FARMING leaders across the region have called for members of the public to observe social distancing rules while out in the countryside.

The South West NFU says while many outdoors areas are effectively closed during the lockdown, its members have been reporting more people than usual out and about on footpaths and public rights of way,

Whilst exercise is permitted once a day, Government officials have stressed you should observe the spirit of the regulations and exercise close to home.

NFU South West regional director Melanie Squires said: “We all recognise the benefits of getting out and enjoying the countryside which our farmers look after and maintain, especially at a difficult time when people need to take extra care to maintain their physical and mental health, but it’s vital we all keep to the rules.

“The health of those living and working in the countryside also has to be safeguarded to ensure that safe, local, high-standard British food keeps coming, and walkers need to be aware of their role in protecting rural people and their livelihoods.

"It is also a busy time in the farming calendar with plenty of young lambs and calves around and we ask dog owners to take extra precautions when walking through farmland."

Many countryside pathways run close to farm buildings and livestock and there are concerns that walkers ignoring the rules could unintentionally pass on the potentially deadly coronavirus to farmers, some of whom may be in one of the ‘at risk’ groups or self-isolating.

People not sticking to paths has already led to valuable grass and crops – used for animal feed or harvested later in the year – being trampled, says the NFU.

The South West NFU is urging anyone using public rights of way to maintain social distancing of at least two metres from other people, to follow the countryside code, keep dogs on leads near livestock and pick up any mess, which can be a health hazard for farm animals.

In consultation with Defra, the NFU has issued templates for signage that can direct walkers to a clearly marked temporary route where necessary and reminds them to take care.

Melanie said: “We hope the new guidance from Defra will help keep farmers safe, and we continue to ask the public to heed the social distancing guidelines, follow the countryside code and use the rights of way network responsibly as we all work to overcome this crisis.”