Kate Hoey: Our children must be given the freedom to discover the joys of Britain's countryside

AS a youngster growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, I spent hours playing in muddy fields and ditches, swimming in flooded rivers and climbing to the top of the tallest trees on our land.

I delivered many little pigs, cuddled tiny calves and chickens and regularly would eat a piece of cake that I dropped on the byre floor or pig pen. I thought back to those carefree days when the Government recently announced that Lord Young would be reviewing health and safety rules.

Thanks goodness – I can hear the cheers all over the country with millions of people sharing my pleasure at this long overdue review.

For too many schools and youth organisations, the fear of health and safety legislation has stopped teachers making wider use of

outdoor learning opportunities. The media clamour that erupts around rare incidents occurring on school trips has created the illusion that these visits are inherently dangerous and that compensation claims are and teacher prosecutions widespread.

Of course, there are accidents and sometimes even a terrible tragic death but children in cities are, unfortunately, victims of

accidents, disease and violence on a daily basis.

Access to exercise and the outdoors will necessarily involve some risk, but so does their journey to school every morning. I have seen the joy on the faces of children from Inner London when they visit the countryside for the first time and interact with farm animals and wildlife.

For some, that visit is a real-life changing experience. It is not just the fresh air and the exercise that is beneficial. It is the confidence they gain from moving out of their safety zones. The risks of outdoor activities must be weighed against those benefits and to do that we must measure the actual risk rather than rely on assumptions.

The Countryside Alliance surveyed more than 1,400 teachers and found that fear of litigation was the biggest barrier to providing children with experiences outside the school gates.

This led to 53 per cent of six to 15-year-olds not going on a visit to the countryside with their school in the previous year. More than three quarters of teachers cited concerns about health and safety as the main barrier to outdoor learning.

No-one could oppose sensible balanced health and safety rules. However, one of the biggest causes of excessive health and safety "culture" is the way these rules have been interpreted and used.

In short, health and safety ends up being used as an excuse for not doing something, a point I have discussed with inspirational teachers who are determined to get their pupils outdoors.

Their view is that outdoor education is as easy or as hard as you make it, but ultimately is about keeping the huge benefits young people gain from it as the focus.

As the English Council for Outdoors Education, Training and Recreation say in their recent publication Nothing Ventured: "A mindset that is solely focused on safety does children and young people no favours. Far from keeping them safe from harm, it can deny them the very experiences that can help them to learn how to handle the challenges that life may throw at them."

Why is it necessary for so much form filling by schools planning a trip? A risk assessment should not have to be a 50-page essay

By simplifying legislation, the Government can remove some of the burdens for the teacher or volunteer who gives up their free time to give children opportunities.

Data from a Freedom of Information request by the Countryside Alliance of 138 local authorities showed that of the 11 councils who responded in Yorkshire over a 10 year period, they had paid out less than 20,000 between them at an average of just 196 a year for each council. So local councils should stop worrying so much about being taken to court.

The report into the e-coli outbreak on an open farm in Surrey stressed the need for cleanliness, but risk can never be removed completely. The inquiry was therefore about minimising risk and taking all reasonable precautions like washing hands. Open farms can never been 100 per cent safe from e-coli, but then again neither can a picnic in the countryside.

The e-coli strain which caused the Surrey outbreak is very hardy

and can survive for months on gates and fences. It can be a devastating disease, but the figures show that the risk of infection is low.

Five million people a year visit open farms and in the course of an

average year there are about 1,000 confirmed cases of e-coli, of which between five and 10 per cent are a result of contact between people

and animals.

Kneejerk reactions like stopping all contact between children with farm animals must be resisted.

The time has come to fight back against the "safe at all costs" culture and bring some common sense to health and safety laws. Lets hope

Lord Young does not play safe with his review.