THE hills are still there, every detail picked out by the early spring sunshine. Crocus blooms add splashes of colour and, from a distance, sheep appear as tufts of white and cream, stuck motionless to the landscape.

The rivers, now back within their banks, look cold and clear, reflecting the pale blue sky.

But, there are few tourists heading for the Yorkshire Dales.

Instead, a pall of dread hangs in the air, as tangible as the smoke from the pyres, built to destroy the livestock touched by foot-and-mouth.

And, as still as a picture, the countryside awaits its fate - paralysed by the disease, but not yet devoured.

North Yorkshire's first case was confirmed last week on a farm in Upper Wensleydale.

The owners, William and Claire Lambert, had to watch their dairy herd and flock of more than 100 sheep burn, on Monday.

Now, they face a month of quarantine, virtual prisoners among the ruins of their livelihood - but they are not the only victims.

Three miles away, the small market town of Hawes is also struggling to survive.

Trade has suddenly dried up and the main street - usually alive with the bustle of everyday life - is so eerily quiet a crying child in the school playground at one end can be heard at the other.

Jackie Smith, who runs the Wensleydale Pantry cafe, didn't even sell a cup of coffee on market day morning on Tuesday.

"We would normally have at least 50 people booked in for Mother's Day. This year, we have none. We can't go on like this for much longer,'' she said.

"It's not just us, but our suppliers. We haven't had to order anything this week as we still have enough stock, so they are losing out as well,'' she said

The Smith family also owns the Spar shop, where tills have been as much as £1,000 down, and clothes shop, Separates, is teetering on the brink of temporary closure.

The Fountains Hotel across the road also confirmed all its advance bookings have been cancelled over the past two or three weeks.

"It is like there is a ticking bomb out in the countryside, but no one knows if it is going to go off.

"Our hands are tied and one of the most difficult things to come to terms with is that no one has any idea when this will all be over,'' said landlord, Angus McCarthy, who estimated the crisis had cost him as much as £6,000 in lost business.

The figure has been much the same for John and Shirley Brayshaw at Daleshead Garage, who say their trade is down by half.

"It is as though we have been marooned up here. Farmers are not leaving their land, and visitors seem to believe roads are closed,'' said Mr Brayshaw.

However, the biggest fear is that Easter will also prove a washout.

After a poor summer in 2000 and the fallout from the petrol crisis, some businesses are already on the edge, and another financial body blow could be the last.

Part-time staff have already been sent home by more than one hotel; if the crisis does not ease, then full-time employees could also be without work.

"We haven't been selling any maps or guide books, and these things are our bread and butter. Our staffing levels will have to change if things don't pick up,'' said Sara Mason of Mason Brothers newsagents.

Perhaps it is to be expected then, that many traders want to emphasise they will remain open for business over the next few crucial weeks, despite of the insidious disease blighting the fields and footpaths.

"Of course, all of us support the farmers and sympathise, but tourists appear to have read the headlines and assumed everywhere is closed. As long as people are responsible, stay on the tarmac and away from agricultural land, there is no reason why they could not visit Hawes,'' said John Dore of the Rock and Gem Shop.

Pat and Kevin White, who run Whites of Wensleydale, also hoped for an upturn in trade.

"People can still walk around the town; it really is a matter of using commonsense,'' said Mrs White.

Richard Allen of grocers, Elijah Allen and Son, has lost an estimated 40 per cent of his business, but was more cautious.

"I think it is better to put up with short-term difficulty if it means a long-term solution.

"In my view, it would not be a good idea to start encouraging people back into the countryside yet, although it is something which should be reviewed every week.''

However, there is a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered rural economy.

Banks appear to have realised they may soon be swamped by appeals for help and Peter Reed, who manages the Hawes branch of Barclays, confirmed head office has instructed regional managers to assure farmers they can expect sympathetic treatment.

Other businesses may have to take the initiative themselves, but they too may be given special dispensation if they can demonstrate their hardships are a direct result of the crisis.

Richmondshire District Council leader, John Blackie - a victim himself as a property letting agent in Hawes - has also urged companies to consider applications for rate relief.

"Anyone who can demonstrate hardship can apply and I would urge them to contact the council for the necessary application forms.