HC Deb 01 February 1952 vol 495 cc602-10

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Studholme.]

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Robert Crouch (Dorset, North)

I welcome this opportunity of drawing the attention of the House to the very serious condition of our livestock industry. Upon the number of our livestock depends the amount of meat that we get in our meat ration. During several years, and during the recent General Election, we have heard a great deal from the Socialist Party about the increased prosperity of the agricultural industry, but, like many other statements that they have made, this one has misled the House and the people of the country. All the Socialists have referred to is the the increase of monetary values in our industry, but I am not concerned with that. I am concerned with the number of cattle, sheep and pigs on our farms.

Today we have fewer of each of those sorts of animal that we had a few years ago. We have seven million sheep fewer than we had in 1939. We have something like the same number of horned cattle as we had in 1938, and one and a quarter million fewer than we had at the peak period of 1949. The very alarming fall, which was recorded in the September returns, has prompted me to make this endeavour to bring the matter to the attention of the House.

As compared with the previous year, we have lost some 300,000 horned stock cattle of all ages—to my mind this is the most disturbing feature—some 200,000 young cattle under the age of one year. It is to these that we have to look for our beef and milk in 1954. I believe that the latest returns for England and Wales show a further decline in the number of cattle.

I turn to the most serious fall of all, that of seven million in the number of sheep. The number was rightly reduced during the war to enable the Ministry of Food to keep up the meat ration and to enable an expansion of ploughing over a great deal of our grassland. There was also a saving in the labour of shepherding. Immediately the war was over, we should have commenced to rebuild our flocks, as was done after the First World War. It is very interesting to look back at the figures. Six years after the end of that conflict, we were only one million short of the 1914 figure, and a year later we had caught up and were in the same position as in 1914. I am horrified to think what would happen if we should be engaged in another mortal struggle before the number of our sheep has been restored to its prewar level. If we slaughtered another seven million in such an emergency, there would be very few sheep left at the end of the struggle.

From 1946 onwards I have advocated throughout the country that steps should be taken to increase the size of our flocks. I did not ask for any increase in the price of mutton. I have advocated an increase in the price of wool, which had been kept low deliberately to discourage the keeping of sheep during the war. I suggested the modest sum of 1s. a lb. to attract our farmers to keep more sheep.

If only that advice had been taken, we should have been in a very much stronger position today. By now we should have almost recovered the losses which we had as a result of the war. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Food would be pleased to be able to kill about 2,250,000 sheep a year more than are killed at present. I understand that that would produce about 1,000 tons of mutton a week, which works out at about 1d. on the weekly ration. I hope that the Minister will seriously consider this question of increasing the number of sheep.

I know full well that we cannot go back to the system practised before the war of keeping sheep in hurdles and on roots. We have many breeds and crossbreeds which are admirably suited for running on young grassland and for the production of the mutton which we so badly need. In my own county, there are two breeds admirably suited for this purpose, the Dorset Down and the Dorset Horn. It is alarming to see how not only the total number of sheep but the number of registered flocks of these breeds have dropped, in the last 10 years.

In Dorset we have lost about 100,000 as compared with before the war. I believe that we have only about 12½ per cent. of the sheep which we had in the county in 1914. Yet the Dorset Horn is one of the best possible sheep to keep as a pure breed for feeding upon grassland. Flocks have diminished since the beginning of the war by about 40 per cent. Even more disturbing is the size of these flocks, which has fallen by about 50 per cent.

This is a breed of big strong sheep which give large quantities of mutton. It is the only breed in this country which will regularly produce two crops of lambs a year. In Australia, which in the past imported large numbers of this breed, I understand that there are more Dorset Horn sheep than any other breed. But in the last few years no attempt whatever has been made to encourage an increase in the number in our own country.

I turn to another form of livestock, the pig. Undoubtedly this is the animal which will produce meat more quickly than any other animal which the farmer can keep. We have long been famous for the quality of bacon and pork which we produce. Our production figures have fallen alarmingly. In fact, there was a period, either at the end of 1947 or the beginning of 1948, when there was great difficulty about feedingstuffs and the number of pigs kept in this country fell to about one-quarter of what it was before the war.

Since then I know that there has been emphasis placed upon the keeping of pigs, and it is true to say that, during the last 12 months, the number of pigs in the country increased by over 40 per. cent. But let me remind the House that we are still somewhere in the region of 1,500,000 pigs short of the number that we had in the years 1938–39. I have been studying this problem for many months, and I have been trying to see whether something cannot be done—

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

Can my hon. Friend tell me whether he is using the figures for England and Wales or those for Great Britain when he says that we are now 1,500,000 pigs below the 1939 figure?

Mr. Crouch

I have quoted the figures for the United Kingdom.

I have been studying this question of trying to feed more pigs from food produced at home, and I think we should direct our attention, as I hope my hon. Friend will turn his attention, to the cultivation of fodder beet. This new crop, which was first brought into this country in 1947, has already produced very good results on those farms which have grown it. I believe that something like 30 tons per acre have been grown on certain farms, and it provides a dry matter content of something like 20 per cent. I should like to see encouragement given to the widespread cultivation of this crop, not on large acreages on certain farms, but on all farms, each growing two or three acres, to help us to keep more pigs and supplement the present meal ration. I believe that it could be supplemented up to about 45 per cent., which would enable us further to increase the number of pigs.

I do not feel nervous in suggesting that attention should be given to this problem, because I have in the past pioneered a few things in the course of my farming career. I am certainly not as nervous about pioneering fodder beet as I was about sugar beet in 1924, about the combine harvester in 1931 or the cultivation of grasses in the West of England. In a few years' time, given the opportunity to grow this crop, I think we shall find that our farmers will have taken it up, and that, therefore, it would be far wiser that the farmers, more especially in the West Country, should grow fodder beet for feeding to their pigs rather than endeavour to grow some form of cereal, because fodder beet is not affected by the very heavy rainfall with which they have to contend. It may interest the House to know that three acres of fodder beet will produce about as much carbohydrates as is derived from 12 acres of barley.

I do not think there was sufficient plain speaking at the time the prices were announced. I happen to be a countryman, and I know that a crop either pays or loses money, but the official jargon for the last few years has referred to as "recoupment," "under-recoupment" or "lacking profitability." I hope that one thing which my right hon. Friend will do at the time of the Price Review statement is to say quite honestly that the prices offered will show a profit and farmers will not produce at a loss. Do not let us have any talk about recoupment and under-recoupment, because it has only led us into the sorry state in which we are today.

I think that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Minister have an opportunity which has never before been presented to a Minister of Agriculture and his Parliamentary Secretary in time of peace. If only in those years before the war—in the years 1936–38—the Minister of Agriculture had had the same opportunity as is given to my right hon. Friend today, what a much greater contribution would have been made by the agricultural industry during the last war. The then Prime Minister, Mr. Baldwin, was unable to give the assistance which he knew was required for agriculture and for, industry. It is quite unnecessary for for industry.

It is quite unnecessary for me to remind the House that a few years earlier he appealed to the country asking for some form of protection for agriculture. The country refused it. People were misled by the cries of the Liberal Party and the Labour Party to the effect that it was far better to get cheap food from overseas than to maintain a prosperous agricultural industry here at home. What dire results that policy brought. It was the cause of the large-scale unemployment that we had in this country and the cause of many of the troubles we experienced at the beginning of the last war.

I hope the Government will seize every opportunity they have to increase the number of our livestock. I know that they would have the whole country and the whole House behind them if they put forward a bold and constructive policy, not only to bring back our livestock figures to where they were, but ahead of what they were in 1939, because, with the additional assistance of farming science and with the additional knowledge available for dealing with animal diseases, we should be in a position to keep more animals than we had in 1939. If they succeed, great indeed will be their reward. But let me warn them that if, unfortunately, they should fail, then I and my hon. Friends who sit on these benches behind them will pursue them not only in this House but in the country, and will drive them into the political wilderness, as has been done to others before.

4.18 p.m.,

Colonel Harwood Harrison (Eye)

During the last three months we in Suffolk have suffered from outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, and I should be glad if the Minister would look into the administration of his Department regarding the moving of fat pigs when outbreaks of this disease occur. The Ministry of Agriculture were extremely helpful once they knew what had happened, but there was a delay of something like two to three weeks before fat pigs could be moved to the bacon factories, thereby making them overweight and also causing extra consumption of feedingstuffs.

The other point in regard to outbreaks of foot and mouth disease is that as the Orders are at the present time, the artificial insemination service which is being used more and more extensively by many dairy farmers automatically stops within a 15-mile radius of the outbreak. Again, the Minister was most helpful, and the restriction areas were reduced. I wonder whether he could make regulations which could come into operation more quickly, rather than them having to be worked out after an outbreak has taken place. This would give a great deal of satisfaction to the small dairy farmers.

The third and last point I wish to make is that many farmers who are raising beef are greatly perturbed at the young age at which many bullocks are being killed at the present time. They would like the Minister to look into the system of grading and to see whether it can be made more profitable for the farmers to keep the bullocks longer. Farmers themselves are greatly perturbed as to where home-produced meat will come from in a year or two. We should not sacrifice what we may want to eat in 1954 to help even the meagre ration we have in 1952. I should be most grateful if the Minister could look into this problem.

4.20 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. G. R. H. Nugent)

Before I reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Crouch), I should like to reply briefly to the points raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Eye (Colonel H. Harrison). First, on the question of the movement of pigs while a foot and mouth disease order is in operation, my hon. Friend will know that the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease was the worst we have had since pre-war days. It has occasioned the greatest possible strain on our veterinary staff and has created a number of very serious problems for the farming community, from which we are emerging only just now.

The Regulations imposed in respect of the movement of livestock are really essential if we are to control the disease, and the fact that the disease is already under control so successfully more than justifies what has been done. There are exceptional difficulties about moving pigs for slaughter from a clean area to the bacon factories and, in the interest of prevention of the spread of the disease, it simply is not possible to shift the pigs for a certain period.

During the outbreak of this disease in the last few months every effort has been made to keep pigs moving and additional rations have been given to help the farmer, but I know there have been cases where the farmer has had to keep the pigs and has lost the bonus. I am very sorry, but it could not be helped. It had to be done in the interest of livestock protection.

As regards the operation of artificial insemination centres, my hon. Friend will know that the spread of the disease is possible through these centres either directly through the semen itself or by contact on the clothes of the operators. Therefore, the Regulations have to be very carefully observed if these centres are not to cause a further spread of the disease. We will see whether we can modify the conditions in any way, but this aspect of the spread of disease must be kept in mind. I will also look at the point my hon. Friend has made about the present price scales which, he alleges, are causing beef cattle to be slaughtered at too young an age.

To reply briefly to one or two points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North, I think it would be wrong if he left the impression on the House that the whole of our livestock population is still substantially below the pre-war level. I am going to agree with him that the sheep population is below pre-war level and if there is time I will comment upon that fact.

Mr. Crouch

Surely my hon. Friend is not going to suggest that the statement I made about pigs and cattle being below the pre-war figure is wrong. I obtained the figures through the usual channels.

Mr. Nugent

If my hon. Friend talks much longer I shall certainly have no chance of making any reply. I have conceded that there has been a reduction in the sheep population and a serious one and that the figures are still far below the pre-war level, but the numbers of cattle and pigs are now above pre-war level. Taking the figures for cattle first, my hon. Friend will see that that is so.

In June, 1939, we had 3,076,000 cows in our dairy herds and in June, 1951, we had 3,367,000. Sales of milk are 50 per cent. up compared with pre-war, having gone up from 1,259 million gallons annually to 1,707 million gallons annually. The production of beef, which was running at a pre-war level of about 550,000 tons per annum, was last year 536,000 tons per annum, slightly below pre-war. Putting the dairy and beef figures together, however, the numbers of cattle are higher than the pre-war figures.

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the figures for last September and December have shown a decline in cattle numbers which gives rise to a great deal of anxiety, particularly in the case of the cattle population under one year old. If that trend of the under one-year-old cattle numbers declining continues obviously in a year or two it will affect our dairy herds—milk production—and our beef as well.

I wish to say a few words on pigs. My hon. Friend obviously has not the latest December figures because these show that our pig population today is above the prewar level. The pig population of England and Wales is now 3,906,000 compared with 3,515,000 in June, 1939. That has come about by a most spectacular increase from the figure of June. 1951, when we had 2,967,000 pigs, up to the total I have given of 3,906,000—an increase of nearly a million pigs in six months. That is a most astonishing and very creditable increase.

I should like to make the point that as we cannot at present import an increased amount of feedingstuffs—they do not exist in the world and we have not the money to buy increased quantities—unless farmers themselves are able to grow more feedingstuffs we shall not be able to carry that very desirable increased population of pigs.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the sheep population is still far below what we would like it to be. He made the point that the wool price in 1945 and 1946 was extremely low, and I am bound to agree with him. It is certainly true that when the wool price began to increase substantially in the last year or two the sheep population was given a fillip.

The trend of increase in our sheep population is one which we badly wish to see, but there is a preliminary step to the increase in livestock numbers, namely, the necessary grassland improvement which will enable those additional livestock to be kept. That preliminary step is essential, particularly in the light of the increased tillage acreage which we are now carrying compared with pre-war years.

The considerations which my hon. Friend has raised, and which I have briefly enumerated, are all very much in the mind of my right hon. and gallant Friend. He is considering every means possible by which we can increase our livestock numbers, and he will, I can assure my hon. Friend, take into consideration the points which he has put forward this afternoon. I hope that at some fairly early date my right hon. and gallant Friend will be able to make his statement of policy which will lead to the desirable ends which my hon. Friend has indicated.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Four o'Clock.