The Government is facing a growing clamour from some farmers to close down the countryside following the confirmation of a second case of foot-and-mouth disease.
Walkers in Teesdale, County Durham, have been confronted by signs warning that footpaths are closed, due to the outbreaks in Surrey, more than 300 miles away. The National Farmers’ Union does not advise its members to block footpaths.
Durham County Council points to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs policy which says: “Current veterinary advice is that outside a protection zone, the risk of rights-of-way users and other visitors to the countryside spreading disease is low. Access to the countryside and in particular to footpaths, may be restricted but only within the protection zones (areas of minimum 3km around an infected premises) if it is felt too risky to keep them open. Footpaths on the infected premises are closed.
“There is a 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 right of way, or where there is public open space or a right of access to open country, would only be taken only when it is clearly necessary to do so.
“In the event of a disease outbreak, inspectors may have the power to prohibit entry on to any land within designated areas and, in some cases, a specific power to close rights of way. In cases where the power is used to prohibit entry to designated areas, this power would, incidentally, enable the prohibition of entry on to any public right of way or land to which the public have a right of access situated within the designated areas.”
Despite the Government’s ruling, farmers are taking the law into their own hands and blocking public rights of way. Conservative, MP, Humfrey Malins, in whose constituency the infected farms lie, wants footpaths in protection zones closed immediately.
The Ramblers’ Association (RA) issued the following advice to walkers: “Farmers and landowners are understandably very worried about this outbreak so please make use of any disinfectant footbaths or pads if these are provided, beyond the protection zones exercise access normally but do not approach any animals. Please ensure that dogs are kept under close control, or on leads if required to do so.
“There is no need for walks to be cancelled or for routes of planned walks to be altered unless in the vicinity of infected premises (ie within the protection zones which are a minimum of 3km around infected premises) in which case notices regarding closures of footpaths or access to land should be complied with.
“The situation regarding the present outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is changing constantly. Be alert to all news bulletins for news of the spread of the disease. Consult the Defra website and the websites of local authorities for information on path closures.”
The association also urges anyone who comes across illegal notices or blockages of rights of way to inform their local authority and to let the RA know. Phone numbers and email addresses are on the association’s website.
- Restrictions on animal movements in Scotland were today relaxed. Limited trips between farms and slaughterhouses will be allowed north of the Border. All other restrictions in England and Wales remain in place
Environment Secretary Hilary Benn announced at 9.50 tonight that, on the advice of the Chief Veterinary Officer Debby Reynolds, footpaths within the 3km protection zone around the farms and labs at the centre of the outbreak would be closed.
The initial report of the team looking into the causes of the outbreak said there was a strong probablility the disease originated in the Institute of Animal Health or the Merial pharmaceutical premises which share the Pirbright site.
The two main probable causes of foot-and-mouth-disease virus leaving the site were its drainage system or human contamination. Flooding and airborne carrying of the disease were unlikely in this instance, the report, by the Health and Safety Executive team, concluded.
The institute has been cleared to carry on its work, but in a letter to Mr Benn, lead investigator Dr Paul Logan cast doubts on operations at the vaccine company. He said: "The situation regarding Merial is less clear cut, and I would advise that further work be done before any operations involving live pathogens are restarted. As the report indicates there are doubts about the integrity of the drainage system, including pipe work which leads to the final effluent treatment plant.
"My team has instigated a set of tests in relation to the possibility that any pathogens have contaminated the site via this route. We expect the results of this work tomorrow [Wednesday], and I would recommend that these results are evaluated before Merial restarts operations involving live pathogens."
The team will now further pursue the two likely leads to try to find out how the outbreak started.