HC Deb 12 June 1872 vol 211 cc1646-54

Order for Second Reading read.


said, that this measure was founded on the Sea Birds Act, which Parliament had passed in a former Session, and which had for its object the protection of that peculiar class of wild fowl during the breeding season. Like that, the object of the present measure was to protect certain remaining kinds of wild birds who resorted to this country to breed, and which were rapidly becoming extinct, owing to the inordinate and exterminating persecution to which they were subjected. Not only that, but he also thought that with the increase of feathered visitors which must inevitably arise under the Bill, when they found that persecution no longer awaited them, would be found, along perhaps with some new, the once familiar forms and agreeable songs of some which were now only retained in books or memory as having been once familiar to us. Salesmen and people generally in connection with the provision markets of the country were strongly in favour of the principle of the Bill, from a conviction that its enactments were calculated to improve the food supply of the country. He would also point out that these birds were carefully protected in the United States of America not by any general law of the land, but by individual laws in the States themselves, showing that in each of the States of a very democratically governed country, it had been found desirable and necessary to protect these birds during the breeding season. The same rules prevailed in Holland, and, indeed, he believed in most of the civilized countries of the world. His hon. Friend (Mr. A. Herbert), who had placed an Amendment on the Paper, might be quite right in his views; but they were of far too extensive a character to be grafted on to this measure, which was intended to be a practical one, designed to protect a special group of birds. He moved the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Andrew Johnston.)


said, he should support the Bill, for in his opinion nothing showed a more depraved taste in the way of eating than the desire to eat snipe and wild fowl in the month of April, when they were little more than rancid oil bags, and no more fit for food than venison in the rutting season. Owing to the persecution to which these birds were subjected during the breeding season, the curlew, which was not bad food at table, was scarcely to be found in this country, and what was known as the Norfolk plover had nearly disappeared. The passing of a measure like that under consideration, therefore, would remedy that, and would tend to improve the quality of the food that they ate, and to increase the quantity. However, he was not prepared to go so far as the hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. A. Herbert), in whose name an Amendment stood on the Paper.


said, he was of opinion that the Bill as it stood was a very useful measure, one that he heartily approved of, and hoped its passing would not be imperilled by such a proposal as that of which the hon. Member for Nottingham had given Notice. He moreover regretted that the Bill did not include, certain species of birds which, though not indigenous, might be propagated here—certain species of wild goose such as the Egyptian goose, and others, which might be used for the purposes of food and of ornament.


, in moving as an Amendment to the Motion for the second reading of the Bill—"That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable to provide for the protection of all Wild Birds during the breeding season," said, that he did so in no spirit of hostility to the Bill, although he had no very great enthusiasm for it, for, in his opinion, it smelt too much of the larder. What he regretted, however, was, that instead of giving protection to certain groups of birds, the Bill did not in the first instance include all birds; and then, if it were deemed necessary, to make exceptions, for all those birds were most useful in their habits. There was scarcely a tree or plant which had not its enemies in certain insects or worms. For instance, the apple tree had five or six enemies that attacked it at different stages—those who attacked the bark, those who drew the sap, two who took the bloom, and two more enemies who took the heart of the fruit. He had no time to speak of the injury done by insects to cattle, but he might just touch upon the damage done to the forests of Europe by beetles. In 1783 millions of beetles destroyed a large number of firs in the Hartz Forest. Even in Kensington Gardens some of the finest elms were destroyed by this cause. Then, again, they all knew the ravages that the wire worm committed upon the wheat plant, and it was said that it left its grub behind it, which continued its destructive habits for about five years. There were not only many plants, but even animals which were infested by various descriptions of insects; but at the same time, while there was this army of destruction there was also an army of protection in the shape of the small birds, which had been well called the police or the soldiery of nature. No doubt, these birds had many allies, such as the bat, the mole, the shrew, the hedgehog, and even the little glowworm, but the principal part of the work of destroying these hurtful insects was done by the birds. He asked the House to consider for a moment what a large proportion the migratory or foreign birds bore to those which were native inhabitants of our own country. He believed that there were more swallows or swifts in Great Britain than the whole number of native birds; but he did not ask the House to accept that as an authoritative statement, because it was a mere conjecture of his own. What brought the swallow over to our shores? Some said that it followed the sun, but that was a fable. The real reason that brought over the swallows was the immense quantity of insect life which was here awaiting them at a time when, during the breeding season, they could find none in their own country. The extent to which birds, he might add, fed on insect life was hardly credible. Mr. Ware, whose benevolent views with respect to animals were well known, took the trouble to get up in the middle of the night to count how many times some birds fed their young. He ascertained that the swallow fed its young 36 times within an hour; the redstart, using gooseberry flies, 23 times; and the chaffinch, which principally used green caterpillars for food, 35 times. But there were even more extraordinary instances than these. From careful and accurate observation the same gentleman found that the thrush commenced its daily operations at half-past two o'clock in the morning and worked on until half-past nine in the evening, and during that day of 19 hours it fed its young 206 times. In the case of blackbirds, whose working day lasted for 17 hours and 25 minutes, the young were fed 44 times a-day by the male parent and 59 times by the female parent, and the titmouse fed its young, solely on caterpillars, no less than 475 times in a day of 17 hours. No one, therefore, who knew anything of the habits of these small birds could doubt the valuable service they did to man. There was a large class of birds, such as the swallow, the swift, the marten, the wagtail, the cuckoo, the wryneck, the goat-sucker, the white owl, the shrike, the stone chatterer, and the three warblers, which did nothing but good, though there were other birds with characters of more doubtful description, such as the sparrow, but no bird more frequently fell a victim to prejudice than the sparrow, which really did accomplish a vast amount of good. He had heard a very curious story told by a careful observer of a sparrow's operations, who saw a young sparrow fluttering in a rose bush and beating the bush with its wings. After it had beaten the cover as effectually as a gamekeper could do, the bird dropped to the ground, where it picked up all the caterpillars which it had shaken from the bush. There was another sparrow story which was historical. Frederick the Great, who had a great liking for cherries, observed that sparrows had a fondness for them also, and he (Mr. Herbert) was obliged to admit that they were guilty of, at all events, that irregularity. The King, therefore, put a price upon sparrows' heads, but at the end of two years the consequences were so serious that he not only had to take off this sparrow tax, but he had to go to some expense to import sparrows into the country to supply the deficiency which had been created. The sparrow also did another good service, for in the farm-yard it picked up a great quantity of grain which had been voided, and which if allowed to go on to the land amongst the manure would prove exceedingly troublesome. Then there was the chaffinch, who was a great favourite with Mr. Waterton, who was of opinion that he did a great amount of good. In fact, the only bird which, so far as he knew, was not partly insectivorous, and which did not feed its young on grubs and insects, was the wood pigeon, and mischievous as that bird sometimes proved to be amongst the crops, there was something to be said in its favour, for there could be no doubt that it also destroyed a great quantity of weeds. Just now, a terrible destruction of small birds was going on, and the Baroness Burdett Coutts had recently stated in a letter that she could not even keep a nightingale safe about her, in consequence of the prevalence of netting; indeed, swallows were netted in the same way and placed in cages, in which not one-twentieth part of them could live. A friend of his happened to be fishing the other day a little below Monkey Island, on the Thames, and he saw the bodies of several swallows and swifts which had been shot by some one, floating by him, an act of pure mischief and wantonness which could not be sufficiently reprobated. The formation of sparrow clubs, too, had led to great destruction; and he really did not think that those who formed such clubs could have a fair notion of what they were doing. Indeed, the act of shooting sparrows had been compared by one who knew the value of these small birds, to the act of shooting down our own soldiers at the moment of invasion by an enemy. Those who proposed the formation of sparrow clubs evidently belonged to that class of people who believed that the starling sucked eggs, that the blind worm bit cattle, that the newt spat fire, that the toad spat poison, that the owl hooted to tell a man that he would fall out of his topmost window and break his neck, that the cuckoo in the winter changed its claws and beak and became a hawk, that the hedgehog sucked cows, and a heap of other, monstrosities. Those were the sort of men of whom one read during the Great French War, and who, when they saw trees barked by a particular description of beetle, believed that Napoleon had persuaded our sentinels to do it with their bayonets. The question then arose, should any exceptions be made to the preservation of these birds? He thought not, for a vast amount of good was done by even what were called destructive birds, such as the jackdaw, the jay, the magpie, and the crow, in consuming insects. He believed that both jays and crows had also this virtue—that they destroyed vipers. Certainly, the raven destroyed a large quantity of rats; and the magpie could not be regarded as very dangerous, when in Norway it was received in all the farmhouses and allowed to build its nests under the eaves. To game preservers he would mention the fact, that the late Mr. Waterton encouraged the presence of a large number of birds comprising as many as 119 different varieties, around his place; and his testimony was that nothing seemed to go wrong either in his orchard or in his garden, and that was corroborated by the testimony of Mr. Ellice. He, therefore, thought we ought to give a refuge to birds of every kind, and certainly to those curious ones which were now shot down on their first appearance in England, but which, with a little encouragement, would either breed with us or pay us future visits—he referred to such birds as the golden thrush, the spotted woodpecker, the spoonbill, and others—for by doing so we should endow our parks and the face of the country generally with a greater charm of interest and variety. Moreover, if hawks and other birds of prey did harm, they also did good in the way of purifying the breed of such birds as they attacked; and disease among such birds would have been prevented from spreading if the birds of prey had not been shot down, for just as the titmouse broke off and destroyed those buds which had already been seized upon by insects, so the hawk destroyed those birds which showed the first signs of disease. There was only one other ground upon which he wished to rest this Amendment, and that was the ground of compassion towards those creatures which were so entirely in our power; for the craft of man had increased in a much greater proportion than their resources of defence, and it would be a good thing for us, and have a good effect upon our national character, if we were willing to give up just one little bit of the power we possessed over the life and freedom of this part of surrounding creation. Where anything lay absolutely in our power it was a bad thing for us not to restrict ourselves in the use of that power. No one could have observed birds in the breeding season without noticing the entire devotion which they had for their young, and the courage which that attachment gave them in the face of all enemies—even in the face of man himself. He principally rested his case, therefore, on the ground of right feeling and compassion towards those who, though they had no power of agitating in their own behalf, yet did us good service, and possessed many of the qualities the presence of which we so much respected in men and women. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving the Amendment of which he had given Notice.


, in rising to second the Amendment, said, he could not help expressing his sympathy with the able and interesting speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. Auberon Herbert)—a speech which he thought would do a great deal of good, and would excite more attention to this subject throughout the country. He would draw attention to the fact that in America they had imported English sparrows to destroy the insects which had consumed the leaves of trees in the Parks. In France, where they killed every small bird, everybody must have been struck with the triste and melancholy aspect of the country in early morning. It was really time to have regard for these small birds, and he hoped that the speech of the hon. Member for Nottingham would not be thrown away.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, it is desirable to provide for the protection of all Wild Birds during the breeding season,"—(Mr. Auberon Herbert,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he concurred in much that had fallen from the hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. Auberon Herbert), but he desired to know the meaning of the proviso to the 2nd clause, stating that the clause should not apply where the wild fowl was a young bird unable to fly. In his opinion, it was infinitely more humane to take care of a bird of that kind, than of any other kind of bird. The 5th clause enacted that one moiety of every penalty under the Act should go to the person informing and prosecuting for the same, but, in his opinion, such a provision was calculated to raise an apprehension that informers would endeavour to make a profit by bringing charges which had no foundation in fact.


said, he was afraid that the Amendment of the hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. Auberon Herbert), if carried, would have the effect of defeating the Bill, and therefore he trusted the hon. Member would withdraw it, and propose Amendments in Committee for the purpose of carrying out the object in view, in which to a certain extent he concurred.


said, he thought a case had been made out for the Bill, and as the success of the Amendment of the hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. Auberon Herbert) would endanger the passing of the measure, he hoped it would be withdrawn. He thought the farmer and the gardener had reason to bless these small birds, for the benefit derived from them was infinitely greater than any damage they did.


said, the Government would be able to support the Bill, which proposed to preserve birds which did injury to no one, but the scope of the Amendment was wider than they could accept. It was true that there were many valuable birds which were not included in the Bill; but the Amendment would only have the effect of saving birds which caused a great deal of harm, by preventing the farmer from killing jays and other destructive birds. If there were any legislation with respect to the class of birds alluded to by the hon. Member for Nottingham (Mr. Auberon Herbert), such legislation should be carefully considered and carried out not by Amendment on the present Bill, but by a separate enactment.


said, he would withdraw his Amendment at present, and bring forward the subject again at another stage of the Bill.


said, that it was quite as well that the Amendment was not going to be pressed, for he feared that they were entering on a course of fines and consequent imprisonment, of which it was not easy to see the end. The Bill, as originally proposed, dealt, among other birds, with plovers. The next step would, of course, be to fine anybody who ate plovers' eggs; for, with the view of preserving the birds, it would be absurd to fine persons for shooting plovers, and not fine them for taking and eating the eggs. All these things grew out of one another, and it would not be a pleasant thing to see boys fined or imprisoned for bird-nesting. He confessed that he thought they were entering upon somewhat disagreeable, if not dangerous, legislation. There was an old saying—"De minimis non curat lex," and he apprehended that legislation on such small matters would produce more trouble than good.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read a second time, and committed for Tuesday next.