Racing escapes ban as crisis grips countryside

The Restrictions
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The Independent Online

Rambling, scrambling, climbing, bird-watching, camping, riding, walking - most rural pursuits will be off this weekend as the foot-and-mouth crisis grips the British countryside and virtually closes it down. But racing, the sport of kings, will be on.

Rambling, scrambling, climbing, bird-watching, camping, riding, walking - most rural pursuits will be off this weekend as the foot-and-mouth crisis grips the British countryside and virtually closes it down. But racing, the sport of kings, will be on.

Racehorses have been exempted from the sweeping ban on the movement of livestock ordered yesterday by Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, in a desperate attempt to control the spread of the highly infectious disease.

However, in an omission which has surprised many observers, Mr Brown has not deemed it necessary to halt the movement of 342 horses travelling this morning to 34 races at five meetings around the country, as horses do not catch foot-and-mouth disease. The meetings will go ahead, although six point-to-point meetings, races largely between horses ridden in fox-hunting that take place on farmland, have voluntarily been called off.

But elsewhere across the rural landscape, gates were being locked, visitor centres and car parks were being shut and "Keep Out" notices were going up as landowning organisations, particularly those with livestock, heeded the call to close the countryside down.

In an unprecedented move, the 11 National Parks in England and Wales, containing majestic wild landscapes covering nearly 1.5m hectares, or 10 per cent of Britain's land surface, asked would-be visitors to stay away. Officially, their request was for people "not to walk or ride across countryside where livestock graze", but in practice this means virtually the entire territory of the parks, which is nearly all livestock production land, and is directed not only at riders and walkers but at rock-climbers, pot-holers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

"Unfortunately National Parks are just as vulnerable to this terrible diseases as any countryside, so we would ask everyone to co-operate until further notice," said Professor Ian Mercer, the secretary general of the Association of National Park Authorities. All the parks are curtailing their own activities, such as guided walks, school trips and training weekends, and the Lake District park has asked farmers to cancel bookings in the "camping barns" that are used by walkers on longer rambles.

In another sweeping move, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds yesterday shut down its entire network of 171 nature reserves, covering another 111,000 hectares of Britain's most attractive landscapes. The reserves, which would attract tens of thousands of visitors on a normal weekend, especially at the end of the school half-term break, will be closed for a week. "We thought it was important to do what we could to discourage people from moving around the countryside," said the RSPB chief executive, Graham Wynne. "We want to do anything we can to help the farming community in a time of crisis."

The National Trust, Britain's largest private landowner with 248,000 hectares - only the Ministry of Defence and the Forestry Commission have larger holdings - is also asking people to stay away from its 700 full-time tenanted farms, although most of its 250 or so historic properties will remain open. However, adjacent areas which contain livestock, such as the deer park at Knole House in Kent, will be closed.

Across Britain many other enterprises involving land, or animals, or both, are being affected. Whipsnade Wild Animal Park in Bedfordshire, London Zoo's sister zoo in the Chiltern Hills and one of Britain's largest wildlife conservation parks, yesterday banned cars in a bid to stop the foot-and-mouth outbreak spreading to its 2,500 animals, which include elephants, giraffes, bears, tigers, rhinos and hippos and many species which are endangered in the wild. Visitors will still be allowed in on foot, a car park opposite the main gate will remain open and the park's free tour bus will still operate.

It emerged yesterday that more than half the country's 63 city farms have closed following the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Two city farms in Essex - one at Thameside Park, Barking, and the other at Romford - were forced to close as they fall within the exclusion zone imposed after the first case was confirmed at Cheale Meats abattoir in Little Warley. The others, which would normally be packed with visitors during the half-term break, have decided to close as a precautionary measure.

There is now a fear that the farms could be hit badly both financially and in terms of popularity should the crisis drag on for several weeks. Ian Eggington-Metters, assistant director of the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, said staff were doing the responsible thing in closing.

"This is the right thing to do in order to prevent this infection being received or being passed on," he said. "But if this continues for weeks and weeks it will have a double impact. Firstly, there will be lost revenue from missed group visits, and then there's also the additional costs of looking after livestock that would have gone to market and having to disinfect everything.

"Although there is no public health risk, any kind of negative publicity surrounding farms or farming is yet a further blow to the image of city farms," said Mr Eggington-Metters. "The farms that have closed are spread right across the country as there are currently several outbreak centres and nobody knows how many outbreak centres there's going to be."

Some observers were surprised by Mr Brown's decision to allow the movement today of hundreds of horse-boxes to race meetings at Kempton Park, Haydock, Lingfield, Uttoxeter and Musselburgh. John Maxse, the spokesman for the Jockey Club, said that all horseboxes would be disinfected on entering and leaving race courses.