News that farmers and other landowners were starting to erect home made notices telling visitors using public rights of way that they were closed due to coronavirus naturally led to a sense of righteous indignation rising inside me, and I put out a public request for examples that people had seen on their legitimate and legal daily exercise walks in the countryside. This elicited an amazing response – thanks to everyone who replied and all the photos. But it also caused me to stop and think about why I (and others) had had such a visceral response to these actions. Talking to environmental historian Matthew Kelly yesterday, got me thinking about all of the different roles people are slotting into – as Matthew said our “performative roles”; and how these roles coloured our perception of what the countryside is for, and how we should react to the Pandemic.
Foot and Mouth Memories
For farmers and landowners, especially in the remote uplands of England, Coronavirus has forced traumatic memories of the Foot and Mouth Disease Epidemic of 2001 to come back to the surface. It’s impossible for anyone who isn’t part of the farming community, especially those tight knit remote communities in places like the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales, to understand how traumatic the FMD epidemic was – I can only guess. Sheep flocks that had been built up through generations of breeding were slaughtered. Pyres of cattle burnt day and night. Imagine the smell, the sense that connects most directly to our emotions. Six million animals were slaughtered.
As part of the Government’s efforts to stop FMD, an extremely infectious disease which can survive outside animals on all sorts of surfaces (sound familiar?), the countryside was closed. At the time I was working as a freelance ecologist doing lots of wildlife surveys. I remember having to go through stringent biosecurity procedures before entering farms or even woods. There was whole set of kit in the back of the car to keep boots clean. I didn’t venture into the uplands.
Coronavirus is a very different disease from FMD, but its emotional impact has been similar – and that emotional response has generated the fear not seen since nearly 20 years ago. I think this explains the home-made signs – or at least most of them. Others will use the epidemic as an opportunity to push their own hobby horses, or allow their own prejudices to come into play.
A few farmers have expressed to me their strong belief that all footpaths should be diverted out of farmyards, everywhere. Their argument is that you wouldn’t allow a footpath to pass through a factory, where fork lift trucks and other dangerous machinery operates. So therefore, on health and safety grounds, it’s wrong to allow footpaths to run through farmyards where teleforks and tractors are driving around. There’s a certain irony that on the whole farmers object to the notion that farming is akin to an industrial process – objecting to the phrase factory farming. Apart from when it is useful to draw that analogy, for the purposes of excluding the public.
Others have expressed concern for elderly, self-isolating, relatives, living in houses near or on farms, with footpaths running past their garden gates. And there is no doubt that walkers touching gates do present a risk of contagion. But how large a risk that is, and how easily it is avoided, have to be considered. We are all implored to wash our hands as soon as we return home, on the basis that any surface could be contaminated with the virus. I struggle to understand why this would not operate on a farm, as it would at the local supermarket.
Others have sought to rightly highlight the ever present problem of sheep worrying by out of control dogs, during the lockdown. But there are no more dogs than there were before (though some may be getting more walks than they are used to). So while one place – perhaps nearer to towns, will get more dog walkers, other places will suddenly be dog-free.
And then there are the landowners who just don’t like “the public” using their land. I was told about one particularly egregious example from Yorkshire, where tacks had been laid along a public bridleway causing the bike rider to suffer immediate punctures which could have led to a nasty accident.
There’s another side to this though, which is the way the Government message has been broadcast and interpreted. I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of overzealous policing, as that has already been covered elsewhere. What is more interesting is the way that exercise has been recognised as an essential aspect of this pandemic. We are not only allowed out to exercise (and this is at odds with the way other countries have defined their own lockdowns); but the very fact that it has become such a topic of discussion, means that people feel both instructed to exercise for their own good, but also encouraged to give themselves permission to exercise this small liberty, when so many other liberties have been removed.
So I think for some people they will go and exercise this liberty, walking on public Rights of Way – and the language there is very interesting isn’t it – exercising their rights to use a footpath; as a way of expressing – or indeed performing – the fact that we still live in a democracy, albeit a restricted one. They may well feel they should go and walk a footpath they’ve never walked before, almost as a duty to uphold a vague notion of democratic rights. I think may be especially true for a certain section of the population – the healthy, wealthy, retired. Some might call them Boomers, but that’s often used in the pejorative, which is not what I am trying to convey. They are used to having free access to the countryside, to beauty spots, national parks, the coast. They have the money to spend supporting local economies, eating well, staying in nice B and Bs or hotels. Walking long distance footpaths. They are being constrained as never before.
Another irony is that these are a section of the population which did very well as a result of the partial dismantling of the state under Mrs Thatcher – and often look back on more statist times of the 60s and 70s with scorn. Yet they feel that same righteous indignation I mentioned earlier, at the prospect of having access rights, won thanks to statist policies of the 40s, being obstructed. Their desire, or even feelings of duty, to get out and perform that role as guardian of hard-won democratic rights, may feel very strong.
So it’s possible that for those of us cooped up at home, we may feel very strongly that we should be doing our hour of exercise a day, even if that was more than we had previously done. And for those who were already doing regular exercise, like joggers and runners, they may feel that their exercise now has official endorsement, and are now “exercising importantly” as someone put it. I have experienced this – the headphoned joggers powering past people well within the 2m limit. “Get out of my way I have important state-sanctioned exercise to perform.”
Never mind herd immunity, there are strong statist herd instincts being encouraged here.
Private v Public Rights
On one level, this is just another angle on the age-old tussle between private property rights, and the rights of the rest of the population to enjoy the land of the country that they live in. Interestingly in Wales, the Government has introduced laws which has allowed whole National Parks to shut down access, as a way of avoiding repeats of the events of the weekend before lockdown day, when thousands of people headed for the hills. It’s going to be vitally important that these restrictions are removed when the pandemic has passed. There are no signs that this is going to be imposed in England, at least not yet. Given that London is now becoming the epicentre of the pandemic in Europe, closing footpaths in remote parts of the country are unlikely to have any impact on that crisis.
On another level, each of us is, unwittingly perhaps, falling into our separate performative roles, whether it’s siege mentality, righteous indignation, or state-sanctioned exerciser. The Panic Buyer seems to have come and gone very rapidly. Are these roles helpful or not, are they having any effect on the spread of the disease, and are we even able to break out of them?