HC Deb 03 April 1947 vol 435 cc2244-65

12.38 p.m.

Earl Winterton (Horsham)

May I say, in the first instance, as I said on a previous occasion when I spoke from this Box on an Adjournment Motion, that I think, generally speaking, it is not right that a Front Bench speaker should take advantage of this Adjournment period to raise a question as it is generally regarded as providing an opportunity for back benchers. There is a second explanation which must be offered on this occasion for the benefit of those outside this House. It might be said "How strange is the procedure of the House of Commons that, after a most important statement by the Minister of Agriculture on a national disaster, a Member on the Front Bench should get up to deal with the question of preservation of rare birds." I wish to point out—and I make no complaint, Mr. Speaker, of your Ruling, which was a correct one—that I offered to give up my right to speak on the Adjournment Motion provided other Members also gave up theirs, in order that the statement of the Minister of Agriculture might be discussed.

This matter of the preservation of the rarer birds and mammals of this country is a subject which demands publicity, and publicity of the kind which can only be given through a Debate in this House. By way of parenthesis, I will say that I do not seek publicity for myself. I have had plenty of publicity, of the wrong kind, during the 42 years I have been in the House. It is only through the medium of debate—and may I take the opportunity, Sir, of thanking several hon. Members in different, parts of the House who have given valuable assistance in the matter, and who apparently will seek to catch your eye—that publicity can be given to this matter.

The only other thing I wish to say with reference to this subject generally, before coming to details, by way of giving the reason and excuse for raising the matter today, is that I think the preservation of rare birds, and even rare birds of prey, is desirable at the present time. It is at least as important a subject to discuss in this place as the subject that is being discussed elsewhere as to whether suffragan bishops should be addressed as "My Lord Bishop," "Mr. Bishop," or "Bish." There is this much to be said about rare birds, even birds of prey—they do not, when they fly about in the air, do as much harm to their fellow birds, or at any rate to birds of the same species, as human beings do on many occasions when they fly about in the air, and they are—I say it in all seriousness—a joy to behold. In this over-urbanised country, one does not always see as much beauty about as one would like to see. For instance, the contemplation of the crowds on the underground is not always an aesthetic pleasure, whereas an eagle flying in the air always is.

I want to deal only with certain facets of this matter. I am not in the unhappy position that one sometimes is in when raising a subject on the Adjournment of having to steer a very narrow course between two precipices of keeping in Order and avoiding matters that require legislation or public expenditure, because the contentions I shall make need neither an alteration in legislation nor any public expenditure. Indeed, my whole contention is that the existing law is strong enough, if properly interpreted and enforced, and if the Government will give their aid, in the shape of laying down conditions on Government-owned land and property, especially the proposed national parks, that these birds and animals shall be protected. I am very much obliged to the Home Secretary for being here; his presence is most valuable, since I have certain points to put to him. I think the first way to protect these birds, which are in danger of extinction in this country, is to have an energetic application of the laws protecting them and the fullest use of their powers by county councils under the Wild Birds Protection Acts. I know that the Home Office, very naturally, is very reluctant to interfere with the discretion of local authorities, but I hope that, as the outcome of this Debate, the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary will give consideration to circularising local police authorities throughout the country, and that the same will be done in Scotland, calling attention to the necessity of seeing that the Wild Birds Protection Acts are enforced, and also calling attention to the need, under the Wild Birds Protection Acts, of making full use of their provisions. As those interested in the subject will be aware, there is an option given to county councils by which they can apply the Act in its most stringent form or in a less stringent form. This does not require legislation; it is purely an act by them.

The two birds which most require protection, and whose future is literally threatened, are kites and golden eagles. The hon. Member for the Forest of Dean (Mr. Philips Price) is familiar with the Western counties and Wales, and I think he will agree with me that there are today only three or four pairs of kites nesting in Wales. It is computed that they have not increased in number during the last 10 or 15 years. They have to be most carefully guarded. I would not dream of saying where they are to be found. At one time they were common throughout England, and there are accounts, as late as Carolian times and the time of James II, of kites being seen all round London. As to the golden eagle, it is a bird which is almost symbolic in Scotland. One feels, when one sees it soaring and volplaning in the sky on one of those occasional cerulean blue days in the West of Scotland, even in the rainiest part, that it expresses the grandeur, the spirit and the combativeness of the Scottish race. It would be a terrible thing if the golden eagle were to become extinct.

I have quotations from some of the experts, but owing to the lack of time, I do not propose to read them to the House. I have consulted several authorities on this subject, and in the opinion of many experts, although not all of them, for there are differences of opinion, the golden eagle is in danger of extinction in the next 30 years. I have an erudite article from the "Aberdeen Press and Journal" by Mr. Leslie Brown, a well—known authority on bird life in. the Highlands, in which he expresses an opinion that that is the case. He says in his article, quite properly and very accurately, that they are in danger from three sources. They are in danger from gamekeepers and shepherds. I will not say anything about that, for I can appreciate the views of both gamekeepers on grouse moors and shepherds on any birds of prey, even a bird as rare and magnificent as the golden eagle. But they are in as much danger, and probably more danger, from egg collectors. I want to say something about these people, and I will begin, I am sure with the assent of hon. Members on both sides of the House, by describing egg collectors as thieves and gangsters whose business it is to break the law and steal the eggs of rare birds in this country. I have an extract from the "Daily Mail" showing that, at the present time, extensive plans are being made by these illegal depredators of golden eagles to try and obtain eggs, and that the Association of Bird Watchers and Wardens are taking what steps are open to them to prevent it. I know the immense pressure there is on the police authorities, the Home Office and the Home Secretary, but I hope that efforts will be made to chase these people and prosecute them. What pleasure is there in robbing the nest of a rare bird in this country in order that one may afterwards look at the eggs in a collection?

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)

Will the noble Lord bring out the point that these dastardly thieves in many cases are offered as much as £10 a clutch for these particular eggs—and eagles, of course, lay only two eggs? It is a shocking state of affairs.

Earl Winterton

I quite agree that it is a shocking state of affairs and I can only say that the people who offer these sums and collect eggs have brains as empty as the eggs in their collection. In them all sense of decency is completely absent. I think that, as a result of this Debate today, it may be possible to frighten these people to some extent. I am sure that every hon. Member will agree with me that the feeling of the House, especially when it is expressed irrespective of party, does have an effect on nefarious practices of this kind. I hope that, as a result of this Debate, it may be possible to do something to stop these practices.

I want to deal very shortly with one or two other rare birds and animals. In the opinion of most ornithologists—I quote, as an example, a friend of mine, Lord David Bute—buzzards and ravens should be protected because, on the whole, they do far more good than harm, especially buzzards, and if protected, they spread. There is a very interesting example of this in one of the Home Counties, which I will not quote, but I will say that not 45 miles from this place—the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary will know where it is—buzzards have been reintroduced in the last six years from Wales, have bred there, and that it is now computed that they number some nine or 10 out of the original lot that were brought there. They have bred there for the last two or three years, so they can be reintroduced. Now the osprey; it is possible that the osprey could be reintroduced into this country, although I do not think that is a matter which it would be proper to raise here, it is more a question for the enterprise of some bird protection society. I would like to call attention to the fact that the bittern has been successfully protected in Norfolk, and is now even said to be increasing.

The wild animals which require protection in this country if they are not to become extinct do not, curiously enough, include the wild cat, because I understand the wild cat is increasing in Scotland, nor the badger, which is also increasing. The badger does not require any special method of protection, although I am very much in favour of its not being killed. Two species which do require protection are the marten and the polecat, to be found in Wales, and they should be given protection. In passing, I might say, as showing how wild animals in certain circumstances will increase, that about the year 1904 wild roe deer began to appear in the Western part of the county of Sussex in which I live. It was thought at first that they had got out from a park where they are kept by the Lord Lieutenant of the county, who is a Member of another place. Evidence now shows, however, that they had not got out from his park, but had spread across the county from the New Forest and even further West, from parts of the Black-moor Vale where, I believe, a few were turned out many years ago. It is a most interesting fact which should be brought out as relevant to the subject I have raised that there is now a chain of wild roe deer—if chain is the right word—from the West Country right across Hampshire and Dorset into Sussex, and extending as far even as Kent. In fact, they are almost too numerous and give a certain amount of trouble in forestry areas, but it shows what can be done, and how wild animals will increase if left alone.

My last point is this. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman has listened with sympathetic ears to my plea that everything should be done to see that the existing law is carried out in an effort to prevent the illegal destruction of wild birds, and I hope the next point I want to make will meet with the same favourable consideration on the part of the right hon. Gentleman and the Government. Some time ago the Government announced through the Chanceller of the Exchequer the new form of national park which it is intended to set up in this country. I very much hope that, when those national parks are in a part of the world which would be suitable for the purpose, that is to say the wilder parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Westmorland, Cumberland, Northumberland and Wales, a part should be set aside as an animal, bird and nature sanctuary. I think it is of extreme importance, and there is no reason why, if a park were set up in Northumberland, there should not be introduced into it some wild cats from Scotland or, if available, martens and polecats from Wales. If it were objected that it is rather hard on the neighbouring farmers to introduce birds and beasts of prey, I would point out what our fellow subjects do in the Dominions, particularly in the Union of South Africa, where there is a national park in which lions and leopards are encouraged. People farm quite peaceably next door to it, and believe that any inconvenience caused by the larger animls and birds of prey found in South Africa is amply compensated by the fact that, if they were not so protected, certain animals would become extinct. Why could we not do the same in our own national parks? It would not in any way interfere with the amenities of the public if we had a national preservation park, as we find in the Dominions, where rare birds, animals and indeed plants could be protected.

I had not intended to refer to plants, but they again are subject to most appalling depredations and illegal conduct on the part of collectors. The people who collect rare orchids and plants are in exactly the same moral—or, rather, immoral—category as those who collect the eggs of rare birds. A short time ago a certain rambling society in my part of the world mentioned to me, when they were writing for permission to pay their annual visit to my property in Sussex, a certain wood where there were certain very rare plants. In the letter, which was marked "Private," the Secretary of the society said: I very much hope that you will not let anybody in the neighbourhood, or anywhere, know about this, because I can assure you that if it becomes known people will come down from London on a moonlight night and will dig up the whole of these rare plants in order to sell them to collectors. That is why I say it is most necessary that these plants also should be preserved.

I am very grateful to the House for the attention they have given to this matter, and I would end by saying that these rare birds, animals and plants are worth preservation; I hope that this House, with its great authority and power of protection for those who need it, will use the strongest influence to that end.

12.57 p.m.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge (Bedford)

I am indeed happy to be associated with the noble Lord in raising this most important matter in the House today. It is a case when I think one might even go so far as to paraphrase Shakespeare, and say: One touch of nature makes the whole House kin. I agree in that connection with the noble Lord when he said what a relief it was to turn aside from party wrangling and occasionally to gather up in this House in such a Debate as this the aspirations of a section of the community which, as is unfortunately the case, is so very rarely catered for. If this House is to be preserved in all its strength and in all its fullness, it seems to me vital that we should from time to time, in an entirely nonparty spirit, travel up and down the highways and the byways as we are doing today and look into questions which, to our loss, I suggest, are often ignored but which have a very definite influence on the development of our national character. The fundamental, joyous refreshment which one gets from contact with the wild life of our countryside touches the very deepest springs of the mental and spiritual life of those who make that contact. I contend therefore that the noble Lord has performed a notable public service in raising this matter, and I am delighted to have a chance of lending him, as I have already said, my fullest support for the points he has put forward.

As the noble Lord said, this subject is a very big one, and one can only therefore touch on various facets of such a fascinating subject. I agree with the noble Lord when he suggests that the law as it stands, if properly worked out and implemented, can be a very useful instrument. The law, of course, is related primarily to the Wild Birds (Protection) Act of 1880. This and other wild bird protection measures, such as the Lapwing Protection Act, 1928, are unfortunately all that we have available in this country as a means of securing the ends which we hope to achieve as the result of the Debate.

The sad thing about it is that the provisions of the law are flouted from one end of Great Britain to the other at the present moment. I do not myself think that the Wild Birds (Protection) Act, of 1880 is a good one. Hoping not to be ruled out of Order, I might perhaps venture to express the opinion that in the not distant future something similar and more direct should take the place of that Act, something in the nature of a measure embracing the protection of all birds, and including a short black list of birds which, for one reason or another are excepted. To pursue that prospect unduly however is to tread on the narrow path which the noble Lord mentioned and which, if I followed it, would lead to my being ruled out of Order. I might say, in passing, that for once in my life I feel I can pay a tribute to the Parliament of Northern Ireland, the Wild Birds (Protection) Act there being very much better than our own.

Let me look for a moment at the situation in this country in regard to the protection of wild birds. I would rather like to extend the field of discussion which has already been covered by the noble Lord. He has pointed out that the county councils and the police authorities are not fulfilling their duties, and that benches of magistrates are not enforcing the law. Under the law as it stands, county councils have the power to make local Orders. Those orders which have been made vary very much. That is a great pity. It is patently absurd that a bird protected in one county should not be protected in a neighbouring county. What is wanted is regional collaboration among groups of counties and not the haphazard and un-thought-out independent action which is taking place at the present moment.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has at his disposal, for guidance and for advice, a Wild Birds Advisory Committee. I would urge upon my right hon. Friend the necessity of having a look at the membership and activities of that committee. In my view that body needs thoroughly overhauling. In the first place, I suggest that its membership should be confined to qualified ornithologists. It is amazing to me that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is not in any way represented upon that advisory committee. As to the activities of the committee, I am astonished upon looking at several of the local Orders issued by county councils—I have some of them here—to find a mass of anomalies and absurdities. Surely one of the functions of the advisory committee should be to save the Home Secretary from making a fool of himself by endorsing Orders which are both inaccurate and unintelligent.

Let me give the House a few examples of the crass stupidity of the Orders which are current in the counties. In the Hampshire Order we find that the eggs of the grey phalarope are protected, although the bird has never been known to nest anywhere outside the Arctic Circle: In another Order kestrels are protected but their eggs are not. I find that more than one county gives protection to the eggs of the bluethroat, a bird which has never yet at any time attempted to breed in any part of Great Britain. The Order for Berkshire is wholly incomplete. That for Bedfordshire, the county much of which I have the honour to represent in this House has an Order which could be very greatly improved by being brought into line, for example, with the excellent standard set by Hertfordshire and Surrey, and even by West Sussex, of which county the noble Lord knows a great deal.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

Why "even West Sussex?

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

As a matter of fact, the Order for West Sussex is not really of the very highest standard. It could be further improved. The inconsistencies which I have mentioned should be cleared up and all Orders under the Act should be revised and made to conform to the best standard, making allowances for those regional differences involved in the habitats of the birds affected. Rather an amusing sidelight on this matter, and one of which I should like to tell the House, is that the attractive whitethroat is fully protected everywhere, although it never arrives in this country before April, and it leaves in September. This means that the British Museum cannot legally obtain either its eggs or even a specimen of the bird in breeding plumage, to replace those which were destroyed during the blitz. That applies to fairly common birds too, and only shows how utterly absurd the machinery of protection is and how greatly it needs complete overhaul.

I want to underline the excellent points made by the noble Lord about enforcing the law as it stands, unsatisfactory as it is. He said something about eagles and kites in particular, and about the danger—the very grave danger—of their extinction. The extent to which rare birds are being shot in this country is not fully realised. I would like to cite some reliable data to prove that point. In the last 18 months, two glossy ibises were destroyed, one in Anglesey and the other in Devon. A bittern was killed in Devon, an osprey in Sussex, a white-tailed eagle in Warwickshire, a rough—legged buzzard in Leicestershire, three long-eared owls and a marsh harrier in Lincolnshire, and a crested tit in the Spey Valley, which is the only spot in Great Britain where this delightful bird breeds.

Worse still, during 1946, within a radius of five miles in Hampshire, a nightjar, a buzzard and a merlin were all shot, in spite of the law. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the number of uncommon and rare birds which are shot each year in this country is in the region of 1,000, and is probably even higher. Perhaps five per cent. of those cases are actually known, but in very few can the necessary two witnesses be found to ensure a successful prosecution. I heard not long ago of the discovery of nine tawny owls found hanging on a keeper's gibbet in Yorkshire. A prosecution was instituted, as a result of the activities of the Wild Birds Protection Society. What happened? The offender got off with a caution. In all cases like this, nothing but a keener public feeling, which I hope this Debate will develop, more private effort, and more police action will bring about the enforcement of the law as it stands.

The noble Lord has, as I have already mentioned, quite rightly said a good deal about golden eagles and kites. As for the former, I read the other day that one was seen hovering over Lake Ullswater, in my favourite Lake district. No doubt, it had been driven South from Scotland by the recent very severe weather. I hope that these eagles are going to increase, and in order to bring that about I suggest that co-operation between landowners and the wild-bird protection societies is the best means of achieving our objective. As for kites, I am not, I am afraid, very optimistic. Kites are garbage feeders, and this country is, I would suggest, almost too clean these days to serve as a place in which they can thrive They were, of course, once very familiar in the streets of London. That was before we had a London County Council, which secured that our highways and byways were well looked after.

The noble Lord will, I think, be glad to hear that buzzards are very much on the increase in both Somerset and Devon, particularly in the last few months. I am going to take this opportunity to enter a plea for that great friend of agriculture, the peewit, otherwise known as the lapwing, otherwise known as the green plover, and otherwise known as the peas-meet, a most unusual, but rather charming, name. I want to enter a plea for those birds, and also for the curlew. I could say quite a lot about most of them, and also about our friends the owls. It has been a sickening sight during this winter to visit various poulterers in London, and to find displayed for sale the dead bodies of these delightful birds the plovers and curlews. If I may, I will quote a letter from the "Manchester Guardian," with special reference to the illegal offering for sale of curlews. It runs as follows: I was horrified to find on sale in Wolverhampton dressed curlews at 3s. each. The birds, I understand, are imported from Northern Ireland. Have we and the Irish now sunk so low that the slaughter of this lovely bird, and the consequent threat of its extinction, can go on unchallenged? In 1939, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. said, I sometimes think the cry of the curlew goes to my heart more than any other sound in creation,' and Earl Grey of Falloden, in his book ' The Charm of Birds,' wrote, ' To listen to curlews on a bright clear April day, with the fullness of spring still in anticipation, is one of the best experiences that a lover of birds can have. On a still day, one can almost feel the air vibrate with the blessed sound'. I will not read the rest of the letter because, if I do, it will stand between me and other speakers, but it puts in a plea for a much greater protection and preservation of curlews. The traffic in these lovely birds should definitely stop, and the law which prohibits their sale should be rigorously enforced.

I want to say how pleased I was last week to find that the Minister of Agriculture had issued an appeal to teachers and others entitled "On Behalf of the Birds." I hope its plea, "Please let them nest in peace," is one which will be widely noted and acted upon. For, undoubtedly, the recent severe weather has killed thousands of rare and common birds in this country. The cutting down of hedges in many places has lessened the opportunities for them to nest, and has, in addition, made the discovery of their nests easier. I also welcome the news that Heligoland is not to be blasted into the sea, for this island has, for centuries, been a halting place in the great migratory stream of birds from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, North Africa, and back again. Its destruction would have dealt a shattering blow at an aspect of nature which is still, thank God, unaffected by the rivalries and disturbances among mere men.

I would very much like to have said something to back up what the noble Lord advanced on behalf of rare mammals and plants, and, in particular, to put in a good word for "Brock the Badger." Despite persecution, resulting mostly from ignorance, I believe that he is holding his own, and long may this be so, for the badger is one of our most interesting and intriguing wild animals. The wild life of our native land is a priceless heritage. It is a national asset bringing joy and peace to many thousands of our citizens, in both town and country. More than ever, I contend, in these days of stress and strain, do we need to capture that poise and that self-reliance which come from a contemplation and study of those aspects of nature on which we are touching in this Debate, and I sincerely hope and believe that none of us will look in vain to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for sympathy and support in achieving our objective.

1.18 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr Burghs)

I believe that we are all deeply indebted to my noble Friend the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) for bring- ing up this subject for debate today. It is now just nine years since we discussed the question of the protection of wild birds in this House. Indeed, I was reminded, as I listened to my noble Friend and to the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge) of those far-off days when we were still ignorant of the atomic bomb and unaware of the horrors of Belsen, Buchenwald and Dachau. It seems to me that, after two years of peace, it is time to pay attention to the welfare of things other than ourselves alone. It is not entirely, as the hon. Gentleman said, a question of our laws being deficient. Many of us recall that great bird-lover, John Buchan, the late Lord Tweedsmuir, who introduced in this House the Protection of Birds Bill, which subsequently became an Act, and which I myself had the happiness of facilitating.

Most of us must also recall that, just before the war, we had—barring present company—one of the most humane Home Secretaries that we have had in our time, the present Lord Templewood, who gave every assistance on behalf of the Government to any Measure designed to protect either birds or animals. The House may not know it, but just before the war, we succeeded in passing two Measures which I thought—as I was responsible for them in a small degree—of considerable importance. We got through an Act for the protection of geese and wild duck, and also one for the protection of quail. Quail were disappearing very fast in 1939, and, believe me, they are disappearing still faster today. Quail come up from North Africa in the warm season, and spread out into two sections. One section used to come here and the other went towards the Baltic States and Middle Germany. Owing to the shortage of food and the disturbed conditions in Europe in the past six or seven years, these birds have been shot out of hand, and unless something is done to give effect to the laws which have been passed, there will be no quail at all very soon.

The trouble is that these Acts of Parliament, owing to the outbreak of war, were never put into effective operation. It takes some time to get out the necessary instructions to local authorities and to make the country aware of its obligations and duties under these Acts. War broke out almost immediately, and nothing very much could be done for the time being. In pass- ing, I would refer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Bedford and by my noble Friend in regard to the establishment of more national parks and sanctuaries. We know that there are places which are more or less reserved for bird sanctuaries, but they are not nearly sufficient, and there is not nearly enough protection. We know, of course, and view with pride, the work done by that great humanitarian, Axel Munthe, who devoted all the money he received from his books to the establishment of Capri as the biggest bird sanctuary. The name of Mussolini, which we often execrate, deserves one tribute in that he made Capri, by Italian decree, a permanent sanctuary for birds. I believe that we can go a long way in this matter by establishing more bird sancturies, which are very badly needed.

All of us who are interested in the welfare of birds, both rare and wild, want to establish one simple principle; it seems to be so simple as to be almost self-evident. We want all wild birds, their nests and eggs fully protected all the year round, unless, of course, there is some strong reason to the contrary. We should make it clear that we exclude game birds, because, in the present state of our food situation, I do not think it would be a proper plea to make. In the case of quasi-game birds, like duck and snipe, if these have to be shot—I am not denying that they may have to be shot in these days—let the shooting season be as restricted as possible, and let there be full protection during the close season. Let their eggs and 'nests be protected the whole year round. I am not entirely in agreement with the hon. Member for Bedford, in regard to affording full protection to certain birds which are harmful to farmers and others.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

I did not advocate full protection for birds which are harmful. Far from it. I suggested that all birds should be protected, but that there should be a black list specifying those which are harmful and which should be exempted.

Sir T. Moore

I am sorry it I misunderstood the hon. Member. There are certain birds detrimental to human interest—the rook and the jackdaw.

Earl Winterton

My hon. and gallant Friend has misunderstood our purpose. We are not dealing with common birds, but with rare birds, like kites and golden eagles.

Sir T. Moore

If my noble Friend was dealing with rare birds like the golden eagle, I was dealing with all wild birds. As the noble Lord expressed the view that this Debate should be as wide as possible, I think it is legitimate that we should not exclude birds we wish to protect. I ask the Home Secretary to accept that very reasonable, simple, generous view of bird protection. The Northern Ireland Act of 1931 is a very good guide in this matter. Lord Tweedsmuir's Act covered practically the entire ground, but it was not carried into effect. The local authorities need stronger orders and directives from the Home Secretary, and they should be of a very comprehensive character. The penalties for infringement should be made more severe in the courts. I know that the Home Secretary has this matter very much at heart, and I hope he will do all he can to bring about adequate protection for the wild birds of this country.

1.28 p.m.

Mr. Burden (Sheffield, Park)

I hope it will not be thought amiss that one who was born within the sound of Bow Bells should endeavour to make a small contribution to this most interesting Debate. I think I can say that some of my happiest days have been spent in the countryside. We all agree that the indirect influence of bird life upon affairs of mankind can hardly be over-emphasised. Agriculture depends upon the activities of birds to check the undue increase of insects harmful to the land and crops. I believe it is on record that St. Augustine once expressed doubts as to why flies were created, but I think Luther went a little further and said that they were created by the devil to prevent him—Luther—from writing good books. Whatever may be the truth or otherwise of this statement, we all agree that human life would be intolerable, without bird life to impose the necessary control over insects.

I was horrified the other day to read a description of the work done at a packing station, for dealing with curlew for the market. It was held as something of an achievement. Curlew and other birds were delivered to the packing station, rapidly plucked, wrapped in cellophane, and sent on to the wholesale market. Who is responsible for this? Is it the Minister of Food, or the Minister of Agriculture? There is a nicely adjusted balance in Nature. Have the effects of the wholesale destruction of some of our most beautiful birds been carefully estimated?

I believe that there is a growing sense of the importance of protecting bird life. There are still ignorance, selfishness and—dare I say it?—a misguided profit motive, in some cases, to be overcome. But there is not only the utilitarian aspect of the problem to be considered. The conservation of bird life has its beauty and intrinsic interest for everyone with eyes to see, and with ears to listen to the birds and their music. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries some of the most beautiful species of bird life have been destroyed, and some are, at the moment, on the verge of extermination. Emphasis has been laid on the question of the contribution that national parks can make towards conserving and developing our bird life. May I make a suggestion which, I think, might be helpful? We are developing great schemes of afforestation. There are already on record particulars of the study of bird life where a measure of afforestation has been attempted, such as in parts of Scotland. I suggest that there should be collaboration between different Ministries about the work of afforestation and the development of bird life. Further, would it not be possible for the many admirable bulletins which have been issued on bird life to be reviewed, brought up to date, and made, not so much bulletins for the experts, but bulletins in plain language, which ordinary men, women, and children could thoroughly understand? Finally, can anything be done to save the torture caused to our sea birds by oil fuel from ships? Anyone who has seen this sort of thing on the sea shore must have been angry and hurt at the waste of bird life. I am sure that what is being said today will be noted, not only in the Home Office, but in other quarters as well.

1.34 p.m.

Lord John Hope (Midlothian and Peebles, Northern)

I want to say how glad I am to be able to take part in a Debate in which hon. Members are pleading for the interests of one of the most attractive forms of leisure that I know. I would like the Home Secretary to answer two specific points. First, in connection With the preservation of small and rare birds, will he undertake to advise the Government to give all possible publicity to the campaign to exterminate the grey squirrel? This is vital to the preservation of small bird life. A campaign was started some time ago, and did well for a time, but, psychologically, I think it would be a good time now for the Government to weigh in behind that campaign for all they are worth. The country must be sufficiently awakened to the dangers inherent in the continuance of this pest, otherwise there will be few small birds left very soon.

Secondly, what is the position of bird sanctuaries which are not embodied in any national parks proposal? I have been told that there is one in the Dyssini Valley, near Snowdonia, which is threatened by the War Office. I would like some more information about the status of such sanctuaries. Finally, since I come from its country, I would refer to the golden eagle, the possible extinction of which, in 30 years, was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton). That is a sad and unthinkable prospect, and I join with confidence in the appeal to the Government for preservation of this symbol of freedom, even although we may not, perhaps, in more controversial moments, associate the Home Secretary's Party too closely with that priceless possession.

1.36 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

I am sure that every Member of the House, whether present or not during this Debate, will feel that he owes a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord the Member for Horsham (Earl Winterton) for having initiated this Debate. The noble Lord, as those who have known him in this House for a considerable number of years fully realise, revealed that side of his nature which proves that even if he sometimes looks on the opposite side of the House with some slight disdain he does, nevertheless, conceal a very charitable heart towards his fellow men and to all God's creatures. Perhaps he may even include His Majesty's Government among God's creatures. Following the noble Lord's speech, we had a delightful series of speeches, which shows that there is a very live interest in the House on this subject. I was very glad to know that my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeffington-Lodge), in giving his list of the Orders which have been made under the Wild Birds Protection Act, said no unkind word about the one Order which I was responsible for drafting—the Order for Surrey. My difficulty is that when an order is sent to me for confirmation I have certain limited duties in regard to it, and often it is better to sign an order which one regards as being not quite perfect rather than to send it back and have no order at all, or the continuation of an even worse order. The main powers of the Home Office and the Secretary of State for Scotland are gained from the Wild Birds Protection Act, 1880.

Mr. Skeffington-Lodge

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that the members of the Wild Birds Advisory Committee, which is available to guide him in this matter, can be of particular importance in connection with the preparation of these orders?

Mr. Ede

I shall come to them later. They are not wild birds themselves. I know at least three of them personally, and I can only say that their interest in wild birds is stimulated by the fact that the wild bird must be of the opposite temperament to themselves. We have to carry out this law in the main by the police. I am perfectly willing to accept the suggestion that has been made by the noble Lord, that a circular should be sent to the chief constables of England and Wales, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland authorises me to say that he will do the same with regard to Scotland, drawing the attention of the police forces to the desirability of seeing that this law is enforced, so far as it possibly can be. We are exceedingly anxious to deal with the problem, mentioned by more than one hon. Member in this Debate, of the destruction of the curlew. Our difficulty is to find a person who actually commits the destruction of life. It is a matter on which we must rely, either on information supplied by good citizens, or on the activities of the police. I certainly hope that we may be able to deal with that matter. I will undertake that, as far as I can, the most active steps shall be taken to bring this scandal to an end.

The House may have noticed that the Secretary of State for Scotland and I recently took jointly as effective action as we could, to help to deal with the problem of the golden eagle by ensuring that there should be returned to Sutherlandshire a golden eagle which had been captured, brought to London, and presented to the London Zoo. It is far better that the golden eagle should be in Sutherlandshire than in the London Zoo. The noble Lord quoted Mr. Leslie Brown, who wrote an article in one of the Aberdeenshire local newspapers with regard to the position of the golden eagle. He also wrote an article in "Country Life" of 25th October, 1946. I hope that the House will allow me to make one or two quotations from this article, because it illustrates the need for energetic care with regard to this particular bird, and I think that it is illustrative of the dangers in which some other birds stand. Mr. Brown writes: In the Cairngorms there are now six active pairs of eagles and two doubtful pairs, while in Clova-Lochnagar the six pairs which I knew in the area in 1938 have now been reduced to two active and two doubtful pairs. In other words, over the two areas combined, about one-third of the total population of adult eagles has disappeared within the last 15 years. The decrease has been less sharp in the Cairngorms than in Clova-Lochnagar, where it amounts to about half the number of adult eagles present in 1938. Mr. Brown attributes the decline in numbers to the three causes given by the noble Lord, and he says that when he was in Clova-Lochnagar—I hope that I am pronouncing that correctly—studying the eagle in 1938, that one gamekeeper seemed very disappointed when I said that I did not intend to 'lift the eggs'." Undoubtedly egg collectors are prepared to pay what seems to be most amazing prices for the egg of this particular bird, and it is quite certain that, unless effective steps are taken to stop these depredations, the probability is that this bird will be extinct in the British Isles within the next 30 years.

I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland intends to take all steps that are open to him in order to ensure that that disaster shall not take place. A question has also been raised by the noble Lord about certain other birds. I agree with what he said about the kite. The numbers of this bird, which is found only in Wales, have been at a very low ebb for many years and to preserve it from extinction the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds initiated a fund for its special protection. This fund provides watchers to safeguard the nests of these birds, and the Home Office has no knowledge of organised attacks upon the birds or their nests in recent years; but in spite of this the fate of the birds is very uncertain. It deserts its eggs very easily, and when its numbers have fallen to a low level, its chances of survival are, in the ordinary course of nature, very doubtful. Whatever can be done to maintain the existence of this bird will be done, and I am asking the police in the areas where it lays its eggs to be particularly careful to see that everything that can be done shall be done to preserve it.

I think one ought to recognise that sometimes when we talk about the economy of nature it is not realised how, in a highly civilised country like this, much of what we admire is the result of the working of the skill of man with nature to produce the distribution of natural economy which we have managed to secure. It is interesting that in the New Forest, by breeding some Arab blood into the native ponies, they have produced some ponies who despise the rough feed that the original New Forest pony flourished on, with the result that some of the lawns there are becoming over grown with thorns, because the balance of an acquired economy has been disturbed by the interference of human beings in the matter. The Minister of Town and Country Planning, whose Parliamentary Secretary is with me today, desires me to assure the House that, in dealing with town and country planning, we shall have regard to the necessity of insuring that wild life shall be adequately and appropriately protected in national parks and elsewhere. I hope, also, that highway authorities will be as helpful as they can in seeing that some of the roadside wastes are so preserved that rare plants that can occasionally be found there shall not be destroyed by modern activities.

Earl Winterton

I do not ask for an answer now, but there is one point which I intended to make in my speech. It might well be considered in connection with the national parks, and in making these bird and animal sanctuaries, whether certain animals, once common to this country, could not be reintroduced from the Dominions, without damage in other respects. The beaver has been kept in conditions of some wildness without harm being done.

Mr. Ede

I am sure that the Minister of Town and Country Planning will hear of that suggestion and give it attention. As far as I am concerned, I should like to see something on those lines done. One of the things that helps to destroy what I have called the "acquired economy" of nature are the depredations now being made on the plant life of the country. I was able to persuade this House, in spite of some opposition from Sir Herbert Williams and other similar people, to make it an offence to uproot trees planted by new by-pass roads. I have been responsible for the construction of the Dorking by-pass road, which is not too bad as by-pass roads go. One day the county engineer was there, and he saw a woman rooting up a rhododendron tree. He said to her, "Madam, do you not know that this is public property?" She turned to him and said, "What is your grouse, there is another one for you over there?" We have to get that kind of spirit out of our people.

I rejoice at the work now being done in the schools in bringing to the attention of the children, both urban and rural, the desirability of checking some of the depredations that have been made on bird life in this country. I would like to say too how much we are helped by some of the societies who give their time and attention to this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. SkeffingtonLodge) alluded to the crested tit. I saw, in the "Field" of 26th October, 1946, a letter from the chairman of the Scottish National Parks Committee and the Scottish Wild Life Conservation Committee. They drew attention to this: A note on the 'Colouration of the soft parts of the crested tit ' by P. A. Clancey in the July number of the magazine ' British Birds,' states that during the past three years the writer has had cause to prepare for research purposes, some dozens of specimens of Scottish and Central European crested tits. The Scottish Wild Life Conservation Committee, which is advising the Scottish National Parks Committee on the steps necessary for the preservation of wild life in Scotland, is deeply concerned at the illegal destruction of the Scottish crested tit, the eggs of which are protected by law and which itself may not be legally taken or killed at any time throughout the year. It is a rare bird, confined to a small area of the Scottish Highlands and it has already suffered much from collectors. The Government desire to commend to the people of this country the efforts of these and similar voluntary societies, which are engaged not merely in preserving these bird and animal lives, but in educating public opinion to a realisation of the appropriate attitude to adopt in these matters. I hope that the House will feel that the Government are fully in accord with the spirit which has been displayed on both sides of the House during the day.

I have been asked to have a look at the Wild Birds Advisory Committee. It was suggested that it should be confined to ornithologists. I think that that way disaster would lie. What we want to do is to associate, with the skilled and scientific ornithologists, people of good will who cannot claim to any great detailed knowledge of the scientific side of the subject, but are anxious to see that the natural life of the country shall be preserved. I cannot, as the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir T. Moore) asked me to do, issue directives. That I must leave to the great bird lover, Mussolini, whom he quoted with such approval. I cannot issue directives, but I hope that through the good offices of the noble Lord the Member for Horsham sufficient publicity will have been given to this subject today to arouse public opinion on the matter. I can promise that, in so far as I am able to issue advice and to encourage police authorities to take a more active interest in this matter than they have been able to do in recent years, I shall endeavour to see that the spirit of the House today is conveyed to all those who can help.