FMD erupt-ed. At that time I was based at Taynuilt, out on Starav and Cruachan picking off unvisited Murdos. The Marilyns to the south-west of Loch Awe gave options for rest and wild weather days. I took advantage of the best of the possibilities available in the Scottish mountains in springtime: hard snow and the return of the warming sun. Then the No Entry signs and disinfectant tubs appeared and I returned home to assess the reality of the situation. Plenty of advice came from the websites regarding the issues and most importantly the fact that, right from the outset, some places were open. I turned my mind to options. Climbing areas such as the Northern Corries and Aonach Mor were open, related no doubt to the adjacent skiing.
"I was so lonesome I took some comfort there"
Climbing comfortable routes in familiar gullies gave a warm reminiscent glow, but the hollow afterburn and sore thighs after a day on the planks at Glenshee had little to recommend it. Weeks on, the list of open hills has expanded apace with my search for new options. As new hills come on-line, my mind turns to putting together the pieces to form a plan, and so far I have been out as often as I wish.
The picture is similar to that during the stag/hind shooting season or climbing a rock route with the obvious holds missing, and my planning has changed to suit the criteria. The underlying worry is the timescale of the current restrictions. A combined deer cull and an FMD restrictive regime would indeed be a problem.
No Entry signs have always had an effect on my Scottish / wimpish / British / keep on the right side of fair play attitude, and I could not enjoy a day on the hill if I thought I was upsetting a stalk and undermining a keeper's work. A climbing friend's son is a trainee keeper and I can appreciate how valuable these jobs are to a significant number of young Scots. Against that, I would be grumpy if I thought that advantage was being taken by landowners by leaving up No Entry signs longer than necessary or through their failure to apply the risk assessment procedure.
I have been very appreciative of internet comment such as that on scotlandonline, and have been keeping up to date with access openings through the MCofS. What of hillwalkers with no computer? Who do they turn to? [Good point - the printed and broadcast media have appeared much less sharp about access issues - Ed.]
As backup, I have my first passport for many years in anticipation of a clampdown, but would rather stay in Scotland. As a semi-retired climbing/walking/skiing/mountain-biking pensioner, I am best placed to take advantage of whatever is going. I feel sorry for the working younger generation with more specific ambitions, but there is a balance here. When I was younger I had no Buffalo or Gore-Tex, no banana ice-picks or Thermarest, no paths on the Munros or car parks with toilets (good things or bad things?) With young children at home and a tight budget, I often went months without a visit to the hills (violin plays, softly). Optimistically, let's hope this is a glitch in the history of our hill experience and that the current access status is not jeopardised because of this epidemic.
My experience has been atypical as I was busy doing up an old house following relocation to Oxfordshire. While not welcoming the FMD outbreak, the thought that I wasn't missing out on the hills probably helped me focus on the task in hand. Then, after moving in, I celebrated with a week's walking in Madeira followed by a long weekend in Braemar. So the frustration has only really crept in over the past fortnight.
I don't blame the authorities for taking a cautious line initially, when there was a lack of information and the natural reaction was to take all available measures. Things have now changed - Oxfordshire only suffered two small outbreaks in Bicester and was declared FMD-free two weeks ago - and the continued closure of the majority of its footpaths is surely unreasonable. Until 25 April there was no access to the entire Oxfordshire sections of the Thames Path and the Ridgeway, much of which go alongside purely arable land. (Early May update: a 41/2 mile stretch of the Thames path at Oxford and three miles of the Ridgeway are now open, plus some other paths.) Not all counties have been as tardy in opening up; Surrey currently has 70% of its footpaths open.
Frustration can do strange things to normally law-abiding citizens. The Thames Path passes my place of work and I often make use of it at lunchtimes. There has been speculation that Oxfordshire CC will have to reopen the towpath at Wallingford very soon to allow the annual regatta to take place. However it was still closed yesterday [3 May], quite unjustifiably given the absence of any livestock on this stretch. Sod it, I thought. I ripped off the notice, chucked it in the hedge and continued on the path. It will be interesting to see whether it reappears.
When forced to relocate from Cheshire in October, I was aware that I would not be able to get to the hills as frequently, but expected my other interests to compensate. This hasn't happened. Being away from hills has only made me feel their absence more keenly (but I maybe enjoy them more when I do get out). If others have found surrogate activities I'd be glad to hear them; you need a death wish to cycle in south Oxfordshire.
Foot and mouth disease is 100% fatal amongst livestock. More than that: not only are all infected animals killed, but all surrounding livestock is slaughtered as well. The rights and wrongs of this are a moot point: this is what happens. The only way to prevent it is to prevent the disease spreading, and if this means forgoing a few weeks on the hill then so be it. I may be a carnivore, but I have respect for the animals I eat. I do not like to see them suffering; I do not like to see them prematurely killed. I consider it my moral duty to take whatever action - or inaction - necessary to prevent it. Arguments about land ownership and usage are irrelevant. The issue is purely one of animal welfare.
FMD is now in the wild deer population in Cumbria and quite probably elsewhere. The authorities clearly have no policy for dealing with this and have decided to ignore it. But it means that sporadic outbreaks are likely for a long time to come: Britain may never be truly FMD-free again. I wait to see what effect this may have on stalking in the long run.
Don't believe anything the government - or the media - tells you. On 25 April Ceefax declared 15 new outbreaks. The newspapers next day reported ten or 11. The following day Ceefax reported there had been 18 cases. The additional three were never listed, but two cases had been at Duns and Mountain Ash - both many miles from any previous outbreak. This information was not reported in the press [I think it was - Ed.], which concentrated on the human case of FMD (of little real concern - the person affected notwithstanding - other than to create another needless food scare and further problems for the tourist industry; now everyone thinks they'll die of FMD if they eat meat or visit the countryside).
Farmers are not to blame for the outbreak. True, a few have benefited financially and some have no doubt abused the situation: an unfortunate, but inevitable, fact of human nature. Some hillwalkers have expressed satisfaction that sheep from hill farms have been culled on the grounds that there is overgrazing of upland areas. Maybe in some areas, particularly the Highlands, this is true. But that is no reason to see animals suffer. Would you rather have sheep or sitka spruce? Kielder has been unaffected because all the sheep farms have been replaced by trees.
Some landowners in the Highlands have imposed bans on access to the hills. They may seem to have only their own interests at heart, they may seem to be over-reacting, but at the same time they are protecting the wild Highland deer population and the livestock of tenant farmers and crofters.
There were inconsistencies in the access ban - such as golfers and skiers being allowed to continue their pursuits of pleasure. But that doesn't mean hillwalking shouldn't have been banned. By keeping off the hills we were doing the responsible thing. It's the skiers and the golfers who were at fault. We have the moral high ground, at last - let's keep it! The same applies to bothy closures. The MBA was attacked for asking people not to use bothies, yet this was the right thing to do and in the best welfare interests of livestock and deer.
Obviously it's easier for me to say all this when, if I were to travel outside of town (which I haven't for several weeks) I could see funeral pyres and even slaughtered animals lying in the fields. I can appreciate that it is much harder when you live in a city, or an unaffected part of the country. But can you be absolutely sure that the bloke met in Glen Coe last week wasn't a labourer just laid off because the farm on which he worked was infected with FMD?
It must be serious: the council have closed the kiddies' playground. I only voted for Tony Blur because he did better songs than Oasis, but when he appears in the centre of York going on about the countryside being open for business and not to mind the bad men setting fire to sheep everywhere - ooh, it makes my blood boil. The council also announced they were ceasing grass-cutting operations and stopping road maintenance. Road maintenance?!
I went to Hartlepool to walk on the beach. OK, I was desperate. There was a notice on a path saying it was closed. The path crosses a golf course, complete with golfers. Are they going to get FMD on their balls? I bloody hope so. The Durham coastal path is still open, though. Very nice, too. The sea's a bit grey, and the beach is a bit black in places, but it's interesting. You can watch as some yoofs try to set fire to an armchair before sending it over the cliffs. You can listen to the complaints of the displaced hillwalkers about the nonexistent bus service. Remember Get Carter? You can stand in the very place where Michael Caine met his end after despatching a bloke in a coal bucket. Great stuff: must go back next time there's an FMD outbreak.
So, I've been making lists. I've got a list of "things to do" - hills to bag, walks to walk - that'll last me three or four years. And I've been able to play rudies with the wife on Sunday mornings, and have a big breakfast and read the papers, wash the bloody car and mow the feckin grass and put up some arseholing tiles in the piggin' kitchen. Aye, it's an ill wind...
I'm not bothered, though. I can kick it any time. I don't need to go walking. Boots? They look bloody silly, don't they, and I don't believe I can even remember where I put my rucksack, and I'm too fat now anyway...
Farmers are accustomed to spreading misery about. If things go wrong on the farm, we all get the benefit - though this is usually only poison in our food. The farmers' way of dealing with FMD continues this egalitarian tradition. Neither they nor their animals can move about freely, so why should any of the rest of us? As their economy is suffering, so should everyone else's. They get compensation for their misfortunes, but - wait a minute - this is a good thing, so nobody else should get any. The FMD policy may or may not take account of farmers' needs (I don't believe it does), but it certainly takes absolutely no account of anybody else's needs. That makes it a rotten policy which should never have been pursued.
Government is in charge of policy, and Mr Blair - TB to his friends - has taken personal charge of the execution of this rotten policy. What has he been doing? He's been getting his ministers to wander about the world telling outright lies about conditions in the countryside and he's been vacillating about vaccinating, pretending that it is really up to the farmers when, of course, it is really up to him. Although the alternative is dire and - yes - deformed, TB and his party should go into the firepit on June 7 for manufacturing a crisis out of an animal disease approximately as serious as 'flu.
I could have a moan about large landowners, too, but they have merely followed their natural inclination - which we all share - to have the hills to themselves. Instead I'll turn on us, walkers and climbers. We have for-gotten that our recreation is a militant one which involves the repeated offence of trespass and have turned into obedient sheep ready to turn away from a hill at the sight of a little white notice saying "Keep Out". We are perfectly accustomed to making up our own minds about whether we are disturbing deer shooting, grouse shooting, lambing, dotterel breeding, etc. We should make up our minds about whether we are liable to spread FMD, and then go anywhere we like if it seems to us that we're not. Police action or bad landowner behaviour should be immediately followed by organised mass trespass.
My final thoughts are about those who profess to care for animals - vets and animal welfare groups. What sort of person is an animal doctor who rolls up her sleeves to destroy thousands of healthy animals? An evil person, that's what. And who is going to listen to the animal welfare groups' complaints about a few laboratory animals and foxes when they have remained silent throughout this outrageous holocaust of animal life? No one, that's who.
While most of us would empathise with the chaos and distress being experienced by the farming community (especially by the animals themselves), and would respect the restrictions on access imposed as a "precaution-ary measure", it is incredibly frustrating not to be able to wander the hills at will and enjoy the (illusory?) feeling of freedom thus to be found, especially given the resultant damage to the wider local economy and the strong possi-bility that risks to animals from walkers are minimal anyway.
There are many inconsistencies in access arrangements in different areas of the country. I have just [late April] returned from a weekend in Braemar - the Invercauld and Mar Lodge estates have an enlightened policy of allowing near full access. Contrast this with the situation in the Lomond hills which I passed on my return: every footpath was declared closed, even the car park was sealed off. As far as I am aware, in neither area has there been any outbreak; how can the discrepancy be justified? Are the draconian restrictions in Fife (and elsewhere) unnecessary and unjustifiable as well as being undemocratic?
My young niece summed up things nicely on hearing yet another news report on FMD when she said: "Oh no, not the moo baa oink oink thing again!" I was lucky early in the crisis when I was able to go skiing on Cairn Gorm with the Uphill Ski Club. I was amazed that as a wheelchair user I wasn't wheeled over disinfected matting or good old-fashioned straw, but no, I was obviously of little threat to the countryside and drove my wheelchair as far as I could over the snow before transferring to my bi-ski. Needless to say I had a great day and will remember it for a long time.
One week later I was out again, trying this time to get access to a layby near Aberfoyle so that I could take a pathway along a forestry plantation to a viewpoint. Suddenly things had changed: I was now a hazard to livestock (of which there was none visible, nor has there ever been on that stretch). All laybys were sealed off and there were signs everywhere. To say I was annoyed was an understatement and left me asking Why? Why one week in an area with much livestock was I allowed access, no questions asked, and then the following week why was there a blanket ban nowhere near livestock? On the second occasion I was going to stick to the path and on the first I could go over a wide area of hill and could have bumped into any sort of livestock that cared to wander that way. I should add that I used different wheelchairs in the different areas - I thought this a sensible precaution to take!
There has to be a sensible approach taken and this must be applied to all areas. I am sure everyone - landowners, farmers, walkers and locals - would all appreciate clear directives from the Scottish Executive.
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