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Foot-and-mouth disease detours walkers

There will be no rambling across the British countryside for a while as authorities struggle to contain the livestock disease.

After foot-and-mouth disease was discovered on a farm east of London in February, the scourge rampaged across parts of the United Kingdom and, as the alarms sounded, drastic measures were imposed by European governments to prevent its spread across the Continent and the Irish Republic.

But the impact may spread much farther, affecting not only Europeans but many Americans, too.

Walking holidays are often part of the itinerary for Americans seeking a bucolic ramble through England's Cotswolds, Cornwall or Lake District. All of those are among the many places where country pursuits are either off-limits or severely restricted because of the disease, and no one can forecast when the situation will change.

That might have been expected to provoke a spate of cancellations and revised vacation plans. Yet Americans who had booked walking tours seemed surprisingly sanguine about the outbreak, according to tour operators.

"The only way this affects us at this point is that we have guests who are concerned," said Deb Eckert at Country Walkers in Waterbury, Vt. (http://www.country walkers.com), which sends up to 400 Americans a year on walking tours in Britain.

"Most of our U.K. tours aren't getting started until June, so we are playing the wait-and-see game. We haven't had any guest cancellations. We've had one or two inquiries about alternatives."

That laid-back approach is the opposite of the reaction in Britain, where there is something approaching a national panic.

Essentially, the problem lies in the highly contagious nature of foot-and-mouth disease, an illness that produces blisters in the mouths and on the hooves of animals such as sheep, goats, cows and deer. Only rarely is the disease transmitted to humans, and it is not usually fatal among animals.

But it can be transmitted on the clothes or shoes of people who have been near animals, on the tires of cars driving near infected animals, and even on the wind. For infected animals, the only outcome is incineration.

Though Britain's livestock farmers, still reeling from the effects of mad cow disease, have been the most affected, scarcely a single Briton who likes the outdoors has escaped the epidemic's consequences.

The footpaths and open moorland of all 11 of Britain's national parks, including such favored destinations as the Lake District and Snowdonia in Wales, have been closed, according to the Ramblers Association, a non-profit organization whose Web site (http://www.

ramblers.org.uk) chronicles the restrictions.

British Waterways, which runs a network of canals, has put its tow paths out of bounds. The Royal Parks, like London's Richmond Park home to a large herd of deer, are also closed. And the Forestry Commission has turned woods and forests into no-go areas. The ancient site of Stonehenge has been declared off-limits.

The messages from the Republic of Ireland, where no confirmed case had been reported through Wednesday, are mixed.

Travelers posting messages on the Web site of guidebook author Patricia Tunison Preston (http://www.irelandexpert.com) report no problems visiting most common sites or driving about the country. But at least one company specializing in tours to Ireland is offering is customers full refunds.

And Brian Roberts, who operates a small hotel about 17 miles from Kilkenny, in southeast Ireland, said on Wednesday:

"Our business has been crippled for the past two weeks. Almost all heritage centers are currently closed, even Kilkenny Castle, all sport is canceled, all St. Paddy's Day parades are gone.

"On the other hand, the (ancient) Canices Cathedral in Kilkenny is open, and walking tours of the city are available. Waterford Crystal (a traditional tourist stop) is open."

Only in Scotland, where outbreaks have been limited to the Dumfries and Galloway area, said Louise Barton of the Salmon and Trout Association, are some fisheries open for the lucrative spring salmon run. "There's no fishing anywhere in England and Wales," she said.

Elsewhere, foot-and-mouth disease has achieved in weeks what years of protests and demonstrations could not: Hunting has been banned. And such prestigious equestrian events as the Cheltenham Gold Cup steeplechase this month and the Badminton Horse Trials in May have been postponed or canceled.

The disease, which broke out Feb. 20, takes two weeks to incubate; by Monday, almost 170 cases had been confirmed, and it was still spreading. It is not clear how long countryside trails will remain off-limits.

Jim Scudamore, the British government's chief veterinary officer, is not optimistic: "This outbreak is going to last for a long time."

Times Travel Editor Robert N. Jenkins contributed to this report.

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