It didn't need the world's most efficient crystal ball to see that, soon after TAC67 ran its bird flu cover, a real outbreak of the disease would hit these shores, even if only in the form of a single swan in Cellardyke. What was harder to predict was the official response in terms of access closures and the like, especially as foot and mouth remains fresh in the memory. In 2001, a Scottish minister had declared the countryside "closed" (whatever that meant), whereupon anyone and everyone took the chance to put up Walkers - Bugger Off signs, no matter if they were 200 miles from the nearest infection, no matter that this caused various tourist and recreation industries to start heading in the general direction of the plughole.
But since 2001, Scotland has seen an Access Act hit the statute books: a big change. Although this was always likely to make any land-closure situation clearer and more sensible, the threat of bird flu is the first real test of what the new guidelines look like in practice. And the signs are encouraging: on 9/2/06 the Scottish Executive published "Scotland's Avian Influenza and Newcastle Disease Contingency Plan", online at http://www.scottishexecutive.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/92201/0022041.pdf Section 1 is entitled Disease Response Assumptions, and "outlines the general principles that are likely to be adopted in the event of an outbreak of HPAI [High Pathogenic Avian Influenza] or ND [Newcastle Disease]." Bullet point 25, printed in bold, says this: "The countryside will be kept open and a presumption in favour of access will be maintained."
Later in the document, Annex E is the main section relevant to walkers and access:
E1 - The only people who risk spreading HPAI or ND are those who have contact with poultry or their manure/litter. Risks of disease being spread by those seeking recreational access to the countryside are very small, and can be eliminated by avoiding direct contact between people and/or vehicles and flocks including those birds within free range farms. Official signage must be followed at all times. Under these circumstances there is generally no requirement to restrict access even in the Protection and Surveillance Zones (also known as the Infected Area).
E2 - Implementation of access policy on the ground will be the responsibility of the Local Authorities. They will have the power to sanction closures of land outwith the Infected Area but only after approval by Scottish Ministers. Local Authority websites should contain details of all official closures in their area. All closures must be specific and time limited and notified to Scottish Ministers. Local Authorities should ensure that a balanced and consistent approach is being taken.
E3 - Part 1 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 establishes rights of responsible access to land and inland water for recreation, passage and other purposes. The emphasis of Part 1 of the Act is on the local management of access. A duty is placed on local authorities to assert, protect and keep open and free from obstruction any route or means by which access rights are exercised. In the event of an outbreak of a disease such as HPAI or ND however, these powers can be over-ridden, within the Infected Area, by HPAI or ND related legislation. Local Authorities, in conjunction with local access forums, will continue to have a role in resolving local issues with veterinary advice being provided when necessary. If, however, landowners prevent or deter access rights by putting up signs in areas outwith the Infected Area, local authorities can serve notices on landowners to remove signs or if necessary they can remove the signs.
E4 - The Scottish Outdoor Access Code approved by the Scottish Parliament provides guidance on the rights and responsibilities of access. Sections 3.32 and 3.33 provide specific guidance on biosecurity and any disease outbreaks.
E5 - Walkers or ramblers pose a very low risk of spreading HPAI or ND; the only people who carry any real risk of spreading HPAI or ND are those from infected poultry premises or poultry premises that are incubating disease. People who pass close to the Infected Area on roads are unlikely to pick up the virus. Poultry farmers should ensure that all visitors are following biosecurity guidance to ensure that the disease is not brought on or taken off their farm or land.
So that all looks promising, although the real test will be if there's a substantial outbreak in an upland area. The early cases, after all, have come on the Fife coast and on poultry farms in Norfolk, and any good intentions on access can't really be assessed until an outbreak up a glen, whereupon it's highly likely that the old foot and mouth signs will be dusted off by the local rednecks, as per the TAC67 cover. Mike Dales (ex of the MCofS, now of the Scottish Canoe Association - TAC wishes him well in his new job) reports having attended the National Access Forum on 1 March, where the greatest concerns about avian flu were voiced by the Historic Houses Association (which fears loss of income from restricted movement) and by those with an interest in shooting (which involves handling dead birds). No surprise really that land-management bodies are keeping an eye on developments.
The guidelines south of the border will vary somewhat, because of the differing legislation, but details for the country known as Englandandwales are to be found at http://www.defra.gov. uk/animalh/diseases/notifiable/disease/ai/index.htm
Incidentally, isn't Newcastle Disease the condition spread by shepherds where the person in charge of the farm loses his job every couple of years?
TAC 68 Index