HC Deb 07 March 1825 vol 12 cc950-7
Mr. Stuart Wortley

rose, to move the second reading of this bill. In legislating upon this subject, it was, he said, proper to consider whether parliament could not give protection to the amusements of country gentlemen, without doing injustice to the community at large. The evils which resulted from the present system were many; but the most important was the great increase of poaching, which—such was the effect of the existing laws—was not looked upon as a moral offence by scarcely any portion of the community. How was that evil to be diminished? Severe laws, he was convinced, would be of no avail. It was necessary to generate a different feeling amongst the body of the people. That, then, should be his first object; and the next the opening of the market for the sale of game, and thereby destroying the monopoly which the poachers at present enjoyed. The existing system of qualifi- cation to kill game was most absurd. To be qualified to kill game, a man must have an estate of in heritance, in his own or his wife's right, of the yearly value of 100l, or an estate for the term of ninety years, of the annual value of 150l. Those were the two principal qualifications: but, there was another curious mode of qualification, derived, not from any thing belonging to the person himself, but from the accident of birth. The eldest sons only of esquires, and persons of higher rank, were allowed the privilege of shooting. He proposed to remove all qualifications, the only effect of which was, to engender ill blood, and to give to every person who held land a property in the game which was on it, and a power to prevent any person from destroying it. He apprehended there would be no more difficulty in making game property, than fish in a river which ran through several estates. He certainly did not propose to make the taking of game a felony; but, there were many articles well protected by the laws, which it was not a felony to steal. He did not believe that the change in the law which he projected would increase the number of shooters. If the bill should pass, it would be necessary for an individual, after taking out a licence—he must go to the expense of that—to have the means of shooting. Under the existing system, many persons went out to kill game, who had no right to do so, and took the chance of being found out. When it was considered, that, according to the provisions of his bill, a person who went out to shoot must first purchase a certificate, and would in the next place be liable, if he were found shooting on another person's land without his consent, to be taken before a magistrate, he thought there was ground for presuming that the number of shooters would be much diminished. The great objection which was urged against the bill last year was, that it would have the effect of destroying fox-hunting—that was to say, that farmers and other small landholders, having property in the game on their land, would find it their interest to kill the foxes. But, when it was recollected, that foxes were generally to be found only in great woods and preserves, where they might be protected by those who thought it worth their while to preserve them, he did not think that that objection was entitled to much weight. He should, indeed, be sorry to do any thing to the prejudice of fox-hunting, which he considered a most manly and truly English sport. Another objection to the bill was, that it would render game so common in the market, that country gentlemen would soon give up all idea of sporting. He did not believe that. For his own part, be could say, that he did not feel less pleasure in shooting woodcock or wild fowl, or catching a fish, because he could buy such animals in the next town. After declaring, that all the objections made to the bill were quite threadbare, he concluded by moving the second reading of it.

Sir J. Brydges

said, that the present bill, as it seemed to him, instead of checking poaching, would go to encourage it. All that the poacher wanted was a free vent for his plunder, which this measure of the hon. member for Yorkshire went precisely to afford him. He was decidedly opposed to the bill, as far as regarded its effect upon the preservation of game; and not the less so, because it added a new felony to the Statute-book, in making night poaching a transportable offence. Under these circumstances, he should move, "that the bill be read a second time this day six months."

Mr. Lockhart

was surprised how any one could think that the measure before the House was calculated for the preservation of game. The effect of the bill would be, by making every land-owner a legal dealer in game, to render the small farmer's house a constant resort for poachers, and the man himself an agent for the sale of their commodity. He should have no objection to support a proposition for extending the existing scheme of qualification; but, for the bill of the hon. member, he thought it would create more crime than it would prevent. With respect to the right of preserving game, he thought it quite unreasonable that gentlemen should be asked to resign any right or property, purely because there existed, on the part of some persons, a disposition to violate or destroy it. He should certainly support the amendment.

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, it was his intention to vote for the proposition of his hon. friend, the member for Yorkshire. When he looked to the antiquity of the game laws, and considered the great changes which had taken place with reference to that species of property, he could not but entertain a strong suspicion, that those laws required alteration. He conceived that there was no one circumstance which tended to call for that alteration so strongly, as the conduct of the game-preservers themselves. The mode of sporting, and the way in which game was preserved, were entirely changed within the last thirty or forty years. Almost every plantation in the country was converted into a preserve for game. Gentlemen were not now contented with sporting in the manner in which their ancestors sported. It was now a common occurrence for a single party to kill three or four hundred head of game a day. He had himself seen in a single larder a thousand pheasants, which were the produce of only three days shooting. What was the consequence of this change which had taken place in this mode of sporting? The increase of preserves, and the immense accumulation of game, had produced a corresponding change in the habits of the people. Almost every body of a certain rank in life now partook of game. In fact, it was considered a very unfashionable thing not to have a certain quantity of game at one's table. It was true, there was no legal vent for this enormous accumulation of game; but game, nevertheless, found its way among every class of society in the kingdom, which had any pretensions to elegance or conviviality. You might restrain the sale of game by legal enactments as much as you pleased, but it was idle to talk of preventing people from having game at their tables. Legally or illegally, people who could afford to buy game, would have it. It was impossible to deprive the 3 per cents consols of the luxury of eating pheasants. The interest of the game-preservers themselves called imperatively for some attempt to ameliorate the present system. It was not necessary at present to enter into the details of this bill; but he thought his hon. friend had stated quite sufficient grounds for its being read a second time. Whether it would be expedient to make game property or not, was a question which would be better discussed on a future occasion; but he thought no reasonable objection could be made to the proposition for giving to every individual the right of sporting on his own land, and of allowing others to do so, and afterwards of selling the game, if he thought fit. He would put it to hon. gentlemen, whether it was just, that any individual should have the right of preserving game, when, by so doing, the crop of his unqualified neighbour might be destroyed? He was persuaded that the effect of the proposed alteration would be, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, to lead to a just compromise between the rich proprietor and his poor neighbour. The owner of two or three acres would gladly forego the right of sporting on his land, if his rich neighbour would give him a reasonable consideration for the waiver of his privilege. The way in which game was preserved furnished another, and a very good reason, for altering the existing system. Game was preserved in this country by an armed force, for it was, strictly, an armed force. He him-self preserved his game in what was considered the mildest manner. And, what was that manner? Why, he kept five or six keepers, with twenty or thirty attendants, who were subject to be called out, in case of any attack on the keepers, and, if necessary, to repel force by force. This was surely a most unsatisfactory mode of preserving any species of property; and necessarily introduced a great deal of ill blood between the game-preserver and the inhabitants of the district in which he resided.—Another mode of preserving game was by setting spring-guns. This showed, that, under the existing law, there was no safe or satisfactory mode of preserving a species of property, which could be maintained only by armed force, or by weapons, which might destroy the life of a human being; which life we had no right to take away. Looking, therefore, to the immense changes which had taken place in society, and especially with respect to this peculiar species of property, he thought it impossible for any man to contend, that the present system of the game laws was a satisfactory one; or that there did not exist the strongest reason for allowing this bill to be read a second time. There could be no doubt also, that an alteration was required in the law of qualifications. Under the existing system, the second and third sons of a qualified person might be violating the game laws at the very moment that he was enforcing them against others. But, even supposing the law of qualifications were so altered as to entitle gentlemen of the learned and liberal professions to kill game, it would be necessary to make an alteration in the landed qualifications for killing game. The law, with respect to qualifications, had been placed on a rational footing in Scotland; and in no country had game increased so much as in the lowlands of Scotland. There every individual possessing a ploughgate of land, or about thirty or forty acres, was allowed to kill game on his own property, and to qualify other persons to kill game on his own property.—He, however, would not disguise his opinion, that the provisions of the bill proposed by his hon. friend would not answer all the expectations of those who supported it. He did not think that any alteration which could be made in the game Jaws, would entirely put a stop to poaching. The poacher was actuated by two motives—the love of sporting, and the love of gain. The first of these motives would remain untouched, whatever law might be enacted; but the Jove of gain must be naturally interfered with by a bill which should legalize the sale of game, and enable a gentleman possessing a thousand pheasants, as in the case he had alluded to, to compete with the poacher in the market. The present state of the law offered strong and irresistible temptation to the poacher? Suppose the sale of grapes or pine-apples were prohibited in this country by legislative enactment; would not the effect of such a Jaw obviously be to tempt gardeners and servants to act dishonestly? What reasonable objection could there be to putting hares on the same footing as rabbits. He really could not account for the process of reasoning, by which a gentleman felt himself at liberty to sell a rabbit, while he hesitated to sell a hare. He himself had not the least scruple in disposing of his rabbits for a reasonable price; as all the gentlemen in his neighbourhood did. If the law enabled gentlemen to sell their hares in the same manner, he saw no distinction between the two quadrupeds, which ought to raise any insurmountable difficulty. When he was told, that the proposed alteration in the game laws would deprive gentlemen of the pleasure of sporting, he begged to recal to their recollection what the fact was with respect to woodcocks. No species of game was pursued with greater avidity, and yet woodcocks were sold every day in the week in Leadenhall-market. An hon. member had said, that this was matter of so much importance, that he (Mr. P.), ought originally to have taken it up. The fact was, that when he first came into office, he found the subject of the game laws in the hands of an hon. member, now lord Salisbury; it had been subsequently taken up by his hon. friend, the member for Yorkshire, who had be- stowed upon it a persevering attention' which entitled him to the highest credit He had given his hon. friend every assistance in his power, and he should support his proposition, because he thought the best measure that could be adopted, even with a view to the interest of the game-preservers themselves, was, to give to game the same sanction which was given to every other species of property. If the House should follow the course they did last session, and reject his hon. friend's bill, he should probably feel it his duty to submit to the House a proposition, which, without altering the law as to qualification, might legalize, for two or three years, the sale of game. He should propose such a measure, not certainly with any view to maintain the privileges of the game-preserver, but for the sake of the public interests; for if they could not obtain all the good proposed by his hon. friend, the most prudent course would be to take as much as they could get.

Mr. John Douglas

opposed the bill, as tending to destroy all the game in the country. If people were allowed to purchase game openly, they would eat so much of it, that there would soon be none left. Eating game would become a custom; and people would look for their pheasant on the 1st of October, as regularly as they did for their goose on Michaelmas day. If foxes and other game were destroyed, country gentlemen would look to other sports, and would, very probably, dissipate their time and their money in those graves of property which were kept up in St, James's street.

Sir J. Yorke

said, it must be evident, that the present restrictive laws on the sale of game did not prevent its being supplied in the largest quantities in the metropolis. It was proved before the committee up stairs, that two poulterers had said they could furnish the whole House of Commons twice a-week with two head of game for each member; and one of them added, that on one occasion, he had actually thrown a thousand head of partridges into the Thames, not being able to obtain a sale for them.

Mr. W. Peel

opposed the bill, on the ground that much evil would arise from legalizing the sale of game. The proposed alteration of the game laws would, in his opinion, interfere with the recreations of the country gentlemen.

Sir J. Sebright

said, that the law, as it stood, was extremely objectionable, since it operated to prevent men from doing what they pleased with their own property. Some gentlemen seemed to have great prejudices against any innovation on the game laws, because they looked upon the present state of things as perfectly natural, A friend of his, who had paid a visit to the continent, said to him on one occasion, "Could you believe it, sir John, they sell game in the streets abroad just like any other commodity?" Upon his asking him what he found extraordinary in that, "Oh," said his friend, "can you conceive any thing more unnatural?" Prejudices of this kind were not uncommon in that House. They had heard, a short time ago, gentlemen opposing the repeal of the usury laws, before they considered that 5 per cent was the "natural" interest of money; and they had also heard hon. members opposing Catholic emancipation, because, forsooth, Protestants were "naturally" opposed to the claims of the Catholics. These were prejudices of habit, and ought to be got rid of. He would support the bill, because it tended to put an end to poaching.

Sir Alexander Don

expressed his assent to the measure.

Mr. Pelham

concurred in the propriety of passing the bill.

Mr. J. Martin

said, he considered the bill in its present state exceedingly objectionable, but he should vote for the second reading, in the hope that the alterations which he required might be effected in the committee. Should this end not be attained, he should oppose the third reading.

Mr. James

thought, that the only just mode of legislating on the subject of the game laws was, to make game the property of those who had been at the expense of rearing it. He should, therefore, support the motion.

The House divided: For the second reading 82. Against it 26. Majority 56.