On holiday in foot-and-mouth country

How can the UK government hope to encourage tourists towards a diseased countryside, when the local inhabitants can't even walk their dogs?

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

A wooden post marking a public footpath has a sign posted by the county council, proclaiming its closure due to foot-and-mouth. As you look for a stile or a gate, anything to let you on to the footpath, you realise that the post stands behind both a hedge and a chicken-wire fence – reminding you why ramblers and farmers have never exactly been bezzy mates.

‘You can’t walk down here, love!’ calls a friendly brummy voice, belonging to a woman wearing an anorak and carrying a carrier bag. ‘Not unless you want to pay £5000!’ My partner and I were about to wander down Dirty Lane (a mud path behind the backs of two sets of houses, leading to the canal bridge). We explained that we’d missed that particular notice – as it turned out, it had been pinned up next to the pooper-scoop bin, hardly inviting close reading.

But the woman wasn’t about to report us. She and her friend had ‘special dispensation’ to feed their horses, who hadn’t been allowed out of their stables for weeks. ‘It’s terrible, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘There’s not even any animals around here.’

In the local canal-side pub, next to the closed towpath, we followed the empty pint glasses out to the garden/car-park, where customers had obviously been enjoying a sunny-day drink in the open air. The smell of cattle was ripe – the farm next door had rounded up its herd, to keep them off the open land, and they were crowded up next to the pub. The farm’s entrance was lined with a piece of hopeful, if unconvincing, carpet, designed to disinfect the car tyres as they drive over. You wondered why the farmers didn’t just leave their cars outside.

Such are the snapshots of my brief foot-and-mouth holiday, the last weekend in March 2001. Needing a break from the mean streets of the UK metropolis, my partner and I decided to test the UK government’s current assertion that ‘the countryside is open for business’.

We decided to go to the West Midlands on a whim and a sentiment – as my parents prepare to move out of the house I lived in from the age of three, I wanted to reassure myself that my rural childhood was more than just a hallucination. After all, between the farmers’ wives writing their authentic foot-and-mouth diaries all over the national press, and government ministers frantically trying to encourage urban tourists to spend their cash out of town, you could forget that the majority of rural dwellers don’t live on farms – but they still have lives to live.

So is the countryside open for business? It depends, of course, on what you mean by the countryside. If you mean anything outside London, as implied by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) in its promotion of ‘country towns, villages and seaside resorts’ (1); or if you mean, as the Countryside Agency’s rather garbled initial press release headlined ‘All of countryside is not a no-go area’ flagged up, ‘heritage attractions and theme parks, local restaurants or pubs’ (2), you might have a point.

But if you mean the actual countryside, it seems pretty obvious that it is, indeed, a ‘no-go area’; and none of the measures currently being taken to open it up is likely to bring the tourists flooding forth. On the contrary: the desperate attempts by the UK government to encourage tourists back to the countryside risk making the problem worse, by presenting holidaymaking as some grim form of gritted-teeth public service.

Our original plan was to stay on a narrow-boat for a few days, on the Shropshire Union canal near the village where I grew up. There is something essentially relaxing about only being able to travel at about three miles per hour through the countryside, leaping off the boat just to work the locks or go to the local pub. Unfortunately, it turned out that British Waterways had shut 70 percent of canals as a precautionary measure against foot-and-mouth. What did they want to do that for?
Closing public footpaths is one thing (although I later came to doubt the wisdom of that move, too). These cut through farmland, and often pass directly by farms. But the only difference between canals and local roads – both of which are separated from farms by gates and hedgerows – seems to be that there is a hell of a lot more traffic on local roads than on out-of-season canals.

Yet only a few local roads have restricted access; and as an uncompelling National Press Advertisement issued by the DETR on 22 March admonishes, ‘You can freely drive, cycle and walk along tarmac roads’. (3) And you could argue, as the exasperated owner of one West Midlands narrow-boat company did, that ‘You can’t stop the ducks or birds going along the canals, can you?’.

The rationale for shutting the canal network, while leaving the local roads open, can only have been that people do not need to get to work on canal boats: that these trips are considered something of a luxury. ‘The closure will affect all non-essential use of inland waterways’, stated the British Waterways website, as it made its decision (4). It was only as Easter began to approach, and foot-and-mouth spread, that the penny began to drop. Canal holidays might not be ‘essential’ for individuals, but they are pretty damn crucial for narrow-boat companies. By then, however, it was just too late.

The plight of the canals reflects, on a small scale, the plight of the rest of rural tourism – and the reason why, however hard government ministers plead with people to get back into the countryside, April 2001 will be the cruellest month for anybody trying to make a living in rural tourism.

British Waterways – on the advice of the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and local authorities – was panicked into closing down the canal network (the first of the frequently asked questions listed on its website is ‘Wasn’t this an unnecessary overreaction?’) (5). Then it was panicked into trying to open them up again, through a period of hastily conducted risk assessments. Now, it seems to have ended up in the worst of all possible worlds – with people allowed on boats, but barely allowed to get off them.

The risk assessments have resulted in each waterway being given a rating: level 0, 1 or 2 (6). Levels 1 and 2 mean that boaters have to disinfect themselves before getting on and off boats; that most pets will be banned from boats, and if dogs are allowed, they should only exercise on urban towpaths or public highways; that they can’t cycle along towpaths or ‘use the towpaths when the signs tell you not to’; or moor the boats at any but agreed moorings. All of this kind of begs the question – why would anybody try to have a relaxing holiday under these conditions?

British Waterways explains that ‘most waterways include a stretch or stretches requiring level 2 precautions’ and that, in these instances, ‘level 2 rating applies along the entire reopened waterway’ (7). So – if you want a spell on the Good Ship Disease, floating in quarantine alongside a towpath shut to the rest of the public, a canal trip may be for you. Otherwise, you might be better advised to go to Majorca.

Attempts to reopen public footpaths have been similarly thwarted, by this basic inability to believe that people don’t want to go on holiday feeling like lepers. As we drove up to the West Midlands, we were struck by the absence of livestock on the fields. Walking up the road to a nearby pub, in a village consisting entirely of farms, it seemed incongruous that people are banned from walking across fields that are either empty, or arable – when the road takes you straight past the cowshed.

Clearly, the DETR has also woken up to this contradiction, and is scrambling around trying to reopen some footpaths – but only with the same kind of precautionary measures promoted on the canals. ‘Keep dogs on a lead at all times’, says its news release of 28 March 2001. ‘Clean your boots and vehicles after each walk or visit to the countryside’, ‘Do not leave any waste food or litter’, and, of course, avoid contact with farm animals (as if people usually wander up to stroke the bull) (8).

All of this might seem sensible, and not too big a sacrifice for those wanting a walking holiday in the countryside. But the point is, of course, that holidaymakers want a holiday, not a risk-aware pilgrimage through blighted farmland. It reminds me of a Lenny Henry joke, about Jamaica being so relaxed its inhabitants go to Beirut on holiday. The British are uptight; ergo, they go on holiday to chill.

It’s all very well for the DETR to plead with the public that ‘Hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, pubs, shops and other businesses are suffering badly because people are staying away. They need your custom’ (9). But since when has tourism been about altruism? Can the UK government really expect people to use their precious holidays on some kind of miserable charity mission to spend cash in the UK countryside? If anything is going to seal the fate of a desperate tourist industry, it is the presentation of holidaymaking as a selfless public service.

As the UK government unsuccessfully obsesses on encouraging the townies to go rural, what about those to whom staying out of the countryside is not an option? Back in my childhood village, I recalled the feeling of invisibility you get from living out in the sticks – the way you get overexcited when the name of your village appears in the local paper once in a blue moon, the way that, when you move away, you give up on explaining the whereabouts of your particular tiny patch of land and describe yourself as having come from the nearest town (and people struggle even to work out where that is).

But never have people in rural areas seemed so invisible as they are now, when the spotlight is trained on the countryside.

I cannot be the only person in the world to have grown up on a 1970s new housing estate in a small village with parents who weren’t farmers and no friends who lived on farms. Even the DETR recognises that villages have not been shut off as a precautionary measure against foot-and-mouth. Yet in the discussion about postponing the UK general election, on the problems with canvassing and the possibilities afforded by postal votes, it seems to have been completely forgotten that the vast majority of people who live in rural areas do not live on farms, are not quarantined or disinfected, and do not spend their everyday lives wracked with worry about foot-and-mouth.

It is almost as if these people, these rural suburbans, do not exist. Yet they form the majority of rural dwellers.

The idea that countryside-means-farmers forms the first myth about the countryside that has surfaced during this foot-and-mouth frenzy. In 1999, only four local authorities in the UK had over 25 percent of the workforce in agriculture; and under 30 had over 15 percent in agriculture (10). Whatever reasons people have for living in the countryside, in most cases farming is incidental. You see the farms, you smell the farms, but you live in the sticks because it’s pretty, because you want a nice place to bring up your kids or walk the dog, because you grew up there and don’t want to move – or, in my parents’ case, because you just can’t stand the thought of living in Wolverhampton.

How does foot-and-mouth affect these rural suburbans? The second myth to have taken hold during this crisis – linked to the first – is that the countryside is an homogenous entity, to be affected in exactly the same way by foot-and-mouth. But for the majority of rural dwellers, foot-and-mouth is ultimately no more of an issue for them than it is for the most hardened never-been-north-of-Watford-Gap Londoner.

The sympathy for farmers is probably more heartfelt in areas where people know local farmers, but this sympathy can only stretch so far. If it is assumed that foot-and-mouth has brought about some kind of Blitz spirit, pulling local communities together and uniting farmers with rural suburbans, somebody is going to have a rude awakening.

‘I know it sounds silly, but we’re not really rural enough here’, said one local, when I asked about the impact foot-and-mouth had on people in my home village. ‘The people mainly affected are the ones with dogs, and the ones who ride horses.’ When I went there at the start of the foot-and-mouth crisis, I remarked that the main discussion seemed to hinge on ‘where will we walk our dogs?’ (11). One month on, and the dog-walkers are suffering from their imprisonment in the village perimeters, while the dogs strain at their unfamiliar leads and the owner is forced to carry a pooper-scoop everywhere they go (an unnecessary encumbrance when your mutt is freely scampering among the cow-pats).

‘So what?’ snigger the dog-free urbanites. As somebody who has only known cats and hamsters for pets, I admit that I find the dog-walkers’ predicament appears somewhat petty. But in what seems like their fairly luxurious concerns, the dog-walkers and horse-riders illuminate something of the broader impact of the reaction to foot-and-mouth on the countryside: the general unpleasantness of it all, and the sense of disillusionment that brings.

‘They have to think about the impact these restrictions have on people’s general quality of life’, said another local, owner of two dogs. He wasn’t angry about the restrictions, particularly; it was more a shoulder-shrugging disgruntlement. But the lifestyle element of why people move out to the countryside is not insignificant – if farming has little direct impact on most rural people, the ‘quality of life’ factor is one of the main motivators for living there. In closing down the pleasant bits of rural life, treating this lifestyle factor as just another ‘non-essential’, like holidaymaking, local authorities have done themselves no favours.

Foot-and-mouth never engendered any real Blitz spirit – it couldn’t. Far from bringing people together, the battle against foot-and-mouth essentially involved isolation – a ‘stay indoors’ mentality that would always go sour.

When the first outbreaks happened, the £5000 fine that anybody breaking the rules is threatened with seemed unnecessary – sensitive to the plight of farmers, and thinking the restrictions a temporary, necessary evil, people willingly went along with them. But now, after a month of overreactive, ham-fisted decisions, and the lack of sober, rational discussion about how to deal with this latest livestock disease, the cash penalty has moved to the forefront of people’s minds.

So the horsewomen we encountered on Dirty Lane did not lecture us on the immorality of straying from the safe streets – their conviction in that argument had gone. ‘You don’t want to come down here unless you’ve got deep pockets’, they remarked, somewhat bitterly, as they went to feed a horse that they haven’t been able to move from its stable for weeks.

And as the crisis goes on, the contradictions in all the bans and restrictions only become more apparent. Why keep dogs on leads, when you can’t stop the birds? Why shut the canals, when the roads are open? Why can’t you cross fields with no animals on them, but you can wander straight past the cowshed? Why promote rural tourism, when even the local inhabitants are excluded from the benefits of rural life? What’s going on anyway – and how can anybody really know the right thing to do?

It is now clearer than ever that the current reaction to foot-and-mouth won’t save many farmers; and the reaction to the reaction to foot-and-mouth won’t save UK tourism 2001. But this whole sorry overreaction will further corrode those less tangible aspects of UK life – trust in politicians and other authorities, spontaneous acts of cooperation, and people’s general sense of contentment and wellbeing. Are these sentiments so non-essential?
Read on:
Country life goes on by Jennie Bristow
Read more on the Foot-and-mouth issue
(1) National Press Advertisement, DETR, 22 March 2001
(2) Press release, Countryside Agency, 14 March 2001
(3) National Press Advertisement, DETR, 22 March 2001
(4) British Waterways, 27 March 2001
(5) Foot and mouth advice, British Waterways, 3 April 2001
(6) Foot and mouth advice, Level 0, Level 1 and Level 2, British Waterways, 3 April 2001
(7) Foot and mouth advice, British Waterways, advice 3 April 2001
(8) News release 194, DETR, 28 March 2001
(9) National Press Advertisement, DETR, 22 March 2001
(10) Agenda 2000 – CAP reform MAFF 1999
(11) See Country life goes on by Jennie Bristow

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