HC Deb 10 November 1954 vol 532 cc1251-65

5.57 p.m.

The Deputy-Chairman

It may be for the convenience of the Committee to discuss the two Amendments in the name of the hon. Baronet the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) to Clause 2 with his further two Amendments to the Amendment in the name of the Minister, to insert a new subsection (2) in the Clause, together with that Amendment.

Sir Richard Acland (Gravesend)

I beg to move, in page 4, line 24, after "destroy," to insert "or fill up."

I agree, Sir Rhys, that it would be for the convenience of the Committee if, as you suggest, we take with this Amendment my Amendment in page 4, line 25, after "places," insert "or warrens," and also my two Amendments in line 7, after "destroying," insert "or filling up."; and after "places," insert "or warrens." to the Minister's proposed Amendment. That Amendment reads: In page 4, line 46, at end, insert: (2) The purposes for which the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries or the Secretary of State may exercise his powers under section one hundred and one of the Agriculture Act, 1947, or section forty-two of the Agriculture (Scotland) Act, 1948 (under which he may provide services, equipment, etc. for the purpose of assisting in the destruction of pests), shall include the rendering of assistance in destroying or reducing breeding places or cover for rabbits or in excluding rabbits therefrom, or in preventing the rabbits living in any place from spreading to or doing damage in any other place. The first two of my Amendments would make the Clause read: …to destroy or fill up or reduce the breeding places or warrens or cover for rabbits… The other two would make the new subsection (2) read: …assistance in destroying or filling up or reducing breeding places or warrens… I am sorry that such trivial shelters should be mentioned so soon after the House has been considering the possible effect of the hydrogen bomb, but that is how things go. I am indebted for the fact that I am moving my Amendment to a friend of mine, a Mr. A. E. Farr, of Hereford, a most observant countryman who was once a Liberal candidate in a constituency in the southern part of the country. It was a great loss to the House of Commons that he was not elected. He demonstrated during the 1930s, to my satisfaction at any rate, the point which I am about to put to the Committee. If I had spent a little more time on research in back numbers of HANSARD I should have found the occasions when I drew the attention of the House of Commons to the matter.

Mr. Farr found that if any occupier of land is so diligent as to wipe out all the rabbits on his land by any means, whether trapping, shooting, or gassing, or if they are destroyed as in these days by the spread of myxomatosis, thereafter the rabbits living on neighbouring land do not come into the land from which they have been eliminated to eat the lush pastures. However flourishing the crops may be, the rabbits are not tempted over the boundary to eat the crops. On the contrary, they go to live in the warrens which have been left untouched by neighbours of the hypothetical landowner. I had no idea that this was so until Mr. Farr drew it to my attention.

On his small farm in Herefordshire he had filled up all the rabbit warrens on his 150 to 250 acres of land. He had a cement mixer and he mixed earth with one-thirtieth part of cement and sufficient water to make a runnable paste, which he poured down the rabbits warrens. Incidentally, subsequent experiments suggested that even the presence of cement in small quantities was not necessary and that if one filled up the holes with mud the effect would be the same.

On a beautiful warm evening in September, with the sun going down in the west, just the sort of evening when one expects to see hundreds of these rabbits running about, he took me round the farm. Sure enough, on everybody else's farms all round we could see rabbits in hundreds. On the first 25 or 50 yards inside his boundaries we could see some marks and some evidence that rabbits had been there, but in the central part of this small farm there was not a rabbit and not a trace of one. It appeared to me that the success of this experiment was proved.

It is certain that a rabbit warren is by no means something which can be constructed in a night, as one might hope a prefabricated house might be. A rabbit warren is the work of a century and rabbits live in it generation after generation. If a system of rabbit warren is left empty in March by the enterprise of a man who kills all the rabbits living there, by April another lot of rabbits will have come over the boundary to live in those warrens. If the warrens are filled up the rabbits will not come. In any major clearance operation over a large area I feel sure that the filling up of warrens would be one of the major instruments for the offensive against rabbits.

6.0 p.m.

The Minister may think that all I have said so far is fully covered by the words already in the Bill. The words already say that he may serve notices on people about reducing the rabbits' breeding places. It may be thought by a layman that a breeding place would include a rabbit warren, but I think that that is not so. The process of breeding rabbits involves two critical acts, which are separated from each other by the period of gestation. Those acts are conception and delivery.

Delivery does not take place in a rabbit warren. The doe rabbit makes a tiny scrape in a hedge, almost anywhere, into which the baby rabbits are born and in that place she keeps them until they are big enough to fend for themselves. Then, in a few days, she introduces them to the other rabbits in the warren. The owner might keep watch for the female rabbit making little scrapes and fill them up, but the rabbits would be born somewhere as the doe would always find another place.

As for the act of breeding, conception, I understand, takes place in the fields. I am sure the Minister does not want to destroy the fields. Therefore, I do not feel that the filling up of warrens is covered by the words in the Bill. The words I am proposing cannot do any harm. They would give the Minister great liberty of action. I understand that officers of the Ministry are making some tests about Mr. Farr's claims and may report favourably. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to accept my Amendment.

The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries (Mr. Heathcoat Amory)

The hon. Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) has given us a most interesting account of a hovel method of attacking breeding places and also interesting information about the life of rabbits. He wrote to me about the interesting method employed by Mr. Farr, of making a weak mixture of soil, water and cement and pouring it into the burrows. One of my scientific officers had a talk with Mr. Farr about it, but on the report he has made to me I am still a little sceptical about how successful it would be. Many of these burrows are exceedingly difficult to deal with—I sometimes wonder whether a hydrogen bomb dropped on one of them would be successful.

However, I have referred this matter to our Land Pests Advisory Committee, which is to report upon it. I am advised that the Bill as drafted would enable such a method to be adopted if desired, as the word "place," appearing later, would cover the actual burrows as well as the site of the breeding place. I hope that, in these circumstances, the hon. Baronet will feel that his Amendments are not necessary to give effect to what he wants, to enable this novel method to be applied in cases where it is found suitable.

Sir R. Acland

The ward does not seem to be "place"—the words are "breeding places." I take it that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to line 25. It is true that the word "places" occurs there, but it is modified by the word "breeding." Those two words, surely, are to be taken together. Warrens are not breeding places because rabbits do not perform either of the essential acts of breeding in warrens. They perform one in the open and the other in a little temporary serape made by the doe.

I ask the Minister whether he has had legal advice on this matter. Is he really satisfied that he is entitled to read the word "places" without the word "breeding"? Would it not be safer to accept the Amendment in case of any doubt? It may be that he would be satisfied that this method is of en ormous importance and he may want to go in for it on a large scale. It would be very embarrassing to have to argue on a point of law if someone came forward and contested that "breeding places" included the filling of warrens.

Mr. Amory

In spite of what the hon. Baronet has said, I am satisfied that as the Bill is drafted it would permit this method to be followed. I will look into the matter again and if I have any reason to change my mind I will do something about it at a later stage, but I do not think I have any need to do so and the hon. Baronet may feel quite happy about the matter.

Amendment negatived.

Amendment proposed: In page 4, line 46, at end, insert: (2) The purposes for which the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries or the Secretary of State may exercise his powers under section one hundred and one of the Agriculture Act, 1947, or section forty-two of the Agriculture (Scotland) Act. 1945 (under which he may provide services, equipment, etc. for the purpose of assisting in the destruction of pests), shall include the rendering of assistance in destroying or reducing breeding places or cover for rabbits or in excluding rabbits therefrom, or in preventing the rabbits living in any place from spreading to or doing damage in any other place.—[Mr. Amory.]

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu (Brigg)

This Amendment has been moved formally, but I wonder whether, before we pass from it, the Minister would be good enough to enlighten us on one or two points? On Second Reading, I was one who expressed the view that it was not possible to exterminate the rabbit—which I understood to be the aim of the Government—unless a national drive were made. This Amendment goes a little way towards the point of view I then expressed. I can only hope that the power the Minister is taking by this Amendment will be used.

What precisely are the services and equipment the Minister has in mind as possibly providing for private occupiers La use in the drive against the rabbit? Is he to provide them, for instance, with long nets, with gas, machines for pumping gas, with a pack of hounds for rabbits which never go to earth at all but live in scrub or in walls, or is he relying on the gin trap after all? Could the right hon. Gentleman answer those questions before we leave this Amendment?

Who are the people to be lent or provided by the Minister? Has he in mind the use of troops? Has he considered a suggestion made in some responsible quarters that good conduct prisoners in open prisons could help in this matter where other labour may be scarce? If he has considered that question, will he say whether it is not a fact that professional trappers are very often least successful in exterminating the rabbit? Does it not quite often happen that real "townees," with no knowledge of the country, when trained in this work are more successful than trappers who are real countrymen, but who cannot shed the belief that it is necessary to leave some rabbits behind to continue breeding? This, I believe, has been the experience in New Zealand. I wish to ask who the Minister proposes shall do this work for him, if he lends anyone or provides services to private occupiers in an attempt to exterminate the rabbits?

Sir Jocelyn Lucas (Portsmouth, South)

I do not know whether the Minister is aware of the most successful method of exterminating rabbits which is employed in New Zealand. There they make each district responsible for an area and the farmers pitch into the job and try to keep down the rabbits. They do not pay for rabbit skins, or anything of that kind, but they have found a successful way of using packs of dogs and chasing the rabbits into the ground. Then they fill up the rabbit holes. No money is paid for the rabbits. The only way to exterminate them is to drive everything below ground. The farmer who does not catch his own rabbits finds himself in trouble with his neighbours, who very often come and do the job for him.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)

Will the hon. Member add to his interesting comments that the New Zealanders are doing this without the wilful spread of myxomatosis?

Sir J. Lucas


Sir R. Acland

I was proposing, on the Question, "That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill" to raise the very points which have been raised on this Amendment about the extent of the operation which the Minister has in mind. Perhaps I may be permitted to continue the discussion now, instead of speaking later.

I am concerned to know what is the scale of the operation which the Minister has in mind. I was sorry to learn that an Amendment of mine, taking up the very interesting suggestion about the use of troops, is not to be selected. But perhaps I may say of that Amendment that in framing it I did not have anything of a trivial nature in mind, such as just a few "Tommies" shooting "bunnies." It seems to me that if we are seriously proposing to get rid of rabbits in this country—an enterprise which would be worth £40 million or £50 million a year—we are thinking of a field operation which is quite immense.

It is relatively easy for a skilful country trapper to trap a few rabbits, or for a skilful countryman to go out and shoot a few. But it is quite a different kind of operation to get rid of every last rabbit, and that is what we have to do; because if we leave half-a-dozen rabbits now, in 1955 we shall have half-a-dozen hundred; in 1956, there would be half-a-dozen million and in 1957 the whole job would have to be done over again. Therefore, if we are thinking of anything serious, we are thinking of a major field operation, and I wonder what sort of areas the Minister has in mind to declare as rabbit clearance areas.

I will mention a part of the country far removed from my own constituency, but it is near where I live and where the Minister lives, and he and I know it well, and it will serve as an illustration. Does he intend to apply the provisions of the Bill to the whole of Cornwall? That would be a convenient area to take, because, by stretching a barbed wire fence from the upper waters of the Tamar to the coast in the neighbourhood of Bude, it would be possible to cut off Cornwall from England. If we got rid of all the Cornish rabbits, the English rabbits would not be able to enter Cornwall. [Interruption.] I am sorry, I meant a strand of barbed wire along the top of a stretch of wire netting. The barbed wire would be necessary to prevent animals from pushing it over.

6.15 p.m.

If the Minister is thinking of ridding such an area as Cornwall of its rabbit population, it would be an immense operation, involving interesting problems of transport and supply, and the maintaining of a corps of men in the field. The officers in charge of this great field operation—the result of which would, I suppose, be worth £750,000 a year to Cornwall if successful, and would, therefore, be well worth while—would need to show resourcefulness, powers of observation and liability to appreciate the country. All those are qualities highly valuable in an armed soldier in time of war.

They would need to be able to make an accurate assessment of the likely moves to be taken by their enemy. They would need to be agile mentally and physically in devising the appropriate counter-moves and counter-tactics to meet the strategy employed against them. They would need patience, and the men under their command would have to have a high morale and be ready to endure hardship; often remaining and maintaining themselves in the open far from their base in all sorts of weather for the purpose of carrying on this war.

Therefore, the Amendment of mine which has not been selected was very far from frivolous in its intent. I put it down, not only with a view to getting rid of rabbits, but also for the benefit of the Army. I would say, in all seriousness, that if the Army engaged in a major field operation against a real enemy they would have far more valuable training for the purposes of fighting the next war—if it ever happens—than they would derive from any amount of imaginary rehearsals and repetition of operations appropriate in the last war.

If we put down a similar Amendment on Report, I hope it may be considered as something of much more serious intent than the Amendment to which I have referred was apparently considered, when it was examined without the advantage of any explanation. However that may be, I hope that before we approve this Amendment the Minister will indicate the scale of operations which he has in mind.

Mr. E. G. Gooch (Norfolk, North)

As a countryman, I appreciate the extent of the ravages of rabbits; but I think that the suggestions made here today—the Minister suggested using a hydrogen bomb to clear them out and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) has suggested the use of troops—are too drastic. I believe that there is a simple way of ridding the country of rabbits; it is to alter the game laws.

The best rabbit catcher is the farm worker. If farm workers were given the opportunity to destroy what rabbits they could find, I guarantee that in time there would be very few rabbits left to eat the farmer's corn. I put this suggestion forward seriously. I consider it much preferable to the use of troops and hydrogen bombs. If we altered the game laws, it would give the farm workers an opportunity to get rid of the rabbits and to provide themselves with some useful food.

Mr. M. Philips Price (Gloucestershire, West)

I support what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) about farm workers and their ability to exterminate rabbits. I would add that some sensible farmers have already told their men to help themselves. I believe that this Amendment will give the Minister adequate powers to carry out a campaign against pests in a given locality, but will he have the means to carry out such a campaign? Some of the pests officers of the county agricultural committees are very good, and some are not particularly good; and sometimes even those who are good have inadequate funds with which to deal with the problems set before them.

In some districts it will be difficult for farmers to deal with pests unless they are given assistance. For instance, a farmer might need nets, if it were possible to use nets in the locality. Can equipment be loaned to him for the purpose by the Land Pests Advisory Committee? Can the Department make available equipment of any kind which may be necessary?

Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr)

I think the hon. Member will find that that point is covered in the new Clause (Extension of power to contribute to cost of destruction or preventive measures).

Mr. Price

That may be so.

We have spoken about rabbits, but the grey squirrel is an equally serious pest which often cannot be dealt with unless special equipment is available. In my experience, the best way of dealing with the grey squirrel is in the late winter or early spring, before the leaves come out, just when the does are dropping their young in the drains. One needs to push a long pole down the drain. If one has guns on each side of a tree, the operation is often successful. I cleared 18 grey squirrels from a small wood in half-an-hour last spring. It requires the right equipment, of course; and I should like to know whether such equipment will be loaned by the pests officers. Both competent officers and equipment are required in such cases.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

I want to support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch). He suggested altering the game laws to permit poaching. In Lancashire, not many months ago, a bench of magistrates fined each of three men £20 for attempting to catch a single rabbit. Incidentally, they had not even caught the rabbit. An unlimited number of poachers would give their services free if we altered the game laws. It would not involve the country in any expense.

Mr. Clifford Kenyon (Chorley)

Will the Minister give an undertaking that, in the provision of services and equipment for the destruction of rabbits, he will not include the gin trap? It would be anomalous if the Ministry of Agriculture supplied gin traps to those who were destroying the rabbits when in the Bill we express the hope that the gin trap will be abolished. It would go some way towards helping the cause of the abolition of the gin trap if the Minister gave an undertaking that it would not be included in any equipment supplied to farmers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) has taken the words out of my mouth in suggesting an alteration to the game laws. What is required is that rabbits shall be taken completely out of the protection of the game laws. I think that the Game Act of 1880 describes hares and rabbits as ground game. If that protection had been removed from rabbits so that anybody could catch them, I do not think we should have our present trouble with rabbits.

Consider what the position will be. The purpose of the Bill is the destruction of all the rabbits in the country, yet there will still be in operation game laws which will protect the rabbits in places where the Minister has not introduced clearance areas. One Act will be working against another. I said on Second Reading that I did not think that the Bill would wipe out the rabbits, but, certainly, if the rabbits are to be protected by the game laws in places with which the Minister is not dealing under the Act, then the position will become hopeless.

I feel sure that one of the first effective steps which the Minister should take is to remove the protection of the game laws from the rabbits. I hope he will do so. I mentioned on Second Reading the case of the three men being fined £20 each. Following that, there was a case in which six men were fined £120 plus costs by the same bench for the same offence. That is ridiculous and nonsensical. I think that sort of thing has largely been stopped as a result of my intervention with the then Home Secretary, but it would be completely stopped if the protection of the game laws were removed from the rabbits.

Mr. Denys Bullard (Norfolk, South-West)

I cannot follow the arguments of the hon. Members for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) and Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) on this point about the game laws, because it seems to me that under the Bill, within the rabbit clearance areas at all events, the responsibility for clearing rabbits is placed on the occupier of the land. If he wishes to do so he can invite people to help him destroy the rabbits.

In my opinion, the occupier of the land must be the person responsible for doing this job. An enormous area has to be covered, and to imagine that squads can cover the whole country is wrong thinking. I have had some experience of this suggestion that promiscuous invitations should be given to people to come and kill the rabbits. I am anxious to get rid of rabbits and there are plenty of people who will attempt to catch them. But there will be a good many people who will leave holes all over the grass fields, into which the cattle will slip, and the farmer will have the job of going round and filling in the holes. The picture is not as simple as it has been painted, and I should not like the Committee to have the impression that we can get rid of the rabbit population simply by encouraging poaching.

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

This little debate started with the query as to what services my right hon. Friend intended to provide in cases where farmers needed assistance. It has been widened by the inclusion of a number of queries which were broadly dealt with on Clause 1. I hope that I shall not be out of order if I briefly touch on them.

The general intention of the Bill is that the occupier shall continue to be responsible for killing his rabbits; and that must be the case. When we consider the number of farms with which we are dealing—hundreds of thousands—we must recognise that it is impossible for us to do more than make a small supplement in the way of additional services to help the farmer to do what is normally his own job of keeping under control and destroying his rabbits as far as he can.

The whole Bill is drafted on that basis, and I believe that we should be wrong if we were to shift far from it. We have asked our county committees to prepare for the Bill going on the Statute Book so that they will have the necessary resources to carry out our intentions in it. Their function will be primarily advisory in regard to clearance areas, in advising the occupiers of the land concerned on what is necessary to be done in those areas and in generally guiding them. We shall be able to provide services to some extent for those farmers who are not able to provide for themselves. At present, almost all the county committees operate a service for gassing, which will be more, or less universally available.

6.30 p.m.

We have also asked the county committees to see that, where farmers cannot do it themselves, or in the extreme cases where an order has been made and where the Minister has to take default action, they will be ready to operate their own trapping schemes. Most committees have small teams normally engaged in such operations as the catching of rats and mice, but doing a certain amount of rabbit catching as well, so that they will be available in extreme cases.

Our general approach to this matter is not to proceed by way of a great number of orders. Quite obviously, we should make very poor progress if that was so, and our idea is that the right way to proceed is with the maximum amount of co-operation from the farmers, the majority of whom are willing and anxious to co-operate. Our intention is to start in the most likely areas for clearance schemes, and to widen out the operations from these most likely areas into other areas, hoping gradually to join them up and cover substantial parts of the country.

The hon. Baronet the Member for Gravesend (Sir R. Acland) said that to exterminate the last rabbit was a colossal undertaking, and, while I hope we all live a long time, I think we should be extremely fortunate if we lived to see it.

Mr. Philips Price

We never shall.

Mr. Nugent

Well, that is a point of view.

In any event, this Bill is a constructive start on the task of making more possible than is the case under the 1947 Act the establishment of these clearance areas and making progress with the job. The 1947 Act has a defect that the Minister's grants can only apply to groups of farmers, and cannot apply to individuals. This Bill remedies that defect and makes this scheme a more practicable proposition.

That is the outline of our intentions, and, on the point about the use of troops, I may say that no further statutory provision is needed. The Armed Forces are willing and able to give us their assistance in emergencies such as harvesting, and so on, and, if a special emergency arises in which my right hon. Friend thought there was justification for it, he would call upon them for an exercise which I do not doubt would be very popularly received. Whether they will be called upon or not, I am not able to predict.

On the point made by the hon. Members for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) and Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) about the farm-worker taking part in this project, I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) gave the answer. In subsections (4) and (5) of Clause 1, we have taken the necessary powers to widen the operation of the Ground Game Act so that, where the owner is not willing to co-operate, the Minister, where he is satisfied that it is necessary, can give permission for the use of additional guns so that the occupier may employ them. No doubt, in many cases, they will be only too glad of this assistance, because many farmers already encourage their workers to take part, and a very great help they are.

Broadly, that covers the main points raised in the discussion, and I hope that I have said enough to outline what our general intention is in regard to the additional powers for which my right hon. Friend is asking here. I hope I have indicated the lines on which we intend to proceed, and have shown that we have the necessary resources to proceed on those lines, and that the Committee will now agree to the Amendment.

Mr. Kenyon

The Minister has omitted any reference to my question about the gin trap.

Mr. Nugent

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. The position is that we have asked committees to use the Imbra as the general practice, and it is in general use now, but, in some areas the gin trap is still in use because the Imbra is not effective in those areas. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, therefore, is that it is fairly general Practice to use the Imbra and not the gin trap, but that we cannot deprive ourselves of the use of the gin trap in those areas in which the Imbra is unworkable.

Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

Why is it possible to use the Imbra in some places and not in others? I understand that it is mainly a question of the unwillingness of some people to use it?

Mr. Nugent

No, it is not unwillingness. It is true that the Imbra is not as easy to use. It is more difficult to handle and its catching powers are not as good as those of the gin trap, but there are some places where it is not usable on account of its greater size. It requires a larger hole than the normal rabbit hole, and in rocky ground it is often impossible to enlarge the hole sufficiently to take the trap. In sandy places, any attempt to enlarge the hole might cause the collapse of the mouth and defeat the object. Therefore, there are some places where that method cannot be used.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 4 to 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.