It’s five years since Foot and Mouth disease swept the UK, leaving a trail of burning livestock carcasses and closed rights of way in its wake. If you were fortunate enough not to have taken up mountain biking before 2001 you’ll just have to imagine an entire country with almost no off-road trails available to ride for months on end. Dark days indeed, and we weren’t just being selfish – lots of rural businesses depend on outdoor recreation, and with no rights of way they had no income.
And why are we mentioning this now? Because it could, possibly, happen again. Not with FMD but with everyone’s favourite epidemic du jour, avian flu. DEFRA’s “Exotic Animal Disease Generic Contingency Plan” outlines, among other things, the “protocol for restrictions on public rights of way and access to open country in the event of an outbreak of disease”. Inspectors have to power to restrict access to rights of way within “protected zones” around infected premises. How big those zones are depends on circumstances and scientific and veterinary advice, but a 3km radius (an area of about 28km2) is given as a general area.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the protocol is based on lessons learned from the Foot and Mouth outbreak, and in particular from the Haskins report into rural recovery after that outbreak which identified closure of rights of way as a major factor in the damage done to the rural economy. So “…the protocol is based on the clear principle that there should be a presumption in favour of maintaining public access. Thus, any decision to close land over which there is a public of right of way, or where there is public open space or access to open country, should be taken only when it is clearly necessary to do so and after having carefully considered”.
Which is fairly promising stuff. There’s also some reassuring bits about “unjustified closure notices”:
“Inspectors should either deny access where this is necessary or, if not, allow it. Precautionary notices such as “This footpath is open, but please consider whether your walk is necessary” should neither be posted nor sanctioned by local authorities. Inspectors should ensure that notices prohibiting entry to land are removed as soon as the restrictions prohibiting entry can be lifted.”
This was a particular issue in 2001, with unofficial notices being posted on still-open trails and official ones sticking around for weeks after trails had been reopened. The protocol also recommends that local authorities should “prosecute any person displaying a notice containing false or misleading statements likely to deter the public from using a right of way” and “take action against anyone attempting to deny lawful public access by physical obstruction”.
The upshot of all this is that we might be faced with widespread trail closures, but that it all depends on the scale and nature of any potential outbreak. But there’s definitely a commitment towards minimizing any restrictions, should they become necessary. Let’s hope that they don’t…