§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 1.14 p.m.
§ Lieut.-Commander S. L. C. Maydon (Wells)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This simple and brief Bill is the fruit of the perseverance and work of my noble Friend Lord Merthyr over a considerable period of time. He has, it is true, encountered some criticism in his efforts but, if one takes the trouble to examine this criticism closely, it is more often than not apparent that those who are loudest in their criticism have not read the Bill, and, if they have read the Bill, they have not understood it.
What the Bill does is to prohibit certain definite acts concerning live wild rabbits. It is not concerned with tame or domestic rabbits. The offences are detailed in Clause I which prohibits four distinct actions—the selling of wild live rabbits, the buying of them, the conveying of them from place to place and, lastly, the letting loose of live wild rabbits. Subsection (1) of the Clause details the penalties for these offences and subsection (3) provides for exception in cases where wild rabbits are used for scientific purposes. Let me say in parenthesis that we have investigated the possible use of these animals and there is no question of the use of live wild rabbits for vivisection. Subsection (4) defines what is a wild rabbit. This definition satisfies the British Rabbit Council which is the body with which domestic breeders and fanciers are concerned and which represents such people.
Clause 2 gives certain powers to the police and to the courts. Also, it brings the powers of the Scottish courts into line with those of the English courts. Clause 3 prohibits importation of European rabbits. This was one of the exceptions of an Order passed by Parliament in 1954—the Non-Indigenous Rabbits (Prohibition of Importation and Keeping) Order. The Clause closes a gap and prohibits the importation of European rabbits.
Clause 4 authorises certain exceptions and simplifies procedure, under Section 1 of the Pests Act, where rabbits are required to be kept for scientific research in a rabbit clearance area or where the 958 Nature Conservancy wishes to release rabbits in nature reserves to study their habits and their effect on vegetation and other matters connected therewith.
Certain criticisms have been made about the Bill. Usually the first one is that it will entail a lot of unnecessary extra work for the rural police. Of course any legislation of this nature is bound to give further work for the police to do. One cannot possibly evade that, but the criticism generally reveals ignorance of police methods. One would imagine when one hears some of these critics that the village policeman sets out on certain days of the week with the sole intent of looking for people trafficking in, bartering, selling, releasing or conveying live wild rabbits. Of course, that is utter nonsense. The village policeman goes out on his patrol in order to apprehend felons of all sorts and to see that things are as they should be in the countryside either by day or by night. If he should come across those who are conveying live wild rabbits, releasing them, putting them up for sale or endeavouring to buy these creatures, naturally he would apprehend them.
The second criticism is that the Bill is bound to lead to further official snoopers and give rein to mischief makers generally. If that were a valid criticism. I should be one of the first to voice it myself, but I think I can prove that it is far from valid. There are no officials required by the Bill. It does not in any way give further work to pest control officers. Mischief makers and tale bearers are always present in limited numbers and almost any legislation gives them further scope.
The Bill cannot create ill will, except only in those who wish to profit by and exploit traffic in a helpless small animal which, if it is allowed to spread and get out of control, becomes a menace and pest to food and timber growers and reduces the quality of our pastures. The question of cost to the taxpayer, another of the criticisms which is brought forward, is equally absurd. The Bill involves no additional expenditure other than in the apprehension and conviction of those who break the law if this Bill becomes law.
Another criticism that is made is that the Bill will extend the powers of Government pest services. As I have already said, it does not in any way involve the 959 service of pest officers and will, if it is allowed to go through, prove instrumental in reducing the pest control services. If traffic in rabbits is not allowed, there is unlikely to be artificial spreading of rabbits and eventually there will be no need for rabbit clearance orders and there will be less for the pest officers to do, which in consequence will lead to a reduction in this Government service.
The last criticism is that it is impossible to secure conviction since wild rabbits can cross any barriers on their own. Those who make this criticism are getting the Bill mixed up with the Pests Act, 1954. There is nothing in the Bill to prohibit anyone having live wild rabbits on his own property. It only makes illegal certain very definite acts, in all of which the onus of proof is simple. I have already listed the four principal acts which are to be made illegal, and in connection with buying and selling I should say that Clause 1 covers barter and exchange also.
It is also said that the Bill will detract from the liberty of the subject. In a way that is true, but no more so than in preventing people from uttering forged currency. preventing public nuisance by had smells, prohibiting people from allowing dirty effluent to run into our rivers and, taking an even more recent instance of legislation, prohibiting people from letting thick smoke get into the clean air.
The prevention of spreading and the prevention of any aids to propagation of this pest are very desirable. I look upon the wild rabbit as dangerous a pest in this country as is the colorado beetle, the only difference being that the colorado beetle is a comparatively rare visitor and is stamped out before it gets a grasp, whereas the rabbit has been with us for roughly 2,000 years.
People argue that this is an animal which is good for food, produces tolerably good fur which can be used in manufacture, and produces a skin which can be used to make gloves. There is nothing in the Bill which prohibits the existence of rabbits. Admittedly, we have in mind in the background that these animals are a pest and it will be much better for the country generally when they are exterminated, but if people want to produce rabbits for meat, for fur and for their skins, why not keep the 960 domestic animals and have them killed in a proper hygienic and humane manner?
The domestic rabbit produces a tolerably good white meat—some people say it is not unlike chicken—and it is far superior as a food. Each domestic rabbit carries a far greater weight of meat than the wild rabbit and produces a food which is far better to eat.
The aims of the Bill are practical and humane. They do not allow sentiment or emotion to blur our vision. Some people like to say that the rabbit is a pretty little animal with a kind expression and a cotton tail. It was painted on our cots and imitated in our woolly toys, and it adorned our mugs and plates when we were children. Hence sentiment creeps in. If the rabbit were ugly and repulsive, or found to be the carrier of a fearful human disease or frightened old ladies by night, there would be no second thoughts in this matter.
The rabbit is a foreigner. Although J. G. Millais wrote his great work "The Mammals of Great Britain and Ireland" in 1906, it is still very up to date. On page 41, he says:
Some authorities distinctly state that we owe the introduction of the rabbit to the Romans. but there is no proof of this, or any evidence of its arrival in this country. Its remains are not found in the peat, and the fact that there is no word for the rabbit in any of the ancient Celtic languages must point to a comparatively recent introduction of the animal.Therefore, when people say that the eventual extermination of the rabbit would upset the balance of Nature, what they are really saying is that the balance of Nature has already been upset for 2,000 years and they would not like a restoration to the status quo before this pest was introduced in these islands.
A lot of people think that since the advent of myxomatosis, rabbits have virtually been exterminated. There is no doubt that there is a great difference in their numbers, and in some areas they are not easily found, but it is significant that between 1st March and 30th April this year a scheme was put in hand by the National Farmers' Union in Hampshire which offered 2s. for a pair of rabbit ears. Just under 15,000 rabbits were killed and their ears produced in evidence in those 60 days. It was estimated that 961 one rabbit was in existence for every ten acres in the county.
Among the other evidence is the extraordinary way in which these animals propagate and spread from other countries. Bulletin No. 284 of the New Zealand Department of Agriculture, issued in 1947, contains some interesting evidence. Its authors work on the assumption that each female rabbit in New Zealand can have eight litters of six small rabbits in a year, and they assume that all these rabbit children are divided equally as to sex, half male and half female. They also assume that female rabbits start to breed at fifteen weeks of age. These assumptions can be proved scientifically and are correct.
The total increase, therefore, from one pair of rabbits in one year is 534. Allowing for half of these as casualties before the start of the second year, the second year would begin with 268 rabbits, half of which were does, from each of which, producing offspring which in turn produced further offspring, there would be a total of 534 in the year. At the end of the second year the total is 71,000. If we allow a 50 per cent. loss, we start the third year with just under 36,000. Half of these are does. Allowing the same rate of production and the same loss of 50 per cent. during the year from natural causes, the total at the end of the third year will he 9,606,460 rabbits.
Our climatic conditions in this country are very different from those in New Zealand. If we allow, on a conservative estimate, a quarter of the rate of the increase in New Zealand, and still allow the same 50 per cent. casualty rate, it is equivalent to dividing the New Zealand total of over 9½ million by 64—a quarter of a quarter of a quarter—for the three ensuing years. On that basis, one pair of rabbits can have produced, after three years, 150,101 descendants.
§ Lieut.-Commander Maydon
On those grounds alone, it is apparent that this small animal can be an appalling pest to our agriculture, our forestry and our general well-being in the countryside. I therefore commend the Bill, which will prevent the spreading of and the traffic in this pest.
§ 1.31 p.m.
Mr. W. M. F. Vane (Westmorland)
I beg to second the Motion.
I am glad that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) has agreed to sponsor this simple yet most important Bill which has come to us from another place. The Bill is designed simply to help us in the general effort to prevent the rabbit from again becoming a major pest.
Everyone in this country has known for a long time, more or less, how much damage the rabbit has done to agriculture and to forestry, but I think it has been a revelation to most of us to see the great improvement in crops and grass after myxomatosis has passed through an area and decimated the rabbit population. In the County of Cumberland, where I live, we have suffered from an enormous number of rabbits in the last few years, and the difference in the crops last year, after myxomatosis, was astonishing.
The benefits to forestry resulting from the disappearance of the rabbit will be slower to see but in the end, I am sure, will be much greater even than the benefits to agriculture. In this country we are so short of raw materials that the improvement and expansion of our forestry is important to us, since timber is almost the only important raw material of which we can increase our stock. It may even be possible to double our timber stocks in this country in thirty or forty years, but that will certainly not happen if the country is over-run with rabbits, even if all those concerned are prepared to lay out the large additional sums necessary on rabbit fencing.
Few people are prepared to admit that they want to see the same number of rabbits in this country again, but a good many people, understandably sentimental people, would like to see a few rabbits about. I want to suggest that we cannot have a few rabbits about. My hon. and gallant Friend has explained the breeding potential of the rabbit under optimum conditions, and also, I presume, under the conditions in his county of Somerset but whichever way we look at the matter, we must come to the conclusion that we cannot have a few rabbits. We either have no rabbits or too many rabbits, and those who stand to suffer 963 from damage by rabbits would rather see none.
This year we have in this country the chance of a century to be sure that the rabbit does not again increase in numbers. The recent legislation on pests has given the Minister of Agriculture increased powers, but there are still gaps in the defences, and this small Bill attempts to fill those gaps—nothing more than that.
It deals with the buying and selling of wild rabbits and the turning of a few of them loose. Turning a few of them loose may sound trivial enough, and there are bound to be a few selfish people who are prepared to do that; but a few rabbits turned loose, even breeding under far from optimum conditions, can soon undo the work of hundreds of people in that area and cost those people thousands of pounds. Taking the whole country, it can cost millions of pounds.
The argument will no doubt be advanced that we shall do damage to the industry which makes use of the rabbit skins, and that we shall also lose meat. The argument that we shall lose meat is absurd, because the rabbit makes extremely uneconomical use of the grass which it consumes. It is much better that we should have beef and mutton instead of rabbit meat. Admittedly, there will be something on the debit side of the account when we consider the loss of the rabbit skins, but that will not compare with the advantages on the credit side, particularly those to agriculture.
The suggestion that more power will be given to officials is really a very small point. We shall probably hear it made before the debate concludes, and we shall probably be told that the House is once again creating new offences which are unnecessary and a breach of which it will be difficult to prove. If we succeed in clearing the rabbit out of this country, we shall have no more need not only of invoking the law in relation to the offences which we are creating under the Bill but also in relation to a whole number of offences under previous pests legislation.
I have said that we have the chance of a century. The responsible thing for us to do is to take advantage of that chance; and I am sure that the great 964 majority of country dwellers will support us in that action.
§ Mr. Ian Mikardo (Reading)
Although we have many Orders of importance before us, I hope the House will forgive me if I spend a few moments in having a look at the Bill and in adding to what the hon. and gallant Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) and the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) have said about it.
I have some doubts about the Bill, but I am encouraged by the fact that the hon. and gallant Member for Wells said it was reprehensible to oppose the Bill only if one had not read it. I hope to give some evidence of the fact that I have read it, and I therefore take it that I have title from him to say a few words querying its provisions.
The hon. and gallant Member spoke at length and with the vehemence and passion which seem always to characterise the utterances of some hon. Members opposite and some of their noble Friends in another place whenever they get round to the subject of rabbits. I listened very carefully to what he said, and as far as I could make it out he opposed the existence of the rabbit, not on agricultural or economic grounds, but on nationalist grounds against a foreigner. He said that the rabbit was a foreigner. I take it that on those grounds he will shortly be introducing Private Bills to allow for the extermination of, or at least to prohibit the traffic in and setting loose of, other foreigners like Pomeranians, Pekingese, Siamese cats and ice hockey players. If those are the only grounds on which we are to act, I suggest that they are pretty thin. The only other point which I could adduce from his argument was that he was advocating, I thought, that rabbits should be co-opted to membership of the British Productivity Council and that he was putting forward some figures in support of this argument.
I hope that if I say something in criticism of the phraseology of the Bill it will not be thought that I am aspersing upon the noble lords who inhabit another place. There have been a number of times in my political life when I have had some doubts whether that place adds to the efficiency of Parliament, and I am bound to say that I found those doubts increased when I read the Bill. 965 In some ways, this is the most ridiculous and laughable piece of legislation I have ever had in my hand since 1 have been a Member of this House. I am not an expert on agriculture or on forestry, and certainly not an expert on rabbits, but I think that I am just about as expert as most other men on the subject of common sense. I really cannot believe that any ordinary person could read this Measure and think that it was motivated by any common sense. Let us look, not at the argument, but at what the thing says. I invite the hon. and gallant Member for Wells to go into his local "pub" this evening and just start reading this Bill to a few of the ordinary chaps he finds there, and then to listen to what they think about it.
Clause 1 reads:Subject to the provisions of this section, a person shall be guilty of an offence under this subsection if,—(a) he—(i) sells, or offers or exposes for sale, or gives away a live wild rabbit or transfers to another person the property in a live wild rabbit (whether with or without any further consideration) for a consideration which consists of, or includes, the transfer by that other person of the property in other goods.In the last hour or two, an hon. Gentleman opposite told me that even though he is a lawyer he could not make head or tail of what that was trying to say. I said that to me as a layman this business about transferring:…the property in a live wild rabbit (whether with or without any further consideration) for a consideration which consists of, or includes, the transfer by that other person of the property and other goods.suggested that there are people running around the countryside swapping their homes or furniture or motor cars—or wives—for wild rabbits. I should have thought that this was not a proposition that would commend itself to those people.
§ Lieut.-Commander Maydon
I admit that the wording in the later half of this subsection is a little complicated, but that is for a very good reason. Perhaps I may say, to start with, that I think that the intelligence of these frequenting the "pubs" in my part of the world must be rather higher than that of those whom the hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo) has met in his. I am quite sure that if I went into a "local" near 966 my home and suggested that it would be prohibited in future to sell, offer, or expose for sale, or give away a live wild rabbit, or transfer it to another person, I would be completely understood. After that, when we come to this business of the property in a live rabbit—
§ Lieut.-Commander Maydon
No, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I am merely seeking to answer what has been said by—
§ Mr. Mikardo
The hon. and gallant Member had better not asperse on the intelligence of those in my "local", because I live in the constituency of his hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Sir W. Wakefield), and if he is casting aspersions on the citizens of Marylebone he may be suggesting that they did not use their "loaf" when they elected his hon. Friend to Parliament, and I am sure that his hon. Friend would not like that.
I invite the hon. and gallant Gentleman to take this one to the "pub." It is Clause 2 (1), which saysA constable may seize a rabbit—He says, after that, that he does not believe that there will be a lot of extra work imposed on the rural police should this Bill become law. Let us not forget that one of the offences under Clause 1 (1) is the turning loose of a wild rabbit. Therefore, a wild rabbit which has been turned loose is the subject of an offence under that subsection and is one of the rabbits which the constable may seize. This raises a wonderful picture in my mind of the village "bobby" haring round the countryside trying to seize a wild rabbit which has been turned loose.
To return to Clause 2 (1):A constable may seize a rabbit … may, if it is alive, kill it or cause it to be killed and may sell or otherwise dispose of the dead body thereof.I can see this being the commencement of a lively trade. The hon. and gallant Gentlemen who moved the Bill has not told us, as he should have done, what happens to the "boodle." What happens to the money that is obtained by a 967 constable who has seized a wild rabbit and disposed of "the dead body thereof "? Is a wild rabbit treated for this purpose like a prize vessel, when those who board the vessel and "cop" it collect the money, or does it become, by virtue of having been seized under an Act introduced in their Lordship's House, the property of the Crown, so that the constable will have to write out a cheque to his chief constable for the value of the rabbit? I am really worried about this. What happens to the money obtained for the dead rabbit?
§ Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Has he given thought to the intervening words of the subsection, which seem to imply that before seizing the rabbit the constable will have to tell the rabbit that… he has reasonable ground for believing that an offence under subsection (1) of the foregoing section is being, or has been committed. …"?Will this not rather add further delay to the process of seizing the rabbit?
§ Mr. Mikardo
It seems a little strange that we should be introducing a Bill which treats a wild rabbit almost like a felon, when there are so many people going around the countryside at the moment doing serious damage to the nation's interest by spending a lot of tax-free income to cause further inflation, and by avoiding the payment of taxation. They are not made into felons, but the poor little live wild rabbit is, and any constable may seize it immediately he sets eyes on it—that is, of course, if he can catch the darned thing.
Not only do we cause all this work to the village constabulary, but what about the poor overloaded courts? Every now and again some hon. and learned Member tells us about the work which is overloading the courts. Is not this ridiculous? Subsection (2) of Clause 2 states:The court by or before which a person is convicted of an offence under subsection (1) of the foregoing section with respect to a 968 rabbit which has been seized under the foregoing subsection may, if the body of the rabbit has been sold, order the forfeiture of the proceeds of the sale, and, if not, order the forfeiture of the rabbit.Can hon. Gentlemen really see the majesty, the panoply, the dignity of the British legal system, which we have established over all these centuries and of which we are so proud, the bewigged and berobed judges drawing upon the enormous fund of their experience and learning in order to pronounce pontifically on whether a live wild rabbit should be forfeited? But even their lot is light compared with that of their colleagues in Scotland. Clause 2 (3) gives much more power to their Scottish colleaues to exercise freedom in this matter, and they will, therefore, have to give much longer thought to the question. That subsection reads:Any rabbit, or proceeds of the sale of a rabbit, forfeited by virtue of an order made under the last foregoing subsection by a court in Scotland shall be disposed of in such manner as the court may direct.Judges in Scotland will, presumably, have to have a recess, or a withdrawal or whatever it is, seriously to debate this point.
I have so far spoken about this a little lightly, perhaps, but I really believe that this is a little Measure that could cause a lot of unnecessary trouble. The noble Lord who introduced it in another place told his colleagues—I know that I am not allowed to quote what he said so I will speak only in the third person—that he had earlier introduced another Bill; that he had withdrawn that one and had the assistance of the Government, and that the Bill he was presenting, which is this Bill, was a longer one. Then he said that their Lordships might find it a little more difficult to understand—which I thought was a somewhat uncharitable observation for him to make. He went on to console them for any difficulty of understanding which they might have by saying that, although the Bill is longer and more difficult to understand, the lawyers are satisfied with it. I bet they are. I can see some of them buying their wives mink coats, not rabbit coats, with the money they will make out of all these complicated words.
I can imagine the fun lawyers will have, arguing about whether a given rabbit which has been seized by a given 969 constable is a rabbit which has been turned loose or a rabbit which was a pet of some child, even though wild, which escaped through inadvertence. I am quite sure there are many learned Gentlemen who could debate this subject for a very long time. Nor do I share the view of the hon. and gallant Member for Wells that the definition of "wild rabbit" in the Bill is so clear as to brook no argument or cases before the Courts. It says:In this section wild rabbit' means a rabbit other than one which is of a type commonly kept in captivity and has been born in captivity and kept continuously in captivity since birth.To a layman like me that reads like what Mr. Punch used to call a glimpse of the obvious. However, I have no doubt that this definition is much too simple. What it says, in fact. is that a wild rabbit is any rabbit which is not a tame rabbit. It is so simple that I am quite sure we cannot expect any lawyers to accept it without a great deal of argument and piling up a great deal of costs.
It is, in a way, symptomatic of the attitude of some people that their Lordships' House has, over the last year, spent more time debating rabbits than it has spent debating old-age pensioners. It has spent more time debating rabbits than it has spent debating war pensioners. It has spent more time debating rabbits than it has spent debating children. In their Lordships' House much more interest is shown in rabbits than in children. 1 do not believe that that is a view, or balance of interests, which should be shared by hon. Members of this House.
This Measure, we understand, has Government support. Although it is a Private Member's Measure, the Government cannot, therefore, altogether escape some responsibility here. The contents of this Bill, as it seems to me, exhibit a gross lack of a sense of proportion on the part of right hon. Gentlemen opposite. Here we are, in this country, facing at the moment some very grave problems. There is more division amongst the people of our country about where we are going, where we ought to go, and on really fundamental issues both domestic and foreign, than there has been for a very long time. There are many people being hit very hard by rising prices competing against fixed incomes. There are many people worried and 970 saddened about what is happening in some of our possessions in other parts of the world.
What do the Government produce, or what do they support?—a Measure which entitles a constable to seize a rabbit. If this results in right hon. Gentlemen opposite and some of their supporters becoming a laughing-stock in the country to an even greater extent than they are now in most of the country, including Tonbridge, they will jolly well deserve it.
§ 1.55 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)
I cannot entirely follow the hon. Gentleman the Member for Reading (Mr.Mikardo) when he says that this Bill and the question of rabbits is entirely unimportant. The great damage which rabbits do is certainly likely to be reflected in the agricultural prosperity of the country, and certainly ought to be a matter for public concern. I had a letter from a constituent of mine the other day; he asked me why the House of Commons spent any time except debating economic affairs. I cannot imagine that that will happen, but if hon. and right hon. Gentlemen did spend all of every day discussing economic affairs, it would be only the logical extension of what the hon. Member for Reading was suggesting.
On the question of whether Clause 1 will be understood by gentlemen in the "pubs" of Marylebone, I am bound to stress that I think it would be understood, although difficulty might arise later in the evening when the hon. Member for Reading came to try and reiterate the phrase "live wild rabbit". I myself find some difficulty in getting my tongue round it.
Although I disagree to that extent with the observations which fell from the hon. Member for Reading, I am bound to say that I am not entirely entranced by this Bill, and I do not, in general, support its provisions. It will not, in my view, contribute towards the object which the movers of the Bill have in mind, with which I greatly sympathise; furthermore. I think it will be unenforceable at law and will, therefore, tend to bring the law and lawyers into even greater contempt.
I will hasten to say at once that I am unalterably opposed to rabbits. It is pretty well fatal to one's reputation at this time to be in favour of rabbits, and 971 I should like to make clear that I am against them. In the same way as it has from time to time been said that to be too friendly with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) is dangerous for one's political future, so at the moment it is rather dangerous to be actively in favour of rabbits.
I have received a great deal of correspondence about rabbits. I had a postcard this morning from a body called The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, which wishes to support the Bill on the grounds that it will reduce the amount of cruelty and will reduce damage to plots.
I very much doubt whether the Bill will do that. Rabbits have not been exterminated by myxomatosis in this country. At one time we thought they had been, but we hear increasing reports from all over the country that rabbits have not been exterminated and are starting to come back. That situation seems to be quite general. The very striking figures given by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) about the numbers of rabbits caught in Hampshire recently, a county which suffered very badly from myxomatosis, illustrate that, quite apart from any question of whether a few people go about with one or two rabbits in a bag, letting them out in fields, this is a problem which is very much with us at the present time.
If rabbits bred as fast as my hon. and gallant Friend told us, as I believe they do, under favourable conditions, a few rabbits transported from place to place will not make very much difference to the passage of rabbits across the country, so long as they are still there in important quantities in almost every county. In debate in another place it was said that the problem of rabbits in the Isle of Wight, where they were said at one time to have entirely disappeared, is now becoming serious again; and there is no suggestion that rabbits have been taken there or released in the manner that this Bill is supposed to prevent.
In the second place, I believe that this law will prove to be unenforceable. It will be impossible to know who is going to release a rabbit, or how he is going to be caught. It will be impossible for 972 the local police constable to know what is in the poacher's bag on his back, and unless the constable is actually present at the time when the rabbit is released, it will be quite impossible to bring any offender to book.
I know that hon. and learned Gentlemen tell us that the courts are overloaded with work. I do not think this Bill will add to their work, because nobody will be caught for an offence under this Bill or be brought before any court.
Clause 1 makes clear that the Bill concerns wild rabbits only. So far as I can see, there is nothing to stop a man who likes rabbits from restocking his land with tame breeds of rabbits. Such rabbits are much bigger and better to eat, and I should have thought that it would have been perfectly possible to restock one's land with rabbits of tame breeds, the Belgian hare, or something of that sort. Anybody who lives in the country knows that wild rabbits of different colour, the result of crossing with tame rabbits, are quite frequently seen. I am certain that such a thing as I suggest could quite easily be done, with the result that damage could be inflicted and yet not be caught by the provisions of the Bill.
In Clause 2, as the hon. Member for Reading pointed out, we have the phrase, which I am sure will go down very well in all the "pubs" in England.A constable may seize a rabbit …If his experience is like mine in getting the children's rabbits off the tennis court and back into the hutch every Sunday night before coming to this House, he will find it a virtually impossible task.
I am intrigued by the wording of Clause 2 (3). It applies apparently to Scotland. I wonder why the court in Scotland cannot go through the clear, if elaborate, sequence of events described in subsection 1 (2). I do not know very much about Scotland. I do not know whether this has anything to do with religion on anything like that, but it seems peculiar way of differentiating Between procedures in England and Scotland.
I believe that the objects of the Bill, with which I am entirely in sympathy if they are to keep rabbits out of the country, can better be attained under the existing law. The Pests Act, 1954, gives 973 the Minister power to make clearance areas and provides that offences shall be committed if landowners do not clear their land, and if they do not clear it, they can have it cleared for them. Surely that is the essence of the matter. That is the way to get rid of rabbits. I do not think that we can stop rabbits spreading naturally, and this little Bill, which seeks to stop them being spread artifically, will be unenforceable and will not contribute to the diminution of rabbits in the country.
§ 2.2 p.m.
§ Mr. K. Zilliacus (Manchester, Gorton)
I intervene in the debate, which is a little off my usual line of country, because my constituency is the centre of the felt hat industry. The industry is very worried about what will happen to it if its raw material is wiped out by the Government's policy or by myxomatosis or a combination of both.
The hon. and gallant Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) argued, somewhat speciously I thought, that, after all, there was nothing in the Bill to prohibit the existence of rabbits, and that people could breed domestic rabbits. He said that the flesh of domestic rabbits was superior to that of wild rabbits. I noticed that he said nothing about their fur, however. For felt batting, the fur of the wild rabbit is far superior to that of the domestic rabbit. The fur of the wild rabbit is the raw material of the felt hatting industry. It cannot use the domestic rabbit unless it turns out a very low-quality hat.
The industry sees the Government bent on exterminating the wild rabbit. As I understand the Government's view, it is, first, that the damage caused by rabbits far exceeds the value of their flesh and fur; and, second, that, as myxomatosis has almost wiped out rabbits, we might as well finish the job. The Bill is supposed to give the authorities the tools to finish the job.
I wonder whether the calculations are correct. The estimates of the value of rabbits as against the damage they cause seem to be fluctuating and to be extremely vague. Myxomatosis itself does not seem to have done as much damage to rabbits in this country as was expected, for they are coming back. I believe that even in Australia the rabbits are begin- 974 ning to return because myxomatosis has spent its virulence, which often happens in respect of an epidemic if it runs long enough. I believe that there is some suggestion that a fresh, more virulent strain has to be introduced.
Are we not seeing the breeding of a generation of more or less myxomatosis-resistant rabbits, and will it really be possible, by the means proposed in the Bill and by the legal powers which it confers, to finish the job? What will be the effect on the balance of nature? What will be the effect on foxes and stoats deprived of rabbits? Are they not turning to poultry, game, etc.? It seems to me that there are many elements in the calculations which are extremely questionable.
I am much more concerned—it is my chief concern—about what is to happen to the fine old felt hatting industry. The industry takes the view, not unnaturally, that, whereas its job is to produce hats out of rabbits, the Government expect it to subsist by producing rabbits out of a hat. What is the industry to do if its raw material disappears? Some members of the industry are pinning their faith on Brer Rabbit's power to increase and multiply in defiance of myxomatosis and the Ministry of Agriculture. Their view might be summed up in the story about the fox which chased a rabbit into its burrow and mounted guard outside, upon which the rabbit said to his wife, "The only thing to do, my dear, is to stay down below until we outnumber the enemy." Maybe that calculation might turn out to be correct.
Meantime, what is the industry to do, because for some time it will suffer from an acute shortage of raw material? I would ask the Government to face their responsibility in the matter. If by their own act they wipe out the native wild rabbit and make it impossible for the industry to subsist, what will they do to produce alternative sources of supply?
I wrote to the Board of Trade to inquire about alternative sources of supply. The Board of Trade was very helpful, informative and courteous, but, as I rather expected, it was thinking solely in terms of available sources of supply in Western Europe. In Western Europe there has, of course, also been myxomatosis, particularly in France, and there is severe competition from the Belgian, 975 Austrian and Italian felt hatting industries for the diminished number of rabbits.
I got in touch with the East-West Trade Council, the body presided over by Lord Boyd-Orr, and it dug up some East European sources which looked useful. I passed that information on to my constituents. But that is not really a job for a back bench Member of Parliament. It is a job for the Government. I would ask the Government to include in their purview of the subject their responsibility for the future of the felt hat industry. If they wipe out the native wild rabbit as a source of supply for the industry, they should, in their trade arrangements with other countries, try to cater for the needs of the industry and encourage the supply, without tariffs and at the lowest possible rates, of wild rabbit and hare pelts.
§ Major H. Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely
I am very glad that the hon. Member for Gorton (Mr. Zilliacus) has raised the question of the felt and fur side of the problem, because I think we are apt to assume that the only feature that really matters is food production. We all agree that we want to produce as much food as possible, and I am sure that we all agree with the first line of the long title of the Bill:An Act to make provision for preventing the spread of rabbits …".I am sure that we all agree with that objective, but we need to keep a balanced point of view about the matter.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) referred to the rabbit as a foreigner. The hon. Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo) made some play with that, and suggested that various types of pet dogs ought also to be ruled out on the basis that they were alien to this land. One could carry the argument further, though it might be a little dangerous for those who are, presumably, descendants of people who invaded these islands from time to time, and say that because something entered this country somewhere around Roman times, although it may not be possible to establish that it was in Roman times, it is no longer welcome in these islands. It might be a little dangerous for us to talk too much about that.
976 My feeling is that we want to make very clear that we do not interpret the word "rabbit" as meaning what it sometimes means. For instance, I discovered —this may interest my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle (Commander Maitland)—that in north Lincolnshire at the end of the last century, according to Edward Peacock's glossary of words used in the Wapentakes of Manley and Corringham "Rabbit= (M.P.)." Whether that referred to the sitting M.P. for the time I do not know, but we would all agree that we are dealing with the descendants of the coney.
The word used in Clause 3 is cuniculus. I do not know what the origin of the word "rabbit" is. It was suggested by Dr. Johnson that it came from the Latin rapidus, meaning "swift". Nobody who has compiled a dictionary since then has agreed with him. Wherever it comes from, the rabbit has been in this country for a very long time, and we know from Strabo in 50 B.C. that it was then on the Western Atlantic seaboard in Europe and so has been near us, if not actually with us, for many centuries.
The first thing we must consider is what has made this animal a pest. The sponsors of the Bill may or may not have a vested interest in the preservation of game birds. I do not know. I am convinced that what caused rabbits to begin to be a menace was the preservation of game, because the moment one starts to upset the balance of nature, trouble starts. A good gamekeeper keeps down all the vermin which would otherwise be feeding on rabbits, and that is one of the difficulties. That practice did not really start to its full extent until the last century. So far as I know, there is no historical record anywhere to show that the rabbit was a menace until comparatively recent years. Presumably their numbers were kept down.
We have not had shotguns for very long, and now that we have upset the balance of nature we are having considerable trouble, and the menace of the rabbit has developed. I enjoy a day's shooting. I always remember that one of the first things I started to shoot was rabbits, and I found it very difficult when I first handled a gun. I hope that the hon. Member for Reading will not think that this is too frivolous. Apart from anything else, if we abolish rabbits 977 altogether in this country, we shall either create a generation of the most dangerous shots that this country has ever known, or experience a decimation of wild birds by young fellows learning to shoot for the first time. They have to shoot at something.
It might be said that they could shoot at pigeons, but pigeons are not an easy target when one first begins to shoot. The numbers of pigeons are increasing for exactly the same reason that has caused the increase in rabbits—an attempt by man to upset the balance of nature. It is extraordinary what we have tried to do. We have tried to exterminate the grey squirrel which fed on pigeons' eggs. We have considerably reduced the numbers of grey squirrels and at the same time the number of pigeons has tended to increase.
We now have animals, such as foxes, feeding on animals about which they have never worried hitherto. For all we know, they might be feeding on animals which would have eaten pigeons' eggs. In Norfolk and other counties pigeons are becoming an absolute menace. Whenever man tries to upset the balance of nature, he brings about more troubles than he solves.
That being the case, what are we to do about the rabbit problem? Are we to introduce a more virulent form of myxomatosis? I have seen enough of myxomatosis to find it very difficult to agree with those people who say that the rabbit cannot possibly be suffering because it is still nibbling food. I was on Stanford battle range in Norfolk in the heyday of myxomatosis, and there was more mercy killing on that day than game being shot. It is one of the most revolting sights one could ever see. I am not unduly squeamish about these things, and I am not always in sympathy with those people who believe that man should never kill any animal, but I must confess that all of us who saw myxomatosis in full swing were utterly horrified by it.
Any disease of the blood, which is what myxomatosis is—it is a venereal disease—is automatically revolting, and for that reason we should think very carefully about whether we want to start introducing a more virulent form. Supposing we say that we have had enough of myxomatosis—although it may have 978 done some good for British agriculture —how are we to keep rabbits down, and will the Bill help to do that?
Clause 1 (1, c) makes one wonder how the Bill will be operated. It means that anybody is guilty of an offence if he turns loose a wild rabbit. It is not an offence only if he does something else as well: It is an offence by itself. How on earth is that provision to be enforced? How is it to be established in the first place, and who is to establish it? I was delighted to hear my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells say that it was not his intention to build up a large swarm of new officials. If that is not his intention, upon whom will he rely to enforce the Bill? The answer is given in the Bill in Clause 2—the police constable. Is that not placing a very heavy burden indeed on the police?
I am not being frivolous, but is it really fair that the police should have to distinguish between a holding on which a rabbit has appeared through some cause unknown to the occupier and a holding on which has appeared a rabbit which has been let loose by the occupier or somebody else? Even supposing that he is able to distinguish between those two situations, will the police constable be in the position to know whether or not it is fair to "run in" the occupier, or to "run in" someone else, or will he leave the matter alone and hope that nobody notices?
I am sure that in this House we have all had sufficient experience of legislation to feel that the worst thing of all is to start introducing legislation which is badly drafted and difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. From that aspect alone there is sufficient ground to say that the Bill should not go forward. We must avoid overburdening police constables, especially in villages, and bringing them, and with them the law, into disrepute.
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;
§ House counted, and, 40 Members being present—
§ Major Legge-Bourke
I was saying when we were interrupted that we were very anxious, therefore, not to give the police constable an impossible task, or to bring him, and with him the law. into disrepute in the village. I think we might take this opportunity of paying 979 a tribute to the village police constable. It is very easy, as the hon. Member for Reading did, to make fun of him because of the way in which he would have to behave under this Bill. Certainly, I think that the last thing which we want him to do is to ride his bicycle to the danger of the public in trying to course a rabbit down a road or in any way, as a result of operating this Bill, to become a figure of fun. Certainly, the drafting of this Bill tends to run that risk; It must do.
The idea of a police constable chasing a rabbit offers much scope for great amusement, but I would say that those who have lived in villages for as long as I have done know perfectly well that, of all the respected people in the village, there is none who comes higher than the average British police constable. He does a wonderful job, and the last thing we ever want him to do is to be everlastingly on the prowl, looking for trouble.
My hon. and gallant Friend, who moved the Second Reading of the Bill, rather indicated that the object of the police was to be looking for people to apprehend. I would say that the mere presence of the village constable going his rounds is about as good a guarantee as we can get that there will be no offences for which he ought to apprehend anybody. I feel that perhaps my hon. and gallant Friend meant the same thing, but that he put it a little unfortunately, so as to make it appear as though the police constable ought to be forever on the lookout for somebody doing something wrong. On the contrary, my belief is that. by the police constable being there, in the village, getting to know everybody and going round the place from time to time, it is not a question of him being perpetually on the look-out for trouble, but that his mere presence is the greatest deterrent against that sort of trouble arising that there could be.
My hon. and gallant Friend says that that is exactly the role which he wants the constable to play in this matter. Very well; that may be so, but the trouble here is that we are dealing with a trade which could quite easily become a rather crafty one. This is a case where I believe it would be so very easy to evade the vigilance of the police. It is perfectly possible, so far as I understand it, that 980 this Bill would have the effect of making people more determined to do the sort of things which the Bill is to try to prevent them from doing. The number of cases that could possibly be detected by the average village constable in the course of his duties would be infinitesimal.
My belief is that, although the spread of rabbits is something which it is desirable to stop, it is probably unstoppable by this Bill, and that is the point at issue. I assure my hon. Friends who support the Bill that I do not distrust their motives for one moment, because I am with them in their desire to keep rabbits under control, but this Bill will not do it, no matter how much they try to make it effective. If they try to do it without setting up a horde of officials, they will only create more trouble.
§ Commander J. W. Maitland (Horncastle)
This is a very interesting argument, but would it not be sensible first to make illegal the turning out of rabbits on land on which at present there are none? It is not as difficult as all that to get the constable to try to enforce the law.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
I think that my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Horncastle was making a valid point, which I want to try to answer. I agree absolutely—
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker
I must remind hon. Members that this discussion should be carried on by debate, and that we are not now in Committee.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
I quite appreciate that, but I think it is very important that what should be established, before deciding whether or not the Bill ought to be given a Second Reading, is whether or not the Bill is enforceable, and it is on that point that I think that the observations of my hon. and gallant Friend are extremely relevant.
I would reply to my hon. and gallant Friend by saying "Very well; make something illegal, but what is the point of making illegal something which you know perfectly well you cannot possibly enforce?" Certainly, without the setting up of an enormous bureaucracy to run it, it cannot be done, and if we leave the Bill without a body to enforce it, it is 981 absolutely beyond the power of the police to enforce it. That is the point that I am trying to make, and that is one reason why I am opposed to the Bill.
§ Lieut.-Commander Maydon
Would my hon, and gallant Friend agree that to prevent people robbing their neighbours' chicken coops is equally unenforceable?
§ Major Legge-Bourke
No, I would not agree at all. There is a world of difference between dealing with domesticated fowls and dealing with the acreage of the average farms of this country where, may be, the occupier of a farm lives in the village, though his land is spread over a very considerable area. How can we enforce the provisions of this Bill in such circumstances? To begin with, who will know that rabbits reappearing on the land have been produced in this way? How can we establish whether the occupiers of the farms have turned them loose. whether they have been turned loose by somebody else, or whether it happened through natural causes? That is why I think Clause 1 is extremely unsound.
Again, I assure my hon. and gallant Friends that I am not disputing their motives at all in this matter. Indeed, I am with them in their desire to prevent the further spreading of rabbits. I want to prevent it, but I do not believe that this is the best way in which to do it. I think that the best way to prevent the spreading of rabbits is to allow the population of weasels, stoats and other animals to increase. That proposal may not be very popular with the people who preserve game. I say that the best way is to let nature take its course, because nature usually provides a better remedy for this sort of thing than can be provided in any other way. Therefore, I certainly feel that this Bill cannot possibly succeed.
To come back to the point made by the hon. Member for Gorton, I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary if he can tell us what was the outcome of the deputation from the industries interested in the use of rabbit fur to the President of the Board of Trade last January. I understand that, however accurate may be the figure of £15½ million as the estimated cost of the damage which is caused by rabbits, that is completely of set by the food produced and the fur and skins provided by rabbits which are used by these industries to 982 which I have referred, and also by the export of rabbit skins.
In fact, the figure which I have been given of the meat value of the rabbit is between £7 million and £8 million a year before myxomatosis. The figure for fur felt hats and hoods, including the value of the fur, is £7,250,000; the value of the fur exports of fur hatters is £324,000; the value of the by-products of fur cutting, including pelt for glue, tails for clipping, hair for spinning, ears, legs, etc., for nitrogenous fertilisers, is £50,000; and rabbit skin exports £900,000; making a total in all of £15,524,000. 1 should like to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary whether he thinks these figures are correct. Certainly, I think that they are probably far more accurate than those that have been given of the cost of the damage by rabbits to British agriculture.
I do not dispute the fact that the damage is enormous, but have we sufficient facts to show that it amounts to the suggested figure? Even if that figure is accurate, is it not offset by the other factors? Hon. Members are very keen to set up monopoly commissions to prevent monopolies. Here is an industry which is breaking the monopoly of the National Farmers' Union. The rabbit has been the staple diet in many humble homes for many years, both in towns and villages, and if rabbits are done away with something else will have to be imported. We are trying to cut down our food imports, but we are deliberately stamping out a valuable source of food by means of myxomatosis.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)
Is my hon. and gallant Friend in favour of spreading rabbits? A few moments ago he said that he had a great deal of sympathy with the aim of stamping out rabbits, although he did not like the Bill.
§ Major Legge-Bourke
That is a perfectly fair point to make. What I am doing is to question the accuracy of the figure given by the farming industry in respect of the damage done by rabbits, and I have pointed out that, however big it is, it has probably been offset by the other factors. I am not necessarily recommending that we should increase the rabbit population to the point at which it stood before the introduction of myxomatosis.
983 If my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell) has heard and digested my earlier remarks he will appreciate that the whole burden of my argument is that nature will provide steps to remedy the situation, and that if we had not virtually exterminated those animals which feed upon rabbits, we should not have had such a great pre-myxomatosis rabbit population. I do not want to see the rabbit population increase to what it was before that disease was introduced, nor do I want to see rabbits exterminated.
There are many Departmental rabbits which I want to see exterminated before our ordinary rabbits. I hope none of those Departmental officials will take my remarks too personally, but there are other more important jobs for Ministers to do than to start worrying about the abolition of a species.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture said that he was in favour of the total extermination of rabbits, and I know that other hon. Members share his view. They are perfectly entitled to do so, but I should regret the passing of the rabbit. It has a food value, and a manufacturing and an export value. Whether that export value will set off the value of the increased imports of foodstuffs which will be necessary in order to provide our people with enough food if the rabbit is exterminated is another matter. It is probably a matter of opinion, anyway.
My view is that the Bill is not practicable. It will not do what we want it to do. I am not certain that if we are going to rely upon the police to enforce it we ought to make the Minister of Agriculture the appropriate Minister. I believe it is normal for the Home Secretary to deal with matters concerning the police. It has been openly stated that the police are the authorities to be relied upon to enforce the provisions of the Bill. If so, what has the Minister of Agriculture to do with it?
§ Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)
Where does the Bill refer to the Minister of Agriculture enforcing its provisions?
§ Major Legge-Bourke
Clause 4 (1) says:The appropriate Minister may, for the purpose of enabling scientific research …984 Yes—I appreciate the hon. Member's point, now. But I think I am right in saying that if there is a Ministerial responsibility for enforcement it will be that of the Minister of Agriculture, as he is represented here. No other Ministry representative is here, so it is to be presumed that the Ministry of Agriculture will be the responsible Department.
I appreciate that the appropriate Minister in respect of agricultural research is the Minister of Agriculture, but I am not sure that he is the appropriate Minister for seeing that the police properly enforce the provisions of the Bill. I should have thought that it would have been the Home Secretary. If that is so, why does the Bill not say so?
I think that I have made most of the points that I wanted to make. This is one of the most well-intentioned and ill-conceived Bills ever presented to Parliament. Its motive is indisputable; none of us would quarrel with it. But the method by which its end is to be achieved seems to me to be the worst possible one. Furthermore, I believe that that method is completely unenforceable. For that reason I ask the House to reject the Bill.
§ 2.35 p.m.
§ Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)
I am quite unable to share the passionate faith which the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) expressed in those moving words, "After all, one has to shoot something." I appreciate that that philosophy has brought into this Chamber to oppose the Bill a number of people to whom it really means a lot. There is no doubt that a continuity in that way of life reaches back to the days of my youth, when the same type of person as the hon. Members to whom I have referred were hauling little boys before benches of magistrates and having them committed to prison, if possible, on the ground that they had sought to capture rabbits. Rabbits were referred to by the hon. and gallant Gentleman as being part of the staple diet of the working class. The spice of danger in the hunt was the challenge not to the wits of the rabbit but to the local constable.
The Bill is an attempt to apply one kind of remedy to one aspect of the problem which agriculture is facing, or 985 is having a chance to solve, at this moment, after the spread of myxomatosis and the change in the balance of wild life in the countryside. It is fairly easy to make fun of the Bill. The noble Lord who introduced it in another place had to have two shots before he could arrive at an acceptable form of words.
The Bill is negative in its provisions. It deals with the responsibilities of private individuals; lists a series of penalties and creates new offences, from which Ministers are exempted. In the only part of the Bill which does not concern private individuals there are specific provisions that the Minister of Agriculture, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Lord President of the Council are exempted.
Before we allow the Bill to pass this stage, we should hear from the Ministry what it is doing about another aspect of the same problem. How is it carrying out its own responsibilities in relation to the control of the rabbit population, by its own methods? The public has heard with some disquiet reports of the means adopted by the Ministry to check the spread of rabbits after the end of the epidemic. We should be given some positive information this afternoon to counterbalance the request embodied in legislation imposing upon private individuals quite a heavy responsibility and setting up legal machinery to enforce it.
We have had much fun today envisaging the local constable chasing a rabbit; Issuing a warning to it that he has reason to believe that an offence is about to be committed, taking the rabbit in his charge and disposing of it as the court may direct. In practice, that is not what happens to these unforutnate rabbits. It is all very well to be funny about the constable and his truncheon, but I want an explanation from the Minister about some not very nice stories of bulldozers being used on Danbury Common, in Essex. Perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity of speaking at somewhat greater length than is possible at Question Time, or upon an Adjournment debate, about the Ministry's own contribution to this problem.
After all, any private individual who buried a dog alive would be pilloried by the Press and pursued in the courts and awarded the severest penalty. In regard to the various aspects of the long struggle against unnecessary cruelty there have been various cruel sports which, after all, 986 in their origin at least, involved danger to the hunter. There is the difficulty of people living in squalor and the temptation before them to exploit animals was unnecessary cruelty. But stupid, mechanised bureaucratic cruelty is something which ought to be stopped and something which, if allowed to go on, is very shocking to the public—very demoralising—and which does a great deal of harm to the cause of animal welfare very dear to the heart of many hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The Ministry ought not to expect private individuals to make a somewhat difficult contribution to the problem without itself undertaking a review of its own procedure. When the public learns that the Ministry has wilfuly, rather hastily one thinks, set fire to gorse bushes with paraffin torches thus slowly destroying the bird and animal life of an area in order to kill a few suspected rabbits, and about bull-dozing which may bury animals alive, it tends to be a little shocked.
I do not want to develop the sentimental side of this matter. A number of stories have been told of what goes on in these organised operations, but I think that the principle should now be taken Ministerially that, in carrying out a policy of this kind, the Ministry ought to accept the same kind of ethics in its relationship to animals and the same sort of standards as are expected of private individuals.
It is with those feelings in my mind that I ask the Minister to state in his reply what progress and improvements the Ministry is prepared to introduce into its own methods before it apparently throws the whole weight of responsibility on to individuals by a Bill of this kind.
§ 2.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Hurd (Newbury)
May we come back for a few moments to the Bill? I support the Bill for what it is. It is a small Measure but one, I think, which may prove useful. As I see it, the position in the country today is that in the course of the last two years myxomatosis has cut down the rabbit numbers by about 95 per cent. A few rabbits are now appearing again in many districts.
As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon) reminded us, the rabbit is a very 987 prolific creature and its numbers will increase fast. Most of us who are engaged in farming or forestry welcome the disappearance of the rabbit. He is never going to disappear altogether, try as hard as we may to exterminate him. There will always be rabbits and we must go on trying to exterminate him. Otherwise, he will once again do great damage to our farming and forestry industries.
As I say, most of those engaged in farming and forestry welcome the almost complete disappearance of the rabbit. There are some who do not, and this Bill is aimed at them. The Bill makes it an offence for men coming from Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Manchester, or where one will, who have an interest in shooting —perhaps a syndicate who rent some rough shooting—and enjoy having rabbits to shoot at. Such people are today encouraging the trade in wild rabbits. They are buying wild rabbits and having them transported about the country and put down in scrub woodland and other rather poor country in order to give them their sport.
That is all very well, but, unhappily, the rabbit knows no farm boundaries. If my neighbour were ill-advised enough to put down rabbits on his ground it would not be many months before they were on my ground. I am one of those who has for a great many years spent a good deal of time and effort in keeping down the number of rabbits on my land. I certainly would not want others to be the cause of my land being overrun with rabbits once again.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) questioned the accuracy of the estimate made of the saving through not having so many rabbits. I think that the best reckoning that my right hon. Friend the Minister could give was that the extra grain crops in last year's harvest were worth £15 million. That may or may not be an accurate figure. To that, of course, must be added the extra herbage which the rabbits did not eat and which cattle and sheep can eat. I would say that the total saving was at least £50 million, and that saving will, of course, be made again this year. Indeed, it may very well be more.
I am sorry for the rabbit skin trade and for the fur hat makers. It is distress- 988 ing for them to find that their raw material from British sources has so largely disappeared. But when we are trying to match up the gain to the nation through not having rabbits and the loss to one industry through not having wild rabbits we must compare like figures.
As I understand it, the value of the raw aterial—actual rabbits—of these industries is about £2 million a year. It is when the skins are made up into fur hats or are exported as skins and when they are processed as meat that they may be worth £15 million. If we take account of this £15 million we should also take account of what is the final processed value of the extra grain and grass grown on our farms and of the extra trees grown owing to not having the rabbits. I think that the balance is overwhelmingly in favour of not having the rabbits.
As I have said, we shall always have rabbits, and therefore we must use every means—and this Bill provides a small one—of keeping down rabbit numbers and of stopping foolish people from trying deliberately to introduce rabbits. I would go a good deal further in the Bill. I have some knowledge of Australia and of another weapon in the armoury which is being used there against the rabbit. It is myxomatosis.
I support the opinion of the Scottish National Farmers' Union which is urging the Government to allow the creation of a myxomatosis bank to supply virus of the deadly kind which brings about quick death, not the lingering death which in some cases we have been seeing lately in the attenuated strains. This could be used under proper supervision to kill off the rabbits where they are found to be multiplying. That, in my view, is a much more humane way of dealing with the problem than having to go back again to the gin trap and all the other devices which we do not like. I put that forward as a suggestion which, as I say, has already been made by the Scottish National Farmers' Union.
I know that many people, including the Forestry Commission, where surprised and worried when a new Clause was introduced into the Pests Bill of 1954 making the spreading of myxomatosis an offence. I think that it was a mistake to have that Clause in that Bill. Whether we can get that decision reversed, I do not know. I myself think that we have 989 to use every weapon in our armoury to keep down the number of rabbits. We shall never exterminate rabbits. There will always be some for the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely to "pot" at.
We want to use whatever means we can to keep down the number of rabbits, and this will be a useful Bill. Some say that it is unenforceable. But is it likely to be any more unenforceable than the laws against poaching? They do good, and I think that this Bill may also do good. What hon. Members seem to agree about, whatever their arguments, is that we should join together in our determination to keep down the number of rabbits in this country. That is why I support the Bill.
§ 2.51 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey de Freitas (Lincoln)
I do not think one has to go so far as the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) in order to support this Bill. I think that this should be made clear because there is a misunderstanding by hon. Members who have not studied the point. My feelings about the introduction of myxomatosis as a means of eliminating the rabbit are entirely different from his. On the other hand, I do agree with nearly everything the hon. Member said in answering the sweeping criticisms of his hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke) as to the value of food and the opportunity of getting food which was destroyed by rabbits up to two or three years ago.
The hon. Member quoted the figure of £50 million. That may well be right. Some idea of the measure of the effects of myxomatosis can be seen from the report which came to the Nature Conservancy from the Isle of Anglesey. Within four months of the arrival of myxomatosis in Anglesey, it was possible to pasture 1,500 sheep on land which had never carried in living memory anything but rabbits.
The point was made by the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane), and it is borne out by the attitude of the Forestry Commission, that great damage has been done to forestry. The Nature Conservancy, which has studied this and which is concerned with the point made by the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely about the balance of 990 nature, is convinced of the enormous amount of damage which is done. The hon. and gallant Member referred to this Bill as upsetting the balance of nature, but the rabbit problem, as he himself pointed out in another part of his speech, has been caused because over the last 100 years we have upset the balance of nature. The balance of nature has been drastically upset, resulting in the increase in the number of rabbits. The research done on myxomatosis by the Nature Conservancy has been considerable. Very early in the field was Dr. R. M. Lockley, who studied myxomatosis and its spread.
In any discussions on this subject, we must admit that the existence of rabbits has certain advantages, but I believe it to be very much outweighed by the disadvantages. One of these was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Gorton (Mr. Zilliacus) in speaking of the problem in his constituency of the fur hat industry. I hope that we can get some indication—and I know that it is a matter more for the Board of Trade—of what the Government intend to do about this. I do not know if it was a firm in my hon. Friend's constituency which wrote to the Hampshire County Branch of the National Farmer's Union.
The hon. and gallant Member for Wells (Lieut.-Commander Maydon), who moved the Second Reading of this Bill, referred to the Hampshire Branch of the N.F.U. scheme for giving 2s. for a pair of rabbit's ears. The branch received a letter which is quoted in the British Farmer, which some hon. Members may have seen, from a firm of manufacturers which uses rabbits' fur. Let it be remembered that the offer was 2s. per pair of rabbit's ears. The letter stated:
We have read that the Hampshire Executive of the N.F.U. will pay 2s. for every pair of rabbit's ear brought in by 30th April. Seeing that at the present time we are selling ears at the price of £19 10s. a ton, we accept your kind offer and propose to send you our next consignment of about 12 tons so that it reaches you not later than 1st April. Would you also be interested in some other appendages of rabbits? If so, we can offer you: Large erect tails from happy rabbits at Is. Id. each. Small drooping tails from dismal rabbits at 9½d. each.That letter, I understand, caused the Hampshire Branch to revise its scheme somewhat in order to reserve the reward for wild rabbits caught in the fields. There are always problems like that which arise when we try to exterminate rabbits.
991 The effect of fewer rabbits, according to the Nature Conservancy, has been longer grasses, wider ranges of species and an increase flowering of grass and shrubs. The hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely referred to the effect upon predators. We know only about Scotland so far, where they are foxes, stoats, weasels, wild cats and buzzards. The only survey has been on the buzzard. It has been found that there is no evidence whatsoever of any extensive switch by the buzzard from eating rabbits to eating any other animal. What has happened is that the buzzards have laid fewer eggs during the next year, and so adjusted their own population to the amount of food available. That is the result of the nature survey research which has come in so far on the effect of the elimination of the food of these animals.
§ Mr. de Freitas
My right hon. Friend talks about this as being an example of ornithological birth control. Perhaps if we could cross buzzards with the rabbit we should solve the problem of their over reproduction.
We do not have to go so far as the hon. Member for Newbury suggested but, whatever we do, surely the first step—and this is the point about the Bill—is to make it illegal to reintroduce the wild rabbit? Even if this legislation goes through, we know from the figures quoted by the hon. and gallant Member for Wells that there will be millions—or thousands anyway—more rabbits than when we started discussing this Bill; they are not waiting on us. I welcome the Bill and hope that it will be given a Second Reading.
§ 2.54 p.m.
§ Sir Jocelyn Lucas (Portsmouth, South)
The chief argument against the Bill is that it will be almost impossible to enforce. About a year ago we passed a Bill making it a crime to spread myxomatosis. Despite this, there was a black market in infected rabbits, as much as £5 each was paid for them, and people motored as far as a hundred miles to get them. I do not know that a single prosecution was instituted for breaking the law in that respect. There was a maximum penalty at the time of £20 for the first 992 offence and £50 for the second, and yet we have never heard of one prosecution. To make a law that is bad is in every sense wrong, because it brings the law into contempt, and it places an almost impossible burden on the police.
I suggest that a far better plan would be to say that where a person turns down wild rabbits in a prescribed area, as for instance on good agricultural land or in the vicinity of plantations or forestry areas, he is to be made responsible for the damage. This could probably be done under the present law. If a man, for example, brought a van load of wild rabbits and turned them down near agricultural land or a plantation of growing corn he could be sued not only for the cost of killing the rabbits but the damage done to the corn or the trees, and the wire netting which it would subsequently be necessary to erect to keep rabbits out. This surely would be far more effective than a mere fine.
Under the provisions of the Bill a child who picked up a baby rabbit and took it home would be liable to a fine of £50, and a gamekeeper who took home two or three rabbits when he was ferreting and turned them loose in a patch of gorse in a safe area, so that he could have somewhere to train his dogs to catch other rabbits elsewhere, could be fined £50. That is a very different kettle of fish from turning down rabbits where they do harm.
People should be allowed to turn rabbits down under licence for some approved purpose and under specific safeguards. It is the opinion of many people that rabbit warrens might well be established in certain areas of poor land, properly wired in with double—and I emphasise "double"—wire netting. It is not merely the food value of the rabbit but the value of their skins for furs and the hat trade that matters. Italy and Spain have placed an embargo on the sale of rabbit skins in order to capture the hat trade which is one of our export trades to the United States.
Rabbits can easily become a pest, but except in sandy or chalky districts they are easy to keep down if a little trouble is taken. I make an exception of areas where there are thick clumps of rhododendrons or ill-kept coverts, but a rabbit will always live near its food, and it likes the sun. There was a well-known 993 North Country landowner who was determined to get rid of his rabbits. He called his keepers together and told them his plans. The keepers said that it was going to be very difficult. They doubted whether it could be done but he said, "either the rabbits go or you go". The result was that the rabbits went. Once the rabbits are out, the most important thing to do is to block up the holes and, if necessary, dig them out and destroy them. That is seldom done, and rabbits naturally come back to places where there are holes already there for them.
In New Zealand, once an area has been more or less cleared, the whole neighbourhood is made responsible for keeping the rabbits down. The method is, or was recently, to send men with packs of dogs —" long dogs "to catch the rabbits and any sort of dog that will work the scrub or coverts. Everything above ground is shot or caught. The burrows are then stopped, gassed and destroyed. As the farmers in the area are responsible for the cost of the proceedings, they see to it that their neighbours keep their rabbits down or they do it for them. Payment is not made for rabbit skins because it was found that that led to paying for the same skins twice.
Before I deal with Danbury Common, already mentioned by the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin), I must declare an interest in that I breed dogs for sport as well as for other things. I am often asked by agricultural committees and their pest officers to help them to clear woods of rabbits, and from places which they cannot deal with otherwise. One such place was Danbury Common. Where it had been bulldozed there were no rabbits—only scrub and no food and no light. I covered the whole of that area with thirty couple of terriers and beagles, and we found only two rabbits on the edge of the site. I asked whether there was any place which the sun reached and where there was grass. They pointed to open common and gorse. There nine rabbits were found and shot, and four more ferreted where the dogs had marked the ground. It means that getting rid of a lot of scrub is often unnecessary and quite useless. All the same, it can be very useful in some places.
Since it is illegal to spread myxomatosis and the gin trap is to be abolished, there remain four methods—shooting, gassing, 994 netting and snaring. Snaring is dangerous to cats and dogs, and game and grazing cattle are apt to catch their tongues or their feet in the snares. Gassing rabbits if a burrow is in the open is easy, but if there is covert one must have dogs to chase them to ground and to mark or point the holes.
I suggest that the best thing that a landowner or farmer can do to clear ground of rabbits is to get hold of a couple of sporting boys. They do not need a gun. The best thing is to let them have a well-trained dog or two and a couple of ferrets, and set them to work, giving them half a crown per rabbit they catch and making them fill up the holes afterwards. I guarantee that if they are any good at all they will clear a place of rabbits in next to no time, but they must have a good dog because a good dog will mark a hole and show whether there is a rabbit in it or not, and so will a bluebottle in season. If one finds a bluebottle in the mouth of a rabbit hole one can be sure that there is a rabbit inside.
There are many areas of poor land on which a few rabbits are of great benefit to the farmer and a boon to the sportsman. I still maintain that in such cases the rabbit is the mainstay of the rough shoot for which the farmer gets a rent. In turn that helps to pay his rent, and the rabbit also provides the farm labourer's Sunday dinner, quite apart from its sporting value.
I have received a number of letters on the subject. I do not want to bore the House by reading too many, but I have one here from the editor of a Yorkshire paper. We know that in Yorkshire everyone is very clever and sensible, above all the editors of Yorkshire papers. He writes:Just a line to let you know there are other people in the country who regret the passing of the rabbit. The Pennine range of mountains, extending from Derbyshire through Yorkshire, to Westmorland and Cumberland are not first-class agricultural land, but there also the rabbits have been wiped out. As you say, nearly every rough shoot in the country has been ruined. On these mountains there is not much else. Pheasants, woodcocks, partridges, and ducks are thinly distributed. … I bought a farm of 500 acres at Starbotton in Upper Wharfedale. I was delighted with the abundance of rabbits "—995 that is odd, for a farmer—and the farmers made a lot of money out of them in the winter. The Government do not seem to realise that the extermination of rabbits is a national disaster of the first magnitude. It is also most unfair to landowners, and especially to owners of sporting rights.… And there is another way of looking at it. We all work hard in order to get some pleasure. If there is no pleasure to work for we shall get discouraged. Thousands of working men get their pleasure hunting rabbits, and to the wives of working men a rabbit now and again is a cheap article of food.I have a number of other letters including one from a working man who wrote:Dear Sir,I see you are making a stand against the destruction of rabbits. I agree that it is very wrong to have them destroyed, as they do not do half the damage they say they do on a farm. It has been the custom to give the labourer a rabbit or two when you wanted them to stop a little late to get a job done. They would stop to do it if the boss was good to them and gave them a rabbit for their dinner. … I was talking to a head keeper and he said it would make a lot of difference to him as he could not give money out of his own pocket …and he adds that in the past when he wanted people to do overtime they would always be pleased to accept a rabbit.
I have another letter from a Worcestershire farmer, who said:Farmers in Worcestershire are now being asked to accept a proposal to designate the whole country as a compulsory control area though it is admitted that the existing voluntary control plan which applies to this district and adjacent areas is working very well. If designation is accepted where a farmer does nothing about rabbits, the county committee can send people. … There are farms with rich corn, fruit and vegetable lands where rabbits have done much damage and their return would be unwelcome. On the other hand there are plenty of places, as I am sure you are aware, where one can have rabbit warrens on poor grass land or woodland and have ones bit of shooting, … some of the sterile headlands round our coasts used to be full of rabbits. Now they have nothing. The Minister of Agriculture has said that myxomatosis has destroyed 40million rabbits …and he does not believe that figure—The Ministry's propaganda against rabbits stands discredited because it is unbalanced. Guesswork statistics are given about rabbit damage …My feeling is that if owners of woodlands near agricultural land will not keep their rabbits down, people should be allowed to come in earlier than now. 996 Many owners of big shoots will not allow anybody to come in and catch their rabbits until the shooting season has finished on 1st February. That is rather late, for the damage has been done. There may be only a few people with trained dogs who are prepared to do the job, and if they are asked to go everywhere at the same time it is impossible for them to do it.
The Bill, as it stands, seems to me to be neither practical, enforceable nor really necessary. On the other hand, I want the same result to be achieved by any other means that we can get it.
§ 3.11 p.m.
§ Mr. Somerville Hastings (Barking)
I want to say a few words in support of the Bill. Although so far as I know I have not a single wild rabbit in my constituency, I am by birth a countryman and know a good deal of the damage that is done on farms by wild rabbits. I am told on good authority that for each pound of meat produced, a rabbit eats five times as much food as a sheep; and a rabbit also is very selective in its food, and eats only of the best.
I want to deal with a few of the arguments which have been used against the Bill. First, there is the question of myxomatosis. I have seen a good many sick people in my time, but I do not think I have ever seen such a depressing sight as a series of rabbits sick from myxomatosis. It has been suggested that some virulent form of the disease might be used to kill off rabbits where they were most troublesome. Apart from any question of cruelty, the difficulty is that if virulent myxomatosis is like all the other virulent diseases that I know, it is very difficult indeed to control, and it spreads, not only where it is wanted, but elsewhere also.
§ Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)
If that policy is applied, a wild rabbit must first be caught and then released, against the provisions of the Bill. It must be deliberately released with the disease in order to spread it.
§ Mr. Hastings
I am in favour of the Bill, and under the Bill that would be illegal.
One of the arguments raised concerns felt hats. I think we could all do without felt hats. A year or so ago, when I 997 went into the question, I was told that excellent felt hats were made without any rabbit fur at all, and I was told where I could get them at two or three places in London. I made inquiries and found they were rather too expensive for me, so I did not get a felt hat made from other than rabbit skin.
Another of the arguments is the interference with the balance of nature. Surely, ever since we started to become civilised in any sense, we have been interfering with the balance of nature. All domestic animals which we grow for food are an interference with the balance of nature. Everything that we cultivate in our gardens and in our fields is interfering with the balance of nature. All the chemicals, fertilisers, etc., that we use are interfering with it. What we must do if we want our own species to survive is constantly to interfere with other species of animals and plants so that we may get the best food possible from the soil.
The last argument with which I want to deal is the suggestion that it would be impossible fully to enforce the law. But what law is fully enforced? We have strong laws against murder, but unfortunately a certain number of murders take place every year, as we know, and there are probably many others about which we do not know. The fact that there is a law against a practice tends at any rate partly to prevent it.
When my children were young and travelled with me in the car, they maintained that whenever I saw a policeman I automatically slowed down the car. I did not notice it, but they told me that it always was so. The fact that there was a law and a possibility of it being enforced caused my action.
I do not want to detain the House, but I want to say that on grounds of food supply. of getting rid of a noxious disease —myxomatosis—and of kindness to animals, I am in favour of this short Bill.
§ 3.16 p.m.
§ Sir Robert Grimston (Westbury)
I think that the whole House is in support of the purposes of the Bill. Indeed, the objective of trying to prevent the recrudescence of the rabbit population is entirely laudable. But I want to say something about the Bill itself, because the more I look at it the more inexplic- 998 able it becomes to me, I must confess. Without any disrespect to another place, I think that this is a very silly Bill.
I gather that there have been two attempts at it and, as the Bill has passed through all its stages in another place, I presume that some thought must have been given to the wording. May I make some comments on the wording of the Bill? If hon. Members look at it, they will see that for the purposes of Clause 1 (1, a) (i) and (ii) and Clause 1 (1, b), the animal is "a live wild rabbit." For the purposes of Clause 1 (1, c) it becomes "a wild rabbit." For the purposes of Clause 2 it becomes "a rabbit." I am trying to grasp the purpose of the change in phraseology.
I can quite understand that in the case of Clause 1 (1, a) (i) and (ii) and Clause 1 (1, b), the reference to buying or selling "a live wild rabbit" is reasonable. Similarly, in paragraph (b) the reference is to conveying, procuring or consigning "a live wild rabbit". In paragraph (c), however, it becomes an offence to turn loose "a wild rabbit". I can only presume, therefore, that it becomes an offence to turn loose a wild rabbit which is dead, and I cannot see why that should be an offence in connection with the spread of myxomatosis.
We get a little glimmer of understanding when we turn to Clause 2, because it would take the pen of Charles Dickens to describe a village constable rushing about apprehending live wild rabbits, whereas it would be quite easy for him to apprehend a dead wild rabbit which had been turned loose and which constituted an offence under Clause 1 (1, c). Frankly, I do not understand it—except as something about which Charles Dickens might have written.
Let me return to Clause 2 (1)—A constable may seize a rabbit.…I can understand that it would look ridiculous to print in the Bill that a constable may seize a live wild rabbit. If he seizes this dead wild rabbit, the release of which has been an offence under Clause 1 (1, c), he may sell it. That a constable who has seized property which is the subject of an offence may then sell it for gain seems to me to create an entirely new principle and really to be putting temptation in the way of the police.
999 It is even worse than that, because by Clause 2 (2), if the body of a rabbit has been sold, the court may direct forfeiture of the sum for which it has been sold. Just imagine the village constable. He seizes this dead wild rabbit. He thinks "Why not? The Bill says so. I can collect an honest shilling or two by selling this dead wild rabbit". Further temptation is put in his way. Obviously, if he sees this dead wild rabbit and knows who put it there it is his duty to apprehend that person, but he thinks again. and says, "If I do nothing about it I shall keep the few shillings that I have got for this dead wild rabbit, but if I bring the court into it the court may order that I forfeit the money I have received". There is, therefore, a great temptation put in his way not to carry out this duty.
There are other points in the Bill which make it appear to me to be an extremely silly Bill. It is a great pity that we should allow a Measure of this sort, which can really be made such nonsense of, to go forward in the good cause that we want to foster, which is to maintain the elimination of the rabbit population. Personally, I should like to see something done on the lines advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) to keep down the rabbit population by other means, but not by introducing such a Bill as this, through which a coach-and-four can be driven, and which, as I say, makes nonsense of the law of the country.
§ 3.22 p.m.
§ Mr. F. A. Burden (Gillingham)
My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Sir R. Grimston) puts most of this Bill in perspective, but I must say that this whole Measure has arisen really out of an Alice-in-Wonderland attitude towards the problem of the rabbit. I am all in favour of keeping down the rabbit population, but I do rather feel that farmers and others who are opposed to the rabbit—and particularly the farmers—have used the rabbit as a means of covering any shortcomings there may have been in their farming—for shortages of crops.
Immediately myxomatosis has taken its great toll, they at once say that the only possible reason for the increase in crops is the death of the rabbit. There is no mention of the achievements that have 1000 been made in farming methods, no mention of the difference between the summer last year and that of the previous year. Any gains, any greater productivity on the farms, has been laid by the farmers at the door of myxomatosis, because it has almost exterminated the rabbit population.
I think that most hon. Members were quite horrified at the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) for the artificial spreading of myxomatosis, and about that I should like to say a word or two later.
I was very interested in some of the suggestions that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Sir J. Lucas). I know that he has a very handy weapon for clearing areas of rabbits. His pack of Sealyhams is well known all around the Home Counties, and whenever its services have been called upon I know that he has been extremely willing and, indeed, has shown anxiety to co-operate with farmers and other persons who desire to have their grounds cleared.
I know that my hon. Friend's Sealyhams, after being taken in vans to the place where they are required, literally sweep through a coppice or small wood, clearing all the rabbits before them. In addition, the careful marking of spots where rabbits have gone to ground, and the experience of my hon. Friend, have been found to be of extreme value. Not only that, but it has given a great deal of pleasure and sport to many people in the surrounding area. I would suggest that it might well be one of the possibilities which the Minister might look at, to set up, or encourage the setting up, of such small packs in an area where he is using his powers under the Act.
We are all fairly alive to the fact that the rabbit has caused a great deal of damage to crops. No one would deny it, and I do not think anyone wishes to deny it. On the other hand, the amount of damage which rabbits cause has been very largely exaggerated. If I may say so, if there is one group of people which is able to play its hand with excessive strength, or is inclined to overplay its hand quite frequently, that is, the farming community.
§ Mr. Burden
My hon. Friend says I should try a bit of it. Does he mean try a bit of overplaying my hand or try a bit of farming?
Although it appears to be such an arduous and unremunerative occupation, I have seen a great many wealthy farmers. If farmers are not doing well at this time, when they are protected by Government and in other ways, I would suggest they would do far better to support a Bill to improve their lot generally rather than a Bill to remove the odd rabbit which may appear here and there. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary would be far better employed this afternoon in bringing in some other proposal. I do not know what it would be; probably the farmers would like the subsidies increased. Despite their air of trouble, farmers appear to be a fairly comfortable and well-off community nowadays. Indeed, one cannot help remembering that there is an hon. Gentleman opposite who constantly says that farmers are featherbedded. Of course, I would not agree to that at all. Nevertheless, I believe he held Ministerial rank and had a good deal of experience of dealing with farmers before he expressed that view.
This Bill is to stop the artificial spread of rabbits. I have noted some of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury. I think anyone reading this Bill must be amazed at the terms of Clause 2 (1):A constable may seize a rabbit with respect to which he has reasonable ground for believing that an offence under subsection (1) of the foregoing section is being, or has been, committed, and may, if it is alive "—and so the Clause goes on. Really, hon. Gentlemen are not drawing too widely on their imaginations in suggesting that they can foresee a very amusing situation arising as a result of an unfortunate police constable endeavouring to carry out his duties.
I wonder whether as the result of the Bill village constables may not soon be making application for Land Rovers so that they can ride around the country at night, blind a rabbit with their headlights and then dash out to put a bag over its head. However, before they can do that, apparently, they must be reasonably sure that in some way an offence has been committed and that someone has put the rabbit there by artificial means. Presum- 1002 ably it does not apply if the rabbit has found its way there on its own.
§ Mr. F. M. Bennett (Torquay)
In view of Clause 1 (4), has not the constable also to be satisfied that the rabbit is not one:— of a type commonly kept in captivity and has been born in captivity and kept continuously in captivity since birth —which is out for a short run? If it is one of that class, will the constable not commit an offence in killing someone's domestic rabbit?
§ Mr. Burden
It seems that the constable's equipment must even exceed a Land Rover. He will obviously have to be given very extensive instruction about the types of rabbit that may escape from captivity. It will be no good sending a police constable born in London to a country division and expecting him to go straight out and effectively perform his duties under the Bill. An extensive training system will have to be set up to instruct constables about types of rabbits.
Major W. Hicks Beach (Cheltenham)
My hon. Friend has mentioned a very important point, special training for police constables in catching rabbits. Could he amplify his remarks a little? Has he any idea of the extra cost involved in the training?
§ Mr. Burden
I do not know that, but I know that the Olympic Games will be taking place this year, and it may be that there will be an effort to recruit as constables some of the sprinters taking part, because they will doubtless stand much more chance of catching rabbits than many of the police officers whom we see on the beat at the moment.
Apart from all this, the Government have very considerable powers under the Pests Act, 1954, to set up clearance areas. I cannot help feeling that, if the Government cannot keep down to an absolute minimum or exterminate the rabbit population with the powers that they already have, they will not do so with the additional small powers given under the Bill, which is reminiscent of "Alice Through the Looking Glass."
Reference has been made to the value of the flesh of the rabbit. Although I may not have farmed, I have always been very interested in the country, have moved about a lot in the country, and 1003 lived in the country for many years. I do not think that any hon. Member will deny that the flesh of the rabbit has played a very important and, to many people, a delectable part in the diet of people in the country.
§ Mr. Baldwin
If the hon. Member thinks that the flesh of the rabbit is so good and that the fur of the rabbit is so wonderful, why does he not take some of the poor land about which we have been talking, put a fence around it, and there breed rabbits for a living?
§ Mr. Burden
In some areas that might be a much more practical suggestion than that contained in the Bill.
§ Mr. Burden
That is another difficulty. I must also refer to the extreme difficulty created in a number of trades in this country as a result of myxomatosis. It is all very well for members of the farming community to ride it off and say that it does not matter, but a considerable loss of money has been sustained and there has been a great deal of suffering by people, some of whom have been engaged in these industries for a great many years.
The hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Hastings) said that he had been told that he could still buy a fur hat, but that when he went to buy it he found that it was more expensive than he could afford. The reason for that is that the fur and felt from rabbits used for the making of hats is no longer available and that therefore substitutes of other animal fibres are used and they are more costly than those previously supplied by the rabbit.
Whatever view one may take of the Bill, whatever decision we may reach, the time has now arrived when the Joint Parliamentary Secretary should give some indication—perhaps after consultation with his colleagues in the Board of Trade —about what will be done to try to assist those who are engaged in this trade to procure the raw materials which are essential if they are to carry on the business in which many of them have been engaged for generations and which in the 1004 past has brought a considerable amount of export trade.
A few days ago I was discussing this matter with an important hat manufacturer, who said that he had been having great difficulty in obtaining raw materials and making men's fur felt hats—and to a lesser extent women's fur felt hats—which we make better than does anyone else in the world, and of which the Canadian market in particular has been extremely fond in the past. We are not in the position where we can gloss over any industry which earns us foreign currency, particularly when it is hard currency. I lend my voice to those which have asked the Minister this afternoon to give some indication about what proposal the Government have to assist the industry in carrying on its business.
We had a discussion about the upset in the balance of nature. Here again, I think those hon. Gentlemen who rode this off did so rather lightly. I have the utmost respect for the hon. Member for Barking, but I feel that he rather overplayed his hand when he said, in fact, that we were upsetting the balance of nature. When we grow our crops in the fields or our vegetables in our gardens and use fertilisers on the land, when we have cattle in our fields and so on, of course the position is that those commodities and the cattle to which the hon. Gentleman referred are domesticated. The cattle are born in captivity, fed and brought up in captivity and tended by human beings to ensure their well-being during the whole of their lives. The same applies to the crops.
Here, we are talking about upsetting the balance of wild nature, and that is an entirely different problem. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that, when he applies the argument to the purely domesticated animals and the crops which are grown and tended under the supervision of human beings, he is drawing an entirely false parallel in comparing those circumstances with the circumstances that will be created by upsetting the balance of wild nature. After all, if a domestic animal needs food, we feed it, but if a wild animal loses that sort of food on which it has in the past lived entirely or almost entirely, it has somehow or other to find some other source of food supply.
1005 I remember very vividly that, soon after there had been an outbreak of myxomatosis. I was in Faversham, which is very near to my constituency. I was in a hostelry there when a couple of farmers were talking about the disease and saying what a blessing it was that it would wipe out the rabbit population. I was in the same hostelry six weeks later, when I went in to have a drink, and I talked to the girl behind the bar. I said, "How do the farmers feel about myxomatosis now?" She replied, "You remember one of those farmers talking to you? He does not like it any longer, because he had 50 of his chickens killed by foxes a fortnight ago."
There is an indication of what happens. If wild animals which have been used to eating rabbits lose that source of food, certainly they are going to turn to other sources of food. There is no doubt about that. The pangs of hunger in wild animals will urge them to take the most amazing chances in order to satisfy that hunger.
§ Mr. Burden
I assure the hon. Gentleman that he is not on very sound ground there. I assume, of course, and I am quite prepared to give way if my assumption is incorrect, that the hon. Gentleman is implying that the fox is hunted only by those who go after it on horseback surrounded by a pack of hounds. Is that the hon. Gentleman's assumption—that it is protected from being attacked by any other means? I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not the case at all. I have no doubt that some of my hon. Friends, and many other farmers, if they find foxes on their land, will go out after them with a gun.
§ Mr. Burden
Although he might not go after the fox with a gun, I think he would agree that many other farmers would. Here we have a peculiar set of circumstances. My hon. Friend is out to destroy the rabbit who might nibble some of his crops, but, having pointed out that, since the advent of myxomatosis, a fox raided a hen run belonging to a farmer and killed 50 chickens, when I asked my hon. Friend if he would have gone 1006 after the fox with a gun if he had been the victim, he said, "Oh no, I am a hunting man." My hon. Friend supports a Bill to exterminate the rabbit because of the damage it does to farms, but he says that the only way we must attack the fox is by hunting it.
§ Mr. Burden
I am not arguing about that. This is a question of rabbits and foxes. If my hon. Friend and others are really concerned about the effect upon the community of preserving the food of the country, when the fox turns to the destruction of hens because of the dearth of rabbits, and thereby destroys our food, I submit that it should be killed by every possible means, and that every farmer should support my view. But my hon. Friend says, "No, I like to hunt the fox." I suggest that the balance of nature is upset when circumstances such as this occur.
Then there is the question of enforcement. It is quite obvious to anybody who has read the Bill that it cannot be enforced without making the police constable look the most stupid individual that has ever come across the scene.
My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Sir J. Lucas) has pointed out that in spite of the fact that the artificial spreading of myxomatosis has been banned by law, and that severe penalties have been introduced, the farming community has endeavoured to recreate the disease by such artificial spreading. Those who have endeavoured to spread the disease again are upset because its virulence has largely subsided, and the rabbits which are inoculated or given the disease recover from it. There has not been a single prosecution, so far as I am aware—
§ Mr. Burden
I said, "So far as I am aware." The Minister will have an opportunity of indicating whether there have been any prosecutions—if he gets the chance. If he does not have an opportunity of replying, I have no doubt that hon. Members will put down Questions upon the subject and he will then have an opportunity of answering them, 1007 so we shall eventually get the information, even if it is not given this afternoon. In view of the fact that we all know —1 expect the knowledge has already come to the Minister—that efforts have been made to spread the disease once more by artificial means, it would be interesting to know if there have been any prosecutions.
In my view, it is really a most revolting suggestion that there should be legalised spreading of this foul disease. Last August I had the unfortunate experience of coming through the Yorkshire dales when the disease was at its worst. My daughter was with me and it made an impact upon her which I have no doubt will stay with her for the rest of her life.
Anyone, no matter whom he may be, who can talk easily about recreating the virulence of this foul disease has, I think, something slightly inhuman about him. It is a terrible disease in every way. On that journey I was getting out of my car every few yards and putting these poor unfortunate creatures out of their misery by knocking them on the head. It almost made me vomit.
Time runs on and I know that we should like to hear a few words from the Minister. However, there are one or two minor points that come to my mind. One is that if the Bill goes through, where do we go from there?
§ Mr. Burden
My hon. Friend says "To a lunatic asylum." I begin to think there is a lot in that when I read the Bill and hear a farmer who supports the Bill so strongly say, "Ah, so far as the fox is concerned, although he may kill 50 chickens and do far more damage in one night than a rabbit does in his whole life, I would never have him shot because I am a huntsman and I believe in the hunt." To my mind that does not make sense. I am not opposed to the hunt —I am fully in favour of it—but I think that we are getting out of perspective. I believe that practically every farmer whose chicken run was raided by a hungry fox would certainly take steps to dispose of the fox if the hunt could not do so.
§ Mr. F. M. Bennett
Would not my hon. Friend agree that there are large areas 1008 in the country, particularly in the Welsh mountains, where hunting is out of the question and where shooting, poisoning or trapping are the only methods of getting rid of foxes? The Government pay fox clubs and individuals for killing foxes. Therefore, there is no need for my hunting friends to be too susceptible about this, because there are large areas in England and Scotland where local conditions make it impracticable to hunt foxes.
§ Mr. Burden
I agree with my hon. Friend, and perhaps his intervention was rather unfortunate because it only emphasised the point.
The whole question is whether or not this Bill is going to assist in exterminating the rabbit population. The more I look at the Bill and the more I think it over the more convinced I become that it is in no way going completely to destroy the rabbit population. In fact, of course, the main point about it is that it just is not enforceable. It is all very well to talk about a constable being responsible for ensuring that the artificial spread of rabbits is not carried on, but I suggest that if hon. Members who have supported this Bill looked at the vast areas that a great many constables have to control, they would agree with me that it would be necessary for the constables to have Land Rovers in order to carry on their job.
§ Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)
I want to know whether my hon. Friend's remarks are confined entirely to the oryctolagus cuniculus in Clause 3 or to other rabbits.
§ Mr. Burden
I am afraid that I am just an ordinary layman and that those are legal niceties. I would suggest that if the police constable is to be made responsible for effectively ensuring that the provisions of this Bill are carried out, then it will not be merely necessary to provide him with a Land Rover to enable him to patrol the fields at night, but that in a great many areas in this country, if a constable is to be properly responsible for enforcing the provisions of the Bill in his area, he would need a helicopter or some other means of getting about the area.
I submit that this is a Bill which simply cannot be enforced. and if, indeed, my hon. Friend and the Government require 1009 this legislation to go through, it would be far better if they looked at it again and brought in a Government Bill which would be enforceable and not have these loopholes which hon. Members have so ably pointed out. I believe that all Bills such as this set an impossible task on police constables and are inclined to bring the law into disrepute.
§ Lieut.-Commander Maydon
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put; but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.
§ Mr. Burden
This is a Bill which, in my view, could never be enforced. Therefore, I hope the House will not give a Second Reading to this particular Measure. I have no doubt that there is a great deaf of merit in many of the points which have been put forward on this Bill, but I think that any hon. Member who has been here during the whole of the discussion would agree that this is not the form in which Measures such as this should be put upon the Statute Book. I hope that if the Government wish to go ahead with a Measure of this nature they will look at the matter themselves and bring in a Government Bill.
I am quite sure that many of the pitfalls that are in this Bill and many of the criticisms which hon. Members have raised today could very easily be removed by a Government Bill. I think that most of the hon. Members who have opposed this Bill this afternoon would find themselves, as we all are, broadly in sympathy with the designs of the Bill or what is required of it…
§ Mr. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)
But not in favour of my Racial Discrimination Bill that follows.
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put; but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.
It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.