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After foot and mouth

Hostels and farmers need to win back the school custom they have lost. Joel Wolchover reports.

The countryside is open again after the foot and mouth crisis. But many hostels, farms and study centres suffered heavy losses.

The Youth Hostels Association (YHA) provides accommodation for 100,000 groups of children and teachers each year. It was badly affected by the foot and mouth outbreak, losing an estimated pound;5 million.

Some hostels were marooned in the middle of farmland where restrictions were in force. Schools cancelled bookings at others in the misguided belief that visiting would do more harm than good.

Staff who would normally be running hostels have been travelling instead to cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield. There they spread the message that school groups and other tourists will be welcomed back to the countryside.

Dave Allison, director of the association's groups division, fears that if bookings do not return to normal levels up to a dozen hostels - 5 per cent of the total - may have to be sold to help pay the association's debts.

He said: "Teachers are very valuable to an organisation like ours. School parties account for 35 per cent of our total business. If we were to lose school parties altogether the majority of youth hostels in this country would close.

"At the beginning of the foot and mouth outbreak a lot of education authorities rushed out advice within the first few days and weeks that all school visits to the countryside should be cancelled. I believe that a lot of the information they were given could be challenged if we were to face a similar crisis in the future.

"Many farmers are still wary that footpaths across their land have been opened again. But there have not been any reported cases of people spreading the disease. They have all been traced to the movement of livestock.

"The message now has to be that the countryside is open and schools will be welcomed back with open arms."

At Hazel Brow Farm in Swaledale, North Yorkshire, school visits account for a quarter of the farm's income, but had to be completely cancelled last year.

Catherine Calvert, who runs the visitors' centre, has had to lay off four part-time staff. She said attracting schools back this year would be crucial. "Everyone has been very optimistic, saying that schools and teachers have had a year when they cannot come to the countryside and they will be desperate to get back.

"You cross your fingers and hope they will return. But they may have switched to town or seaside activities, which would be a disaster for the Dales."

Sue and Terry Prince own Beechenhill Farm in the Peak District National Park. They have run school visits for the past 17 years, giving groups from inner-London and other urban areas what is often their first taste of country life.

The school trips were suspended for much of last year. Now all restrictions have been lifted, they still find that some schools are reluctant to make bookings.

Mrs Prince, 45, explained: "Some people still believe they are not allowed in the countryside. Others are worried that they will either get a hostile reception from farmers or they will see unpleasant things like burning pyres of cattle."

During the lull brought about by the crisis, Mrs Prince wrote a book for school parties and built a website to help children who had visited in the past to keep in touch with the farm.

She said: "I see it as our duty as farmers to open our gates to show people what goes on in the countryside. By the nature of our work we are isolated, so how can we expect the population to understand what we are doing if we don't try to explain it to them?" ContactThe Youth Hostels Association. Tel: 0870 870 8808. Web: www.yha.org.ukHazel Brow Farm. Tel: 01748 886 224. Web: www.hazelbrow.co.uk Beechenhill Farm. Tel: 01335 310274. Web: www.beechenhill.co.uk

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