HC Deb 12 April 1932 vol 264 cc786-94
The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Major Sir Archibald Sinclair)

I beg to move, in page 1, line 23, to leave out Sub-section (2), and to insert instead thereof the words: (2) No Order made under this Section shall make lawful during any part of the period specified in Sub-section (1) the killing of grey seals except—

  1. (a) by persons holding permits for the purpose granted by the Minister or the Secretary of State; and
  2. (b) in such manner and by means of such weapon or instrument as may be specified in the Order."
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and myself have given very serious consideration to the opinions which were expressed in the Debate during the Committee stage. Some apprehensions were then felt by various hon. Members, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnstaple (Sir B. Peto) with regard to the methods of slaughter which might be employed if the slaughter of seals was to be permitted by order issued under this Bill. There are provisions in the Bill as it stands, but some hon. Members seemed to doubt whether they were adequate, and we were most anxious to meet their views in order that there should be no question at all on the matter. Therefore, if the House accepts this Amendment it will ensure that if an Order is made allowing grey seals to be killed it will only be made in favour of persons holding permits granted by the Minister of Agriculture or the Secretary of State for Scotland, and the manner in which grey seals are to be killed and the weapons which may be used will be specified. This will give those who are interested in this species the knowledge that only humane methods will be used for the purposes of slaughter.


I desire to thank the right hon. Gentleman most sincerely for moving the Amendment. The words in the Bill left it open, if an Order was made by his Department or the Ministry of Agriculture for the slaughter of grey seals, for any person to slaughter grey seals and their young in the breeding season, provided that they used the weapons and the means prescribed by either of the two Ministries. It is quite obvious that if a general slaughter were authorised an inspection of the weapons would be impossible, and to confine the slaughter, as the Amendment does, to persons who are licensed by one or other of the Departments of State, and who are to use weapons prescribed by the Departments, will afford immense gratification to that large section of the public which takes a special interest in questions relating to what are known as the lower orders of creation. I have always had grave doubts about that phrase in dealing with animals of this kind. It is really inappropriate. At any rate, under the Amendment if an Order is justified in any case it is limited in its execution to the persons specially licensed to carry it out, and in that respect it is an immense improvement on the Bill and am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the alteration.

Amendment agreed to.


I beg to move, in page 2, line 5, at the end, to insert the words: (3) It shall not be competent to make any Order under this Section applying to the islands of Haskeir Mor and Haskeir Beig, in the Outer Hebrides, or to any place within three miles of any part of these islands, other than an Order extending the period specified in Sub-section (1) of this Section. The subsequent Amendment, to omit Sub-section (4), which was accepted provisionally by the Secretary of State for Scotland, is consequential on this Amendment. In that Amendment, I had attempted to provide a sanctuary at all times of the year for grey seals, a place where no Order from the Minister of Agriculture or the Secretary of State can run for the destruction of these animals. I also provided that that should apply to these islands—not I believe correctly described in the Bill—and for 12 miles all round them. The House will notice that although the nomenclature is slightly altered, the locality is the same, and it is limited to three miles round which is the usual definition of territorial waters. I cannot complain—and I do not wish to complain in regard to the Amendment—which I understand my right hon. Friend is willing to accept, of the fact that it does not give complete protection for the whole of the year.

The Bill deals with the power to issue orders for the destruction of the grey seal in the breeding season and this Amendment will provide a sanctuary as far as the 'breeding season is concerned as defined in Clause 1, Sub-section (1), namely, from 1st September to 31st December in any year. The practical destruction of these animals is impossible except in the breeding season and the House will notice that the only order that can be made is an order extending the close time and not limiting it. Therefore to all intents and purposes this grants a sanctuary of some kind. The sanctuary consists of two small islets which are always above the sea at high water. They are situate about seven miles north-west of the North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. I am told that the descriptions given in the Ordnance Survey are varied from time to time in regard to these remote localities, and that Haskeir Mor and Haskeir Beig rightly describe them. They are two small groups about a mile apart and I think the House will be satisfied to know that they are extraordinarily suitable for the purposes of a sanctuary.

In the Committee stage I suggested that the Scilly Islands would be a more appropriate place but I am told that there are objections and I recognise what those objections are. From my point of view there is one great objection to the Scilly Islands, namely that they are the southernmost of the breeding places of the grey seal and are divided from all the other breeding places by an immense stretch of water. The islands specified in this Subsection are not so remote. I mentioned the opinion of the deputy-keeper of zoology in the British Museum, Mr. Martin Hinton, that these animals are so closely confined in their wanderings to the places where they breed that, there is no likelihood, if they are killed out in one place, of that particular place being repopulated from another. Obviously this is more or less a matter of opinion, but it must be more possible, if the place selected as a sanctuary is somewhat nearer the larger known breeding places of these animals. The principal breeding place until quite recently was the Treshnish Islands situated between Mull and Tiree, north-west of Staffa, only 90 miles in a direct line from these particular islands. There are others even nearer though not perhaps such strong colonies.

There is another reason why this is an appropriate place. My right hon. Friend informs me, from the information he has in his Department, that on these particular islands until recently there was one of the strongest colonies of grey seals. It was practically wiped out by a foray upon their young in the breeding season, and at the last inspection of these islands by his Department only four young and one old seal were observed. Therefore, we shall be saving in one locality this interesting animal from complete extinction, and we may fairly hope that with the rights given under this Amendment it may once more become a prosperous and populous colony. From all these points of view, the two Departments concerned have come to the conclusion, which is a proper one, and the granting of a sanctuary will, I am sure, remove a great part of the objection which is felt to the power under this Bill, namely, that in certain circumstances Orders can be issued which might result in the complete extinction of the grey seal either generally or in any particular locality.


I beg to second the Amendment.

I wish to add my thanks to the Secretary of State for Scotland for the very considerate way in which he has met us in this matter. We have not got quite all that we hoped to get, but we realise that that was in the circumstances impossible, and we are quite satisfied with what we have got. Although we should have preferred that these islands should be a sanctuary all the year round, we recognise that in order to achieve this it would probably have meant the withdrawal and the drafting of the Bill, in which case it would have been doubtful when time could be given for its reconsideration. One need not be apprehensive that, although for eight months in the year it may be possible for seals to be killed in this sanctuary, there will be much danger of that happening. Anyone who has tried to stalk a grey seal in his native haunts knows that he is, except in the breeding season, very wary and most difficult to approach. His eyesight, as in the case of most seals, is indifferent, but his hearing is excellent and his scent very keen indeed. The chances of anyone disturbing him in these remote islands in the breeding season is very small. In the breeding season the young pup is unable to take the water for six weeks after birth. In that he differs from his brown cousin, as also in the fact that he is born in the autumn, whereas the brown seal is born in the spring. It is the horrible slaughter that used to take place on these and similar islands that has necessitated this Bill.

The right hon. Gentleman has been not only considerate but prudent in allowing us to bring forward these Amendments rather than bringing them forward as Government Amendments. It is unfortunately true that a number of those persons who are most anxious to be good to animals defeat their own objects by the very violence of the arguments they employ. I have no doubt that if the hon. Member for Gillingham (Sir R. Gower) were present, he could speak feelingly on the subject. He has suffered badly from the intentions of would-be well-meaning cranks during his period of office as president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Had these Amendments been brought forward as Government Amendments, some of these well-meaning cranky persons would probably have said that they did not go nearly far enough. The Government's acceptance of an Amendment brought forward by Private Members will make it plain even to the most advanced would-be protectors of the seal that a substantial agreement has been reached between everybody concerned, and all of us who are so anxious to protect the seals are satisfied with the treatment we have received at the hands of the right hon. Gentleman. I most heartily support the Amendment.


I rise only to ask the House to accept the Amendment, and to express my indebtedness both to the hon. Baronet and the Noble Lord who have just spoken for the help they have given me in arriving at a satisfactory solution of this difficult problem. Quite frankly, I had considered that the powers in the Bill were sufficient to safeguard the existing stock of seals, but the hon. Baronet and those associated with him made a, strong case, and carried the general feeling of the House so far with them on the last occasion that my right hon. Friend and I were certainly most anxious and willing, as at all times, to satisfy the general feeling of the House and to agree to this Amendment. In practice the effect of it will be, that although actually on account of drafting considerations we are not able to make this sanctuary all the year round, as the seals are only accessible and can only be killed in the breeding season, it will give them an area of rock where they will be absolutely free from any risk of slaughter.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 2, line 18, leave out Sub-section (4).—[Sir B. Peto.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."


It is a, matter for congratulation that we have now got the question of the protection of the grey seal into a more or less permanent position, and that it is not going to be raised annually on the Expiring Laws Continuance Bill. The Bill before the House extends the close time and that is an immense advantage because it makes the close time, as defined in the Bill as it now stands, correspond to the breeding season of the grey seal and covers the whole of it, no matter what locality, as long as it is around these islands, and it also makes it permanent—two immense advantages. At the same time, I must frankly admit that I am not convinced altogether of the necessity for the proviso to Clause 1 which gives the Secretary of State for Scotland or the Minister of Agriculture power at any time by Order to direct that generally, or in respect of any area prescribed in the Order, there shall be no close time at all for grey seals. It seems to me that before issuing such an Order, reasons should be given for the Order.

I believe that the Secretary of State fully intends to investigate the matter thoroughly before any Order is issued, but it should depend on two things: Proof positive of damage done by grey seals to the fisheries, and proof that the damage is greater on balance than the benefits they confer; that they destroy more edible fish, which would otherwise be taken by our fishermen, than they destroy noxious, harmful fish which are better out of the way. Secondly, no Order should be issued unless it follows scientific investigation into what is the food of the grey seal. On that we have no proof whatever. We have had no proof in any of the Debates; no proof has been attempted. Certain statements have been made, but they have been based upon no authentic investigation. I will give the House two authoritative quotations. One is from a letter I received to-day from Mr. Martin Hinton, the deputy-keeper of Zoology of the British Museum, Natural History Department. He writes: Please forgive me for not dealing with the grey seal sooner. I have been very much occupied with musk rats and whales during the last fortnight. The food of the grey seals consists of fish and crustacea of various kinds. Among the fish flounders are the most commonly eaten, but, in addition to this, cod, salmon, herring and many other kinds are taken when they can be got. The fishing is done mostly in deep waters, though individuals sometimes learn the trick of visiting the nets or deep sea lines, and so may do damage. The other quotation I wish to read to the House is from an articles by Professor W. G. Pycraft, probably one of the greatest authorities in zoology, contributed to the "Illustrated London News" of 9th April. He says: Now, what facts can we produce to justify this slaughter of the grey seal, and equally of the common seal, which is just as viciously persecuted? We have none. All we can say is that these animals eat fish. A thousand common seals were destroyed on the Wash to satisfy the insistent demands of the fishermen, yet no attempt was made by any qualified person to examine the contents of the stomach of a single one. In spite of that holocaust we still do not know what forms the staple diet of the common seal. He finishes his article, speaking of the grey seal, which is the subject of this Bill: But before we proceed to exterminate these animals, and at the same time to stamp out all hope of obtaining an answer to a most important question, let us make some effort to discover what they feed on. It may well prove that, like owls and kestrels, they are our friends, not our enemies. After what those two authorities say, may I not claim that the grey seal has been at the Bar of this House, and that the least we can do is to give it the benefit of the Scotch verdict, "Not proven," if we do not entirely exonerate it From occasionally, under stress of hunger, consuming a fish which it meets in the open sea which would otherwise reach the fisherman's net? On balance, I think this Bill is a great improvement from the point of view of the grey seal, more particularly with the Amendment which we have just inserted. We have made sure that the grey seal shall not be exterminated. My reason for addressing the House on the Third Reading is that I hope the Department concerned will bear in mind that they have no proof on balance that this animal does harm to the fisheries of this country, and before any Order is issued the Department should have proof positive that that Order will do good and not harm.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the Third time, and passed, with Amendments.