TAC 50 Index
Why does the world revolve around sheep? They're worth very little to the farmers, except when filling in inflated compensation claims. Locals don't get the benefit - if I go into my local shop to buy lamb or beef I'm likely to be offered stuff from another part of the UK or abroad. Where's the economics in that? Why can't I buy good locally-produced organic meat and dairy produce?
People say that if the countryside wasn't grazed (and the Cumb-rian fells are seriously degraded through overgrazing) then it would be a "wilderness". Sounds good to me. We could do with a few real wilderness areas, and a reduction of farming would lead to the re-establishment of the original wildwood. Go for it. Personally, I'd shoot 'em all - the farmers, that is. Or, more humanely, why don't we just pay them a pension for life to do nothing?
A holiday in Scotland is planned for the second half of March 2001. The blissful prospect of hills beyond the Great Glen hauls me through the grey English winter. Then comes the plague. We drive north, over roads booby-trapped with disinfected straw, past grim "KEEP OUT!" glares, into the forbidden lands stalked by the shadow of disease. "Is anywhere open to walk...?" The inquiry is met with a suggestion that public roads might be available ... if you're lucky. Footbaths guard the villages. Affric? No go. Cannich and Strathfarrar too, as bodies designed to serve the public interest prefer one private sector over all else and to hell with economic logic.
It is the week beginning 17 March and the Comeback Code is not even a glimmer in some spindoctoring official's eye. Scotland is closed. And yet ... A single paragraph in the Press and Journal tells of a kindly landowner near Gairloch whose acreage of young trees is enclosed against the depredations of deer and, since he is able to guarantee (more or less) that humans and animals will be kept apart, he is opening the land to walkers. Is this the only off-road walking available in all Scotland? It is two hours distant but we are on our way. A car park! A "Path Open" sign! The track leads into the enclosed area, and I can see the fence snaking away across the rolling land, and, glory be, the cute rocky hill of Meall Lochan a'Chleirich is within the sanctuary: 1322 feet of accessible hill.
But what's this? The notice has some small print. "Stick strictly to the path and keep dogs on a lead until within the enclosed area." What does that mean? Do you have to stick to the path throughout, or only until within the enclosed area? Logic suggests the latter. If the enclosed area is livestock-free, keeping to the path cannot be necessary. But what if I nip up the hill, get spotted and tomorrow's P&J leads on "Angry landowner closes only walk in Scotland as selfish walker breaks the rules"? The dilemma, oh the agony.
We walk up the track, into the enclosed area, and on for three miles of well-made path, enjoying splendid views of icy Baos-bheinn and the abrupt northern profile of Beinn an Eoin. The sun is out and it is warming the crags of Meall Lochan a'Chleirich, which right now is Machu Picchu and Kangchenjunga combined, the world's most alluring forbidden mountain. On descent we stroll past other walkers, all keeping faithfully to the path. Reaching the point nearest to the foot of the appealing scramble up to the summit, I have to make a final, fateful decision. How do I interpret that notice? Am I going to climb that hill? The relaxed outdoor lifestyle? I am wracked with incisions of guilt, tortured by the lure of the scramble and tantalised by the summit. What did I do?
Well, what would you have done?
I walked part of the dreaded West Highland Way on the day it was "re-opened", going from Rowardennan to Rowchoish bothy. Driving home later listening to Radio Scotland, I heard Brian Wilson announce that there were disinfectant footbaths. These must have been positioned at Milngavie only - there were certainly none at Rowardennan. What's the point when you can take up the walk at an infinite number of locations en route? Wilson warned listeners that Ben Lomond was still closed but that the hill would have been closed anyway due to lambing taking place! I am sure we have all climbed the Ben during the spring and I for one have never been met with any lambing restrictions. [The ill-informed ex-Beach Boy minister presumably meant Conic Hill, which for some reason does seem able to sustain lambing-closure; it's sadly typical that the interviewer didn't know enough to correct Wilson on air - Ed.]
By the way, I saw 12 of the wild goats of Rowchoish. They were grazing in the oak and birch woodland along with a number of sheep. The thought of these long-horned creatures ever having to be slaughtered fills me with horror.
So it's OK to climb Beinn Narnain and the Cobbler from Arrochar but not from Glen Croe. I "did" Narnain the other day and passed within 15 feet of a number of sheep (as did 369 other walkers). I took great care not to cough, breathe, or shake a booted foot in their direction. Incidentally, when I returned to the car park (and this was midweek) I counted 83 vehicles.
I was in the Falkland Islands when the first outbreak in England was reported and wasn't home until early March, so missed much of the initial excitement. Television news, British Forces Radio and emails kept me in touch in a detached sort of way. However, it was quite a shock to discover the "closed" notices on my return. (Despite what the government said/are saying, "closed" was and still is applicable.) Northern Ireland has only had about four confirmed cases of the disease but because much traffic and farm animals enter the province from northern England / southern Scotland (the Carlisle-Galloway axis), precautions have been pretty tight. Hills have been out of bounds, as have coastal footpaths. Restrictions have been eased slightly in the last few weeks, but two of the Northern Ireland cases were only discovered during Easter so further restrictions could be just around the corner [written 25 April].
A couple of aspects that caused particular frustration were:
1) a blanket shutdown of all National Trust properties in Northern Ireland. It is understandable that some properties should have closed - those adjacent to or incorporating farmland; but to close our local beach (which the NT manages) was, in my view, crazy. This 11/2-mile stretch of sand backed by dunes does not border on agricultural land; rather the golf course provides a buffer zone. While we could not walk on the beach, the golfers were permitted to continue "spoiling a good walk". I have never been a great fan of the NT (all management and little or no appreciation of how landscape has evolved), and this action puts them higher on my list of organisations not to join. The beach is now open, but it took the NT several weeks to do this.
2) the statement by Michael Meacher, some weeks ago, that the "countryside is open" and that to prove it you could "visit village shops and roadside restaurants". Just who does this guy think he's fooling? And isn't Meacher a rather high-profile member of the Ramblers Association? He seems to have a rather narrow definition of "countryside". [Meacher and his wife own nine - or is it now ten? - homes between them - Ed.]
The situation in Northern Ireland has been further complicated by the widespread and large-scale illegal movement of farm stock. This is not new: it's almost a tradition here. Most farm animals get counted as part of several farms when grants are applied for. Animals are moved for the benefit of inspectors. These idiot farmers should be buried, burned, or rendered along with the diseased stock. Another example of the not-so-few causing problems for the majority. And still farm tractors trundle up and down the roads shedding their soil and slurry so the rest of us can drive/cycle/walk through it.
One "good" result of the crisis is the cancellation of the local motorbike races scheduled for mid-May. This annual event (the nearest equivalent would be the Isle of Man TT) attracts 70,000-100,000 people to the area but causes a lot of disruption for local residents. We usually head out of town for the weekend - to the Mournes. This time we'll probably go cycling and trust we won't have leather-clad and helmeted maniacs tearing up and down the roads attempting to emulate Barry Sheene.
Cycling has replaced walking to some extent, but several state forests have been re-opened so we're hoping to walk a long green tunnel soon. The Easter trip to the Lakes had to be cancelled. We were intending to ascend the Old Man of Coniston on 18 April in company with the Old Man of Grasmere (a friend celebrating a significant birthday). Instead, we extended the Norwegian ski tour.
TAC 50 Index