Industry leaders are working with Defra to address fears that people using footpaths through farms could spread coronavirus – and jeopardise the health of nation’s food producers.
The closure of public parks and playgrounds to help combat the virus has seen an influx of people using rights of way in the countryside for exercise.
The number of walkers has swelled further due to school closures and more people working from home.
Many farmers have reported more walkers than usual using public footpaths, including in less popular areas not usually visited by tourists.
The situation is expected to get worse as the spring weather gets warmer and evenings get lighter.
The NFU voiced particular concern for older growers and livestock producers who are particularly at risk from the virus.
The average age of farmers is said to be 58 and many are older than that – including those over 70 who are trying to self-isolate.
NFU access adviser Mhari Barnes said: “We recognise the importance of the public rights of way network for maintaining physical and mental health, but the health of those living and working in the countryside has to be safeguarded as well.
“We would hope that the public will heed the social distancing guidelines and use the rights of way network responsibly for essential travel and exercise, but will explore other options, if necessary, to protect the health and wellbeing of our farmer members.”
Concerned farmers should contact their local rights of way officer for further advice, said Ms Barnes.
But some local authorities and other bodies responsible for rights of way have already taken action to reduce the number of walkers.
In Cumbria, the Lake District National Park Authority said it was urging people to avoid travel and remain at home in a plea to help protect farmers and other members of rural communities during the coronavirus pandemic.
Park authority chief executive Richard Leafe said people should not visit the Lake District.
He said: “Please remember the limited resources that support our local communities, businesses, farmers, police and rescue services are all under pressure at the moment.”
He added: “I never thought I’d encourage people to stay away from the Lake District.
“However, our footpaths often go through the homes of farmers and their families, our hotels and attractions are closing and our rescue services must be available to support this public health crisis.”
Defra did not respond to a Farmers Weekly request for a comment.