Scottish Conservative MSPs are urging the public to ‘respect the countryside’ during the Covid-19 pandemic.

With Easter weekend approaching, Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron and Scottish Conservative colleagues have advised the public to stay at home and avoid non-essential trips into the countryside.

A spell of good weather and the upcoming bank holiday Easter weekend has prompted fears that members of the public will flout social distancing rules and the lockdown advice.

Lambing, calving, and other farming activity is taking place right across the Highlands and Islands, and farmers and crofters are asking the public to stay at home in order to avoid unnecessary contact and animal worrying incidents.

The plea from MSPs echoes calls from the National Farmers Union of Scotland and the Countryside Alliance, who have issued similar advice urging the public to think twice about unnecessarily roaming across farmland and through farms.

Mr Cameron said: “Crofting and farming remain very important occupations across the Highlands and Islands. 

“So, when taking the permitted outdoor exercise, we must all remember that the countryside is still a ‘working’ landscape for many local people.

“Please take care, especially at this time of year -  stick to footpaths, and avoid fields where calving and lambing is taking place.

“If we all work together and follow advice, we can also reduce the number of animal worrying incidents which remains an issue across rural Scotland.

“Exercising regularly during the Covid-19 is important for maintaining good physical and mental health, but people should not be accessing areas of the countryside too far from their home, in line with Government advice on non-essential travel.”

Ed Rowlandson, Countryside Alliance said: “Under normal circumstances we’d always encourage people to get outside and explore the countryside.

“However, the official guidelines on containing the spread of this awful virus couldn’t be clearer. We need people to stay at home to save lives.

“For those doing local travel for exercise, please respect the importance of sticking to footpaths and other walkways while maintaining a distance of 2 metres from others.

“If you cannot avoid opening a gate, please be sure to close it behind you and remember to use a sanitiser after doing so.

“If we stick to following these crucial guidelines, we can hopefully avoid having any further restrictions brought in.”

Gemma Cooper, NFU Scotland Head of Policy Team said:  “NFU Scotland encourages the public to get out and enjoy the Scottish countryside and within the current circumstances it is understandable that increased volumes of people will want to make the most of the fresh air and green space that is available close to them.

“However, the impact of increased access-taking in recent weeks has been immediate and acute for many Scottish farmers on the urban fringes and unfortunately, it is clear that many access-takers are not aware of their responsibilities when exercising or walking dogs on farm land.

“NFU Scotland members are reporting problems in substantial numbers, including littering, gates being left open, crop damage, uncontrolled dogs and access to fields of newly lambed ewes and freshly calved cows.

“In addition, there has been a huge increase in farmers reporting the public taking access through (or in) farm steadings and other buildings, with some reports of finding the public in farmhouse gardens.

“It is important for the public to understand that farming activities are food production and these must continue during Covid-19. This Easter, NFU Scotland is asking the public to remind themselves of the Outdoor Access Code and to ensure that their behaviour does not make farming activities any more difficult than it already is in these unprecedented circumstances.”

Sarah-Jane Laing, Chief Executive of Scottish Land & Estates said:“It’s important for good physical and mental wellbeing that people have access to their local countryside during the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, our members who own farmland and estates are contacting us on a daily basis with concerns about the number of people using the countryside with apparent disregard for the health of farm and estate workers and the safety of young calves and lambs and their mothers. Our members are having to erect new signs as a result of this to remind people of their responsibilities.

“Key workers such as farmers working hard to deliver healthy local food should not have to worry about members of the public infringing on their personal space during this crisis. People should ensure they always keep at least two meters away from others. Another huge concern is people taking dogs into fields with young livestock – this should be avoided. If the farm animals become distressed, or a young lamb is mauled by a dog, this can have a devastating impact on the mother, young animal and the farmer.

“We want everyone – the public, farm and estate workers and animals to be able to enjoy our beautiful local countryside during the pandemic, but people need to understand the importance of keeping their dogs on a lead around farm animals, never going into  fields with young calves or lambs in and giving a wide berth to our hardworking key workers.”

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, Rhoda Grant, reiterated messages from front-line NHS staff for people not to travel to the region during the Easter break, backing the UK and Scottish Government’s health messages during the Cornonavirus crisis.

“Anyone tempted to travel to the Highlands and Islands over Easter, please, please don’t,” said Mrs Grant.

“We have limited resources in our region and you will be putting people at great risk. Please stay at home and only go out for permitted purposes.

“If you think you can sneak in under the radar, I can assure you that our communities are on high alert at the moment for anyone breaking the rules.

“It is hard for families and friends who would normally meet up, but these measures are necessary, especially to protect the elderly and for the most vulnerable.”

If media do substantiate cases where rules have been broken Mrs Grant added: “No-one can be ignorant of the advice not to travel and this just puts communities at risk. I hope that the police will take strong measures to make sure that people breaking the lockdown go home and stay safe in their own areas.”