Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Ramblers' Association Scotland


  1.  Ramblers' Association Scotland is the representative body for walkers in Scotland and is a part of the Ramblers' Association. The RA has over 131,000 individual members of which over 6,200 are in Scotland. The RA has submitted evidence as regards foot and mouth disease in England and Wales. This evidence relates to Scotland only but should be read in conjunction to the England and Wales submission which contains general information about the economic impact of FMD on the RA.

  2.  Our evidence relates primarily to issues of access to the Scottish countryside and how this has been affected by FMD.

  3.  In general we have great concern at the way in which countryside access has been curtailed during the FMD crisis with very large areas outwith infected areas continuing to have restrictive notices. It is our understanding that many of these restrictions are unnecessary from the disease control perspective. These restrictions appear to have largely come about as a result of information from government sources, from land managing organisations closing areas under their ownership, through restrictions brought in by local authorities and by the actions of private land owners.


  4.  Throughout this crisis RA Scotland has sought advice from the State Veterinary Service at headquarters level. The advice we have received has been excellent. It has been clear and consistent and provided the basis of information that we have given out both to our members and the general public. It has always been obvious from SVS advice at the earliest stages of this crisis that draconian restrictions on public access to the countryside, outwith the infected areas, were not necessary. This was also reflected in an article published in the Guardian newspaper on 1 March which quoted the Director of the UK Institute of Animal Health, Dr Donaldson, as saying that "foot and mouth disease was very unlikely to be spread by ramblers, riders and countryfolk in general". Dr Donaldson emphasised the role of people who handled livestock directly in the transmission of the disease.

  5.  Unfortunately early public statements by the Government do not appear to reflect the SVS advice. In particular, Ross Finnie, Scottish Executive Rural Development Minister, stated in media interviews on 1 March that "people should stay out of the countryside". This was despite a public statement by the Agriculture Minister, Elliot Morley, on 27 February (at a Countryside Agency conference) that the Government were "not asking for a blanket closure of all access". Faced with the Scottish Executive's message, which coincided with similar remarks from the President of the National Farmers Union of Scotland, it is not surprising that draconian access restrictions swept through Scotland, the vast majority of which appear to have been unnecessary and are still in place. The Scottish Executive needs to do a great deal more to pressurise local authorities and landmanagers to bring the situation back to normality, outwith infected areas.


  6.  On 2 March we needed to advise RA Scotland local groups on action to take with regard to their walks programmes for the coming weekend. We decided to issue no directive asking groups to cancel their walks programmes as a whole. Instead we relied on the existing advice which was to focus on the need to avoid livestock, to take sensible cleaning and disinfection precautions and to avoid infected areas. We took this approach because a more restrictive attitude appeared unnecessary, from a disease control perspective and because we were very concerned about a possible "domino effect". We realised that if we announced a cancellation of all our walks programmes this would put pressure on many other outdoor organisations to respond in a similar manner and this would have a devastating effect on tourism that was reliant on outdoor recreation. Nevertheless most of our groups have had to cancel or severely curtail all or parts of their walks programmes as a result of the restrictions that have been applied by local authorities and others to much of Scotland's countryside.

  7.  In recent weeks we have helped in the preparation of the "Comeback Code", distributed it to all our members in Scotland and participated in meetings on the application of risk assessment procedures.


  8.  Unfortunately the "domino effect" was already underway as a result of various land managing organisations announcing that they were "closing" their land. On 23 February the RSPB had announced the closure of all its reserves throughout the UK, including large areas of forest and mountain land in Scotland, and had even urged birdwatchers "not to visit the countryside" until the FMD outbreak had been contained. This announcement appeared to put a great deal of pressure on other organisations so that Scottish Natural Heritage, the Forestry Commission and many voluntary organisations announced blanket closure of all the land that they managed. We protested to the FC in Scotland that they should have made the opposite announcement, stating that people were welcome on their land as most of it was unaffected by FMD restrictions, apart from land in infected areas and those places where close contact with livestock was unavoidable.

  9.  British Waterways Board also created significant problems with their closure of all towpaths, many if not most of which would appear to carry little risk of disease transmission. This has led, for example, to people who normally use such routes to walk or cycle to work being displaced to other routes, including dangerous roads.


  10.  When Elliot Morley spoke at the Countryside Agency conference on 27 February he emphasised that the Government was taking additional powers in relation to the control of the disease to enable rights of way and other footpaths to be closed "where outbreaks have been confirmed". He reiterated that the Government's primary objective was to ensure that "people and livestock do not mix". In Scotland the then Environment Minister, Sam Galbraith, indicated that he expected local authorities to use these powers with discretion. The opposite happened. Within days huge tracts of countryside were closed by local authorities and many of these restrictions still appear to be in place as April draws to a close.

  11.  Although local authorities were required to consult with Divisional Veterinary Managers about their closure proposals the DVMs appear to have agreed with the local authority action. It appears that local landmanagers simply had to ask their local authorities to bring in restrictions for the closure notices to appear. One local authority appears to have run into difficulty when officials realised that their Council had overreacted but were then unable to persuade their Councillors to lift restrictions. Some local authorities further encouraged the "Fortress Scotland" mentality by providing the text of "Keep Out" signs on the Internet or by posting quantities of such signs to all farmers in their area.

  12.  What some Councils were doing was in direct conflict with Scottish Executive advice. A telephone call to the Executive's helpline, for example, would indicate that access to a large upland area between Edinburgh and Perth carried minimal risk of transmitting the disease yet, on arrival, a member of the public would find the whole area surrounded by local authority "keep out" signs. Such conflict between Scottish Executive guidance and local authority action appears to still be commonplace in many parts of Scotland today.

  13.  There is also considerable variation between local authorities in the extent to which their notices carry statutory force. In some places we have been told the notices are purely advisory. Elsewhere one local authority has distributed "keep out" notices to farmers which refer to the Foot and Mouth Disease Order 1983 and indicates that contravention could result in a fine of up to £5,000. To complicate the situation even further only some of these notices carry legal authority and only when the farmer has registered the location of the notice with the trading standards officer. Elsewhere we understand that a local authority has been trying to remove its own notices but land managers are refusing to co-operate and the authority has no powers to enter private land to complete the task.

  14.  Local authorities have also taken action in relation to disinfectant pads on some roads. There is one on the A9 trunk road (northbound only) near Drumochter Pass. On Easter Friday it led to a 30 mile queue and two to three hour delays before it was temporarily removed. Its value as a disease control measure has been questioned by experts and the police appear less than enthusiastic about its presence. Walkers enmeshed in this traffic jam have subsequently been questioning its value when finding large numbers of sheep wandering around public roads and villages in the Highlands and little effort apparently being made by landmanagers in those situations to keep their livestock away from the public.


  15.  Faced with confusing signals from the Government and draconian local authority action outwith infected areas it is not surprising that private landmanagers throughout Scotland have taken a restrictive attitude to public access. This continues today. Although some large private estates have taken exemplary action and the Scottish Landowners Federation have urged their members to base their restrictions on realistic disease control needs, the overall impression when travelling through much of Scotland is that large areas of countryside are "closed". Even this weekend, despite all the pressure on landmanagers to be more sympathetic to public access and local economy needs the national cycle and walking route between Perth and Inverness is closed in Badenoch and Strathspey on a section where it passes through woodland on tarmac. Elsewhere in the same area private landowner notices ask people to stay off the hills. In both situations the risk of deer spreading the disease is given as the justification for the ban, despite advice from the Scottish Executive, promulgated by the SLF, that public access in such situations represents a very low risk and the need for restrictive signs should be kept to a minimum.

  16.  Again, this weekend, on the other side of the Cairngorms, on the Perth-Braemar road the sense of a "closed" countryside is heightened by lay byes and parking areas closed off by collections of giant bales, as well as by "keep out" notices on tracks leading away from the road. Giant bales also obstruct other parts of the public highway where land managers appear to have erected their own versions of disinfectant dips, albeit that much of the straw and disinfectant had been displaced by passing traffic or wind. All this must have a serious impact on any tourist who has been persuaded that Scotland is "open for business", as Scottish Executive ministers and officials have been stressing in recent weeks. While it is quite accurate to say that many facilities, including specific walks, are now open that does not diminish the problem that vast tracts of the countryside appear to remain closed and land managers give the impression of being under siege.

  17.  Further difficulties are now arising as the public is becoming more aware of inappropriate action by land managers during the FMD crisis. It does not help when the inhabitants of one village, at the heart of a prime tourist area, apparently awoke to find many of their gardens full of sheep. These had apparently escaped during the night during an attempt to move livestock illegally. In parts of the Highlands we understand that the police are investigating reports of illegal persecution of protected wildlife species. The absence of the public crossing their land seems to have encouraged some landmanagers to use poisoned baits to exterminate predators they do not approve of.


  18.  As in 1967 this FMD outbreak has seen immense co-operation from the general public in recognising the seriousness of the disease and the plight of landmanagers. Notices asking people to avoid taking access have been complied with and examples of breaches have been rare. In most areas the impression is of 100 per cent compliance. People counters on footpaths have shown zero passage over the last few weeks. The willingness of the public to co-operate is, however, now being sorely tested as people become more aware of the over-reaction to the disease in most parts of Scotland and the continuing failure of so many land managing interests to cease their over restrictive approach. It is essential that the Scottish Executive gives much stronger messages on the need to get things back towards normality in non infected areas.


  19.  In the short term there needs to be a determined effort to get all the unnecessarily restrictive notices and assorted measures in non-infected areas away by early May in time for the Bank Holidays in that month. In Scotland that requires a much more co-ordinated and focussed approach from several Ministers in the Scottish Executive. In recent weeks the Tourism Minister, Alasdair Morrison, has made excellent efforts to persuade land managing interests to take a less restrictive attitude. But he has been a lone voice and more needs to be heard from other Ministers, especially in the Rural Development Department, and from the First Minister and his Deputy on this issue. The endless exhortations that "Scotland is open for business" are fine, so long as that message is balanced by firm public messages to those who have closed the countryside down to get it open where disease risk is low or non existent.

  20.  In the longer term our preliminary analysis suggests several measures should be considered for further action in Scotland:

    (A)  Can special efforts be made to promote October as an excellent time to take an outdoor activity holiday in Scotland? Many local authorities across the UK have school holidays during this period and such a promotion could give a much needed end of season boost to the tourist industry and you can sit on campsites in t-shirt and shorts on the west coast of Scotland in October and almost get a sun tan!

    (B)  Can advantage be taken of the United Nations' "International Year of the Mountains" which takes place in 2002? Already some work is in progress in Scotland to take advantage of this opportunity. To most overseas visitors Scotland is perceived of as a mountainous country. Could some overseas marketing effort be linked into this "International Year", which will be celebrated in many countries, to persuade people that Scotland is the place to be at such a time?

    (C)  FMD or other infectious diseases in livestock can strike again. We may not have to wait over 30 years before the next FMD outbreak. In order that we are better prepared next time the following suggestions are offered for consideration by Scottish organisations:

      (i)  the need for a protocol to guide action on access to the countryside. We need some form of standard document, drawn up by government and based on veterinary advice, which spells out clearly what are the actual levels of risk in the public spreading a disease like foot and mouth. It should include specific guidance on how to alert the public to the problem and in particular it should emphasise the differences between infected and non-infected areas and the differences between the precautions to be taken by people living and working on farms and the rest of the public who are unlikely to come into close contact with farm animals. Such a document should be issued to every organisation whose actions might affect public access to the countryside as they respond to a disease crisis. The aim should be to base those responses more on disease control requirements than on perceived public relations or other needs. It should have the equivalent status to an oil spill contingency plan or similar emergency procedures document;

      (ii)  doubts over the use of local authority powers in Scotland. There is a need to question whether local councillors are really the best people to decide if large areas of the countryside should be closed because of disease control reasons. Local authorities do not appear to contain levels of expertise appropriate to this type of problem. Consideration could be given to expanding the State Veterinary Service in Scotland so that responsibility for closing areas lies entirely in their hands. The extra costs involved would be very small indeed when compared to the huge losses which the rural economy is suffering as a result of the present arrangements;

      (iii)  new access legislation. The proposed legislation on a right of responsible access to Scotland's countryside, due to go before the Scottish Parliament in the autumn, needs to take account of the FMD experience. While this has undoubtedly demonstrated that the public is ready for such legislation and well capable of acting responsibly to meet the needs of land managers, some questions need to be asked about enforcement action against land managers. In particular the draft legislation needs to be checked to see if local authorities will in the future have sufficient powers and duties to remove private land manager anti-access signs and other barriers where these are considered inappropriate.

      (iv)  NGO co-operation. Land managing representative organisations such as the NFUS and SLF, as well as land managing conservation bodies such as the RSPB and National Trust for Scotland, need to discuss with outdoor recreation organisations, such as the Ramblers and Mountaineering Council of Scotland, how to standardise responses to situations like FMD. In particular, early agreement is needed on what messages might in future be sent out to the general public and what might be needed in terms of any restrictive notices. The recent work on the development of the "Comeback Code" lays the foundation for such future co-operation.

April 2001

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