We have all been watching with mounting horror as the outbreak of a particularly virulent strain of Foot and Mouth disease has spread slowly throughout southern Scotland and many areas south of the border. This has been a catastrophe for countryside activities. The very livelihood of many farmers is at stake and the same is true for mountain guides, outdoor instructors and anyone making a living from rural tourism. Guides have already reported huge losses from cancelled business during the important early spring season for winter skills courses. One typical Fort William based instructor indicated lost business of 2,500 in one week and several weeks or months of this are clearly going to wreck such enterprises. Remember as well the many millions of pounds hillwalking pumps into local economies. A major effect of the epidemic has been the panic-stricken restrictions on countryside access, though it is easy to understand why such panic has been engendered. If your whole livelihood, and that of your family, might at any minute go up in a pall of black smoke, wouldn't you do absolutely anything to try to protect yourself? A counter-pressure has been created by some of the more outspoken of the mountaineering fraternity who consider the restrictions to be at best unwarranted and at worse just another excuse used by landowners to keep out hillwalkers now and in the future. The problem we have is to try and come to a rational view of access for outdoor recreation during a time of rapid change in the course of the epidemic.

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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