TT races abandoned to protect rare Manx sheep

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The Isle of Man's TT motorcycle races were cancelled yesterday as officials decided the massive damage to tourism was worth bearing to keep the island foot-and-mouth free.

The TT motorcycle races were cancelled yesterday as Isle of Man politicians decided the massive damage to tourism was worth bearing to keep the island foot-and-mouth free.

The Tourist Trophy trials have been cancelled previously only during wartime, and the decision will mean the island losing an estimated 40,000 visitors, who would normally spend about £16m.

Donald Gelling, the island's Chief Minister, told its parliament, the Tynwald, that allowing the races to go ahead from 26 May to 8 June risked devastating the Manx countryside and its rare Loaghtan sheep. The Manx government insisted that the island remained open to tourists, and that other attractions such as displays by the Red Arrows would go ahead as scheduled.

Since they started in 1907, the races around the 37-mile Mountain Circuit have won the Isle of Man a reputation as the racing capital of the world and their cancellation came as a blow to motorcycle enthusiasts yesterday.

Mr Gelling said he knew the decision would disappoint the island's tourist industry and visitors but that it had not been taken lightly. "It is the unique nature of the TT ­ the concentration of numbers involved and their proximity to livestock areas ­ that has raised special concerns in this case.

"We hope people will understand that the alternative was to take an extra risk, against advice, of introducing a terrible disease which could devastate the Manx countryside and cause long-term damage to tourism as well as agriculture," he said, adding that it was now a priority to help the island's tourist industry. A package of measures is being drawn up for businesses facing severe financial losses.

The island's tourism and leisure department suggested precautions to allow the trials to take place but was overruled by the Manx Council of Ministers. Another suggestion to postpone the races for the first time since the 1966 national seamen's strike was ruled out because autumn trials would clash with other events.

The Tourism Minister, David Cretney, said: "It is of course a major disappointment for many that the government has taken what is seen as an essential precaution to safeguard our own livestock industry but visitors are welcome to enjoy other aspects of the traditional festival and we will be concentrating our efforts in the town centres for this year."

Rob McDonnell, the editor of Motor Cycle News, said the event was many bikers' main holiday and an important part of their lives. He said that most had booked in advanced and would be worried about refunds for accommodation and ferries. Many might still go to the island, he warned.

"The only way the Manx authorities can stop them going over is to ban the ferries and flights. I think a lot of motorcyclists will be on the island anyway, so it almost seems a bit pointless," he said.

Philip Neale, a spokesman for the riders' organisation Motorcycle Action Group, said its 20,000 members and eight-member racing team would be "disappointed".