The English countryside, devastated by closures during the last foot-and-mouth disease outbreakBritain’s footpaths must remain open despite the confirmed outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in England.

That’s the message from the Ramblers’ Association, which says that there should be no repeat of the blanket closures of the 2001 outbreak. The association, which campaigns for walkers’ rights, says it hopes the Government has learnt its lessons.

The English countryside, devastated by closures during the last foot-and-mouth disease outbreak 

The Ramblers’ Association (RA) accepts that there will be need to close some paths and access land, and that it will urge walkers to comply, but points out that the closures during the last outbreak had a devastating effect on the rural economy, with many businesses going to wall.

RA chairman Kate Ashbrook said: “Walkers spend roughly £6bn in the countryside each year and are a vital resource for the rural economy.  

Ramblers' Association chairman Kate Ashbrook “Their absence during the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 bankrupted hundreds of rural businesses.  Nearly 90 per cent of local authorities closed almost all rural paths in England and Wales even though only a quarter experienced an outbreak. This must not happen again and we are thankful that the Government is demonstrating that lessons have been learned.”

Ramblers' Association chairman Kate Ashbrook

Ms Ashbrook told grough today that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) helpline says that footpaths are not being closed. She said that any footpath closures that do take place should be posted on the Defra website, though it is the responsibility of local authorities to formally make any closures.

Surrey County Council has no notice of footpath closures posted. grough today attempted without success to contact a spokesman from the council.

Support for the RA view comes from the Countryside Land & Business Association (CLA) which echoes Kate Ashbrook’s demands. CLA President David said: “Tourism and other related businesses lost £5bn in 2001 as a result of this disease.

“Currently 60 per cent of holdings in the UK – and 68 per cent in the South East where foot-and-mouth disease has been found –  are now involved in diversified projects generating £420m a year, including all forms of accommodation, bed and breakfast, holiday cottages, campsites and caravan parks, as well as shops, restaurants, visitor attractions and equine businesses. In 2005-2006 this represented 22 per cent of the total income from farm businesses.
“Careful and intelligent  handling of this outbreak will, I hope, mean that not only can we avert a disaster for British farming, but we can also make sure that it is not a disaster for the wider rural economy.”

Agricultural shows in Cockermouth, Cumbria and Northumberland have been cancelled, with others throughout the country going ahead without cattle, pigs, sheep and goats. Woburn Safari Park and Whipsnade Zoo have both closed.

60 cattle at the farm, between Aldershot and Guildford, were culled this afternoon. Defra is also investigating further suspected cases, though Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds said some of these had already proved negative. A meeting of Cobra, the Government’s emergency committee, was chaired by Prime Minister Gordon Brown – who returned from his Dorset holiday – this morning. He pledged to do everything in his power to stop the spread of the disease.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn also cut short his holiday in Italy to attend the meeting and Conservative leader David Cameron has postponed his vacation.