In the first two weeks of the outbreak the Trust's view was to accept countryside access restrictions in the spirit of sympathy and hope that if the epidemic remained confined to specific areas of the UK then most restrictions would be lifted fairly rapidly. Now after two months we have an increasing rate of infection and it is predicted to peak only after another 3 or 4 months while more than 4,000 farms will have to slaughter all stock eventually. So, obviously, the problem has not subsided but instead continues to mount day by day. From a hillwalker's point of view the issue centres on just what the risk is of our activities passing the disease from infected to uninfected animals. It seems to be the case up until now that the virus has spread from one animal to another and no one has claimed that it has done so via people. Clearly though there is a potential for it to do so if an individual had come into direct contact with infected stock. But where no such contact has been made it seems highly unlikely. Certainly the closure of forests on the basis that people out walking might pass the disease on to unseen deer populations seemed a very large over-reaction. On the other hand Invercauld Estate has acted with almost unique clear-headedness in adopting from the beginning a much more sensible policy of allowing responsible access; which is largely a matter of keeping away from enclosed stock.
A big problem has been the very fuzzy advice on rural access issued by the Scottish Executive, which has obviously not understood how to deal with the crisis nor the real basis of the risk. It is galling that downhill skiing was again given preferential treatment because skiers were deemed to be less of a risk on their part of the hill than walkers - what nonsense! Now, as this article goes to press, it appears that new advice is being issued which is designed to open up the countryside. The advice spells out responsible, non-contact behaviour for hillwalkers. Unfortunately, the risk assessment is still entirely in the hands of the landowners, which means some will inevitably keep the restrictions on unjustifiably.
As hillgoers we must heed strictly to the advice on avoiding contact with stock in areas now open for us (see the article by Alan Crichton in this issue). We hope landowners will assess risk properly and lift any restrictions where the risk is obviously low - this includes, at least as we write, the disease-free vast majority of Scottish countryside north of the Forth-Clyde line where restrictions to open countryside are not required. The Trust will watch events closely and be ready to pressure the lifting of unjustifiable access restrictions.
NEMT General Council, 25th March 2001
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