The Angry Corrie 51: Sep-Nov 2001

Six months of foot and mouth disease

Still it goes on: six months of foot and mouth disease, six months of access restrictions. A great many hillgoers remain angry about what's happening and uncertain about what (if any) lessons are being learnt from all this. Everyone has their own personal opinion, and following TAC50's batch of pox vox pieces, Chris Cant and Alan Blanco have been invited to set down a few thoughts about this most fraught of times.

Back in the mists of TAC18, I wondered what would happen if a combination of agricultural policy, conservationism and vegetarianism resulted in there being no sheep on the hills. Feral sheep would be marauding for our pieces and their wildness would make them good shooting targets. Unfortunately, however, this form of evolution didn't happen quickly enough when a chaotic butterfly flapped foot and mouth disease into the UK.

Just when it seemed all over bar the slog down the road to cafe, FMD finally came to where we live in the eastern Lake District, preventing me from walking on my local scar for several months. Ironically, the news arrived on the same day that we found a new access point on to High Street from the head of Haweswater - although it's telling how much things have changed since February that the access point was closed only while culling was going on, despite quite a few actual cases and some "dangerous contact" cullings nearby.

Our nice neighbour farmers spotted the disease one mid-July morning. By late afternoon, we were hearing the far-off click of a bolt gun. The following day more animals were culled, including the grim sight of cows shot in a distant field rolling down the hill. I'm sure FMD wasn't brought by walkers, and probably not by farmers either: just animal-to-animal or airborne spread. Without going into the subject too much, some sort of vaccination seems far more civilised, less wasteful, less expensive and more animal-friendly. A policy that forces us to be more self-sufficient in both dead and live meat sounds just fine.

Here in the Lakes, FMD has unwittingly sparked a debate familiar to Scotland: grazing and the landscape. Many folk warned that the loss of Herdwick sheep hefted / hiefed to their patch of fell would destroy the treasured Lake District idyll, with the return of (horror) scrub. I think that less intensive grazing is desirable, along with a wider variety of landscape. Pictures of Borrowdale from 100 years ago show few trees compared to now, so things can change. Apparently some of the National Trust's tenant farmers in Langdale may now want to become paid land managers.

Going by Margaret Beckett's unintelligible waffle a few weeks back, Westminster has no long-term view; perhaps it's not important enough in the general scheme of things once tourism is back in business. Animal welfare, food safety, the rural environment and access to the countryside are, however, of public concern. And then there's the Common Agricultural Policy and globalisation. These huge issues are ripe for discussion, especially with the new general understanding that tourism in the countryside is so important.

Blanket closures were probably sensible in the first place, because FMD had spread far and wide before being spotted. It's sad however that it took an economic argument from the tourist industry to get access back. Our need - our right - to take the air is important, especially for town folk, but this seemed to be forgotten.

We walkers have been very responsible in staying off the hills, but have combined this with an entirely reasonable insistence in going back because we do not spread the disease. As someone else said, walkers are the folk most likely to understand farmers' concerns, so why do landowners persist in trying to exclude us? Even though we've probably all been shouted at from time to time, I'm sure we would be happy for farmers to have a reasonable income. Let's hope that a long-lasting acknowledgement of walkers' responsibility and economic importance is among the good side-effects of FMD. We should not let our interests be represented solely by tourism. We should be prepared to take part in a debate on the future of the countryside, where tourism and the environment are more than equal partners to farming.

Chris Cant

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