HC Deb 13 May 1927 vol 206 cc850-65

Order for Second Reading read.

Major McLEAN

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The object of this Bill is to amend the Protection of Animals Act, t911, in a small but not unimportant detail. Section 8 of that Act provides that if any person (b) shall knowingly put or place, or cause or procure any person to put or place, or knowingly be a party to the putting or placing, in or upon any land or building any poison, or any fluid or edible matter (not being sown seed or grain) which has been rendered poisonous, such person shall, upon summary conviction, be liable to a fine not exceeding ten pounds. There is an important proviso to this Section which says: Provided that, in any proceedings under paragraph (b) of this Section, it shall be a defence that the poison was placed by the accused for the purpose of destroying rats, mice or other small vermin, and that he took all reasonable precautions to prevent access thereto of dogs, cats, fowls or other domestic animals. He has to show that he took all reasonable precautions, and that he put down the poison merely for the purpose of destroying rats, mice and other small vermin. It is a principle of legal construction that where you specify one or more articles the general words which follow are somewhat limited by the specific words, and, therefore, from the point of view of construction this provision will probably mean that the accused has only the defence that he put down poison for the purpose of destroying rats, mice and small rodents. It is quite clear that it does not extend to putting down poison for the purpose of destroying insects. Since the Act was passed, only in the last three or four years, it has been found that one of the most effective ways of destroying these insect pests is by putting down diluted poison. In England if a farmer does that he has no defence under this provision, but the position is different in Scotland. In Scotland the Protection of Animals Act was brought in and passed in the year 1912, and it is quite clear that that Act is a second edition and an improvement on the English Act. The corresponding provision in the Scottish Act is: Provided that, in any proceedings under paragraph (b) of this Section, it shall be a defence that the poison was placed by the accused for the purpose of destroying vermin, where such is found to be necessary in the interests of the public health, agriculture, or the preservation of other animals, domestic or wild, or for the purpose of manuring the land, and that he took all reasonable precautions to prevent access thereto of dogs, cats, fowls, and other domestic animals. The object of this Bill is to put exactly that provision into the English Act. It has worked well in Scotland since 1912. It has been well tried, and I think this House will be well advised to put a similar provision into the English Act. Let me say a word as to the meaning of the word "vermin"; whether it would cover the case of insects. I am not going to trouble the House with a number of definitions from various dictionaries, I will take only one, the definition given in Skeats "Etymological Dictionary." It says: Vermin— any small obnoxious insect or animal; little beasts engendered of corruption and filth as lice, fleas, ticks, mice rats. There are two or three different kinds of insect pests with which agriculturists and others are bothered very much at the present time. There are the leather-jacket, the cutworms, and one or two others. The particular remedy that I want to suggest is a remedy for the insect known as the leather-jacket, commonly known as the daddy-long-legs or crane fly. The name is derived from the tough and leathery nature of thy skin of the larva. The daddy-long-legs hatches out during the late summer or early autumn, beginning in June and ending about the end of September or beginning of October. Notwithstanding their name, the "daddies" are of both sexes. One of the first things that happens when a female "daddy" hatches out is that probably within the first 24 hours she lays anything from 300 to 500 eggs distributed all over the place. There is some evidence that later on the female can lay a second batch, and possibly a third of 300 to 500 eggs. These eggs hatch out in about a fortnight's time, and the larva state lasts for anything from nine to ten months, and even longer. The pupal state is very short indeed.

The larva, which is the most important thing, lives on the roots of grasses and cereals, and to some extent on the roots of turnips, carrots and cabbages. The greatest amount of damage is done, especially to cereal crops, at the time when the grain is just germinating. The larva attacks the young roots, and in some cases it even attacks the seed when it is germinating, and, perhaps worst of all, it attacks the oat or corn crop just as it is sprouting out of the ground. The degree of damage done varies enormously. It may be nothing at all or it may mean a loss of two-thirds of a man's crop. In the case of turnips it has been found that the damage done sometimes necessitates the re-sowing of the crops two or three times, which is a very expensive business. The number of larvæ to the acre varies from nothing at all to something over 350,000. If the numbers are less than 50,000 to an acre, the damage is probably almost negligible. It is only when the numbers increase enormously that the damage is really important. As a rule the larvæ during the daytime feed underground on the roots, but they are in the habit of coming to the surface at night. That is the time when, I think, the pest can most successfully be attacked.

A remedy which has been suggested is known as Paris Green, and, as hon. Members know, it is an arsenical compound. It was first used in Canada for the purpose of destroying caterpillars. Three or four years ago the County Instructor in Agriculture in Argyllshire— I think it was Mr. Hunter— tried this remedy for the purpose of destroying leather-jackets. He found it was a success. It was taken up by the West of Scotland Agricultural College, and later by the North of Scotland College of Agriculture. The latter college has published its conclusion only within the last few days. The remedy is applied in this way. You take 1 lb. of Paris Green and mix it with 25 lbs. or 30 lbs. of bran. In order to make the Green adhere to the bran you add one or two gallons of water to it. The addition of a little treacle makes the mixture more palatable to the grubs. That quantity is sufficient to dress a whole acre of land. The effect of it wears off very quickly indeed. The first shower of rain washes most of it into the ground. If you are to get the maximum effect you have to apply it to the land shortly before the grubs come to the surface, at sundown.

I happened to be in Scotland last year and I came across a farmer who had applied this remedy some two years ago to his own crops, which had been very badly attacked by leather-jackets. He found that he had already lost about one-third of his crops, and one dressing of the remedy was applied in the evening. The following morning the grubs were lying in tens of thousands dead on the ground. There is no doubt at all that the experience in Scotland has shown that this is a very successful means of dealing with the grub. The question arises, is there any danger of this remedy hurting other creatures, particularly birds? I asked the farmer whether after his dressing he had seen any sick plover, rooks, starlings or pheasants or any birds that were likely to live on these grubs? He told me that he had seen none at all. He added that the field he dressed was next door to the farmhouse and that his own fowls were feeding on the ground before and after the dressing, and he saw no ill results. His own pigeons also were feeding on the ground. I thought I would get some other evidence, and I sent for the gamekeepers on the land and asked them about their birds, the pheasants and partridges. They said there was no sign of any damage whatever.

This remedy is also applicable to cutworms. Cutworm is the name usually applied to the lame of such moths as the turnip moth. The caterpillars or larvæ do a great deal of damage to root crops generally. It is also hoped to deal on similar lines with the wire-worm, which is a very injurious pest. They will not touch the bran, and, therefore, the remedy must he applied in some other way. Experiments are being made with rape cake as the bait. Remedies are not confined to Paris Green. Other solutions have been suggested, mainly, I think, on the ground that they are cheaper and no more harmful. Baits were made up of one part of sodium fluoride to 30 or 40 of bran, or one part of sodium fluosilicate to 50 parts of bran. All these remedies are illegal now in England, though they are perfectly legal in Scotland, and have been tried and found successful there. At one time the Minister of Agriculture here actually sent out a recommendation to farmers to apply the Paris Green remedy. It was then discovered that the use of it was illegal, and the recommendation was withdrawn. On all sides of the House we attach a great deal of importance to the value of scientific research as a help to agriculture. Here we have a remedy suggested as a result of scientific research, but, owing to the present state of the law, the farmer cannot apply it in England. I submit that it is our business to make that remedy available for all farmers.


I beg to second the Motion.

Farmers have a large number of troubles and disappointments to put up with, and not the least of them is this trouble with insect pests. It will be within the knowledge of Members that at a time when we had to make every effort to increase our food supplies during the War, fields were ploughed up and very often the result of the first year's crop from those newly-broken fields was highly unsatisfactory, owing to the destruction caused by wire-worms. This Bill contemplates for the immediate present rather the leather-jacket and cut-worm. I join with my hon. Friend in the hope that we may also be able to find a remedy for the wire-worm, which probably causes more trouble in England than the other two pests mentioned. Like all insect pests, the degree of intensity varies very much in different seasons. I believe the leather-jacket thrives particularly if it is a wet season, whereas a good deal of strong sunshine is probably a preventive of that particular pest. There are at present no real remedies. There are various measures which can be taken, and which act as palliatives. One may adopt the natural remedy, and leave these insects to their natural enemies, such as the rooks. These birds are very helpful in that respect, and when the Rabbits and Rooks Measure comes up for consideration I, personally, shall listen with interest to hear what the expert evidence is as to the relative advantages and disadvantages of rooks. It may interest hon. Members to know that the pheasant is also a very helpful bird in dealing with some of our insect pests. The plover, which was discussed a good deal within recent weeks, is another valuable ally to the farmer.

Apart from these natural enemies of the insects, something can be done by the farmers, but with only limited effect. If, for instance, grass land is kept short and well-eaten down and well-trodden, it becomes less attractive as a breeding-ground for the insects, and some good may result; but that remedy can only be applied by the farmer in a limited way, and it is only a question of stopping the insects from breeding in one field and pushing them on to an adjoining field. Rolling the land may, in a minor degree, bring about the destruction of insects, hut I think it is more valuable, because packing the surface of the ground, and making it hard also, renders the ground less attractive for the insects. Of course, something can also be done in regard to the varieties of seeds which are used, and we come back again to the question of the nature of the season, over which the farmer can have no control.

It, therefore, seems to me that the remedies which are, to some small extent, in the farmers' hands, are quite inadequate for the purpose of removing these pests, and we ought to give them every assistance by passing a useful Measure such as this to allow the freer use of insecticide in getting rid of these pests. The hon. and gallant Member for South-West Norfolk (Major McLean) has told us about Paris Green. That, I believe, is a particularly effective substance for this purpose, and in his admirable speech the hon. and gallant Member has given details of its success in Canada and Scotland. He does not, however, confine himself to that particular remedy, but suggests others which might be effective. We farmers are constantly being reproached for not using scientific methods. Here is an opportunity for the House, which always shows a practical interest in science, to give its blessing to a proposal which might be extremely helpful, and could be carried out without the danger of poisoning other animals. We are constantly being told of various quack remedies which will produce three blades of grass where one grew before. We know that that is only a flourish of speech, and that even the advocates of such a remedy do not expect so much from it. But the next best thing to increasing your crop is to save the crop you have got. Here is a direction in which, I think, we might very usefully apply these scientific methods. I would emphasise what the Mover has said, that although primarily- directed against leather-packets and cut-worms, this remedy could, by the work of the scientist in the laboratory, be extended in various other useful directions. In particular, I hope that its use can be made general for the destruction of the wire-worm, with which we are particularly troubled in some parts of England. I trust the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.


I beg to move, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words, "upon this day six months."

I move the rejection of this Bill with regret, not only because of its object, but because I am much interested in the next Order on the Paper. I could not, however, allow it to go through without protest, because, in spite of its good object, I consider it to be rather a dangerous Bill. We have been told that it seeks to give more opportunity to the farmer to protect his crops and trees against insects, but the actual terms of the Bill have a much wider scope. The Section of the original Act— the Protection of Animals Act, 1911— which is being replaced by this Bill, says: Any person who shall knowingly put or place or cause or procure any person to put or place, or knowingly be a party to the putting or placing, in or upon any land or building any poison, or any fluid or edible matter (not being sown seed or grain) which has been rendered poisonous, such person shall upon summary conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding ten pounds. This is the important part— Provided that, in any proceedings under paragraph (b) of this section it shall be a defence that the poison was placed by the accused for the purpose of destroying rats, mice, or other small vermin, and that he took all reasonable precautions to prevent access thereto of dogs, cats, fowls or other domestic animals. This Bill says: Provided that, in any proceedings under paragraph (b) of this section, it shall be a defence that the poison was placed by the accused for the purpose of destroying vermin, where such is found to be necessary in the interests of public health, agriculture, or the preservation of other animals, domestic or wild, or for the purpose of manuring the land, and that he took all reasonable precautions to prevent access thereto of dogs, cats, fowls, or other domestic animals. Here it will be noticed there is no guide as to what is meant by the word "vermin," and a great many justifications for the use of poison other than insect-destruction are inserted. I think it will be seen that the Bill as it stands goes very much further than protection against the leather-jacket or the various harmful worms. I am sure every hon. Member has very great sympathy with the difficulties of agriculturists, and would not willingly place any obstacle in their way, such as might seem to be placed by the position I take up, but I see no reason why this Bill should not have contained a quite specific statement as to protection against insects and worms, if that is what the Bill is meant for. There is no reason for the very wide and vague terms which are used. Scotland has been mentioned, but all that has been done in Scotland in connection with this matter is very far short of what this Bill permits to be brought about.

Since the Scottish Act was passed, if we take the point of public health, the Rats and Mice Destruction Act, 1919, has been passed, which deals with the question of vermin from the point of view of public health. Local authorities are very vigorously putting this Act into operation, and it seems to me that the argument that poison should be permitted to be used in the manner directed by this Bill in the interests of public health no longer holds. The fact is that at present "rats and mice and other small animals" gives a certain guide as to what is vermin, which includes rats and any pests of lower grade, but under this Bill we have no guide. We have had it indicated that insects and worm are meant, but everyone realises that the word "vermin" is a very wide term and might be made to cover any kind of animals or birds, and I certainly think that the definition in the existing Act is very much more satisfactory. If it is not so, I have no objection to insects being added to the definition but I have not heard of anyone suffering punishment for destroying insects.

Then we are told the Bill is necessary for the preservation of domestic animals, but surely it is the worst way to attempt to save domestic animals by spreading poison about. It is a real danger to domestic animals, and I cannot see any argument in that connection at all. The only way to save domestic animals from their natural enemies is to have them sufficiently protected at night and to leave cats and dogs free. Wild animals are also mentioned, but what wild animals are intended to be protected by indiscriminate permission to spread poison about? It seems to me that wild birds could quite well be included in the term "vermin," and many other creatures to which farmers might have a particular objection. The way to deal with the question of harmful wild birds is the way which has already been taken by the Legislature, more or less satisfactorily, in the Wild Birds Protection Act, and not by the indiscriminate use of poison as permitted by this Bill. It must be remembered that the balance of nature is very important and is a very serious thing with which to interfere. While I grant that there is a special case against the insects such as have been named, and even for the use of Paris Green, to permit measures against particular birds by individual farmers, is a very undesirable thing and cuts across bird protection legislation. And it has often been found that the destruction of birds supposed to be bad for farmers— it might be considered as vermin— has in the end been to the disadvantage of, agriculturists. The hon. Member who seconded the Bill gave a very good example of that in the fact that we are asked by certain people to assist in the widespread destruction of rooks, although the hon. Member has good evidence that rooks exercise a beneficent part in destroying insects.

It will be found if one goes into the question of pests and their natural enemies, and seeks to step in here and there and adjust to what is supposed to be the proper balance, the results are often disastrous. I do feel, at any rate, that the practice of distributing poison widespread, even through whole fields of manure which would now be made possible, could be very dangerous for wild birds and other animals. The hon. and gallant Member who introduced the Bill said that in the use of Paris Green there had never been any fatalities. That might be, but this Bill does not limit the poison used to Paris Green, and we know that practically all these poisons are arsenical or strychnine poisons, and inflict a very cruel and painful death. Before the Protection of Animals Act was introduced, examples of considerable destruction of wild birds caused by the indiscriminate use of poison were quite well known. While I am very sympathetic with the hon. and gallant Member who introduced this Measure, and while I would even be prepared to co-operate gladly in specific measures against harmful insects, which involved the use of poison, I certainly could not be a party to the amending of an Act which has worked well for 16 years in the direction of permitting the scattering abroad of poisons, which might do damage to wild birds which we are seeking otherwise to protect, and which may also be a danger to domestic and wild animals.

Amendment not Seconded.


I. feel we must congratulate the Governmental party on this latest addition to their agricultural programme. We have had this year, or are to have, rabbits, rooks, and other pests, and now we are to have the daddylong-legs, or, as the Americans very much more felicitously call it, the straddle-bug. It is certainly anomalous that while the English Ministry controls these matters in England and Scotland, the Scottish law should be different from the English in this sphere, and certainly it seems to me that it is only proper that the law should be brought into harmony for this purpose. I agree strongly with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for East Edinburgh (Dr. Shiels) as to the necessity of being extremely cautious in regard to excessive facilities for destroying birds. Those of us who have looked at the exhibits of the Cambridge Agricultural Institute, for instance, at "Royal" shows and so on, have learned how certain birds may be injurious at one time of the year and beneficial at another, or how in the same season they may be injurious or beneficial according to the weather, and it is a highly delicate distinction that has to be drawn between the treatment of birds even at different times.

But I do not see how we can do otherwise than adopt the provisions of this Bill for a particular economic purpose, which is a very important one. Research has been at work on this subject, and has arrived at this valuable remedy. The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture will, perhaps, tell us a little more about research in the English Institute. The Scottish research world seems to have the honour of having been foremost in discovering the benefits of the Paris green method in regard to leather-jackets. I would like to know if this conforms to English experience quite fully. As to the provisions of the Scottish law, and to what the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Edinburgh (Dr. Shiels) has said as to the dangers which might be involved from his point of view, perhaps the Minister of Agriculture will tell us whether those dangers have been realised, or whether the difficulties have arisen. I feel that this is a Departmental Bill in effect. It is a Bill which is of a perfectly non-controversial character in a political sense, and it is based on objective experience. The crops which are affected by the proposal are becoming increasingly important. The cabbage crop is affected, and roots of all kinds, as well as oats, and when we realise that the remedy which will be effected may be of high economic value, and that it can be carried through at as low a price as 6s. an acre, I think we must remove any provisions of the present law which stand in the way of its use. There is only the question remaining as to whether the English daddy-long-legs has the same characteristics and habits as the Scottish one. If he has, then I think the Bill is one which ought to be supported.


On behalf of everybody who is interested in agriculture, I welcome this Bill, and I was very sorry to hear the retrograde speech which was made by the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Dr. Shiels). No greater assistance has been given to medicine than that which has been conferred by the destruction of insects.


May I point out that my objection was that the Bill went far beyond insects? I do not object to its application to insects.

3.0 p.m.


I am glad that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that it is desirable to do everything possible to destroy these pests. May I point out that, under the law as it stands, it is possible to destroy objectionable vermin, like rats and mice, by means which require the use of a much more poisonous substance than would be required for insects? The same protection is included in this Bill as that which now applies in the case of Scotland. No danger or risk has been suffered, through the use of poison for the destruction of rodents, by cats, or dogs, or birds or any other animal. We wish to see this method of dealing with vermin extended to insects. I cannot understand why it should be said, when you are going to lay down poison in the most minute quantities for the destruction of insect pests, that there should be any danger. It has been suggested that this has not been done already in this country. But it has, It has been done by the use of the Paris Green method. It is common knowledge that sulphate of copper is used for the destruction of insects, and there are other poisonous substances used for the spraying of trees. It has been a surprise to me to hear that the use of Paris Green is illegal in this country. The substance that is required for the spraying of fruit trees is poisonous to a small degree; it is so minute that it does not affect bird life, and where it is used in such quantities care is taken that poultry and various animals cannot get at the trees which are sprayed. I have never heard of birds being destroyed by the use of these substances. When I have used sulphate of copper, I have never heard of any bird life or any desirable life suffering by the use of it. This Bill provides for the saving of our crops from destruction by insect pests which in some parts of the country is really serious. I think it would be putting back the clock to reject this Bill, and I have great pleasure in supporting it.


I think agriculture is under a debt of gratitude to the hon. Gentleman who has brought forward this Bill. I think the hon. Member for East Edinburgh (Dr. Shiels) exaggerates its possible effect when he refers to the danger which it may cause to the balance of nature. After all, Scotland has enjoyed the possibility of dealing with this pest of small vermin by means of poison for a good many years past. We have made inquiries from the Scottish Office, and we are assured that no trouble arising from the accidental poisoning of other animals has ever been brought to their notice. If the hon. Gentleman can show that the Bill as drafted goes too far, I am quite prepared on behalf of the Government, and I feel sure the promoter of the Bill is equally ready, to give consideration to any Amendment which will ensure that the Bill does not lead to any accident to other forms of life.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Northern Norfolk (Mr. Buxton) asked whether any experiments had taken place in this country as to the effectiveness of this Paris Green method. He suggested that the method was discovered in Scotland. That I do not know; but I know it has been very extensively used in the United States of America. In this country experiments have gone on for some years. They were conducted in 7921 at the Ministry's Plant Pathological Laboratory at Harpenden; and in 1924– 25, when there was serious destruction of crops by cut worms and leather jackets, the advisory entomologist to University College at Cardiff, Mr. Thompson, carried out some very satisfactory researches in Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire, achieving the destruction of from 80 per cent. to 90 per cent. of the leather jackets found in the ground. At Cannington Agricultural Institute, Somersetshire, experiments carried out at the beginning of the year before last showed that as a result of the application of Paris Green, 60,000 leather jackets were destroyed per acre of infested land. This method has, I think, been proved to be of great possible value to British agriculturists. I was impressed the other day by a statement made by Dr. Marshall, the Director of the Imperial Bureau of Entomology, drawing attention to the curious ignorance on the part of the public here that insects are the greatest rivals to mankind for the control of the natural resources of the world. It is stimated that 10 per cent. of our agricultural output is destroyed by these insect pests, and therefore I am sure the hon. Member who moved the rejection of the Bill will not oppose the application of this method to insects provided it is limited to that purpose.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Last Grinstead (Sir H. Cautley) was puzzled over the fact that sprays are universally used for fruit trees, and that, so far as he had heard, the legality of the practice had never been challenged. I do not know what the explanation may be. Perhaps he does not use his sprays entirely against insect pests. It may be they are partly directed against fungoid pests. I have not looked it up in the dictionary, and I do not know whether fungus is vermin. In any case this limitation only applies to vermin, and I do not think he would propose to apply it to fungus; but I do not feel capable of attempting to advise my hon. Friends on this kind of technicality.


I think under the Act of 1911 we are entitled to use poison against small rodents, not against vermin. That Act does not apply to insects at all; poison is used and is allowed for insects and fungoid of all kinds.


I think it is probable that a great many of us, unwittingly, often break the law. It seems that it is illegal to destroy cockroaches by poisoned bait in our houses. I think it is desirable that that kind of practice should be legalised, and I do not think there is any danger to other animals. I am informed that the dressing with Paris Green and bran which is used in the case of cutworms is so slight that a pheasant would have to eat the bran spread over twelve square yards of ground to suffer any serious effect. I cannot imagine a pheasant would ever exercise sufficient patience to collect bran from such a large area as that. I think this Bill will bring a real economic advantage to the farmer. The lack of legal power for dealing with insect pests has caused the Ministry considerable inconvenience. We prepared a publication some years ago recommending these matters. Our attention was then drawn to the fact that they were probably illegal, and we were bound to withdraw that publication, and wait for an amendment of the law to draw the attention of farmers to these possibilities.


At present the law applies to rats, mice or other small vermin. Surely that would include cockroaches and would it, not also include insects?


There is a rule of law known as ejusdem generis, which means that when that definition is put in it limits the original words to other words ejusdem generis, that is to say of the same kind. If you put in no definition, the provision would have had the widest application, but as rats and mice are mentioned this particular rule would almost be held to limit it to like animals. Cockroaches are not animals. I believe this small Measure will do something to help the farmer to wage a more successful war against some of his most dangerous enemies, and it will have the subsidiary advantage of preventing hon. Members from falling unwittingly into crime by killing the worms on their lawns with arsenic or using Keating's powder for domestic purposes.


I would like to ask if the Minister of Agriculture has been advised by his legal experts that vermin does not include insects.


I think there is no doubt that vermin includes insects.


Very little opposition has been shown to this Bill, but I hope that in Committee it will be made clear that it refers only to those noxious pests which we want to destroy, and does not refer to some of the larger animals as to which some people may be rather anxious when they see the terms of this Bill. I think that, if my right hon. Friend will see to that in Committee, he will find that this Bill is universally approved.

Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time," put, and agreed to.

Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Monday next (16th May).— [Major McLean.]