Conflicting advice to schools about foot-and-mouth has fuelled a financial disaster for outdoor centres, reports Phil Revell
AS the foot-and-mouth epidemic ebbs away in most parts of Britain, outdoor education centres are counting the cost. There are more than 1,500 providers ranging from large local authority centres to single freelance operators. Nearly all have seen their income disappear as schools cancelled trips and authorities closed venues.
"We were at the epicentre of the outbreaks," says Stewart Wilson at the Eden Valley Centre near Penrith, Cumbria. "There have been fires burning in fields in the villages around us, it's been like a war zone."
At the beginning of the outbreak, Cumbria County Council instructed schools to cancel trips, and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) advised people not to travel into the countryside. The effect on centres such as Eden Valley was catastrophic.
"It turned the business off like a tap," said Stewart Wilson. Yet Eden Valley has some land and could run a programme of activities in-house. Wilson even invested in an indoor climbing wall and a ropes course - at a cost of several thousand pounds. "Schools still cancelled," he said. "Legally, we would have a case. Our booking form says that people are supposed to have cancellation insurance. But schools haven't taken it out and we can't afford to take people to court. We had a full order book but we've now lost tens of thousands of pounds."
Wilson leases a boathouse from Cumbria council on the picturesque Talkin Tarn. The approach road is metalled, there's a secure fence and no livestock have used the land this year. Yet Cumbria would not allow the centre to use the lake, even though the golf course next door at Brampton is open.
The first foot-and-mouth case was detected just over three months ago. Although 17 new cases have been reported in North Yorkshire this week, the epidemic appears to have passed its peak. At the end of March, more than 50 new cases were being recorded every day. Nearly three million animals have been slaughtered.
At the Arthog outdoor education centre near Barmouth, on the Welsh coast, head of centre Andy Hall estimated his losses over six weeks of inaction to be pound;72,000.
"It's obviously quite difficult for us as we have fixed costs to pay," he said. "There are seven permanent staff and I had booked freelance instructors." Arthog reopened on April 16, and the centre is now running activities using different venues.
At Plas pen Celli, in Mid Wales, Rob Egelstaff has also been badly affected. The Brecon centre is in an infected area and has had to cancel a number of bookings.
"We've been open for 35 years," explains Egelstaff, who employs 20 staff including five teachers. "Our bread and butter is personal development courses for Year 9 and 10 pupils, linked to PSHE in schools. We have been losing pound;5,000-6,000 a week."
Along with oter centre heads, he is angry that conflicting advice about foot and mouth has allowed myths to be perpetuated. Recreational activities in the countryside do not spread the virus, a fact that MAFF acknowledges. Its website concedes that: "There is no veterinary justification for closing all footpaths and preventing all public access to land."
The Department for Education and Employment website has advised schools to go ahead with trips if centres are prepared to take groups. Yet many county councils banned trips from day one, footpaths remain closed, even outside infected areas, and statements by politicians have fuelled the belief that walkers and ramblers are the main source of infection.
Outside the main areas of infection, outdoor education has not been as badly affected. Centres in north and west Scotland are operating almost normally. Some centres on the South Coast have even picked up business. Calshot Activity Centre, near Southampton, had to turn away potential bookings during the epidemic, while Skern Lodge, on the North Devon Coast, has had a mixed experience.
"We've lost and gained," said John Watson at the centre. Activities on Exmoor and Dartmoor have been cancelled and some schools haven't fulfilled bookings, but the centre has picked up bookings from other centres. "We can run activities on site," said Watson. "And we're also using the beach."
Around four million visits a year are made to outdoor education residential centres and turnover is estimated at pound;600 million. Much of that has been lost to foot and mouth and most operators face an uncertain summer, even if there are no more outbreaks.
"The bookings aren't coming in," said Alistair Drummond at Drummond Outdoor, a small family-run business in Shrewsbury. "We would expect business to pick up in May but it hasn't happened."
There is also concern about the long-term effects. "The worry is that the tradition of running a trip will be broken," says Rob Egelstaff. "Schools may well go somewhere else."
Plas Pen Celli is linked to Swindon and Wiltshire LEAs which have been "very supportive", but every cost-cutting drive in local government threatens outdoor education, which is partly financed by the central funds that many politicians want to devolve to schools. "We raise 60 per cent of our income through charges and are subsidised for the remainder," said Egelstaff. "We rely on the support of the authorities."
With footpath restrictions likely to remain in place until the late summer it could be a bleak year for the sector. And, unlike their farming neighbours, MAFF has said there is no hope of compensation.
"We are losing money so agriculture can remain viable in its present form," said one centre head. "How many farmers would give up their income for a few months to help the outdoor pursuits industry?" DFEE guidance for local authorities and schools is available from: www.dfee.gov.ukfootandmouth