HC Deb 27 May 1880 vol 252 cc594-608

in rising to ask leave to introduce a Bill for the better protection of the Occupiers of Land against injury to their crops by Hares and Rabbits, said, he would follow the well-established Rule of the House, by stating briefly the object of the measure on the Motion for its first reading, and by avoiding controversial matter which might be involved in the question. He thought the House would agree with him that the time had arrived when something should be done to protect the occupiers of land against the grievances of which they had so long complained. That those grievances existed no one could doubt, and they had been abundantly proved before the Select Committee of 1872–3, by which recommendations of great importance had been made. Nevertheless, the whole of the last Parliament had passed without any attempt at carrying these regulations into effect, or to deal with the question of game. At all events, a great number of those grievances still remained unredressed. Of course, there was a very large and wide view to be taken of the subject—that was to say, the social aspect of the Game Laws generally, which was, no doubt, a very large question, and would have to be dealt with at a future time. The measure, however, which he was about to ask leave to introduce was of a more limited scope; it did not profess to deal with the Game Laws generally, but merely with game as it affected the relations of the owners and occupiers of land. He thought it would be admitted that the grievance of tenant farmers with reference to game had been long in existence, and had remained without adequate remedy up to that time. They had been brought before the Committee in 1872 at very great length, and the greatest of all grievances unquestionably was stated to be the ravages of ground game upon the crops of the farmer. He had said that the measure did not deal generally with the question of the Game Laws; but it would be seen that if they dealt with the ground game they would be dealing with the greater part of the evil. There had been various remedies proposed for the evils caused by ground game before that time, and it had been suggested that hares and rabbits should be taken out of the category of game altogether. But objections were taken to this, and it was said great disorder would be produced thereby, and that there would be trespassing all over the land which would be equally injurious to both owners and occupiers. Another remedy had also been proposed by a very eminent person (Mr. Clare Read), who came before that Committee and stated in what capacity he appeared. In answer to the question, "Have you been requested to give evidence before this Committee?" he replied— I was requested by the Central Chamber of Agriculture to give evidence before this Committee; the Central Chamber of Agriculture is composed of 99 chambers and branch chambers, and has a total constituency of 18,000 members. The next question was, "Those members are owners and occupiers, are they not?" Answer— Yes; the last resolution on the Game Laws was on the 4th of April, 1871, and it was to this effect—that none of the Bills then before Parliament were sufficient for the purpose of curing the evil of over-preservation of ground game; but that an Act, embodying the principles of the 3rd Clause of Mr. M'Lagan's Bill and the 4th Clause of Mr. Loch's Bill, with some modification of the Law of Trespass, would be satisfactory. He then explained to the Committee what those clauses were by saying— Mr. M'Lagan's Bill was for dropping hares and rabbits out of the game list. The clause of Mr. Loch's Bill was for the joint and inalienable right of the owner and occupier to kill ground game. Such were Mr. Clare Read's proposals. Further on, the Chairman (Mr. Ward Hunt) said— I think we may now proceed to the next point involving the resolution of the Chamber of Agriculture—namely, that the provision in Mr. Loch's Bill should be made law, and that no landlord should have the right to reserve ground game to the exclusion of the tenant killing it. That is the effect of the clause is, it not?—A. I think it is the joint and inalienable right of the owner and occupier of the ground game that the landlord should not part with his right, and that the tenant should not part with his.—Q. I only want to understand your meaning that the 4th Clause of Mr. Loch's Bill should be embodied in a Bill—' It shall be lawful to any person employed by him, having his authority to kill hares and rabbits occupied by him, subject to the provision: it shall be unlawful for any lessor and tenant, after the passing of this Act, by any lease or agreement between them verbally or in writing, or otherwise, to divest such tenant of the power to kill and take hares and rabbits, by this Act conferred upon him, or to restrict him in the exercise of that power; and any lease or agreement entered into, or made in contravention of this section, shall be void, and of no force or effect.' That was the scheme of Mr. Loch's Bill, and of the recommendations of the Chambers of Agriculture, reported as a remedy for the evils in question. That recommendation, however, had not been adopted by the majority of the Committee; but it was supported by Mr. Dent, who was once a Member of the House, and who, he thought, hon. Gentlemen opposite would admit to be one of the highest authorities on the subject. He said— Nearly all the English tenant-farmer witnesses, and many of those from Scotland, were agreed in recommending that such a right as he had referred to should be given by law to the tenant; but he added that— The difficulty of enforcing such statutory provisions is, no doubt, considerable, but by no means insuperable. Against it, he pointed out the natural repugnance to interfere with freedom of contract between landlord and tenant, and the opportunities there would be for evasion. But the Committee, on the other hand, said— Your Committee have already recognized the advantages of such an arrangement when voluntarily entered into, and recommend it as the best means of securing an amicable settlement of the question, in the belief that it would meet the wishes of the class most seriously affected; and recognizing the fact that the Legislature has already interfered by law with freedom of contract, they are of opinion it should be enacted that no contract, lease, or otherwise, by which the tenant undertakes to forbear from the killing of hares and rabbits on the land in his occupation should be valid. Now, that was the principle which the Government were prepared to submit to the House as the proper principle to adopt in dealing with the question of game as between landlord and tenant. That principle was, he believed, perfectly well known to the farmers both of England and Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It was known in a formula which had been long familiar to them, and was the principle of the concurrent inalienable right in the tenant to deal with, ground game—that was to say, hares and rabbits—on the land in his occupation. It was proposed, therefore, in the Bill, to ask that every occupier of the land should, as an incident of and during his occupation, have a right by himself and persons properly employed by him, to destroy ground game on the land, such persons not to be entitled to divest themselves of that right or to delegate it, and to exercise the right concurrently with and not excluding any person entitled to kill such game; that was to say, that if the landlord reserved the right to kill game he should keep it, but concurrently with the tenant, who would also have the right to kill game. It would be a concurrent right, and any contract, written or unwritten, whereby the occupier of land divested himself of such right should be made void in law, proper regard being paid to existing interests. The farmer would not be required, in order to exercise his right, to have a game certificate, and the fines imposed by the Act of William IV. for killing game would not apply. The principle was that the right to destroy animals which preyed upon the crops of the farmer should be inseparably incident to the occupation of the soil. The principle appeared to be a sound one, that where you place a man in occupation of the soil, you should not impose upon him conditions that practically made his occupation barren. It had been held that the presumptive right of game was in the occupier of the soil, and it was presumed that the effect would follow the law in that respect; but, as they all knew, it had not done so. Game had been separated from the occupation and even from the ownership of land and let over the head of the tenant. It was, therefore, plain that some effective measure of protection should be given to the occupier of the soil; and the Government had come to the conclusion which, as he had attempted to show, Mr. Clare Read, on the authority of the Chambers of Agriculture, had recommended as on the whole the best course which could be adopted; further, according to his experience, it was the course which the wisest and best landlords were following. If, therefore, legislation followed the practice of those who most wisely administered their estates, they might be assured that legislation was proceeding in the right direction. With that explanation, he would now ask leave to introduce the Bill.


said, as a Member of the Committee referred to by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he wished to observe that although he had voted against the Resolution alluded to, he felt it his duty at that moment most cordially to support the Bill if it followed the lines which his right hon. and learned Friend had sketched out. At the time the Committee was sitting the scandal connected with the Game Question had arisen mainly from the over-preservation of game, on the part of about a dozen landlords. He remembered that the Committee were of opinion that the evidence laid before them might have some effect upon gentlemen who over-preserved game, and induce them to make a change in the right direction. He believed that the Report of the Committee had gone in that direction, and that the over-preservation of ground game had been very much reduced in subsequent years. But, since that time, they could not shut their eyes to the fact that the occupiers of land had had to contend with a new condition of things; and he himself was quite prepared to give them now a concurrent right with the landlord to destroy ground game. He failed to comprehend exactly the scope of the Bill of his right hon. and learned Friend; but if his right hon. and learned Friend gave to both landlord and tenant that concurrent right to ground game, he would cordially support the proposal; but it was necessary to bear in mind the possibility of the Bill going farther than this. There were evils to be guarded against in the case of the preservation of ground game by tenants as well as by landlords. There was a curious fascination about ground game; for no sooner did a man become entitled to the sole right of killing game, than those animals which all his life he had looked upon as his enemies he now began to regard as his friends. He warned his right hon. and learned Friend and the Government that it was quite possible to have over-preservation of ground game by tenants as well as by landlords. If any men were entitled to speak for the tenant, it was Mr. Clare Read and the hon. Members for Bedfordshire and Forfar, whose claim had always been for the concurrent and inalienable right between the landlord and tenant—a joint right, which they should not part with under any circumstances, to destroy the ground game. He hoped his right hon. and learned Friend would not propose to go further than this; up to that point he would afford him his support, but beyond it he would not follow him one step, because he should thereby be making a very bad bargain for the occupiers of land.


said, that few people would deny that the ravages of ground game were very much diminished during the last few years. In fact, in many cases, the grievance had, to a great extent, cured itself; and in these days of depression in agriculture, places which had been over-run by ground game had been given up, and the landlords had their farms upon their hands. At the same time, no one was likely to oppose a Bill that had for its object the prevention of the ravages of ground game, unless it interfered with the legitimate privileges and rights, not only of the landlord, but of the tenant. He did not altogether understand the effect of the proposed Bill, nor did he think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department had exactly explained his meaning of the word "inalienable." At all events, he (Mr. Chaplin) had not gathered his meaning from the speech of his right hon. and learned Friend, who had spoken of it as a right that neither the landlord nor the tenant were to part with, and he had further defined it as a right of which neither party was to divest himself or delegate to another. He understood that neither landlord nor tenant was to delegate to anyone else the killing of his ground game. If, however, the landlord gave to the tenant the right of shooting all the ground game on land, in parts of the country where hares and rabbits increased very quickly, the tenant, according to the Bill, would have to kill them himself, and could not even hire another person to do so for him. If not, what was the meaning of the phrase? Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman would give the House some further information as to the term "inalienable" which he had used. If the Bill were likely to be useful he promised him no unfair opposition; but, so far from its being effective for the purposes which no doubt he had in view, he was afraid that its effect would be rather to increase than to decrease the number of rabbits and hares.


said, with regard to the principle of the Bill the less said upon that subject the better, as it was quite clear that it was a principle to prevent a man doing what he liked with his own. Still, he was ready to swallow a good deal of principle, if he could get rid of a troublesome subject. He represented a county where there were thousands of acres of land, of which he had no hesitation in saying that it was more valuable for its crop of rabbits than for any other; and it would be necessary to have a clause in the Bill especially dealing with those poor lands where rabbits were the only produce of the soil. He trusted the Government would deal with that matter in a way satisfactory to all parties; and he fully believed that things might reach that stage when landlords and tenants might have a fair amount of shooting and still be protected against the evils of excessive game preservation.


said, he should like to express his satisfaction with the measure which had been introduced by the Government. He understood that the occupiers of land would have a right to kill the ground game, either by their own hands or by those of someone by their authority. That right, he believed, was to be inalienable; and he presumed that the landlord would have a corresponding right. In his opinion, that arrangement would be quite satisfactory to the tenants, and it seemed to him that the Bill met the difficulties of the ease and provided a full remedy. At the same time, he might say that he did not think that anything less than what was proposed would be of any service. Tenant farmers could not entertain the idea of compensation for the ravages of game. It was impossible to compensate them. The Government recognized that this burning question between landlord and tenant, which year by year had been brought before the House, required a settlement, and that some compromise should be arrived at. He thought it would be satisfactory to give the occupier of the land what was only reasonable, the right to protection from excessive damages by hares and rabbits. The course taken by the Government with regard to this measure reminded him of the Factory Act passed through the last Parliament by the late Government. The employers and employed had been for many years divided in opinion as to the length of the hours of work; but a period at last arrived when parties became substantially agreed as to what should be done. The Government then stepped in, and fixed the number of hours to form the working week of the employed. So far as he could learn that Act had been found in his constituency to work satisfactorily, and to be a fair compromise between the employers and the employed. He thought that the proposal now made would be also satisfactory as a compromise between landlords and tenants. The tenant farmer would not object to a fair head of game being kept upon the farm; what he objected to was an excess of game. On behalf of the tenant farmers of Scotland be begged to thank the Government for the Bill which they had introduced, and which he believed would be found to be a most satisfactory measure.


said, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department, in introducing the Bill, had referred to the proposals made by the Committee which considered the subject. So far as his memory served him, he did not think that he voted for the proposal to confer an inalienable right upon the landlord and the tenant jointly. At the time he saw great difficulty in the matter; and he should like to know how the right hon. and learned Gentleman intended to work it out in detail? The manner in which the Committee dealt with this subject was to recommend that the protection given to rabbits by the Game Laws should be withdrawn. That proposal was put to the vote after discussion and carried, and formed part of the Report of the Committee. He might say that that Committee was composed of hon. Members from both political Parties. The late Secretary of State for the Colonies (Sir Michael flicks-Beach) voted with him upon that occasion. He was still of opinion that the way he had indicated was the best method of dealing with ground game. The only exception made was that the same protection was given to rabbits in warrens that they now enjoyed. When kept in warrens, rabbits might be turned to very profitable uses. It was impossible to forget the immense amount of mischief which the rabbit did upon the small class of farms. He was a most destructive little animal, although he could sometimes be turned to very valuable uses. If rabbits could be kept within proper bounds, and be prevented from wandering about destroying gardens and crops, they were very profitable to rear. He should be pleased if the present Government had endeavoured to give effect to that part of the Report of the Committee which dealt with this question. An inalienable right appeared to him to be rather difficult to deal with. The right must be either alienable or inalienable. What was to be done if an unhappy widow occupied a farm and had no relative who could enjoy the sport upon it? And was a landlord under similar circumstances to be in a like position? These were matters of detail, which it would be necessary to consider, and it would be extremely interesting to the House to see how they had been met. If an inalienable right of shooting was given to the occupier it must also be given to the landlord. That was a very serious thing, and if there were no other way out of the difficulty, perhaps it might be justifiable. But another way was suggested by the Committee—namely, by taking the rabbit from the protection of the Game Laws, and he certainly should have been better pleased if the Bill had adopted that suggestion.


said, that in many parts of the country waste land was let to tenants for the purpose of rearing rabbits, which were kept in warrens under proper control. In that case, if he understood the proposal rightly, the Bill would give an inalienable right to the landlord to kill the rabbits, notwithstanding that he might have let the warren to the tenant for the sole purpose of rearing rabbits. If that were so, he did not see how the proposal could be supported. Was it absolutely necessary, where no crops were damaged by the rabbits, to confer an inalienable right of killing the game upon both the landlord and the tenant, or could not some other way be found to meet the difficulties of the case? As it was, the proposal of the Bill would prevent pieces of waste land from being utilized for the purpose of rearing rabbits. That seemed, to him to be one point in the Bill which required very serious consideration. In the case of growing crops, he was glad that rabbits were to be put down; but where there were no crops difficulties ought not to be thrown in the way of rearing rabbits. It often happened that the rabbits which injured crops came from neighbouring premises. He did not see how the Bill would remedy the case where rabbits came from the land of adjoining owners. There were no means of destroying those rabbits where the preserve from which they came belonged to a different owner. He also wished to ask if the Bill was to affect Scotland? He wished particularly to press upon the right hon. and learned Gentleman the case of rabbits upon waste land, and many parts of the sea coast, and in other places where rabbits were now reared to great advantage, as he feared that that would be put a stop to by the Bill.


said, that a Bill had been brought in by the hon. Member for Linlithgowshire (Mr. M'Lagan) for the purpose of dealing with this subject. He did not think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Homo Department could have paid much attention to the Game Laws, for no one seemed to understand exactly what his Bill proposed to do. He understood him to say no measure had been passed during the six years the late Government had been in power. He forgot that the Bill brought in by the hon. Member for Linlithgowshire, being that of a private Member, was carried through with the help of the Government; and in that Bill the tenant farmers were given great facilities for procuring damages where their crops suffered injury from an excess of ground game. It seemed to him that although this Bill might work very well in the case of landlords who had many thousands of acres, yet it would be hard upon the small proprietor, whose right was taken away by the Bill. Very serious questions also arose with reference to the operation of the Game Laws and the principle of freedom of contract. There were many other questions which he thought would be also found to arise. In his opinion, the Bill would not receive that universal assent which seemed to be supposed. He was perfectly satisfied that when the Bill came to be considered, that, anxious as they were to support the right hon. and learned Gentleman so far as they could, yet he must not expect them to be in favour of any measure which was in antagonism to this principle, that every man had a right to do what he wished with his own.


said, that the hon. Member for Mid-Lincolnshire (Mr. Chaplin) had stated that ground game was an evil which was not felt so much as formerly, and which, in fact, was curing itself, and, therefore, legislation was becoming less and less needed. That might be true with respect to some districts; but he could say, from personal experience, that it was very far from being the case in other districts—he might say many other districts. So far as his observation went, ground game still constituted a great and widespread evil. The Bill before the House he thought was satisfactory; but until it was in the hands of Members its details could not well be discussed. As to freedom of contract in relation to game, there would be other opportunities of discussing this branch of the subject. There was no question that the Government had acted wisely in introducing the measure, and limiting the scope of the Bill to ground game, rather than in introducing a more comprehensive measure for reforming the Game Laws at large. He believed that the proposal of the Government would meet with universal favour from the farmers of England and Scotland.


said, that as the sole survivor in the House of those Members who, in former years, had brought in more than once a Bill closely resembling that now proposed, he must congratulate the tenant farmers on finding their case at last taken up by the powerful advocacy of the Government, and on the kindly spirit in which the proposal had been received by the House. He understood the principle of the Bill, as described by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department, to be that occupiers of land were henceforth to have inseparably connected with their right to growing crops the right to protect those crops from ground game. Of course, the difficulty of that arrangement was its interference with freedom of contract. To many hon. Members of the House, and particularly to Members of the Legal Profession, this might seem, at first sight, to be a departure from sound principle. But he thought that it would be found, on looking more closely into the matter, that the proposal did not go beyond the analogy of previous cases where Parliament had limited freedom of contract, and that its practical effect would be to place the relations between landlord and tenant on a better footing. An hon. Member had remarked that the Committee, in 1873, did not recommend this proposal, but one to take rabbits from under the protection of the Game Laws. He did not think that any hon. Member who advocated the present proposal served upon that Committee. His own name was at first placed upon the Committee; but he retired in favour of the late Mr. M'Combie, a far better representative of tenant farmers, but one committed to total abolition of the Game Laws. It was in consequence of there being no one upon the Committee who was in favour of the proposal to give an inalienable right to the tenant to kill ground game that witnesses who came from Perth shire to support that proposal were imperfectly examined, and the Committee made another recommendation. He believed, however, that the present Bill would be more satisfactory to tenant farmers generally, and especially to those of Scotland, where the prevalence of leases for 19 years gave additional importance to the question.


said, that there were some points in the opening statement of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department which were rather ambiguous. He understood him to mean by an inalienable right that the tenant farmer should have a right to protect himself against the ground game on his farm. That right he, for one, was perfectly willing to concede. He also understood that the landlord was to have the power to kill ground game if he liked, and that it was to be equally impossible for the tenant and for the landlord to part with their right to kill the game. He did not understand that any rights were taken away from the landlord, but only that additional rights were given to the tenant. There was another point which was of considerable importance in Scotland. Did the right hon. and learned Gentleman mean to include moorland in the operation of his Bill, or was it to apply only to arable land? It seemed to him that the Bill ought to be confined to agricultural land, for he was satisfied that if they gave the tenants of sheep farms in Scotland the right to kill hares and rabbits there would be very few shootings let, and that would be a very serious thing for Scotland. It was well known, moreover, that the amount of ground game upon a moor was almost nothing at all. That was a point which he thought was well worthy of consideration. He hoped that the Bill to be introduced by the right hon. and learned Gentleman would give some express definition of what he intended by arable land. If these matters were not very carefully dealt with, there would be a tendency in Scotland to do away with sheep farms, and to turn the land into deer forests. He did not want to see such a thing as that happen. He hoped that the grouse moors in Scotland would be protected, and he thought that it could be done without interfering with the principle of the Bill. It was the object of the Bill to protect arable land, and, so far, he gave it his most cordial support. He trusted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman would give his consideration to the points to which he had alluded.


said, the difficulties raised by the hon. Member for Banffshire (Mr. E. W. Duff) were of a very important character. With regard to moor land, he thought it would be desirable that the Bill should provide that where the tenant was authorized to shoot he should not be also authorized to employ any number of persons to kill ground game.


said, the Bill should have his cordial support. He had understood the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Home Secretary to say that the landlord and tenant were to have equal rights, which, he supposed, meant that when the landlord went to shoot birds he might shoot a hare or two as well. If the Bill became law, he thought that neither the landlord nor the tenant would henceforward have any disputes about hares, because the poachers would get them all. As far as the alleged decrease of rabbits was concerned, he believed this might be attributed to the wet weather, and that as soon as they had a hot season there would be as many as ever. He had been a farmer, and had seen a great deal of rabbits; he was now a landlord, and had the greatest difficulty to get the tenants to kill the rabbits, which they did not like doing. Since hares were worth 3s. 6d., it was worth the while of the poachers to kill them, rather than engage in any other employment. But it was not the hares that the farmers in Wales complained of; they would be glad of a few more; it was the rabbits, which, although they were worth but 1s. 3d., cost the farmer at least 5s. each. Every practical man knew that 50 rabbits would spoil an acre of wheat or clover, by eating it before it became strong. He was glad the Government had introduced this measure, which should receive his support.


said, he had not gathered from the speech of the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether it was proposed to extend the provisions of the Bill to Ireland, and should, consequently, be glad to receive information upon that point?


said, he regretted that he had not stated that the Bill was drawn, as was the case, to extend to the whole of the United Kingdom. The proposal, however, was that the occupier should have the right to destroy certain animals destructive to the crops, and that appeared to him to apply to all countries alike. With regard to the question asked by the hon. Member for Banffshire (Mr. R. W. Duff), the subject of moorland was one which required very careful consideration, and should, he thought, be dealt with as an exceptional part of the Bill. As to the position of the landlord under the Bill alluded to by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Magniac), the landlord would, in the case in which he reserved the right to the game on his property, be left in possession of that right as before, the concurrent right of the tenant to deal with the hares and rabbits being alone taken away, so that the landlord would have the winged game as well as the ground game. The hon. Member for Mid-Lincolnshire (Mr. Chaplin) had said he was unable to understand the use that had been made of the word "inalienable;" but be (Sir William Harcourt) had expressed that the tenant might kill game by his authorized servants. It was not intended to give the tenant a sporting right, but only a protecting right, nor was it intended that the tenant should let that right, or make use of it for the sport of his friends. Where the landlord had reserved the right, the tenant was to have adequate means for the protection of his crops, and not the enjoyment of a sporting right, to be handed over to others. He would add that, where landowners had allowed the tenants to have the game, the Government proposed to leave the tenant in the same position as he was before, to deal with the game as he pleased, subject, however, to the restriction that he should not part with the inalienable right of killing hares and rabbits, which would be void in law.

Motion agreed to.

Bill for the better protection of Occupiers of Land against injury to their crops from Hares and Rabbits, ordered to be brought in by Mr. GLADSTONE, Sir WILLIAM HARCOURT, Mr. DODSON, Mr. ATTORNEY GENERAL, Mr. SHAW LEFEVRE, and Mr. ARTHUR PEEL.

Bill presented, and read the first time. [Bill 194.]

Forward to