The Angry Corrie 64: March-May 2005


Foot and mouth and fear and madness

It's now four years since the foot and mouth outbreak. In some ways it feels like only yesterday, in others it feels like a different lifetime. Ian R Mitchell campaigned, both in print and on the land, against the "closures". Here are extracts from his journal written at the time.

25 February 2001

Arrived back from Utah to find the nation in the grip of fear and madness. The country is practically at a standstill due to an outbreak of foot and mouth, a disease which neither kills animals nor harms humans. To protect an industry worth just over 1% of gross national product, a military-style operation is being undertaken. The farmers will reap compensation above the current deflated market value of their animals, while the tourist industry suffers. What looks sinister at the moment is the use being made of this by landowners to impose access restrictions, unnecessary since walkers not in contact with infected animals cannot spread the disease. It is hard to take all this seriously, but we may have to. Coincidentally, read Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang on the plane: eco-terrorism in '70s Utah, a great message of resistance to the despoilers of the wilderness.

3 March

Most parts of the Highlands are closed to walkers, despite being 100-400 miles from the nearest case of this outbreak of athlete's foot and cold sores - which is what this disease amounts to. Fines of £5000 for breaching exclusion orders are in place and a man has just been arrested for walking his dog on a closed path beside a golf course in Fife - which was of course open to golfers.

Walkers are being targeted as a soft option; some farmers are blaming them for spreading the disease by leaving their sandwiches about, when it looks like illegally imported animal feed was to blame. (This was later confirmed.) But golf courses are open, skiing is open, and last week, on a trip to give a talk in heavily infected Galloway, B&B establishments on farms were open. If we had to pay to go on the hills, they would all be open. There is no recognition of what walking contributes to the rural economy - many times more than a few scabby sheep. The organisations supposed to represent us are so far either silent (Mountaineering Council of Scotland) or actually falling over themselves to close their own land (John Muir Trust, National Trust for Scotland).

image from The Angry Corrie

Took PA skiing at the Cairnwell today; literally thousands of presumably foot and mouth-free skiers paying cash to the ski company which in turn pays its cut to the landowner; not a single walker to be seen. But plenty of police and footbaths and road-disinfectant points leaching poisons into the soil, killing micro-organisms and working up the food chain. I asked a policeman if I could walk the Cairnwell. No: I could only ski it. What if I disinfected my boots like the skiers? No: it would still not be allowed. Never ask permission.

Drove to the Carn an Tuirc car park; not a soul there. Invercauld estate's posters are up, asking you not to go on the hill. It is a blizzard and a windchill of minus 20C outside and the cafes of Braemar are calling. But I plod wearily up the hill, hating every miserable minute of it, and get down as fast as I can, taking some of Invercauld's posters with me to Braemar where they go in the litter bin. Where are the mountaineers? I resolve to be on the hill every week I can while this lasts.

17-18 March

Wrote letters to the Herald and to the West Highland Free Press, calling on people to assert their right to roam. Apart from the obligatory anonymous abusive letter, there are a dozen or so supportive replies, but all bar one from people saying they are afraid to either speak out or go on the hill.

Teamed up with the Dominie for an assertion of access rights (which happened to coincide with a couple of Corbetts not yet done). Drove to the Fort with every hill closed en route and not a single walker to be seen: it was like a nuclear winter. The town is deserted: at least the locals must now begin to realise how much they depend on mountaineers. If you want to climb on Aonach Mor you are not allowed; if you want to ski, you are. The JMT to their shame closed Ben Nevis, as well as all their other properties (though they have opened a bit of the Ben as of 15 March).

We parked at Cia-aig car park, which was blocked off by Forest Enterprise - amongst the most enthusiastic closers, despite the fact that their own workers are still working the timber in their plantations. Ambled up as far as Fedden past all the Achtung signs, removing some as we went, then summited on Meall na h-Eilde in a couple of hours. This was a much more pleasant way of campaigning than writing letters and emails, and surely this nonsense must soon stop, as the disease is clearly contained hundreds of miles away. Saw no one on the way up, on the hill, or on the way back down.

1 April

Never underestimate the class enemy, as Lenin said. Things are probably getting worse rather than better, with clear resistance on the part of landowners to relax any even advisory restrictions, despite the information being issued by the Scottish Executive, who have announced on TV and websites that the countryside is open. On the ground the country is as closed as ever. Hardly a hill or glen has been opened between Glasgow and Skye.

Beinn a'Chleibh called on a springlike day, for my second Munro round. Never saw it for mist last time. Petrol and breakfast at Tyndrum - they say business is way down - before driving to the car park and finding Scottish Natural Heritage have closed it off to "protect" the Lui Reserve. To protect what? Sheep? - the biggest single destroyer of the mountain environment! Liberated the car park of tickertape and signs before going on the hill. Up and down in three hours, once again having it to myself. Monkey-wrenching has its problems, though: broke a finger removing a restriction sign. This whole thing is beginning to look like a long haul.

8 April

Slow signs of people beginning to battle against the Beast. In Skye, local tourist providers have organised a protest march on the Cuillin, saying they are being destroyed "for a few scabby sheep". The march took place, but deference, and MacLeod conceding a limited opening, kept numbers down. It's a start - but how incredibly late after six weeks of fear and madness. Phonecall from the Skye march organiser: he has lost £8000 in business, and won't be compensated.

Liberated Ben Lawers today. Beside a sign in the deserted car park saying that sheep were the biggest threat to Lawers fauna is another one saying the mountain is closed to protect the sheep. There are, of course, no sheep on the mountain, they are all at the roadside spreading their shit on car wheels. It saddened me to see not a single walker out on a day of perfect weather and snow, just as there were none in Killin spending their money afterwards. Removed all signs on Lawers and uprooted blockings-off of laybys and car parks. The South Loch Earn road has a sign - on the public road - asking people not to come further. Do these people think they own the place? I suppose they do.

16 April

Found the quickest way to remove NTS blocking of laybys and parking places on Lawers (they'd blocked them yet again) is to drive the car over them. Makes quick work, but broke my number plate in the process; should have left it as a calling card. Headed for Invervar for the Carn Mairg round, almost hoping to meet opposition at the infamous gate. Parked at the layby beside the public callbox, the only place available; signs are up asking you not to get out of your car.

Marvellous day, and no one attempted to stop me though I was told that last week the keeper had turned people back. Saw farmers in Glen Lyon moving stock illegally, driving them with dogs across the public road, and outside Milngavie another farmer was herding his sheep into a horse-carrier for movement. They certainly are above the law, these people.

5-7 May

Decided to see if Garbh Coire bothy was still there after 30 years, and to test access on the northern Gorms. Four-hour walk in from Coire Cas car park to find the doss decrepit, stinking and full of snow. Spent a couple of hours making it semi-habitable and spent a good night within, helped by half a bottle of Knockando. Up and away in the morning over Braeriach; deep soft snow made it a hard three hours to the summit. But on the plateau it was Alpine in grandeur.

To see H in Corgarff; the totalitarian society at work. Over 200 miles from an outbreak and the place is still under siege. H has not been able to walk his dogs (through they can't carry the disease) or exercise his horses for seven weeks. He says if he did, he would have to leave the area. Drove back via Glenshee. A farmer had blocked public parking places with bales of hay; Perth and Kinross roads department and the police have allowed this illegality to continue. Again the car bumper came in handy, for rolling the bales into the ditch.

image from The Angry Corrie

13 May

Have been writing resignation letters to the JMT and NTS. These two are now the worst bar Invervar; worse than the Queen, than Invercauld and even MacLeod of Skye who has finally opened the Cuillin. The JMT has Sandwood Bay still closed, 300 miles from Dumfries at the behest of a few local crofters. Who do they represent, their members or the grazings committee? The NTS still has Lawers and Ben Lomond closed for the same reasons; a handful of farmers count for more than government advice, for more than thousands of members and more than the public interest. And they are spreading that vile disinfectant everywhere - in addition to the recent confirmation that burning the corpses of these animals spreads deadly dioxins. And all to protect what John Muir himself called the "hooved locust", sheep.

So with a few TAC companions we reopened Ben Lawers today, taking down all their signs and putting up our own declaring the mountain open. Twenty turned up, emboldened by the increasingly clear Executive advice, and several people followed us, despite attempts by the NTS at dissuasion. The latter were told that Ben Lomond would undergo the same liberation next weekend if they didn't open that as well. Midweek, the NTS opened both mountains officially.

20 May

Someone at TAC had noticed that Ben Vorlich at Loch Earn was still closed - on the advice of SEERAD (Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Dept) it said when we got there, though SEERAD's actual advice was the exact opposite. As we entered the estate a woman said the hill was "closed for lambing", something I've now heard of three times this year. Met a group of lads turning back "because there is a sign"; harangued them to press on, but today's youth are not the stuff of action, and off they slunk. (The garden on the estate was open - money opens all doors.)

Today the first Galloway farmer to get £3 million compensation was announced: the market value without the cost of bringing the beasts to market. He must be crying all the way to the bank. The head of military operations in Cumbria has accused farmers of massive illegal stock movements, and of widespread deliberate infection to claim compensation.

23 May

Received the Trees for Life bulletin: their spring plantings in Glen Affric and elsewhere had been cancelled. Despite their new-ageism, they have produced the best and most vitriolic denunciation of "subsidised ecological insanity" I have read. When those who talk to their cabbages are the only ones talking sense, it shows things are bad. And just when you thought things could not get worse, SNH has postponed, "due to local anxieties" the reintroduction of the beaver to Kintyre, an area desperate for a tourism-attraction boost.

9 June

Sixteen TAC-reclaimers overcame what must surely be the last pocket of resistance. The farmer at Auch had covered up or removed rights of way signs and put up his own, saying people would be fined £5000 if they walked Auch Gleann. He had persuaded the Tyndrum tourist office to stock leaflets to that effect, which we removed before walking up to Duncan MacIntyre's old house at the end of the glen - despite an aggressive intervention by the farmer.

At Duncan's house I recalled his lines denouncing the introduction of sheep to the glens, and the displacement of the people: An iad na caoirich cheann-riabhach / Rinn aimhreit feudh an t-saoghail. (The shaggy sheep has brought contention into the world.) Two centuries later, it is still causing contention. I'm sure that Duncan, if alive, would have been with us today. I climbed Beinn Dorain in his honour.

This epidemic has been an unnecessary disaster. Billions spent saving an industry worth only millions. Great damage done to tourism, to the environment and to access. The complicity at worst and silence at best of the various outdoor organisations has been criminal, and has been used by many as a justification for their own inactivity. (The British Mountaineering Council actually commended walkers for observing access restrictions.) We may need a few Monkey Wrench Gangs in this country to keep the land open in time to come.

Ed. - Difficult times. Would these problems recur if another outbreak started tomorrow? Some say no, because lessons have been learnt and the new access law is now in force. Others say yes, it would be much the same - and it's certainly easy to believe that the instant another outbreak started the same closure signs would appear, along with the same bullish attitudes from landowners, regardless of what the law, democracy and commonsense might say.


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