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Tuesday, 17 April, 2001, 15:00 GMT 16:00 UK
Tourism: Countryside in the balance
Disease puts parts of the countryside out of bounds
The first of the UK's national parks opened to the public in 1951. In the 50 years since then has our countryside now become the people's playground?

In 1932, six ramblers were arrested for trespassing, along with 500 other protesters, on the highest peak in the Pennines, Kinder Scout. Ringleader Benny Rotham and the five others went to prison for their trouble.

The Lake District
The countryside is a townies' playground
The Kinder Scout protest is credited for bringing the question of public access to rural Britain into focus for the nation.

Whereas once the countryside had been a place of hardship and toil, the UK's increasingly urban population were minded to see it as a playground of recreation and wholesome leisure.

In 1951, the Peak District Mr Rotham and his companions had "invaded" was declared a national park.

Short hike

The 555-square-mile park is home to just 38,000 people, but located within an hour's drive from one third of the UK population, it is the most visited national park in the world after Japan's revered Mount Fuji.

Far from being jostled by gamekeepers, as the Kinder Scout trepressers were, the park's 22 million annual visitors are welcomed, along with their money.

The national parks of England and Wales
The Brecon Beacons
The Broads
The Lake District
The Peak District
Pembrokeshire Coast
North York Moors
Yorkshire Dales
Although much of the countryside (and much of national park land) is devoted to agriculture, farmers are outnumbered by other rural businesses.

The number of domestic tourists heading for the country has grown by two-thirds in the last decade, according to the English Tourism Council. Rural tourism as a whole is now worth 12 billion to the UK each year, compared to the 18bn contributed by agriculture.

The 11 UK national parks pride themselves on welcoming more than 100 million visitors annually without robbing farmers of their land or livelihood.

In trouble together

The foot-and-mouth crisis has unexpectedly strained this relationship. Farmers may live in dread of losing their livestock, but rural hoteliers, restaurateurs, and shop owners are facing crippling loses.

The White Hart pub in Talybont-on-Usk has been devastated by the path closures in the Brecon Beacons National Park. The bar should be taking 1,000 a week to see the landlord through the quiet winter months. Just 35 went into the tills last week.

Is the farming less important?
The similar stories can be found in the other national parks too. While the Kinder Scout trespassers braved jail for their share of fresh air, today's hikers risk a 5,000 fine if they tramp across the parks.

Melvyn Bragg, Labour peer and a life-long devotee of the Lake District, has argued that foot-and-mouth marks a watershed in the relationship between leisure and livestock in the national park.

The balance shifts

"The balance of the place - the farming and tourism, the providers and those coming to be fed - is being challenged. There is a different view now about what the countryside is for."

Lord Bragg has admitted agriculture remains important to the Lake District's economy, but that it is perhaps "more important as part of tourism".

A closed footpath
Closed paths could mean closed businesses
Since foot-and-mouth hit Cumbria, the tourist industry in and around the lakes has lost 10m every week, a tenth of the total loss for the entire countryside.

Ruth Chambers, of the Council for National Parks, says farming and tourism are indeed interconnected.

"The national parks contain a mixed rural economy. Tourism in them cannot be seen in isolation. They are places which are lived in and worked in."

Many of the 100 million annual visitors to national parks go to experience landscapes indelibly marked by farming, she says.

The farmed landscape

"The national parks have been shaped beneficially by farming. Though admittedly in some places less beneficially so, with things like overgrazing."

Kate Ashbrook, of the Open Spaces Society, says the balance between farming and tourism has still not been achieved in our countryside.

We want open space, and are willing to pay
Subsidies are prompting changes to the rural environment to the detriment of tourism, she says.

"Instead farmers need to be encouraged to maintain the things visitors care about, such as dry-stone walls and hedges," she says.

"There needs to be a re-examination of how we manage the countryside so that the tourism and farming can work together. Farming is still being pushed in the wrong direction."

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