HC Deb 22 October 1954 vol 531 cc1502-58

Order for Second Reading read.

11.10 a.m.

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

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

I hope the House will agree that this Bill, though a small one, is a useful one. I am sorry that the first Measure with which I should be associated in my present post should have such an unromantic title as this one has. As hon. Members know, the Bill deals with wild rabbits, which, at the present time, are a very topical subject. The Bill came to us from another place about six months ago, and as a great deal has happened since then I should like to start by saying something about recent events and the situation as we see it today. Then we can judge the Bill against an up-to-date background.

Myxomatosis first appeared in this country about 12 months ago, with outbreaks in Kent and East Sussex. When that happened, all possible steps were taken to stamp out the infection. Although the damage done by wild rabbits to crops and forestry is immense —it has been calculated as amounting to about £50 million a year—it seemed clear, on the other hand, that on humanitarian and other grounds there was a case against allowing the disease to become established if we could prevent it, at any rate until we knew more about its implications.

My predecessor and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland set up a Myxomatosis Advisory Committee to study the implications of the disease and to guide us in dealing with the very difficult practical problems involved. The Committee endorsed straight away the attempts that had been made to control and stamp out the disease, but further outbreaks had occurred in this country before the end of last year and the Committee felt that it had no alternative to advising us that the continuation of efforts to control and limit the spread of the disease and to contain it would have no significant influence on its course and would serve no further practical purpose.

On 16th March last the Advisory Committee recommended that no attempt should be made to assist the spread of the disease or to introduce it into new areas into which it had not spread. The Government unhesitatingly accepted that advice, and that has been our policy since. At that time, in March, there were about 12 established outbreaks, all of them in the south-east of England.

The experience from Australia and France, which are the two places with most experience of this unpleasant disease, was that the disease spreads rapidly in the summer. Hon. Members will agree that we have not had quite a normal summer this year, and perhaps, therefore, we still do not know much about how the disease is likely to behave in a normal summer, if there is such a thing, in this country.

There were isolated outbreaks in new areas in May, and it was not until the end of June that there was an appreciable spread outside south-east England. In July, August and September there was a series of outbreaks in England and Wales and Scotland, and during the past few weeks—it may be because the weather has turned warmer—the disease seems to have begun spreading again rather more rapidly.

Today, 12 months after the disease arrived, the position is that it is present to a greater or less extent in every county except one in England and Wales and in all but five counties in Scotland.

Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)

Which is the lucky county in England and Wales?

Mr. Amory

The Isle of Ely. I do not know how much longer it will remain free. In many of the areas where the disease has been running its course, very few rabbits are to be seen.

It is speculation, of course, but I suppose that next year, since we will be starting from the position where there is a much wider spread than there was last spring, we can expect the effects to be a good deal greater. On present evidence, however the disease spreads, many rabbits are likely to survive. This makes it far more important, certainly not less important, that the normal actions that have been taken to destroy rabbits should be intensified. That is an important point. In fact, I think it can be said that the only way that the effects of myxomatosis can really be reduced is to get rid of rabbits.

If any farmers think that myxomatosis alone will do the job for them, I would direct their attention again to Australia and the experience there. In Australia, myxomatosis has been used deliberately as an instrument in rabbit control, but a conference of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation at Melbourne recently stated categorically that four years' experience there had shown that myxomatosis did not produce the final longer-term solution. The conference stressed that the most practical way of ensuring maximum results from myxomatosis was for individual landholders to back up the effects of the virus by an energetic mopping-up campaign. I think hon. Members will agree that we must keep that point in mind throughout our consideration of the Bill.

The Myxomatosis Advisory Committee met again on the 20th of this month to consider the up-to-date evidence. Again, the Committee reaffirmed its opinion that it would be wrong to make any attempt deliberately to spread the disease or to introduce it into areas which are at present unaffected. The Committee approved the action that has been taken by my Department and by the Scottish Department to encourage farmers and landowners to take every possible step, where there were outbreaks, to destroy surviving rabbits and to prevent reinfestation.

The Committee gave a lot of thought to the question whether the deliberate spreading of the disease should be made a penal offence. It had in mind that the disease is almost bound to spread anyway and, therefore, that the action of individuals in spreading it is not likely, in the long run, to affect the course of the disease. In addition, the more the Committee considered the question, the more it appreciated the practical difficulties of proving an offence. Therefore, in the light of these and other considerations, the Committee expressed the view that, having regard to the course the disease has taken and may take in the future, no good purpose would be achieved at present by making it an offence for any person to take steps to spread the disease. In trying to weigh up the whole situation, that seems to me to be a sensible conclusion.

I should like to say a word or two about the Bill. Hon. Members will feel, I think, that the proposals in Part I fit the present situation fairly well. It provides for the designation of rabbit clearance areas, in which there will be a continuing duty on occupiers—I emphasise that word—to keep their land free from rabbits.

It may be suggested that the provision of Part II, dealing with the abolition of the gin trap and the approval of humane alternatives, have been affected, because the market in rabbit meat has been greatly reduced and very little trapping for food is now taking place. But the Government believe that trapping will, at the same time, always have a part to play in rabbit control. Some farmers have succeeded in clearing their land of rabbits without traps, but those who know the country know there are some places where it is impossible to do so without using traps.

Fairly recently we appointed a Humane Traps Advisory Committee and that Committee is pressing on with its efforts. It is a great encouragement to me to know that they are very keen indeed to find a really effective substitute for the gin trap. I am glad about that, because I personally think that there is a great deal of cruelty resulting from the gin trap. It will be an excellent thing if we can find a really effective substitute. The Committee has examined a number of designs and half a dozen have been picked out for trial. I saw that going on the other day when I was visiting the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering.

I would ask anyone who has designed or is working on the design for a trap to lose no time in getting in touch with the Committee through my Department. That equally applies to any hon. Member who might feel he can give his attention to this matter. I should like to appeal to inventors and designers who have had success in other fields to turn their genius and their resources to a solution of this problem. The Committee will be very glad to help in testing or developing any traps that show any promise at all.

As an incentive to workers in this field we are proposing to make ex gratia monetary awards to those whose original designs have led to the development of humane traps that come into general use. I am working out the details of this scheme and will make them known in due course. We are trying to move forward to help produce the result. Although our minds are understandably and rightly preoccupied with humanitarian considerations, we must never lose sight of the fact that the wild rabbit is an appalling pest to the farmer and to the forester. I am glad to say that the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Food are entirely in agreement on this particular point.

So our first task must be to get down and keep down the rabbit population to the lowest practicable level. Having said that, we all want to do it in a way which will cause the minimum possible suffering to rabbits. The Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals recommended that, both on the grounds of humanity and in the interests of the national economy, the Department's policy for the extermination of rabbits was right. That is quite weighty advice. But I am sure that if we are to implement that policy, even allowing for the ravages of myxomatosis, we do need the additional powers that are contained in this Bill.

Part I of the Bill is built on our experience of the voluntary area clearance schemes in the last two years. Clause 1 provides for statutory clearance areas, and, as I have said, it will be the duty of every occupier within those areas to take such steps as are from time to time found necessary to kill wild rabbits or to prevent damage by them. It provides for fixing boundaries. The boundaries of those areas will be settled in consultation with all the interests concerned. People affected will have the opportunity to make representations before the orders are made.

In some cases, to make control effective, it will be necessary to clear scrub woodland, level earth banks, and things of that kind. Sometimes it is not possible to get at the rabbits at all and it will be necessary, I imagine, to fence in areas within the statutory clearance area. Clause 2 makes it possible to give directions to individual occupiers for any of these purposes, and again there will be an opportunity for objections to be made.

Clause 3 enables the Minister to make grants for the purpose of such work. We already can make grants under voluntary schemes, but this provides for grants in the setting of the Bill. I should like again to emphasise that it is proposed that the duty under Part I shall rest on the occupier of the land because we believe that that is the right approach. It is the occupier of the land who is concerned with the loss of production arising from rabbits.

Those are the chief provision of Part I. Now I should like to say a word or two about Part II. When Part II reaches the Committee stage we propose to make modifications to Clause 8 to give effect to the changes announced by my predecessor on 27th May. The effect of these modifications will be that the ban on the gin trap will operate as and from 31st July, 1958. Power is provided two years before that date to postpone the date if circumstances at the time make that necessary. I hope they will not.

I am sure that if we differ on the question of trapping, all of us are absolutely as one in our desire to get rid of any possible element of cruelty that there is in this business. As I have said, the Government are satisfied, being responsible, as we are, for food production, that the use of traps of some kind will be necessary in the future. It is easy to assume that, in a country like this with our inventiveness and ingenuity, it ought to be possible, given sufficient determination, to devise and develop an effective alternative to the gin trap. I own that I have been apt to think that it ought to be an easy thing to do, but it does not seem to be anything like as easy as one would think.

One has got to remember that the rabbit has prodigious breeding capacity; it lives often in most complex burrow systems; and it has a justifiable suspicion of mankind. The gin trap seems to be a simple thing and probably was easy to devise when first thought of. It has been effective for a number of generations and it seems extraordinarily difficult to find an alternative trap which will not only catch the rabbit, but kill it.

It is not only a problem for a mechanical engineer, but it calls for the countryman's knowledge of the immensely varying conditions under which rabbits are caught and the practical problems of trapping under those conditions. It may be unrealistic to expect any new trap to be as efficient as the gin trap, but I am sure that the countryman is reasonably entitled to expect that any new tool he is required to use will, at any rate, do the job.

The Humane Traps Advisory Committee is hard at work on this problem, but I am afraid it is unrealistic to expect early results. In the Government's view we shall require at least two trapping seasons to develop and produce new traps and new designs, and then a further period will be required for manufacture and for trying them out in practice to enable farmers and trappers to have confidence in them and to become proficient. That is why we are satisfied that it is not practicable to make the date earlier than 31st July, 1958.

Clause 9 deals with trapping in the open areas. The Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals recognised that for some areas, unfortunately, it is impossible to get on without trapping in the open, and this Clause really gives effect to the recommendation of that Committee, that the Minister of Agriculture should have the power to authorise the setting of traps in the open in appropriate circumstances. Clauses 10 and 11 are comparable to Clauses 8 and 9 for England and apply to Scotland. The remaining Clauses deal with points of detail which we shall discuss during the Committee stage.

Finally, in this Bill we have sought to serve the interests of food production and forestry, and, at the same time, to make a real advance to meet the views of those who are particularly concerned with the problem from the humanitarian standpoint. The proposals included in the Bill have been developed as a result of consultation with the interests concerned and of the recommendation from the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals to which I have referred. I hope hon. Members will feel that the Bill succeeds in achieving a sensible balance in this difficult matter and that it makes a useful and humane contribution to the solution of the rabbit problem. I also hope hon. Members will feel that myxomatosis enhances rather than detracts from the usefulness of this Bill.

I want to apologise to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South East (Mr. Champion) for any apparent discourtesy in that I may have to rush away for a short time immediately after finishing my speech. I assure him that it is unavoidable. I am sure he will understand, and I shall hasten back as quickly as I can. I shall consider carefully the views expressed and I hope that, when our debate is over, we may decide to give a unanimous Second Reading to this good and useful Measure.

11.33 a.m.

Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)

Of course, I shall understand if the Minister has to leave before I have concluded my remarks. I am sure that the House welcomes the right hon. Gentleman to his new post. It is for us, as the Opposition, to watch him carefully and to carry out our function of criticism; at the same time, we shall support him if we feel that to be justified.

I regard the right hon. Gentleman as a very likeable man. I have followed his excellent work in two previous offices, and I think it is a little unfair of the Prime Minister to appoint the right hon. Gentleman to the graveyard of Tory Ministers. So many of his predecessors came in with so much promise but, unfortunately, had to go out without equal promise into lower jobs, that it seems as though today we are saying to the right hon. Gentleman—and I am sorry to say this—hail and farewell. Indeed, as a humble member of the trade union of Ministers and ex-Ministers, I am bound to say to the right hon. Gentleman that, having regard to the dangers of his job, if he should decide to make an application to the Prime Minister for danger money, I will support him.

Seriously, we wish the right hon. Gentleman success because of the nature of this great industry, which is vital to the economy of our country, and to those whose lives are bound with it. I thought just now that the right hon. Gentleman was about to apologise on behalf of his side of the House for the fact that this Bill has been hanging about for six months. It seems to me to have been my lot to be waiting here every Friday for it to come up. The result is that I have had a speech on ice all this time and it has got a little cold, while I no longer feel as warm about it as I did at the beginning.

It is true that myxomatosis has considerably affected the situation, and I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we have no evidence that this vile disease will wipe out the rabbit pest. That it is a pest will be accepted by everyone who knows anything about the rabbit population, the amount they eat, the difficulty of controlling them, and so on. The experience of Australia points to the fact that there will be left a number of rabbits immune to the disease, which will rapidly breed a new race of rabbits that will spread into those areas from which they are now being cleared by myxomatosis. So it is clear that this Bill should become an Act of Parliament, since it does something worth while.

In passing, may I praise those people who have taken steps to despatch rabbits suffering from the disease? Some of the great humane organisations have taken such steps and many individuals have gone a long way to put rabbits out of agony and to bury them. We thank those people for having done so.

I agree with the Minister that the provisions contained in Section 98 of the 1907 Act were not sufficient to enable us to control this pest, neither were the attempts to encourage voluntary action. I remember that in 1950 a conference to consider action on a voluntary basis was arranged by the Minister of the day. The National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association got together with the Minister and persuaded their local branches to examine how far co-operative action on the part of the owners and occupiers was necessary and what joint schemes should be put into operation.

Only a little progress was made here and there. In the main, that scheme failed to deal with the rabbit pest, and something more had to be done. The Government of 1951 decided to make a study of further legislation on the lines of the recommendations of the Scott Henderson Report. As a humble member of the Government which set up that Committee, I think we ought to thank it for the excellence of the Report pre, sented to us and to thank those who took part in it. The Committee was appointed by my right hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Mr. Ede) and Greenock (Mr. McNeil).

Whilst welcoming the Bill, I have some doubts about its efficiency for the task. Despite what the Minister has said, I do not like the decision on the date about the gin trap. I shall say more about that later and I hope that in Committee we shall not accept the point of view expressed by the Minister and that we shall be able to persuade him to insert some other date.

On Clause 1, the idea of the rabbit clearance area is a sound one, since there is a clear recognition everywhere that the voluntary scheme has failed. However, I regard it as essential that we should give occupiers and owners within the proposed areas the right of consultation before a clearance order is made, and I am glad that this has been included in the Bill. They must be brought into the scheme.

I am not sure from my reading of the Bill what is the sanction for failure on the part of the owner or occupier to carry out the provisions of any direction made to him. I am sure that there must be a sanction, but I have failed to find it. It is bound to be the fact that one bad owner could very well nullify the efforts of 20 good ones. We must be in a position to ensure that where a rabbit clearance area is made, all will participate and play their part in making that area completely free of rabbits. If one bad owner or occupier remains there, the rabbits will easily spread to other areas which have been freed by the good occupiers.

The Scott Henderson Report had something to say about the subject dealt with in Clause 2 of the Bill. The Committee said: …in some parts of the country we have been shown extensive tracts of felled woodland, and of ground surrounding country mansions no longer maintained, which are completely overgrown and often impenetrable; they have often become breeding grounds from which rabbits spread to the surrounding countryside. We were told that there were over 10,000 acres of such derelict land in Hampshire alone. Their clearance is necessarily costly and may not be considered economic in relation to cropping capacity of the ground alone. We are satisfied, however, that rabbits will never be brought near to extermination if such land is allowed to remain in its present condition. This has a direct bearing on the subject of our inquiry because in these conditions open trapping is claimed to be essential. The question might therefore be considered whether the Minister should not be given power to reclaim this derelict land. The kind of picture painted in that paragraph is familiar to all of us. I certainly pass very many of these areas on my journey by train from Westminster to South Wales. In Wiltshire especially one can see great areas where these conditions apply. We ask the Minister to give serious consideration to the question of his taking powers to himself to reclaim this derelict land. Does the Minister propose to do something more than assist in preventive measures in such cases? I can find nothing on the subject in the Bill, and I wonder whether the Minister is satisfied that he has powers under other Acts to deal with such land.

We come now to the most controversial part of the Bill—Clause 8. I have received, as no doubt have other hon. Members, a large number of letters asking me to vote against Clause 8. I think that the writers are completely mistaken, because Clause 8 is a step forward. It is an improvement on the present position, but it does not go far enough. We really want to see the date when this horrible device is no longer permitted brought nearer than July, 1958, the date already announced by the Minister and mentioned again this morning.

It is true that anyone with decent instincts who has ever given this matter a moment's thought or has heard the squeal of pain of a rabbit caught by the neck or other part of its body and left to die a lingering death must hate the thought of the use of this trap for a moment longer. I regard the gin trap as a diabolical instrument. A surgeon has written to me to say: As a surgeon I have to deal with severe fractures of all kinds, including compound fractures of the leg, and I can assure you that these are exquisitely painful. Indeed they are often the cause of more suffering than any other injury we deal with. As a graduate in zoology I can also assure you that a rabbit has a capacity for appreciating pain at least equal to that of a young child. I feel most strongly that the use of these traps which cause so much suffering should be stopped at once. I am convinced that if people only realised exactly how much suffering is caused by them their use would stop at once. The Minister must agree with that or he would not have introduced this Clause.

The Minister agrees that the need is there for abolishing these diabolical instruments. The only point that arises, therefore, is whether July, 1958, is the earliest possible date, having regard to essential agricultural interests. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said in another place: Time must, of course, be allowed for effective substitutes to be provided and for gamekeepers, farmers, trappers, and others whose business it is to get rid of rabbits to adapt themselves to the new traps."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, House of Lords, 26th January, 1954; Vol. 185, c. 419.] The Minister has said very much the same thing this morning.

In this connection, we are bound to ask whether the incidence of myxomatosis has not enormously affected the number of rabbits which will have to be dealt with and therefore the number of traps required and the amount of instruction which will have to be given to those whose job it will be to deal with the remaining rabbits. I am of the opinion that the date ought to be much earlier than July, 1958, which is seven years after the Scott Henderson Report said that gin traps should be abolished within a short period of time. An earlier date would be a stimulus to manufacturers and others to adapt themselves to other forms of trap.

I welcome what the Minister said about ex gratia payments to inventors and others. If it will help at all in this connection, it is something that every humanitarian should welcome. I am glad that the Minister has taken this decision, but the Minister also says that he is holding off until July, 1958, in order to provide what I suppose he would regard as the perfect trap. I believe with the Scott Henderson Committee that, Even if it is not possible to invent a trap which is quite as effective as the gin trap in trapping animals, the reduction of cruelty at present involved in the use of the gin will more than compensate for a short loss of efficiency. That is a factor which we must all keep in our minds. We on this side of the House will seek in Committee to amend the date to one much earlier than that provided in the Bill.

We cannot accept the Minister's proposals in this connection. We believe that we should make it obligatory upon the Minister to make the date July, 1956, for example, and that if, when that date is approaching, he believes that it will be disastrous then to abolish the gin trap, he should come to the Dispatch Box and justify his position to the House. We believe that if there were to be any postponement after July, 1956, he should present a Statutory Instrument and get it through both Houses of Parliament under the affirmative procedure. This would give him a chance to carry on the use of this gin trap for a longer period, but he would have to come to the House to justify his actions, which I think it is always a good thing for Ministers of the Crown to have to do. Particularly in this case would that be so if he had to come here and justify any extension after July, 1956.

There is another point, upon which I shall not place much emphasis this morning. It is believed by a number of people in this country that commercial trapping and the commercial exploitation of the rabbit results in its preservation rather than its extinction. I do not know whether or not that is a fact, but it is something which ought to be considered. I am sure it will be considered, despite the fact that myxomatosis for the moment has killed the commercial interest in rabbits, because most of us are very much afraid of eating an animal which might have died from this disease. We shall have to consider, in the circumstances which will prevail when we have a new race of rabbits growing up in this country, whether commercial trapping and exploitation results in the preservation rather than the extinction of rabbits.

Despite my criticisms as to the date and so on, we on this side welcome the Bill. We hope it will have a Second Reading this afternoon and that in Committee we may further examine it and amend it in the right direction.

11.53 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Hurd (Newbury)

I add my welcome to the Bill which is more timely, more appropriate, today than when it first came to another place.

Mention has been made of Australia. During the Recess I had the opportunity of being in Queensland and New South Wales, for five weeks. I was there for three weeks before I realised I had not seen a rabbit and, during the whole time I was there, I saw only a score. Indeed, one notices them much more in my county of Wiltshire where, I am afraid, we still have a great many rabbits Fortunately, from the food production point of view, myxomatosis is spreading in that county, as in every other county of England except the Isle of Ely.

I say "fortunately, from the food production point of view," because I wish to give a responsible opinion from Australia, the opinion of the Federal President of the Graziers' Council of Australia, Mr. W. A. Gunn. He was reported as saying that While the disease of myxomatosis had not yet completely eradicated the rabbit, it had made total eradication possible… That is what I hope we are going to do by this Bill.

Mr. Gunn went on to say that This could be effected by landholders if they followed up their myxomatosis kills with the old-time methods of destruction, poisoning and digging out. Introduction of the myxomatosis virus had done a job for the primary producer far greater than that achieved when the Cactoblastis was brought to Australia to clean out the prickly pear. He went on: For many years rabbits had caused drought seasons by completely devastating rich grazing areas. But the inroads now made on the teeming rabbit population were lengthening the span between drought years. Authorities agreed that myxomatosis had been responsible for a £A50,000,000 boost in increased rural production during 1953. The sum of £50 million in Australia would be equal to £40 million in this country.

.Mr. Gunn added that on his own grazing property, the last two years would have been drought ones but for the stamping out of the rabbit menace. As a result of kills, he would this year shear 2,000 more sheep and he predicted that throughout Australia wool production in the next year would soar to an all-time high record. That is what a responsible man, the Federal President of the Graziers' Council, had to say about myxomatosis spreading in Australia in the last four years. Whether we like it or not, we have myxomatosis here.

I hope that this Bill can be used to get rid of rabbits as a major pest for all time. We are to have clearance areas. I hope that the Minister will tell us how we are to deal with the man who just accepts orders served on him, but does nothing about it. For many years I have tried to keep down rabbits on my farm—I have employed men to keep them down—but it has always seemed that my neighbours were defaulting in their duties. Sometimes I have called in the county pest officer and he has had a bit of a strafe, chased up my neighbours and me. I am always glad to have a notice served on me if it will result in keeping down rabbits in the district. But when another breeding season has passed, the position is just as bad.

I should like to know what teeth we are putting in this Bill for a rabbit eradication campaign. That, I hope, is what we are to have by these rabbit clearance orders. If one or two men in an area just will not do anything effective, are we giving the Minister power to put in rabbit trappers, or gassers, to destroy the rabbits and to charge the cost to the occupier who is defaulting in his responsibility to himself, his neighbours and the country? We want to be clear about that. We want to be sure that we are taking effective powers, not merely making pest orders and then having to say, "It is just too bad; they have not observed them."

Like the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), I should like to see the abolition of the gin trap. Many times I have caught my fingers in a gin trap when getting a dog or cat out, or releasing some other unhappy animal. The hon. Member mentioned Wiltshire as an area where we have scrub and too many rabbits. I expect that what he has seen from the train was some War Office land, or land which belonged to the War Office until a few years ago and has become honeycombed by rabbits. We have to use gin traps in Wiltshire because they are the only effective means we have of keeping down the number of rabbits.

I wish that gassing were more effective everywhere and that we had a humane alternative to the gin trap. I very much hope that Mr. Roland Dudley and his Committee which is now working with the full support of the Ministry and the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering will very quickly find and promote the manufacture of an effective humane alterative to the gin trap. If we could get that within a year, my belief is that another 12 months would be fully adequate to give notice to the trade and the farming community that the gin trap has gone for all time.

I should not like the Minister to find himself bound not to prohibit the gin trap until 1958. I hope that now an energetic team is on the job, and myxomatosis is limiting the size of the problem, we may be able to move faster. I desire my right hon. Friend to look at that before we come to Committee stage. The Bill has my blessing and I think it will do good. I hope that it will have enough teeth in it and that now we have myxomatosis we shall have the complete eradication of rabbits as a major pest and a saving of 5 per cent. or 10 per cent. in agricultural output now lost through pests. To that extent, our agriculture will be more efficient and better able to compete with agriculture in any other part of the world.

12 noon.

Mr. John Dugdale (West Bromwich)

I should like to add my congratulations to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) to the Minister of Agriculture on having assumed his new position. If we must have a Conservative Minister of Agriculture, and I suppose that for a few months, at any rate, that is an unfortunate necessity—we can think of no better gentleman to occupy the position than the right hon. Gentleman who now holds that office.

I do not propose to speak for very long, because I know there are many hon. Members from agricultural districts who are anxious to speak, and I do not for a moment pretend that, representing as I do a district in the Black Country, I am a farmers' representative, but I should like to say one or two words on Clause 8. I welcome the fact that a date has been set, but I join with other hon. Members in wishing that that date could be made earlier. I think it can be made earlier if we take one or two steps to help matters forward.

What we are seeking at the moment is an adequate substitute, something that will really do the job, because all of us, townsmen as well as countrymen, realise that it is vitally necessary that the rabbit should be eliminated. But I think that steps should be taken to find a better substitute, and I think those steps could be taken if a greater degree of urgency were shown in the matter. If it were a question of finding something that would help to win a war, inventors would at once come forward to produce maybe a better tank or a better bomber. But this matter is not considered to be on that level of importance. There is not, therefore, the pressure to produce a new invention.

I ask the Minister, in the first place, whether he would consider offering some very substantial prize for the provision of a new and successful trap. I would ask him, too, not to pay attention to the views of trappers. It is important to get a trap that will be successful from the farmers' point of view, but whether it is successful from the trappers' professional point of view does not matter at all, and we should not allow that consideration to stand in the way of getting a new invention. Providing that it keeps down rabbits, that is all that is necessary. If we do these two things, we shall make more rapid progress than we might otherwise.

Quite apart from having an earlier date —and in that connection I entirely support my hon. Friend—I hope that we may also prohibit the manufacture of gin traps at an earlier date than 1956. Obviously, it is important to prohibit their manufacture before prohibiting their use. We do not want the manufacture of a large number of traps which will pile up and be in existence on the date at which it is suggested they should be abolished, because people would say "Look at all these traps which the manufacturers have made, they will be wasted. Let us have the date a bit later." That is something we want to avoid.

Do not let us seek perfection in this matter. Naturally, we all want a perfect trap, just as we want to get anything else perfect, but if we get something that is very good and is reasonably satisfactory, let us then go forward with it and not wait for this perfection which may never come at all.

I hope it will never be said that British agriculture, for which we all have the greatest respect, depends on the use of the gin trap. It was said many years ago that Britain depended on slavery. It was said that the coal mines depended on the use of child labour, but it was found that they did not depend on it, and they functioned very satisfactorily without child labour. I hope that British agriculture will flourish without the gin trap just as greatly as it has flourished with the gin trap. Let us go forward and abolish this evil thing.

12.5 p.m.

Sir Thomas Moore (Ayr)

I, like other hon. Members, believe that this is a good Bill. I share, I imagine, with other hon. Members present a personal regret that it could not have been introduced by the former Minister who gave so much time and knowledge to the consideration of the objects of the Bill; but, judging from our previous experience, I am confident that the present Minister will prove a worthy successor and will not fall short of our confidence in his capacity.

The only real criticism I have—and in this I am not in agreement with those who have already spoken—is that since the Bill was drafted, discussed and amended in another place, it has become somewhat out-of-date. When legislation on this subject was first proposed, as we know, the conscience of the country and especially of the farmers who used it had become increasingly restive and disturbed about this barbarous instrument, the gin trap. That attitude of mind and of conscience was reflected in the recommendations of the Northumberland Committee, which advised that the traps should be abolished at the earliest possible moment. It seems to me that the Bill was drawn up largely on the assumption that the gin trap was the main, or at any rate the most important, method of reducing the rabbit population, but I will deal with that matter in a minute.

All of us, I suppose, have wondered at times why the gin trap has been so long tolerated. It has been in the minds of farmers and humanitarians for scores of years, and yet here we find ourselves today with the gin trap widely used. The reasons are threefold. It is cheap and efficient, and there is no equally cheap or efficient alternative. Then there is another and, I am afraid, possibly more unpleasant reason, in that it represents the means of making rabbit-catching a profitable commercial enterprise. We were told on many occasions that £40 million a year was made through the sale of the skins and the flesh of rabbits.

Since the Minister has referred to the ex gratia payment that he has in mind for awarding to inventors, I think it would be appropriate here to mention that before the war the R.S.P.C.A. offered a reward of £300 for an alternative humane trap. The reward was paid to a gamekeeper called Sawyer. His was an admirable trap in that it killed without pain or mutilation, but it soon revealed disadvantages, into which I need not go now. So the search for a suitable trap went on. Eleven models were devised, and, so far as I know, the best of the present lot is the Imbra trap, which has already been tried out on a number of farms and has proved that it can do its job, but it has also some minor defects which I understand are now going to be overcome.

We ask ourselves why it is that throughout all these years success has managed to elude us. I think the answer is simple—because there is no commercial enterprise and enthusiasm displayed in finding the answer. That is easy to understand. The gin trap is simple to manufacture. It is easy to set, unfortunately. It is effective in catching its prey, whatever that prey might be. Also—and this is the real crux of the matter—it is permitted by law, and as long as it is permitted by law, so long will the gin trap remain with us.

Now we know that, because of the public outcry in this matter, the Minister has announced under this Bill that the gip trap is to be abolished in 1958. Of course, that is a four-year delay, and as we have heard already this morning—and as has been proved over the last few months—such delay was not acceptable to the House or the country: And so, on 27th May, the Minister had a change of heart and we were told that the gin trap would be abolished as soon as a suitable alternative had been found. So far, so good, but since then the whole position has changed. This dread disease, myxomatosis has got its grip on the country. We know its history, first in South America, in Brazil, I think by accident to wild rabbits; then Australia and France deliberately, and then—I hope by accident—in Britain.

What are the net results of the introduction of this disease? In the areas affected, rabbits have been practically exterminated, and therefore it has been of benefit to the farmers. I do not say that it pleases them, but it has benefited them. The skin and the flesh of the rabbits is rendered worthless and therefore it displeases the poacher and the rabbit trader. Thirdly, the suffering to the rabbits is so obvious and so horrifying that it shocks everyone. That is the result of myxomatosis in this country. On balance, therefore, it seems to me that the wilful extension of this disease—and here I come up against the decision of the Minister yesterday—should be made an offence. The Minister said yesterday that he did not agree and could not make an Order. I ask him whether he supposed that this disease could be spread to other animals and he said that he thought not.

I have here the report of an inspector of the R.S.P.C.A. who says that he has seen that, seagulls, carrion crows and magpies are eating many of the dead rabbits. I have actually seen a black backed gull pecking the eyes out of a rabbit before it was dead. If that is so, it seems to me obvious that other animals will share in the eating of these myxomatosis rabbits and I cannot conceive other than that sooner or later the disease will spread, not only to other animals, but possibly to humans as well. So I hope that public opinion will induce the Minister to change his mind on this subject and to make an Order. He can do that under the Diseases of Animals Act. The very first Section of that Act gives him the power to make such an Order. Furthermore, in my view, the disease itself will soon create its own anti-virus and there will be a new breed of immune rabbits, which will make the position ultimately much the same as it is today.

I come back to the provisions of the Bill, which are admirable so far as they go, but I think that we are all agreed that they do not go far enough. To my mind, this is a Government problem and the responsibility of the Government. The Government need food for the people and rabbits destroy that food. But there are many other useful measures which may be used to destroy rabbits. It seems to me almost as if the gin trap is looked upon as the only means to keep down the rabbit population. But there are many other means of keeping rabbits under control about which we all know, many of us have used them. In the district where I live and on the farms with which I am connected, we have used cyanide gassing, the long net, shooting, and ferreting with terriers, although I do not say that I recommend all these methods. We have the badger, which can now be destroyed by shooting, but which is a very valuable animal in keeping down the rabbits. We also have wire-netting to protect the crops.

If the Government—as I feel sure it is their intention and desire to do—will cooperate with farmers and give every assistance to the great humane societies in helping to organise these methods in every district in a way which might combine all the methods I have mentioned, I believe that such efforts would be successful. If, as was indicated by the Minister today, they will pursue the question of finding a humane alternative to the gin trap with all the enthusiasm and determination possible, I think that they will be successful.

It has been said—it was said by the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) today—that if our survival in war depended on the invention of a humane trap, such an instrument would be provided overnight. Inventions such as Pluto, the pipeline, Mulberry, and other great works are often quoted as examples. Yet the Minister has admitted—not this morning but on recent occasions—that for seven years an alternative trap to the gin trap has been sought in vain. With all due respect to the Department of Agriculture, that seems to me to be pure nonsense. I beg the Government to get on with the job. If they succeed, their efforts will receive a great welcome in the country, particularly from farmers themselves, who greatly dislike using the gin trap.

I hope that my final remarks will help to allay the anxiety of people in the country who are greatly concerned about the horrible results of myxomatosis. Again, I come back to the work of the humane societies. Since this evil thing got its teeth into the country, the R.S.P.C.A. has set up mercy squads. At present there are 43 such mercy squads operating all over the country, and up to date they have destroyed, by shooting, 278,509 of these infected rabbits. That is a very considerable number and it shows what can be done. Farmers can be put in touch with the nearest mercy squad and can be supplied with the telephone number of the inspector heading the squad at any time. That, at any rate, will ease the consciences of many of us who are so gravely preoccupied with this tragedy.

12.18 p.m.

Dr. Horace King (Southampton, Test)

I wish to support what has been said by the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) about mercy killing and to urge not only the farmers to co-operate with the R.S.P.C.A. but also the Minister himself to do everything he can in support of endeavours to kill off dying rabbits. It seems to me strange that we should be making a law of this kind and yet that it does not include some provision for dealing with what I regard as the most acute rabbit problem at the moment.

This is a double-barrelled Bill. Its main purpose is twofold. Part of its purpose is to destroy rabbits more effectively and scientifically, and the other part is to do what Parliament continues to do from time to time, to protect animals by seeing that such killing is done decently—in this case, by ultimately abolishing the cruel gin trap.

About the gin trap I would say that I am delighted with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), who declared his opposition to Clause 8 of the Bill in its present form. I note the wording of the Clause is that the Minister shall make the gin trap illegal not earlier than July, 1958. As it stands, the Clause merely enables some Minister at some time not specified to make the gin trap illegal. He does not have to do so by any specified date. But if the Bill becomes law, he is forbidden to make gin traps illegal before July, 1958. I hope the Clause will be altered so that the gin trap will be prohibited either when the Measure becomes law or on some fixed date written into the Act.

I sometimes wonder why people describe as mere sentimentality the work that we do in Parliament from time to time to end sheer and wanton cruelty. When Parliament was legislating about boy chimney sweeps, child factory labour and slavery, people accused the reformers of being sentimentalists. It is not sentiment but sheer sense, justice and righteousness to avoid any unnecessary cruelty, and the real sentimentalist is the man who at the moment conjures up charming illusions that rabbits dying from myxomatosis do not feel the long-drawn-out death but are providentially lulled into a coma soon after the onset of the disease. How comforting that illusion must be to the man who spreads myxomatosis. How we used to console ourselves with the thought that the subject races liked being kicked about. The evidence seems to be all the other way.

I do not question the killing off of rabbits. Obviously we must take man's side on this. We claim that man is a superior animal and that any inferior animals which get in his way must be eliminated, although the inferior animals may sometimes have some doubts about who is superior to whom when they see atomic bomb preparations, blitzed cities and the kind of warfare that we have had this century.

But if we believe in the killing of animals which get in our way, decent humanity protests against torture. We try to kill our criminals decently. We have increasingly legislated for the killing of animals which we need for our food or which are mere nuisances as decently and swiftly as possible. That being so, I cannot understand why the promoters of the Bill have not included some measure to make illegal the deliberate spreading of myxomatosis.

I listened carefully to the arguments which the Minister produced in his statement about the Myxomatosis Committee. He said that from the beginning the Government had taken the view that it was wrong to spread myxomatosis deliberately, but that the Committee, as late as Tuesday, had decided that it would be wrong to make it illegal for two reasons —because it would spread anyhow and because we could not catch the culprits. I suggest that those are not good enough reasons for not making illegal something which is revolting the conscience of the British people.

From what we have seen and read this summer, the gin trap gives almost a pleasant death compared with the death inflicted by myxomatosis. Yet even now by law we prohibit the indiscriminate laying of gin traps, and even now we insist by law that gin traps shall be visited once a day so that no animal shall suffer pain more than 24 hours. Moreover, the horror and cruelty of myxomatosis is on a mass scale. It was not merely the foul nature of the Nazi crimes at Auschwitz which made them so loathsome; it was the sheer number of them. For any rabbit which suffers agony in a gin trap there must be hundreds of rabbits which suffer the long-drawn-out agonies of myxomatosis.

HANSARD is a record for future generations. Let them know that in 1954 a Christian nation tolerated the spreading of a disease about which an R.S.P.C.A. inspector wrote: I have never been so terribly sickened and disgusted, and I am still haunted by the sight of those creatures. Without any shadow of doubt, they suffer intense agonies and miseries for at least 10 days. Yet by law we have limited the agony of the gin trap to 24 hours. People motoring through the British countryside this summer have seen the creatures, blinded, swollen, crawling about and waiting for the mercy of death. Those writing in to the R.S.P.C.A. have spoken about rabbits in their blind agony throwing themselves against walls.

I said yesterday at Question time that I have met farmers who 12 months ago were in favour of myxomatosis for the good reason that it was a weapon of extermination and because it promised to get rid of the pests, but having seen the disease in action, these farmers have changed their minds, just as Stogumber changed his mind about the burning of Joan of Arc when he had seen her at the stake.

I am glad that tribute has been paid to these mercy killers. As some measure of what has happened in our countryside, we have been told that more than 250,000 suffering creatures have been put out of their misery by the R.S.P.C.A.—a fraction of the vast number of rabbits that have died by myxomatosis.

I am glad that the Christian Church has spoken on this matter and that the Dean of Winchester has called the introduction of the disease: …an action of sacrilege, utter impiety, foreign to human decency, pointing not to man's triumph over nature but to his enslavement by the powers of evil… Those are indeed grave words from an eminent ecclesiastic, and every Christian ought to ponder over them.

Myxomatosis may fail to wipe out the rabbits. Indeed, what has surprised me more than anything this morning has been the complete acceptance by the House of the fact that myxomatosis will not exterminate the rabbit. That has been shown in Australia, and even in the gloating speech quoted this morning about the £50 million profit resulting from the widespread ravages of the disease.

Nature has her own ways. The plagues of the Middle Ages failed to wipe out humanity. There comes a point when a strain builds up immunity against a disease. If this should happen to the rabbit, then we and the other nations concerned will have inflicted mass-agony without parallel in history upon an animal, and for nothing.

It may be that, having played about with the balance of Nature, we shall find that Nature will have her own back, as she has often done in the past, and that the animals who live on rabbits may seek elsewhere for their food, and then we shall have to start inoculating the enemies of rabbits and ultimately the enemies of the enemies of rabbits.

Therefore, I urge the House to modify the Bill and to include in it a Clause making the deliberate spreading of myxomatosis illegal. I blame the Government for not taking action before now. At any rate, we can now declare where we stand. I believe that the whole country is outraged by what it has seen this summer. We may yet be sorry for what we have done in tolerating the deliberate spreading of myxomatosis.

I believe it was the Edwardian animal-loving poet, Ralph Hodgson, who said that the bells of heaven would ring their wildest peal for years if the parson and the people knelt down with angry prayers for blind pit ponies and tamed and shabby tigers and did something to stop wanton cruelty to animals. If the poet was right, then the bells of hell must have been ringing very wildly, very happily during these last six months. I would urge this House to range itself behind the Christian Church, and to follow, since it has refused to lead, the mass of public opinion, and say that we shall have no further part, as far as we are concerned, in myxomatosis, but that we will use this Pests Bill to prevent anyone at least from deliberately adding to the trail of misery and cruelty which is so ugly a blot on our country in 1954.

12.31 p.m.

Mr. Eric Johnson (Manchester, Blackley)

The constituency which I represent is, of course, largely urban, but that should not lead anyone to suppose that there is not a very wide interest even there in this Bill, and especially in Clause 8. My own interest in the matter arises from the fact that I have always lived in the country. I live at a place which is absolutely over-run with rabbits, and I am well aware of the vast amount of damage which they do to growing crops, grass, young trees, and so on. I do not think anyone would deny that there are far too many rabbits in the country, or that the need to get rid of a large number of them, or, at any rate, establish some control over them, is very pressing indeed.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) will perhaps forgive me if I do not follow him in what he had to say about myxomatosis, because I wish to refer to other matters. It is true that rabbits used to have a certain food value before the advent of this disease, but there is no doubt that the amount which they consume is very much greater. In fact, rabbits cost very much more than they are worth, and on these grounds we might very reasonably agree with the Report of the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals which, in June, 1951, expressed the opinion, which many hon. Members have accepted today, that the country would benefit by the total extermination of rabbits.

There is one small point which I should like to make in connection with this suggested extermination of rabbits, which may not have wide acceptance from hon. Members. The fact is that rabbit fur is the basis of an industry which realises about £8 million a year. I admit that even if that be added to the £7 million worth of rabbit meat which used at one time to be sold, it can still be argued that the balance is still very much on the wrong side if we accept the figure of the amount of damage they do as being about £50 million a year.

But the best wild rabbit fur in the world is produced in the British Isles, it is used in an extensive industry making men's and women's hats, and British rabbit fur commands the highest prices in the export market. We used to produce 36 million rabbit skins a year, of which two-thirds were exported to Canada and the United States, the other third being used in making fur felting for hats in this country.

My interest in the matter is because the industry is situated, not in my own constituency, but in that immediately adjacent to it, and because some of my constituents are employed in the hat-making industry. That industry has been going through a very difficult time, and there is no doubt that, if rabbits were totally exterminated, we should then have to import fur felt instead of making it ourselves. We should lose the value of that export, hats would become much more expensive, and it would cause considerable unemployment in an industry which employs about 6,000 workers. That is a point which does merit a little consideration when we are discussing the suggested total extermination of rabbits.

The Explanatory and Financial Memorandum to the Bill refers to more effective control, and what we have to do is to see whether the provisions of the Bill will carry out a very wide measure of control and will do it without causing unnecessary suffering. Part I of the Bill seems to fulfil the desired purpose very well indeed, provided that the powers given to the Minister of Agriculture are, in fact, effectively used. Clause 8 is the controversial part of the Bill. No one would deny that the gin trap causes a tremendous amount of suffering, and there are many who have expressed this view who feel that my right hon. Friend might have gone a little further than his predecessor did when he promised at any rate to prohibit the use of the gin trap by 1958—not to make it permissive, but to prohibit it on that date.

In an answer to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) on 27th May, the Minister gave the assurance that these traps would, in fact, be prohibited by 1958, provided—and this is the snag—a suitable humane trap had become available by that time.

To those who accept Clause 8 as it stands, I should like to put two questions. First, are gin traps so much the most effective method of killing rabbits that we must repress our humane instincts and, in the interests of food production, allow a drastic reduction in the number of rabbits? Secondly, is it not possible to devise a trap which will kill rabbits painlessly in a much shorter period than the three years envisaged in the Bill? I am convinced that my answer to the first question would be that the gin trap is not essential for the most effective killing of rabbits. To the second, I should say that it is possible—that it must be possible—to devise before 1958 another method which can kill rabbits painlessly.

I will not say any more on the view which has been expressed that, if we can produce a hydrogen bomb and can wipe out whole cities with one of these bombs, surely we can invent something to kill a rabbit without maiming it in the process. I claim that the gin trap is not essential, because there are many other ways of killing rabbits—by the use of gas, netting, shooting and so on. I do not believe that farmers generally have paid enough attention to the use of nets, though I quite realise that there are many types of country infested by rabbits where the use of nets is out of the question.

I believe that to combine the use of nets with gassing will be more effective if seriously entered into than some people would be inclined to agree. I also believe that a combination of gas and netting could bring about a drastic reduction in the rabbit population, but, all the same, I readily admit that there are certain cases in which I think the use of traps is absolutely essential, and in which we cannot do without them.

If that be so, we must devise and insist upon the use of a trap which will kill rabbits painlessly, and here we may run up against the vested interests of the commercial trapper, who, of course, does not so much want a trap which kills the rabbit as one which only catches it, so that it may be sold fresh into the market the next day. I know that myxomatosis has for the present almost done away with the importance of commercial trapping, but rabbits may eventually become immune to the disease, and then commercial trapping will be started all over again. The commercial trapper does not want a rabbit which has been dead for some hours. He wants it caught and held in a trap so that he may kill it and sell it fresh. I do not think that such considerations should be allowed to stand in the way. We must enforce the use of a trap which kills the rabbit painlessly.

Figures have been given to show that about 3 million gin traps are in use in this country. It is said that it will take more than three years to replace them. I do not believe it is any use saying that the use of them shall be forbidden in 1958 provided that a suitable substitute has been devised, because that qualification will prevent anyone from devising a substitute which those who use the trap will be ready to admit is equally effective. We must take much more drastic action.

I was very much impressed with the suggestion made by the right hon. Member for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale), that the manufacture of gin traps should be prohibited at a much earlier date. I suggest that the manufacture of gin traps should be prohibited from the day on which the Bill receives the Royal Assent. I would not say that their sale must be prohibited until, for example, 1st January, 1956, because we must allow those already made to be sold. Their use could be prohibited from 1st January, 1957. That would give ample time for the invention of a new trap and for getting rid of some of the old stock without inflicting undue hardship on anybody who had a stock of traps.

I am not thoroughly happy about the references in Clause 9 to open trapping. I hope that the Minister will look very carefully into this matter before he gives, permission under the Clause for open trapping to be used.

I believe that we are very much inclined, as a nation, especially in country districts, to resist change. We tend to put off doing anything until we have to do it. For that reason I believe that we shall never get rid of the gin trap until we are compelled by legislation to do so. There is no reason why it should not be abolished within two years, or just over, of the passing of the Bill. Clause 8 in its present form is rather a black spot on an otherwise extremely valuable Bill, which will serve a useful 'purpose. I shall certainly support the Bill and I hope that the House will unanimously support the Second Reading. I should feel very much happier if the Minister would give us an assurance that he will have another look at Clause 8 and consider whether he can amend it at a later stage.

12.43 p.m.

Mr. Somerville Hastings (Barking)

There is very little I want to say about the speech we have just heard, because I am in complete agreement with practically all that the hon. Member for Blackley (Mr. E. Johnson) said. I am not so anxious about the fur coats as he seems to be. I am sure there will be a substitute for making hats. I have seen beautiful white and coloured fur coats worn by ladies which never rested on the back of an animal and were made entirely from nylon or similar substances. I do not see why hats should not be synthetically made.

All of us who have had experience of the evil effects of rabbits on the land will welcome the object of the Bill which is the creation of rabbit clearance areas. My only doubt is whether the methods proposed in the Bill will achieve the result. There are many "ifs" and "buts" about it. Again and again I read, "as far as reasonably practicable," or something of that sort. Unless the Minister makes up his mind, in spite of all opposition and at all costs, that rabbit clearance areas shall be rabbit-free areas, and unless he is prepared to adopt any method that may be necessary to achieve this result, we shall not get all from the Bill that people have desired.

I am not a farmer, and I have never been a farmer, but I know from personal experience what trouble rabbits give to gardeners and how difficult it is, when a garden has a common on one side of it, to keep rabbits out. They seem to get over or through fences in a way which one never expects. It is as essential to eliminate rabbits for efficient farming as it is to eliminate tuberculosis from cattle for efficient dairy herds. There is a good deal to be said for tackling the problem on the same lines.

When I first became a Member of this House I was worried about the amount of tuberculosis that resulted in human beings from drinking tuberculous milk from cattle infected with tuberculosis. With the late Dr. Salter, who was a Member of the House at that time, I went as a deputation to the then Minister of Agriculture and we put our case before him for the elimination of tuberculosis in dairy herds. The Minister turned to the officers of his Department who were with him and asked, "What would you do if I asked you to prepare a scheme for the complete elimination of tuberculosis from the cattle of this country within, say, 15 or 20 years?" The officers looked at one another. Then they replied, "We should all resign." But today approximately half the herds of cattle of this country are now free from tuberculosis. In other countries tuberculosis has been completely eliminated from dairy herds.

I do not think that merely issuing rabbit clearance orders will get rid of rabbits in a particular area or in the country generally. A great many farmers are small men and cannot undertake the complete clearance of rabbits. Some of them do not think far enough ahead and when a trapper comes along and offers them half the proceeds of trapping they are a little inclined to be led away by them.

The Minister must not only designate clearance areas, but must aid the farmers in getting the areas cleared and putting wire netting around them. He must provide a squad of people skilled in the elmination of the rabbit. Once the rabbit is eliminated, the Minister will have the right to say to any farmer, "If the rabbits reappear I shall now be justified in making you pay the whole cost of their elimination."

I realise that this is asking a great deal, but I know what a great burden to agriculture the rabbit is. Reverting to the simile of tuberculosis in cattle, when this was first talked about the less intelligent farmers resisted it. I have heard it said that tuberculous cows, although they do not live as long, give large quantities of milk. Whether that is true or not, I do not know, but I know that at first there was a good deal of resistance to the idea of elimination of "T.B." Now, every farmer worthy of his name welcomes the elimination of tuberculosis in cattle, not only, I think, because of the better price he gets for his milk, but because of the advantage to his herds.

I believe that once we demonstrate to farmers that rabbits can be completely eradicated from farms, and also demonstrate to them the improved crops that they will get as a result, they will be ready to co-operate with the Minister. I maintain that it is worth the right hon. Gentleman's while to take great trouble at first to demonstrate in different parts of the country the advantage of completely rabbit-free areas because, as has been pointed out, rabbits eat the best of the crops, the clover and fine grass, and leave the weeds. Also, they are hungriest in the winter, when food is short.

Now a word or two about traps. I agree with all that has been said about the diabolical cruelty of the gin trap. When I come back from the country on a Monday morning, on the occasions that I am fortunate enough to get away for a weekend, and see, at Paddington Station, during the rabbit season boxes of trap-killed rabbits, and look at their legs, and see how many of them have the bone bared, and realise the amount of suffering that must have resulted, I feel ashamed of a country that permits such things.

I am unhappy about this Bill because, as I read it, the elimination of the gin trap seems to depend on the production of a spring trap that is painless. I do not think that we can anticipate with any confidence the development of such a trap in the near future. We have been trying to produce such a trap for 50 years. I, personally, bought the Sawyer trap and the Imbra trap and tried them out myself. My Sawyer trap caught me twice, but no rabbit, and the Imbra trap never caught anything at all.

It may be that I set them badly or that my rabbits knew too much, but those are the facts. On the other hand, I have no difficulty with gin traps. I am able to set them and to catch rabbits in them quite easily. I believe that it may be a long time before we are able to produce an efficient substitute in the form of a spring trap.

I maintain that there are other methods of eliminating rabbits, and I do not think that the spring trap is in any way essential. What about gassing, netting, ferreting, shooting and other methods? I believe that if a bold attempt was made to eliminate rabbits in a given area, it could be done. I also believe that once that was done, and once the Minister had demonstrated in a very large area the advantage of the complete elimination of rabbits, with its resultant benefit to farmers, and got farmers to come from all around to see the better crops which could then be produced, his difficulties would largely be got rid of.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will give careful consideration to what has been put to him today, the making illegal at once of the manufacture of the gin trap and its elimination as soon as reasonable notice has been given to that end.

12.56 p.m.

Mr. Archer Baldwin (Leominster)

I welcome the opportunity of following the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Hastings), because I agree almost entirely with everything that he said. However, before I proceed to the main purpose of the debate, I wish to take this opportunity of congratulating my right hon. Friend on his elevation to a difficult job. Those of us who have sat here as back benchers since 1945 have appreciated his qualities and the work he has. done in the other posts which he has held in the Government. We have every confidence that he will carry out his task as Minister with the same success as he has done his other jobs. Let me say at once that we on this side of the House feel no nervousness that it will be necessary for him to follow his predecessor's example, either in the near or the distant future. I do not think that that will happen while we remain in power, and, therefore, I believe that the possibility of his losing his job is very distant.

As a farmer, I welcome this Bill, and mainly for the reason that it now gives the Minister the opportunity of going in for rabbit clearance schemes. I think that that is the important part of the Bill. I am afraid that I am not very softhearted about my hon. Friends fur felt industry. There may be other substitutes for hat making or there may not be, but I should hate to think that we were proposing to keep rabbits alive for the purpose either of food or furs. I hope that the Minister will study what has been suggested by the hon. Member for Barking, and will immediately initiate rabbit clearance areas.

To bring in a personal note, I have already started on those lines. A few years ago, I happened to come into possession of some scrub land which is infested with rabbits and which has caused a great deal of damage in the neighbourhood for a great many years. That land happens to be bisected by the county boundaries of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. I called in the county executive committee pest officers of these two counties and also the Forestry Commissioners with a view to seeing whether we could have some co-operation in clearing this area of scrub and rabbits. I am glad to say that the two officers concerned have given the scheme their blessing, and that, as soon as this Bill becomes an Act, proposals to this end will he made. We hope that when we have 'successfully eliminated the rabbits, other areas will be induced to follow example. We are covering something like 1,000 acres, and I think that what we shall be able to do will be sufficient to encourage other schemes.

I want to say a word of warning to the Minister, and to suggest to him that when schemes of this kind are in operation and have been accepted and have received a certain amount of the taxpayers' money, steps should be taken to watch that the schemes are not allowed to lapse. In the past, money has been expended on schemes of drainage and so forth, and sufficient steps have not been taken to ensure that the drainage and outlets have been kept in operation. Therefore, I hope that, in dealing with rabbit clearance schemes, the Minister will instruct the county responsible to see that the work, once started, is carried on.

I agree with the hon. Member for Barking in what he said with regard to extending clearance areas. As he rightly said, at one time it was looked upon as almost impossible to eradicate tubercular cattle. Now it has been made possible in some counties, particularly in Scotland and Wales, to compel a complete clearance scheme. I want the Minister to do the same in respect of rabbits. I want to see clearance schemes started and. when they have got well into swing, made compulsory.

There should be no question of one or two awkward individuals being allowed to retain areas as rabbit breeding centres. It is true to say that it is no use one good farmer clearing his rabbits if his neighbours do not do the same. Rabbits, like human beings, appreciate fresh food, and my experience this year has been that when I cleared rabbits from areas which I wanted to plant and the grass began to grow and became fresh, I had an influx of rabbits 'which did not belong to me.

I hope, therefore, that the Minister will not only encourage counties to initiate these schemes, but will see that they take active steps to ensure that the schemes are carried on. There are areas which are still covered with scrub and infested with rabbits. I suggest to the Minister that, if the owners of these areas are not prepared to deal with them, he should invite the Forestry Commission to come in to clear and plant these areas. No one should be allowed to keep land in this country doing nothing.

I want to say a few words on Clauses 8 and 9. I abhor the gin trap. I agree with hon. Members who have said that gin traps are not necessary to clear rabbits. I have been farming for a long time, and in my young days a gin trap was unknown in my area. We killed all our rabbits with snares—I am not going to say that the use of snares is not cruel —or with ferrets. A farmer who came from another area introduced trapping, and it was found to be such an easy and lazy way of catching rabbits that the practice extended.

I will not say that I have never used a gin trap. I have 800 acres, and I have used it in only one particular patch of forest from which I could not get the rabbits out and they burrowed under the wire. I did, however, use these traps myself, and I did not allow anyone to set traps in the open to catch everything that came along. The rest of my farm was dealt with by ferreting, and the rabbits have been kept under reasonable control by that means. Therefore, I am not prepared to say that one cannot do this without gin traps.

I hope that the Minister, in view of what has been said today, will see whether he cannot alter Clauses 8 and 9 so as to bring forward the date and make the sale of these traps illegal at an earlier date. I cannot quite reconcile Clauses 8 and 9. It seems to me—and it may be that I have not read them correctly—that in Clause 8 it is laid down that it is to be an offence if a person sells or exposes for sale spring traps. Under Clause 9, it will apparently be possible for a man to use a spring trap if he obtains the consent of the county executive committee. I cannot see how it is possible for anyone to get permission to use the gin trap under that Clause if the sale of these traps is to be made illegal under Clause 8.

Mr. Amory

I think the point is that under Clause 9 the trap that would be used would be a spring trap, but it would be an approved type of spring trap.

Mr. Baldwin

I am glad to have that explanation because the Clause does not say an approved trap. I think that this point should be cleared up, because spring traps, in my opinion, would be taken to mean gin traps.

I agree with the hon. Member for Barking that there has been a great deal of ingenuity and brains put into devising an alternative to the gin trap, but I have never yet seen anything that is likely to be useful. In my opinion, there is a long way to go before we get an effective alternative trap.

I want to say a word about commercial trapping. There seems to be in existence a feeling that many farmers leave a certain amount of rabbits for breeding so that they have rabbits to catch the following year. In my opinion, that is an entirely fallacious view. Rabbits which are alive at the end of the season are alive because it is an expensive job to eliminate them and not because a farmer wants to breed rabbits for another season. It is expensive to eliminate rabbits. I have had caught over 1,000 rabbits, and I was out of pocket by the time I had paid the catcher. Myxomatosis has rather caused the public to have a revulsion from eating rabbits and they have become so difficult to sell that many farmers, I am sorry to say, do not catch any rabbits at all. I do not want it to get abroad that we accept that farmers keep rabbits for the purpose of providing either fur or flesh for the public. It seems to me that the farmer, generally speaking, employs a trapper so long as it is worth while to catch rabbits and when this becomes too expensive he leaves off.

With regard to myxomatosis, I hope that the Minister will not follow the advice given to him from some quarters of making illegal the spreading of the disease. The disease is in almost every county now and it will spread. It is not yet on my farm, but it is on the other side of the brook from my farm, and I cannot say that I shall be sorry if it spreads to my farm, because I am not one of those who feel that myxomatosis is a great deal more cruel than catching rabbits in a trap or shooting or ferreting them. A rabbit is often injured in that way and crawls away to die in two or three days' time. I cannot suggest that it is not cruel to put a ferret in a rabbit hole and to kill the rabbit at the end of the run. Nature, in allowing the stoat to kill, has not provided a very merciful way of killing the rabbit. I hope that sentimentalists will not go too far with the idea that myxomatosis is any more cruel than the use of traps or ferrets or the shooting of rabbits.

I give the Bill my blessing. I hope that it will be effective in completely eradicating rabbits from our countryside. I know that some of my hunting friends say that if this is done, what will the foxes live on? I suggest that foxes are more fond of rats than rabbits, and I hope, therefore, that they will turn their attention to rats instead of rabbits. I think that most farmers will welcome the Bill.

1.10 p.m.

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu (Brigg)

I am sure that everybody was as interested as I was to hear of the scheme about which the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) was telling us on the borders of Herefordshire and Worcestershire. I, for one, shall look forward with great interest to hearing by what methods he proposes to carry the scheme into effect. From what the hon. Member said subsequently, I gather that the gin trap will not be part of that scheme. I believe that everybody in the House, on all sides, is united about disliking the gin trap and all that it stands for. I am sure that the Minister is no exception and that he will do all that he feels he can do to get rid of it.

In the summer, the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor gave a most categorical answer to my Question, stating that it was the intention of himself and his Ministry not merely to keep down, but to eliminate rabbits; and I gather from what the Minister said today that he is of the same mind and his intention is to eliminate them. The cry that we have had this morning on behalf of the hat manufacturers rather reminded me of the cry that went up in Ephesus when St. Paul was rather successful in his campaigning. The statue makers went round inciting the people to say, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians," because they would be put out of the business of making statues of Diana if St. Paul succeeded to any great tune. We understand that in this House we have to speak on behalf of our constituents or our near-constituents, and I think that the hon. Member for Blackley (Mr. E. Johnson), who spoke about fur for hats, will be forgiven here, particularly having regard to what he said later about the gin trap.

I want to examine the Bill, not from the sentimental angle, but from the purely practical angle, to see to what extent it is likely to achieve the object which, I gather, the Minister has and which his predecessor certainly had: that is, the complete elimination of the rabbit. In its present form, Part II of the Bill is to my mind an unmitigated disaster. I hope that the Minister will look again into the whole question of the gin trap, particularly having regard to the view which has been expressed so ably by the hon. Member for Leominster, with which I entirely agree, that the gin trap is not necessary for the elimination of the rabbit.

The Minister's own Department has issued a pamphlet about the elimination of rabbits in which it is stated categorically that the trap has no useful place in a scheme of rabbit clearance. Does the Minister go back upon that pamphlet by, I believe, Dr. C. D. Smith, the scientist who retired from the Admiralty and went into farming and whose article in "Agriculture" was subsequently printed and issued by the Ministry of Agriculture as a pamphlet? He said that trapping had no useful place in any scheme of rabbit clearance. I did not gather that the Minister was subscribing to that view this morning, and I ask him when he replies to say whether he believes that that is true. It would be useful to know the right hon. Gentleman's precise views.

Part II of the Bill does not provide for the abolition of the gin trap but rather for its indefinite retention. The humanitarian aspect is serious enough, but perhaps the most serious aspect is that it encourages the belief that the gin trap or any other trap that is likely to be devised is, in fact, a useful part of any scheme of rabbit clearance. That is a dangerous piece of complacency which I hate to see an Act of Parliament encouraging.

Part I of the Bill has a useful tendency, but beyond that I can give it no praise whatever. The problem of rabbit elimination is, I am sure we are all agreed, an extremely serious one, and in the face of the seriousness of that problem I feel that the Bill is almost an irrelevancy. I am all in favour of having clearance areas, but who is going to do the clearing? As the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) asked, what sanction is there that the occupier will do the clearing as, apparently, he is supposed to do under the Bill?

I want to underline something that was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Hastings). He said that he wanted squads organised by the Minister. I agree. Do not three-quarters of our farmers farm areas of under 100 acres? By and large they are small farmers. How are they to have the time, the labour and the finance that is necessary to eliminate rabbits? Of course, they can carry on the old practice of letting out trapping to somebody else, but how will they have the labour and the money to go in for the really expensive all-round barrage that must be conducted against rabbits if they are to be eliminated? For that reason, I do not think that the Bill is really relevant to the question of elimination. It puts the responsibility on the small farmer, who, because of his very nature, is quite incapable of bearing that responsibility successfully.

Therefore, I want to see squads or, better still, commandos organised nationally—regionally if the Minister prefers it. Let the right hon. Gentleman organise this drive. Let him bear the cost of it—it is a national responsibility. Let him seize this god-sent opportunity, given to us at this moment by myxomatosis, which has reduced the numbers of rabbits to manageable proportions, or will do so in the near future. Let him take that opportunity before the time has run out and before there is bred a race of rabbits that will be resistant to myxomatosis.

Already there are signs that that resistance is developing, and the time is by no means long which the Minister will have at his disposal. He should organise these commandos and make this drive. Let him recruit the labour that is necessary to do it and send them from place to place in caravans, if necessary. The expense would be negligible compared with the damage which rabbits do and will continue to do.

I ask the Minister, in introducing the Bill, which may by itself have good little tendencies, to do something much more vigorous. Let him take powers to himself to organise this drive and really to strike a blow for increased food production, to which, I think, he is still devoted and to which we on this side are most certainly devoted.

1.18 p.m.

Sir Roger Conant (Rutland and Stamford)

Almost everything I had intended to say has already been said. This is a rather curious Bill in one sense, because Part I seems to be totally contradicted by Part II. Part I deals with the destruction of rabbits and Part II with the destruction of what many people regard as the most effective method of destroying rabbits. None the less, everybody wholeheartedly agrees with both these contradictory purposes. We all agree that the rabbit ought to be destroyed, and so ought gin traps, so this might perhaps be an example of telescoping legislation, which is all to be commended.

At one time I was rather afraid that the idea of the Bill would be dropped altogether because of the feeling that myxomatosis would do the job instead. I am very glad that that is not thought to be the case, because in certain circumstances I think that myxomatosis might even lead to an increase in the rabbit population. When myxomatosis appears —I do not think it has appeared at all yet in the county of Rutland, where I live—the rabbit market at once disappears and, therefore, the main incentive for destroying rabbits—the profit motive—has gone.

I think my right hon. Friend mentioned the great speed at which myxomatosis spreads. That has certainly been the case in some instances, but there are other instances where it spreads slowly.

It has been near my part of the country, but it has not crossed the border, probably owing to the weather or for some such reason. In the meantime, if the market for rabbits grows smaller the slaughter of rabbits will diminish on that account, so that there may be temporarily a considerable increase in the rabbit population.

No one gets any sense of enjoyment from killing rabbits or anything else if they have no food value. I know that I dislike intensely the idea of gassing. rabbits, not because it is particularly cruel to the rabbits but because it is a terrible waste of food. As has already been said, the powers taken under this Bill, together with myxomatosis, may make rabbit extinction possible; and that is what we have to aim at. I doubt very much whether it will ever be achieved, because rabbits have the habit of staying on indefinitely and it needs only two rabbits to increase the population very quickly indeed. In fact, I understand that a rabbit can become a grandfather in the same year in which it was born.

It was said in another place that each rabbit one eats has itself eaten as much fodder as would produce seven lamb chops or 2½ lb. of rump steak. I believe it, and I prefer the lamb chops or the rump steak.

The other aspect of this concerns forestry. I live in the neighbourhood of Rockingham Forest. Many of the trees are natural descendants of the trees standing in the days of King John, among which he used to hunt. But, nowadays, the existence of ironstone operations and, in particular, the existence of rabbits makes it quite impossible to carry out any proper planned forestry operations. Things would be different if one could get rid of the rabbits. They must be exterminated.

The other matter is this question of the gin trap. I think we are quite wrong in thinking that gin traps are any more cruel than snares. Personally, I think snares are just as cruel, but we all accept the view that the gin trap is a terribly cruel instrument. Our inclination is to say, "Let us abolish it at once," but if we accept the view that there are some instances and some places where the gin trap is the only effective method of keep- ing down the rabbits—a view accepted by us all, with the possible exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin)—then there must be a period of delay to enable a new and humane trap to be produced.

The difficulty I see about fixing a date is that if it is fixed too early there is the risk of a gap between the time when the present traps are no longer used and when the new traps are available. Presumably, if a date were fixed, the manufacturers of the gin trap of the present type would stop its production, so there might come a time when neither the gin trap nor the new trap would be available. Though I am inclined to think that July, 1958, is longer than is necessary to wait in view of the fact that myxomatosis will create a situation in many places where gin traps are not as necessary as they have been in the past, none the less I do not think we can risk having the gap between the ending of the cruel trap and the introduction of something to take its place.

I hope that the Bill will shortly receive the Royal Assent and that its provisions will be put into effect in a most energetic manner by everyone concerned in the near future.

1.25 p.m.

Mr. Clifford Kenyon (Chorley)

May I, as a farmer on this side of the House, add my congratulations to the right hon. 'Gentleman on his elevation to his office as Minister. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) that the office of Minister of Agriculture is a graveyard of Ministers. It may have been pre-war, 'but I do not think that that follows since the war. At any rate, the Minister has the satisfaction of knowing that he is in charge of a Ministry which keeps people alive, and I do not think there is another Ministry in the Government which does that.

I am sorry that this debate did not take place some months ago. I spent a few Fridays here which I could profitably have spent elsewhere in the hope that this Bill would come up for Second Reading. At that time I should have had to say that I had not seen a rabbit on my land for years. But, last 'week, while shepherding, a rabbit suddenly rose on my land. I do not know where it came from because I had not seen one there for 15 years. I do not know whose surprise was the greater, that of myself or my dog, which has always run after hares. The rabbit went down a hole and my dog had never seen that happen. It stood and looked at the hole for some time, wondering what had happened to the thing which previously had always kept on top.

In the task of trying to eliminate the rabbit the Minister has a terrific job. I do not think it is recognised by the House what an extensive and difficult job it is. When myxomatosis has run its course, and all the other instruments of elimination have been applied, there will still be pockets of rabbits in different parts of the country that will spring up to spread the rabbit population again. It will have to be one continuous fight all over the country if the rabbit is to be eliminated. That is why I have no faith in rabbit clearance areas. The whole country must became a rabbit clearance area.

As for netting the rabbits off, anyone who has had to tackle this job knows full well that some rabbit will always get in or get out however much netting is put up. One farmer not inside a rabbit clearance area but just outside it who takes no trouble to get rid of his rabbits will very soon be the cause of infecting the whole area again. This is a major operation that must be undertaken right through the country.

I cross swords with my hon. Friends who talked so glibly about if this had been wartime we would have produced something that would have been effective in destroying rabbits. The analogy is quite wrong. When weapons of war are produced they are something which destroy indiscriminately as long as they destroy the enemy. But here the inventor is compelled to produce a trap that will destroy the rabbit as painlessly as possible. The two things are altogether different.

It cannot be done painlessly because the destruction of life at any time is cruel. Nature is cruel. Myxomatosis is cruel. The catching of the rabbit by the ferret is cruel. We have ourselves to blame to a great extent because farmers and gamekeepers have for years destroyed the natural enemies of the rabbit—the weasel, the ferret and the stoat. Whenever a gamekeeper sees one he destroys it, not because he wants to save the rabbit but because he wants to save the young pheasant and partridge which it destroys. So, in destroying the enemies of the game, he destroys the enemies of the rabbit. If that had not been done the rabbit population would not have been as widespread as it is today.

Why are farmers so keen on stopping poachers from getting a few rabbits? They see a poacher on the land and chase him off when, actually, he is doing them a good turn. In March last year I brought to the notice of the Home Secretary an action of the Bolton by Bowland magistrates when three men who were brought before them for trespassing for rabbits were prosecuted. They were on the land in question but they had not seen a rabbit, they had not caught a rabbit, yet the magistrates fined them £66 —£20 each man plus £2 costs for poaching.

Why should magistrates preserve rabbits in that way? In this case poachers were fined for trying to destroy the pest and yet the same county was paying hundreds of pounds to pest officers to do what the poachers would do free. This is a situation of absolute lunacy.

I can tell the House how I got rid of rabbits. I know one or two colliers in my area who keep ferrets and dogs. They asked permission to go on my land and I gave them the full run of the farm until they had cleared the rabbits. They did so within three months and for 15 years they have kept the place absolutely clear. Thousands of farms could be cleared in this way, yet if one of these chaps puts his nose over a fence he is chased off. It is ridiculous.

The Minister will not get rid of these pests with rabbit clearance areas. He must do this on a national basis, by bringing in all the farmers at the same time. Myxomatosis has caused widespread disaster to the rabbit. I hate to see animals suffering from the disease, but I must admit that it is doing far more for the elimination of this pest than all the shooting, trapping and other methods used so far. Therefore, I cannot agree that it should be stopped. No doubt some rabbits will become immune and others will escape completely, because there are pockets in the hills with no outside contact. Those rabbits will breed and will spread down from the hills into the fertile parts, because they do not go up, they go down after they have bred in the spring and summer.

The Minister has a most inadequate weapon in this Bill. It is true that the gin trap is a diabolical instrument and it is unnecessary for getting rid of rabbits because there are other far more effective methods, so I wish the Minister would abolish it as quickly as possible. Indeed, it should be abolished from the moment this Bill becomes law, not in one, two or three years. The Scott Henderson Committee issued its Report some time ago and everyone interested in rabbits who read that Report knew then that it sounded the death knell of the gin trap, so they should have taken steps to get rid of it from that moment. What is the use of having four more years of cruelty?

A great deal of hyprocrisy is talked in this House about cruelty. We speak about cruelty to a rabbit caught in a gin trap, but we are not disturbed by a hunting pack of horses and men in gaudy trappings chasing a hare or a deer all over the country until the dogs fetch it down and rip it to pieces. If we want to get rid of cruelty, let us get rid of all forms of it, even when it occurs in the name of sport and for the enjoyment of a few people some afternoons in the week. At any rate, we have an opportunity to get rid of one form of cruelty by abolishing the gin trap immediately the Bill becomes law. If we put that in the Bill, those who possess such traps will know once and for all that this House is determined that cruelty of this kind must stop at once.

1.40 p.m.

Mr. Denys Bullard (Norfolk, South-West)

I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon), but, as so often happens with agricultural matters, I see the problem rather differently, coming as I do come from an entirely different part of the country. I welcome the Bill because I feel that we are now at a very important point in our war against the rabbit, the point at which myxomatosis will definitely bring about a very big reduction in the rabbit population, though I do not believe that it will effect a complete elimination. We are much too optimistic in supposing that we shall eliminate the rabbit completely. If a cat is supposed to have nine lives, then a rabbit has 99. At all events, it has a remarkable power of coming back after its kind has been largely eliminated.

There are imperfections in the idea of clearance areas, but the basic attempt to clear the rabbit population by this means is justified. If we spread our efforts all over the country so that we would be covering areas where there were few rabbits as well as areas where there were many rabbits, we might lose our effort in the total size of the problem. I should like to see the really bad areas tackled in the way that is proposed in the Bill.

Most of us have had letters dealing with the contentious issues in the Bill, particularly on the subject of gin traps and myxomatosis. The letters which I have received have led me very strongly to the opinion that even after all that has been said on the subject, the country generally is not fully conscious of the extraordinary damage that the rabbit does. The subject has been spoken about and advertised to the public on countless occasions, but many people still believe that the rabbit is a very pleasing and a rather harmless little creature which may eat a little here and there. They do not realise the extent to which it can completely transform vegetation and farming.

There is a forest in my constituency and I find that even the Forestry Commission has to carry out trapping and wire laying on a tremendous scale, for otherwise it would be impossible to grow a tree of any kind. Anyone who visits the area can see from an examination of heathland which is not under the control of the Commission how rabbits completely change the character of the countryside. I have known the East Anglian heaths very well for many years. Some of them have been reclaimed and are now growing good crops. Before their reclamation there were bracken, miserable grass, and rabbits all over the place. The whole spectacle was completely revolting, and so I welcome any steps, such as are proposed in the Bill, which will lead to a reduction in the rabbit population.

I agree with everything that has been said about the detestation with which we view the gin trap as a method of catching rabbits, but I should like to say a few words from the point of view of the farmers who have to cultivate light land. The Minister is wise to allow a proper interval before banning the gin and in boosting efforts to find an alternative trap. I am very pleased that he is to make payments to inventors. A reward is well merited by those who tackle this problem, which I am glad that the National Institute of Agricultural Engineering is also examining.

But despite all that has been said today, on the light lands it is extraordinarily difficult to eliminate rabbits without traps of some sort. Gassing and other alternatives, which are probably less cruel than the gin trap, do not work on land of that character. I hope, therefore, that we shall not fall out on the question of the date on which the gin trap is to be banned. I hope that if the Minister finds it at all possible he will bring the date forward, but I hope that the opponents of the suggested procedure will realise that the Minister has moved forward considerably since the Bill was drafted by his promise of Amendments. I hope, therefore, that we shall not crab the Bill by arguing about a year's difference of date. The great thing about the Bill is that for the first time we are taking a positive step towards eliminating the gin trap. I hope that those who feel strongly about the trap will realise what the Bill does and that it is a considerable step forward.

Though I believe that it is an entirely immoral thing to spread myxomatosis deliberately, I do not believe that it is possible to legislate against it. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) seemed to suggest that all myxomatosis had been spread deliberately. Though I represent a constituency in Norfolk, I live in the Isle of Ely, where we can be absolved from any accusation of spreading myxomatosis because the disease has not yet reached that part of the country, but I do not believe that the deliberate spreading of the disease has been carried out nearly as extensively as some people imagine. This is a virulent disease which will spread throughout the country whatever we do.

I know that people are revolted by the disease and hate the thought that human agencies should be responsible for spreading it, but I urge them to consider that if it were possible to make the spreading of the disease an offence, one might prevent people from picking up dead and dying rabbits and clearing them away. If one were found with a load of cleared-up rabbits, one might be thought responsible for using them to spread the disease. We might then find that there would be less tendency to save rabbits from pain and suffering.

I agree with a great deal of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore), but I was rather sorry that he mentioned the possibility of myxomatosis being spread to other animals and even to humans. It is a great pity unduly to raise scares about myxomatosis. Some people are afraid of eating blackberries because they think that flies which had been in contact with infected rabbits might have settled on the berries.

Myxomatosis is a terrible disease and I am glad that the Minister has assured us that all his scientific advisers tell him that it cannot be spread to any other animal, except the hare. I believe that, because it is in accordance with what we know of other diseases. I do not suggest that it was the intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, but it would be a great pity to whip up agitation in favour of a Bill to prevent the deliberate spreading of myxomatosis by bringing in arguments which have been proved by all scientific opinion not to be well founded.

I give my welcome to the Bill and hope that when it is passed into law pest officers and pest committees throughout the country will prosecute the campaign against the rabbit with all possible vigour.

1.51 p.m.

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

We have had an interesting debate on this little Bill, which as was remarked by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) has at last reached this House. The hon. Member has my sympathies for the long period in which he had to keep his speech on ice. Mine, also, was on ice during that same period. I thank the hon. Member for the support he has given to the Bill in general. I am glad to think that the House will be willing to give it a Second Reading. It seems to me that we have been able to find a large measure of agreement, although there are obvious issues on which there may be a conflict of opinion.

Before dealing with the points which have been raised, I should like, on behalf of my right hon. Friend, to acknowledge the very kind comments and compliments which were paid to him by hon. Members on both sides of the House and the good wishes offered him for a successful term of office.

One of the most important of the points which were established is the general agreement that it is right to continue as a general policy to try to exterminate the rabbit. That is the declared policy of the Government and I am glad to know that it has general support. I sympathise with the anxieties of the hat trade and fur trade and realise that they have particular troubles at present. Much though I hope we shall make good progress and that this Bill will assist the process of exterminating rabbits, I fear that rabbits are likely to be with us for some time to come and the hat trade is likely to be able to find fur for some time. I appreciate, however, that the collapse of the carcase market has created particular difficulties for the fur trade, which I hope they will overcome.

I was asked by several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd), what was to be done to deal with the unto-operative occupier. First, I wish to state the general view of the Government, which is that we think responsibility lies with the occupier. One or two hon. Members—the hon. and learned Member for Brigg (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu) was one and the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Hastings) was another—suggested that the Government should provide squads, or commandos, who would have the function of going round clearing up rabbits all over the country.

The view of the Government is quite definitely that responsibility for the destruction of rabbits rests squarely on the shoulders of the occupier. The farmer is the direct beneficiary from the destruction of rabbits, always has been and must be. We start from the point that the occupier is responsible for controlling and destroying rabbits on his own property. What we have tried to do by this Bill is to provide ways by which we can assist him to do that job.

When we come to the question of the unco-operative occupier in an area defined as a clearance area the Government will have powers under the Bill, combined with the 1947 Act, to take default action. My right hon. Friend will be able to serve orders prescribing the clearance of areas of scrub, and so on. If the occupier fails to co-operate, the Minister can proceed to prosecution on default or, alternatively, can put in his own pest officers to carry out the work. We hope and believe that normally we shall get full co-operation. Farmers and landowners realise that extermination of the rabbit is very much to their interests and we shall seldom, if ever, encounter the unco-operative occupier. We hope to proceed, in the main, by voluntary cooperation of all concerned. I am quite certain that that is the way to proceed.

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu

In putting the burden on the occupier, which in so many cases means the small man, does the Minister really think that the small man will be able to use all the means to eliminate the pest—for instance, gas, with expensive pressure pumps—and to provide these things himself, or is the Minister relying on the gin trap?

Mr. Nugent

I shall deal with the gin trap in a moment, but we certainly do expect that all farmers, large and small, will be able to play their part on their own farms in using whatever is necessary, whether gassing or any other means, to do the job. The hand gassing machine is a relatively cheap instrument. There is no reason why the average farmer should not buy one himself. If he cannot do that, he must contract with someone else to do the job for him. I do not believe that will put an undue burden on anyone. The benefits which will accrue will very far outweigh anything which the farmer has to pay.

Mr. Champion

Would not the Parliamentary Secretary agree that the Minister has power under Clause 3 to contribute to the cost of destruction or preventive measures? Would that not affect the question raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. E. L. Mallalieu)?

Mr. Nugent

We do not normally intend to contribute to the actual destruction. We normally intend to contribute to clearance or wiring in, as that may be a heavy expense. Generally, we would, expect the occupier to proceed with the work, as he normally does.

I now turn to the first of the main contentious matters, the question of the gin, trap and the criticism that has been directed to Clauses 8 and 9 with the suggestion that we should make an earlier date than July, 1958, for the banning of spring traps other than those approved as humane. I think that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King), may have been under a misapprehension as to what was said by the Minister of the day in May this year. He announced that it was the intention of the Government to move an Amendment to the Bill which, in effect, would require the banning of the gin trap by July, 1958, rather than after July, 1958, as the Bill now stands. I would, therefore, like to address myself to the various criticisms which have been made of that statement of intention.

The Government have a dual responsibility, which we cannot escape. First, we have the responsibility to ensure so far as lies within our powers that farmers and foresters throughout the country have the necessary means to control and destroy rabbits. Secondly, we have a general responsibility to express and take care of the humanitarian feelings of the population as a whole.

The gin trap raises a particular problem in striking a right balance between those two considerations. I very much welcome the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard), when he said that the Bill is a considerable credit to the Government and that here at last is a Bill in which a term is put to the life of the gin trap. When hon. Members in all quarters criticise the Government for setting a date which Members consider is too far ahead, I think the Government should be given credit for the fact that we have, in fact, fixed a date when the use of the gin trap should come to an end. After all, it has been in use for generations, and nobody else has done this. Therefore, the Government are entitled to take credit for what they have done.

We have undertaken a heavy responsibility in fixing such a date. Cleanly, we have to find some practical alternative, and I ask hon. Members on both sides of the House to recognise that we have approached this matter in a progressive spirit, fully conscious of the humanitarian feelings which are so strongly felt not only by hon. Members opposite but in all quarters of the House and, indeed, by the Government.

Dr. King

Do I now understand that the Ministerial pledge given is without any proviso at all, that the date July, 1958, is not subject to the proviso that is always mentioned—namely, provided that some other more humane method of killing has been found?

Mr. Nugent

The pledge given by the Minister today was that the date would be by 1958 unless the Minister brought an affirmative Resolution before the House seeking to extend the date. That leaves the matter completely in the control of the House, and the House is not likely to pass an affirmative Resolution unless it is convinced that it is necessary. That means that the date is, in effect, by 1958.

I should like to explain why we have set the date by 1958 and not sooner. My right hon. Friend informed the House that he has set up a Humane Traps Advisory Committee to expedite the development of a humane alternative. That Committee has gone most admirably into action. It has selected the half dozen or so best traps and has started to try them out this winter. Trying them out is a long process. I will not weary the House with a description of it, but it is a peculiarly difficult thing to design a trap which will for certain catch a rabbit, whether it is coming or going, and kill it for certain. Without going into detail, I assure the House that it is a difficult process.

The Committee is starting out this winter to try these traps on a number of different sites and will work towards perfecting the best of them. It is hoped that considerable progress will be made by the end of the winter, when the trapping season comes to an end. It is no use going on, after that. The results will then be correlated, and the following winter it is hoped to develop these traps to their final stages. After each experi- ment, modification and amendments have to be made to the different traps. The Committee hopes by next winter to have reduced the possible traps to one, two or three. They will then be perfected in the second winter, and it is hoped that by the end of the second winter a trap will have been reasonably perfected which can be expected humanely to catch and kill a rabbit.

The Committee has expressed the view definitely that it cannot hope to perfect a trap for this purpose in less than that time. We have set the very stiffest task in giving only a couple of seasons for this to be done. When we have reached that point, we then have to find a manufacturer who will undertake commercially to manufacture the trap or traps as the case may be.

Having found a manufacturer, starting as we should be doing in the spring of 1956, the manufacturer has then to tool up for the job and go into production. That is inevitably a matter of some months. Having got into production, the manufacturer has to produce the traps which are needed and get them to the channels of distribution throughout the country. At the same time, we have to make a definite plan whereby all gin traps will be illegal after the date that we have set, and we reckon that that cannot be done under a couple of years.

Mr. Niall Macpherson (Dumfries)

Has my hon. Friend definitely committed the Government to the use of only one humane trap? That seems to be the implication of what he has been saying. Surely it would be better to authorise as many humane traps as may be desirable.

Mr. Nugent

I did modify what I said. As my hon. Friend will see when he reads the OFFICIAL REPORT, I said "trap or traps." It depends on how development proceeds. I hope two or three will be found which are suitable for this purpose, but I do warn my hon. Friend that it is a mighty difficult matter to find even one which is reasonably certain. Let me say straightaway that we are not aiming for perfection. We shall be extremely lucky if we are able to develop a trap whose efficiency has any resemblance to the efficiency in catching power of the existing trap, but provided we can get something that is reasonably practicable, we shall feel that we have got something that we can recommend to the farming and landowning community.

That is the timetable, and I most earnestly ask hon. Members who are critical of the length of time to consider that timetable and see whether they could really say with their hands on their hearts that we ought to make it a shorter period. We have given the matter the most earnest thought. We are fully conscious of how strongly everybody feels about it, but the intervention of myxomatosis does not alter the fact that there will still be many places where we have to use a spring trap of some kind; and this is all the more important if we are to make fully effective the clearance area idea embodied in this Bill, which, we hope, will help us to exterminate rabbits in any given area.

Therefore, I earnestly ask the House to think about this matter of the date. Those who are critical and feel that the Government are not going fast enough should consider the facts which I have briefly outlined and see whether they do not agree that this is really as fast as we can go, bearing in mind our responsibility for seeing that there is some kind of effective humane trap which will take the place of the gin trap when we ban it.

The other contentious point is this problem of myxomatosis generally. Members in all quarters of the House have suggested that the Government should consider making it an offence deliberately to spread the disease. My right hon. Friend explained the advice that he had in this matter from our Advisory Committee, and I should like to reiterate the view that my right hon. Friend and I take on this matter. The present position is that myxomatosis is established in every county but one in England and Wales, and in 28 of the 33 counties in Scotland. In some counties it is almost universal, like Kent, where it covers about four-fifths of the county. In other counties there are just a few outbreaks here and there sporadically. But, taken over the country as a whole, the disease is almost everywhere.

Starting from that point, it is as certain as certain can be that, whatever action human beings may take in trying to assist the spread will not materially affect the extent of the spread in the end. The spread is just smouldering on. The example of spread of which we have the most knowledge is the first outbreak of all in Edenbridge in Kent, and that has now spread to an area of about 200 square miles. That outbreak was watched very closely by our people throughout, and we are as certain as anyone can be that it has not been assisted in any way by human beings. It has just smouldered on for 12 months and it has now reached an area of 200 square miles from that initial outbreak.

It is perfectly clear that, with these outbreaks all over the country, we have as it were a potential Edenbridge in Kent everywhere, and within another 12 months these outbreaks will be joining up all over the country. That is the first point I wish to make.

Sir T. Moore

Has my hon. Friend and his right hon. Friend considered the possible psychological effect of making the wilful spread of myxomatosis an offence, irrespective of whether the practical effect may be all that he could hope for?

Mr. Nugent

As my right hon. Friend has said, we do not approve of the deliberate spreading of the disease. It is something we would not do ourselves and we think it is a thing which should not be done. But there are many things in life of which we do not approve personally and which, nevertheless, we do not think are suitable to make criminal offences. This, in our judgment, is one of them.

I must add to what I have already said about the physical effect, that in the nature of things an offence would be virtually impossible to prove unless the person responsible for the spreading were prepared to make an open statement that he had done so. Under those circumstances, I think it would be virtually impossible ever to secure a conviction. I feel that that is a point which the House would wish to note. We do not wish to make laws which are unenforceable. For those two main reasons I urge the House, and, in particular, those hon. Members who feel that this should be made a criminal offence, to think again before we come to the Committee stage and to see whether they really feel that we should be serving a right and proper purpose in consonance with the dignity of this House in making this a criminal offence. I do not feel that we should.

One or two small points were mentioned in connection with myxomatosis. My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) suggested that possibly this disease might spread to other animals or that possibly it might affect human beings. That point was touched upon by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Bullard) and I should like to make it plain that all the evidence available, from Australia, France or anywhere else, is quite definite that the disease has never affected anything except rabbits except, in four cases, hares. No one knows what the virus may do in the future, but so far as the facts are known it has never affected any other animal. Each case where the suggestion has been made has been carefully looked into.

On this theme, I should add that in France it has been noted in the last few months that the demand for rabbit carcases has begun to improve again. Evidently the original repugnance of the French people to eating rabbit carcases when they knew that this disease was about has been overcome. After all, there will be many healthy rabbits caught in the future and it would be a pity if the rabbit carcase were permanently out of favour for food purposes.

So far as I can I have dealt with the contentious points. I should like to make clear, and to reassure those who wish to make the deliberate spreading of myxomatosis a criminal offence, that the Government are not lacking in humanitarian feelings. As my right hon. Friend has said, we were fully conscious of the strength of the humanitarian feelings which would arise when the disease first arrived last autumn and that is the reason why we set out to exterminate it. We were fully conscious of the disturbance and repugnance to humanitarian feelings throughout the country.

Our advice is given only because we feel it would be wrong to make it an offence where, on the one hand, there is no material effect in the long run through human intervention, and on the other hand, the offence would be virtually impossible to bring home. I think that deals with most of the points which were raised and I ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading.

Mr. E. L. Mallalieu

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to deal with the point I raised? Are we to understand that the article published originally in "Agriculture," the journal of the Ministry of Agriculture, by Dr. F. D. Smith, and which many of us regarded as a most admirable article, has been repudiated? The article stated that trapping has no useful place in a scheme of rabbit clearance.

Mr. Nugent

I apologise for not dealing with that matter. The article appeared in the journal, "Agriculture," but, although that comes out under the aegis of the Ministry, we specifically do not accept responsibility for articles published there, and, indeed, hon. Members will find that that is mentioned in the publication.

Mr. Mallalieu

But did not the Ministry publish it as a pamphlet?

Mr. Nugent

We did reproduce it. We have published it again, but it still does not carry to any greater extent the authority of the Ministry. We thought it was an interesting article and well worth reproduction, but our view is quite definitely, as my right hon. Friend said in his opening remarks, that some form of spring trap—we hope it will very shortly be one of these new humane traps —will always be necessary on certain sites. It is simply impossible to destroy rabbits without them. That has been said during the debate and I will not reiterate it now, but no doubt we can develop, the point in Committee.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Sir C. Drewe.]

Committee upon Monday next.

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