Bleak Tragedy

It's been a tough year for Blair's Britain, especially in the English Lakes, where the tourist industry, the farmers and the sheep alike have had little say in their survival.

England may be famous for its beautiful seashores and undulating hills, but it is not that well known for its mountains. Indeed, the country's highest mountain, Scafell Pike, in the scenic northern Lake District in the county of Cumbria, is only 3,184 feet (978 metres) high - probably not very impressive to anyone from the Alps or Carpathians.

Nevertheless, the Lake District is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country, both for well-equipped ramblers and those who prefer a gentle stroll followed by tea and scones. And, of course, beer lovers, who look forward to sampling the special brews of the North with such tantalising names as "Theakston's Old Peculier" [sic] and "Black Sheep" in a traditional pub atmosphere.

The Lake District is not only home to the highest mountain in England. It also boasts Wastwater, the deepest lake, St. Olaf's, the smallest church, and even the country's biggest liar (the methods used to find him or her unfortunately remain shrouded in mystery)! The region is visited by approximately 13 million tourists every year, the majority in the summer season.

The hills and fields, carefully looked after by the British National Trust, are also kept trim by the much loved moor sheep. At least, that was the case until February this year, when the first cases of foot-and-mouth disease in Britain for 20 years were diagnosed. This led to the majority of paths being closed until further notice for fear that walkers would spread the disease, with more than half the nation's footpaths and bridleways still closed at the beginning of June.

But what was more upsetting for many locals in the Lake District, one of the hardest hit areas of the country, was that the famously shaggy Herdwick sheep would possibly have to be slaughtered.

Harry Griffin, a 90-year-old local resident, expressed a pathos shared by many locals when he wrote that if the sheep were culled, it would be "the end of the Lakeland where I have climbed, walked, skied and skated for nearly 80 years."

The fate of the Herdwick sheep may affect the region for generations to come. Unlike flocks that graze in fields attached to individual farms, these sheep move between large stretches of land without any boundaries, intuitively sensing where they are because the knowledge has been passed on from ewe to lamb for centuries. According to Mr Griffin, "the first Herdwick sheep probably came with Norse settlers in the tenth century, although they may have already been part of the flocks of the Cistercian monks of Furness Abbey, who first farmed the Lakeland dales."

Fiona Reynolds, who was appointed director of the National Trust in January this year, also expressed concern that the Cumbrian hills were in danger of becoming "shabby scrub". Photographs appearing in the press at the end of June showed a very different Lakeland, with open meadows of cotton-like plants and flowers replacing the usually short, grazed grass. Residents said they had never seen anything like it. It was very beautiful, but also very alien. If the entire Herdwick flock were culled, said Reynolds, it "would be devastating for the farming community and also for the cultural integrity of the landscape."

And although epidemiologists had originally estimated that the foot-and-mouth epidemic should have been completely over by the end of June, this proved to be over-optimistic when there was a spate of new outbreaks in the first weeks of August.

However, as the emotional temperature continued to rise in the debate over government measures to contain foot-and-mouth, some important facts about the relative significance of farming in the UK were often passed over. While agriculture generates less than 2 per cent of the UK's GDP, tourism makes up over 4 per cent. In Cumbria alone, hotels and other firms that supply the tourist trade were estimated to be losing approximately ł8 million a week this spring, which corresponded to 35 redundancies per week, as the government closed paths. This figure increased as the tourist season got underway. For those in the tourist industry, the government was seen to be frightening people away.

Still, by the beginning of July there was light at the end of the tunnel. Paths in the Lake District - the worst affected area in England - were nearly 20 per cent open, while the Pennine Chain to the east, the other favourite walk of British ramblers up the "backbone of Britain", had been almost completely re-opened in time for the summer holidays. By late July Exmoor in the Southwest had also been re-opened.

The British have been proud of their "green and pleasant land" since the poet William Blake coined the phrase almost two hundred years ago, but while the averred love of the countryside has remained, the importance of agriculture has been waning since the industrial revolution began in the mid-eighteenth century. Whilst the rituals of the countryside have essentially become an element of national identity and pride, the country's reliance on it economically has little substance.

Bearing in mind the mourning of townspeople for the temporary loss of their beloved countryside, the grief and anger expressed by Cumbrian farmers is hardly surprising. At the end of March, the first few thousand sheep carcasses were buried beneath a disused airfield near Carlisle in northern Cumbria. On the same day, British Agriculture Minister Nick Brown (whom Prime Minister Tony Blair quickly replaced after the election) travelled to the area to talk to local farmers and officials. His car was greeted by shouts of "murderer", and when he left some two hours later, his only farewell from the waiting crowd was "bastard".

The cleft between "town" (at present typified by Westminster politicians) and "country" (farmers), always wide in the UK but now growing rapidly, explains the comments of locals just before and after the general election on 7th June. Robin Page, a Cumbrian farmer, said in an interview shortly before the country went to the polls, "I am most unlikely to vote at this election. Like thousands of other country people I feel totally disillusioned and disenfranchised." He added that under the Labour government, which was voted into a second term in office, "farming and the countryside have fallen from depression into terminal crisis."

Nevertheless, rare breeds and high genetic value stocks such as Herdwick may possibly be exempt from culling under government proposals, even if the conditions to be met are extremely strictly controlled. At the beginning of June there were over 720 affected farms (almost half of the national total) throughout the Lake District. By mid-July dozens more farms were affected with another 180 cases confirmed. And with the fate of thousands of local jobs and that of the Herdwick flock hanging in the balance, it was a sad start to the summer season in Cumbria.

At the start of August, though, something confusing was happening: a thousand miles of walks were opened in the Lakes to the delight of tourists and those in the tourist industry, even as the number of infections in Cumbria continued to increase.

So, storm clouds or blue skies around the corner? It is to be hoped that by next spring at the very latest, the Lake District will once again be filled with locals and tourists - and sheep. They will certainly have a tale to tell next year's lambs.