ANGRY farmers last night accused ministers of irresponsibly jumping the gun by trying to reopen the countryside despite the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher said the countryside was not out of bounds, as long as visitors behaved reasonably and stayed away from farm animals.

The move came amid fears that rural businesses were being devastated as tourists cancelled trips to the countryside.

Farmers accused ministers of risking the further spread of the disease, as the number of confirmed outbreaks rose to 268 nationwide, including one in Satley, near Lanchester in County Durham, and one at Hamsterley.

There was also a confirmed case in sheep at Burtersett, in Wensleydale, near the only other North Yorkshire outbreak.

Despite the continued march of the disease, protestors hit out at plans for a mass cull of apparently healthy sheep and pigs in Cumbria and southern Scotland, the worst-hit areas, to stop the virus spreading.

Lobby group Farmers For Action said it was launching a legal battle after the Government announced the mass cull.

"This is all-out war and I don't use those words lightly," said spokesman David Handley, who was also a leader of last year's fuel protests.

One of the group's regional co-ordinators, Andrew Spence, from Leadgate, County Durham, said farmers would barricade themselves in their farms rather than see healthy animals killed.

Police in Penrith, Cumbria, revealed yesterday they had confiscated firearms from a farmer who allegedly threatened officials who came to cull his livestock.

The National Farmers' Union leadership has reluctantly supported the mass slaughter policy.

Mr Meacher admitted there has been confusion over where the public could or could not go, but insisted there were still many places they could visit.

He said: "The countryside is not out of bounds. There are lots of places you can visit and things you can do, but you have to behave responsibly and you must stay away from farm animals and obey all local restrictions.

"The message is clear - people in rural areas want you to visit the countryside and its attractions, so long as you follow the rules."

Mr Meacher added that the Government's task force was urgently reviewing which footpaths could be reopened but insisted it was safe to drive, walk or cycle down tarred roads.

Teesdale farmer Richard Betton, former chairman of the North Riding and County Durham NFU, said: "I think it is a very, very irresponsible statement.

"It is very important that the non-infected areas don't get hit or we could end up wiping out the entire livestock of this country.

"I feel sorry for the tourism industry, but I would rather the general public gave us another week and then we can reassess the situation."

Peter Monkhouse, the Wolsingham haulier whose business was one of the first where foot-and-mouth was diagnosed, said he was horrified by Mr Meacher's comments.

He said: "I think he is an idiot. Does he not know how the disease is spread?"

John Rider, North Riding and County Durham NFU chairman, said: "I think Mr Meacher is jumping the gun."

But there was some support for Mr Meacher. A spokesman for the North York Moors National Park said rights of way and moorland were off limits but villages and towns wanted visitors.

He said: "These places are still open and the businesses still want people to go there."

All English Heritage properties remain open apart from Mount Grace Priory, near Northallerton, Middleham Castle, Stanwick Iron Age fortifications, near Darlington, and Warham Percy mediaeval village, near Malton