HC Deb 28 July 1958 vol 592 cc1080-103

9.41 p.m.

Mr. A. Blenkinsop (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East)

I beg to move, That the Draft Grey Seals Protection (Farne Islands) (Suspension of Close Season) Order, 1958, a copy of which was laid before this House on 10th July, be not made. I should make it clear at the outset that although I am a member of the Nature Conservancy, I do not speak on its behalf tonight, although I have taken some care to obtain its views on this matter and hope that I shall not mislead the House in my expression of them. I speak as a Northumbrian, and as one who loves, above all, the Fame Islands, which is to be the scene of a new minor act of war if this Order is made.

In fact, I wish to obtain from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary some further explanation of what is intended under the Order, in order to allay some very real anxieties that have been expressed both to myself and to some of my hon. Friends. I do not intend, unless, of course, the hon. Gentleman's reply is so unsatisfactory as to demand it, to take the debate beyond that.

I should explain that the purpose of the Order is to suspend for one year the close season, which, normally, has applied during the grey seals' breeding season; that is to say, from the beginning of September to the end of December. If the Order were to be made, it would be possible, under strict licence provisions, for the killing of grey seal calves to take place. It is, of course, made quite clear in the Schedule to the Order that this has to be done by humane methods, but I at once put in the comment that, in such circumstances, it might not be so easy to apply humane methods.

It is one thing, no doubt, to insist upon humane methods being used in slaughterhouses—a subject which the Parliamentary Secretary will, no doubt, have vividly before his mind; but a good deal more difficult when we are thinking in terms of the sea conditions off the Northumberland coast from 1st September to the end of December. It will certainly be no easy task to ensure the carrying out of these very desirable humane methods. That is my first point.

The object of the Order is to try to secure, or to see whether it is possible to secure, some reduction in the numbers of the seal colony at the Farne Islands which, it is alleged—admittedly with a good deal of evidence—has been doing damage to nets and to salmon fisheries off the Scottish and the Northumberland coasts. It is the view, held especially by the hon. Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan) who has raised the matter on several occasions in the House, that this attack is due to the increase in the numbers in the grey seal colony; and that the only way to protect the fishermen and their interests is to take action against the grey seals.

This view is contested by some. Among others, it is contested by the Natural History Society of Northumberland. Durham and Newcastle, which has been in correspondence with me, and with others of my hon. Friends. It argues strongly that there is not yet sufficient scientific evidence to prove that the damage is, in fact, caused by grey seals, as against damage that may undoubtedly be caused by other seals.

The Society points out, with some justification, as it was the Society itself that started some scientific investigation into this problem, that the problem is by no means an easy one. It is a problem that raises a very interesting question as to the balance and relationship of one form of life and another. It argues, with a good deal of supporting evidence, that while it may be true that the seals feed on salmon, they also feed on other sea life that may, in turn, prey upon lobster.

While it may be that by killing off some of the seal, the salmon fishermen may be helped—though even that is not certain—we may be doing damage to the lobster fishermen on the Northumberland coast for whom I have every concern. I do not say this in any jocular sense because it is an example of this very curious question of how the balance of life in one direction may affect the balance of life in another.

Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

Would not it be correct to say that the lobster fishermen and the salmon fishermen on the Northumberland coast are the same people and that normally the salmon fishermen seek a reduction in the huge quantity of seals Which are centred round the Farne Islands?

Mr. Blenkinsop

That may be so. My hon. Friend, like others of us, has been on this coast and knows many of the fishermen involved.

It may be even in their own interests not to proceed with this proposal. I am only putting the case that has been put with every sincerity by people who have given a good deal of study to this matter—indeed, people who perhaps have given more examination to this problem than anyone else. It is true that this Natural History Society, and particularly Mrs. Hickling who has done most of the work since 1951 when these investigations were started, has lately received a small grant of £100 a year from the Nature Conservancy to assist in this research work which is of wider interest than this immediate problem, which may help to settle a lot of interesting matters.

Among others there is a complete lack of knowledge so far about the feeding habits of the grey seal. It is not by any means fully established what type of seal does the major damage. Is it a few rogue seals that cause the main trouble? There is the other factor that must be borne in mind, that while undoubtedly over these recent years the number of grey seals has increased substantially, that has happened at the same time as the results of salmon fishing up the Tweed and other rivers has been extraordinarily successful.

Again one is not absolutely certain whether the action proposed by the Government will lead to any desirable result even if one agrees about the need to protect the salmon fishermen on the coast. The argument is that these fishermen are losing their nets or having them very severely damaged. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell) is taking an interest in this matter. I can assure him that if he wants to go home he may. I do not think there is any danger of a Division. Fishermen's nets have been damaged, and replacement is very expensive these days. This matter was fully considered, and there were many discussions between the Ministry and the Nature Conservancy before the Ministry came to the decision to lay the Order, because it was understood to be a fairly complicated matter.

The Nature Conservancy, when it made the proposal in its Report last year that some such killing should be allowed—indeed, a rather larger number of killings in the season than the Ministry considered—suggested that the killings should take place at the same time as two other measures should be taken. First, it was stated that the research work should go on, although frankly the Natural History Society doubts whether the research work can go on in the same form as soon as killing starts. It would inevitably interrupt the scientific value of the research.

The other point that was made by the Nature Conservancy was that there should be a full investigation into the possibility of the use of stronger nets. It has been suggested that the Scottish Department concerned was going to carry out investigations into this matter, and that experiments should be proceeded with vigorously to deal with the damage when it occurs by protecting the salmon nets from the seals. It was claimed in the discussions which took place that this was a possibility. No evidence has been presented by the Government as to what they are doing on either of these two matters. I should like to know what they are doing to encourage further research into this interesting problem and what they are doing in the matter of strengthening nets.

One unfortunate thing that they have done is to refuse a grant to the Nature Conservancy to enable it to carry out more effectively this research work. It was a year or two ago when the Nature Conservancy made its grant of £100 a year to those in Northumberland who are carrying out this investigation. This meant that inevitably the work had to be slowed down and, unfortunately, the scientific data which might otherwise have been available was not available. It is rather disappointing, therefore, that the Government come forward with these proposals after, in a sense, having prevented the scientific evidence from being collated which might have made matters a good deal clearer.

We are, therefore, being presented with an Order whose value is of extreme doubt, which may interfere seriously with the research work which has been going on, and without any information as to what other steps the Government are taking. It is quite proper, therefore, for those of us who know the area and some of the interests involved, not desiring in any way to prevent the protection which the fishermen certainly deserve but having great doubts about whether this is the right way to do it, to raise the matter in the House. We want the hon. Gentleman to have an opportunity of explaining rather more fully what he has in mind and dealing with the various points of view expressed.

9.55 p.m.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

I beg to second the Motion.

The object of the Order is to suspend for this year the normal close season during which grey seals may not be shot in the Fame Islands, the normal close season being the months of September, October, November and December. The Order applies only to the Farne Islands off the Northumbrian coast.

The Farne Islands are one of the most delightful and valuable wild life sanctuaries in the British Isles. We have there not only what is probably a bigger collection of sea birds than is to be found in any other spot in the British Isles, but we have also this extremely interesting grey seal colony. The grey seal colony is an object of considerable local pride throughout the north of England and it is an object of very great scientific interest. It is one of the places in Britain where it is possible to observe a fairly large colony of grey seals. It is a delightful experience to go out in a fisherman's boat from one of the Northumbrian villages and see the seal colony. Seals are very amusing and extremely intelligent animals. I believe that they are more intelligent than dogs and a great deal more intelligent than horses, which, of course, are not nearly so intelligent as people imagine. Going out to see the colony is one of the most pleasant ways I know of spending a summer afternoon.

On the other hand, there is a string of fishing villages down the coast of Northumberland where the fishermen depend upon salmon and lobster for their livelihood. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) has said, the same fishermen catch both lobster and salmon. There is little doubt that the grey seal do cause some damage to the valuable nets the fishermen use. Hon. Members who are familiar with the books of Henry Williamson—probably the greatest writer on wild life we have or ever have had in this country—will know something of the habits of the grey seal.

Obviously, this matter is largely one of holding a balance between this delightful and valuable colony of wild life and the protection of salmon fishing. The method suggested, which the Order embodies, is to kill off a certain number of the grey seal calves on the Farne Islands each year.

Sir James Duncan (South Angus)

Only this year.

Mr. Short

As the hon. Member rightly says, the Order applies only to this year, but we know, of course, that it is to be regarded as an experiment which will probably he followed by something more permanent. It is argued that, if the number of grey seal is reduced, the damage to the nets will be lessened. This is extremely doubtful. I believe that the damage is done by a comparatively small number of seals, Anybody who has read "Salar the Salmon" by Henry Williamson will know that he takes the same view.

The answer is not to reduce the whole colony. The solution lies in destroying or frightening off the small number of animals which cause the damage. After all, we do not protect sheep in the country by reducing the dog population in the village. We frighten off any predatory dogs there may be and any dog which cannot be controlled or cured we destroy. I know that seal are a little more difficult to see than dogs because they are sometimes under water; but fishermen go there in their boats every day and they see the seal very frequently.

If permission were given to the fishermen to shoot any seal they saw round their nets during the normal close season, which coincides, of course, with the autumn run of salmon in October and November, I am sure that, in a few years, the problem would solve itself. As I said, seals are extremely intelligent animals and they would very quickly learn to keep away from the area where the nets are laid out. I think that they would respond to a regular deterrent in that way.

Quite apart from that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East, has said, we must bear in mind the balance of marine life. The same men catch both lobster and salmon, and it is no good reducing the damage to the salmon nets if the catch of lobster is reduced. That is a matter for research which is worth bearing in mind.

We do not intend to vote against the Order, but we hope that the Minister will look at the results of the experiment very carefully and not be too willing to bring in an Order next year making permanent the suspension of the close season in that area.

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)

All lovers of wild life will regret that the Minister has found it necessary to bring in the Order which will enable him to control the number of grey seal in the Fame Islands. There are many lovers of wild life in Northumberland. There is no doubt that the Grey Seal Protection Act, 1932, has enabled the grey seal colony in the Farne Islands, which I believe to be the only colony, certainly on the East coast—certainly the only one on the East coast of England—to build up from an estimated 800 or so to about 3,000 now.

Sad, though it is, the time has now cone to control the number of seals on the Fame Islands. There is no doubt that the damage being caused to salmon interests, especially in the mouth of the Tweed, is now fairly considerable. Would it not be possible to arrange for the fishermen themselves to undertake greater protection for their nets by using improved methods? I should be interested to hear whether the Minister has any suggestion for fishermen introducing better methods of protection.

Although some measure of control must be necessary, I hope that there will not be anything in the way of a massive killing of grey seals. I hope that great care will be used in the culling of the calves. I should also like the Minister to ensure that the National Trust, which owns the Fame Islands, and the Nature Conservancy and the local natural history society will be consulted and kept informed of all necessary measures.

I trust that the whole proceedings will be carried out this year simply as an experiment and that the Minister and his Department will be guided by the outcome of that experiment.

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Ernest Popplewell (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

Unlike my hon. Friends, I welcome the Order. The Minister is trying by the most humane methods possible to deal with what has become a subject of great interest to this part of the North-East Coast.

Mr. Short

My hon. Friend will see that the Order permits the killing of calves with clubs. Does he consider that to be a humane method?

Mr. Popplewell

I agree with much of what is in the Order and with much of what my hon. Friend says, especially his suggestion that fishermen should be permitted to undertake the shooting during the close season, but what is the close season? Hon. Members know that no salmon fishing takes place after September and the Order covers the period from October to December. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) will remember that the salmon season was extended for a fortnight into September as a special concession for fishermen around the Northumberland coast, especially in places like Alnwick, but the period covered by this Order is not a time when fishermen will be fishing for salmon. This will be a time when they will be busy fishing for lobsters.

It is difficult to be sure that a group of rogue seals is responsible for this damage. It is difficult to be dogmatic about that. However, fishermen have to meet tremendous expenditure on their nets during the salmon season and the nets have to be renewed every two years and have to undergo extensive repairs several times in a season because of the damage done by seals trapped in the nets. The living of salmon fishermen is already precarious and the hours a day which they can spend fishing is limited, especially with the sort of weather which the North-East Coast has been experiencing this year.

With the Order the Minister has gone to much trouble to try to find what may be a reasonable solution to this problem. He has reached a reasonable balance between those who desire to see the existence of the seals continue, but controlled, and those who suffer loss because of the damage caused by the seals. The killing of young seals before they reach maturity instead of leaving the killing to haphazard shooting, with the danger of inflicting only a wound, is humane.

I always dislike disagreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central, but on this subject of humane killing the Order says that the seals can be killed by striking on the skull so that death is caused instantaneously. It is difficult to ensure that death is instantaneous by a blow on the head. But my right hon. Friend has not read all through the Order. It goes on to say that the only weapon or instrument to be employed for that purpose is a humane killer of the captive bolt type, or, if the use of such weapon or instrument is in the prevailing circumstances judged to be impracticable by the veterinary inspector of the Ministry under whose supervision the killing is to be carried out, a suitable club I do not say that the proposal is perfect. I agree that the use of a club upon any species of fish or animal life might not always be the right way to proceed, but circumstances arise from time to time where such action may be necessary. Although I hate having to congratulate the Government upon anything, in this respect I think that the Minister has tried his best to meet the circumstances.

Mr. Short

Is my hon. Friend supporting that part of the Order which empowers a veterinary surgeon, who may be a woman—a great many are nowadays—to go onto the outer Faroe Islands with a club, sloshing about and killing young grey seal calves? Surely that part of the Order ought not to be there.

Mr. Popplewell

I wish my hon. Friend would address his remarks to the terms of the Order, because the principle laid down there is that a humane killer must be used. Only under certain circumstances is authority given to the veterinary surgeon to use a club.

Having regard to the tremendous growth of the seals in the Fame Islands—the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) mentioned a rise from 800 to 3,000, and I would not be surprised at a figure somewhere in that region—we must try to keep this matter in its proper perspective. We must realise that the livelihood of salmon fishermen are put in jeopardy because of the damage done to their nets. How many hon. Members have been with salmon fishermen and have seen the damage done by one seal? I have. I have also seen the huge bites that the seals take from the salmon.

In those circumstances, I think that the Minister is very wise to introduce this Order. I do not know whether one year is sufficient, but I think it is probably right that the Order should be of a temporary nature, renewable if necessary. But the experiment is well worth while as a trial, to see how it works out.

10.13 p.m.

Sir Colin Thornton-Kemsley (North Angus and Mearns)

I represent a very long stretch of the north-east coast of Scotland, from Lunan Bay to Cove Bay, south of the City of Aberdeen. I know the tremendous and unnecessary depredation caused to the salmon fishing industry by grey seals. Forty or fifty years ago there were hardly any grey seals anywhere on the North coast of Scotland. Indeed, if one were seen at all it was recorded by the naturalists as a rare specimen.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) told the House, in 1956 the Natural History Society of Northumberland and Durham, aided by a grant from the Nature Conservancy, undertook to make investigations into the size and growth of the grey seal colony in the Fame Islands.

Mr. Blenkinsop

In fact, they started the investigation in 1951, but it was not until 1956 that they got a grant. Previously, it was privately financed.

Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

I have read all the proceedings and this report on the investigation by Miss Grace Hickling, for which she personally was very largely responsible. I recognise that, as she says, her conclusions are necessarily speculative, but it seems probable from the report that the pre-war colony of about 1,000 grey seals in the Fame Islands had doubled at least by 1950, had increased to perhaps 2,600 by 1953 and to at least 3,000 by 1956, which is the last year for which I have seen anything like accurate figures.

A good deal of tagging of seal calves was done, and they were found as far north as Whitehills in the County of Banff, and there was one actually found in the Faroe Islands, but that was exceptional. Very many were found in my own constituency at Lunan Bay, Montrose, St. Cyrus and Johnshaven, and have been caught in nets off this coast. In my own constituency this year—and I think that this answers to some extent the doubts which the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East expressed as to whether the damage was done by grey seals or not—we have found in one station alone that 25 per cent. of the seals which were killed this year off Montrose were actually tagged in the Farne Islands in November, 1957, when they were between one day and 10 days old.

The probability is that the remainder of the grey seals that have been caught off that coast, which is a very valuable salmon net fishing area, are from the Farne Islands, because, as the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central observed, the Farne Islands are the only grey seal colony on the east coast, not only of England, but of Scotland as well.

Grey seals do enormous damage, I know that it is easy to claim that the damage is done by them, and I have tried to get the figures, but it is not easy to get exact figures. There is fairly good authority for saying—and this has been checked by fishing stations up and down the coast of Scotland, for there is a very live association called the Salmon Net Fishery Association of Scotland, which looks after things like this—that about 10 per cent. of the salmon that are caught are wounded or badly marked by seals. The value of the salmon caught in 1956, which is the last year for which I have been able to get figures tonight—I would have brought myself up to date had I known that this debate was coming along—was rather over £950,000; and that was for 1,300 tons of salmon caught in Scotland by netting.

Applying that figure of 10 per cent., and making an allowance of 2s. per lb. which I think is reasonable for the reduced value of the damaged fish, the financial loss to the salmon net fishing industry in Scotland due to wounding of salmon by grey seals is about £30,000 a year. We have to add to that the number killed, and if we take the very reasonable figure of one killed for every one wounded—and I think that everybody who knows anything about the matter would say that this is a very conservative figure indeed—the additional loss would be about £105,000 a year. In addition, there is the enormous amount of damage to the nets.

I was astonished to hear anyone with such humanitarian instincts as the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central advocating the shooting of seals. On reflection, he will realise that is a most cruel thing. One does not hide the fact that if fishermen get the chance to shoot they do so. They will do anything to kill the seals. But it is not a nice business, and when shooting from a boat at a seal which just pops its head out of the sea it is difficult to be sure that the animal is killed. That is the last method which we should advocate being used to keep down the grey seal population.

I have in my hand a diary. I will not read it out in detail, but it gives a day-to-day account of the damage done by grey seals to salmon net fisheries in the Tweed Estuary. It gives details of the seals observed and the number killing salmon, worrying salmon, and entering the nets. I should be glad to show this diary to any hon. Member who is interested. Were it not for the lateness of the hour, I would read extracts from it.

Mr. Short

Has the hon. Member any figures showing the size of the salmon catch in relation to the growth of the grey seal population? Has the salmon catch increased or decreased over the last few years as the seal population has increased?

Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley

I have not those figures. I doubt whether they would give a sufficiently clear indication, because so many of the salmon net fishing stations have closed. Some of them are carried on by big firms, but a lot are operated by small fishermen on a share basis, and because of economic circumstances they have had to close. The number of stations worked over the years has decreased, so I do not think that such figures would be helpful for the investigation which the hon. Gentleman would like to carry out.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) wondered whether the industry itself could be urged to do anything and how it could keep the seals from damaging and killing salmon. This year the Salmon Net Fishery Association in Scotland has been trying to make a special kind of net, a bag net, at the request of the Brown Trout Research Station. It made a bag not of nylon with a special wide mesh cover superimposed. Experiments were also carried out with modified types of entrance to the nets and it was hoped that it might be possible to make salmon nets seal-proof. The Association has been unable to do that. It has tried, and is going on trying, but so far it has been found impossible to achieve satisfactory results.

There is not the slightest desire that the grey seal population should be exterminated, even were it possible to do so. All we say is that the seals should be kept under reasonable control and that their numbers should not be increased by protection to such an extent that, as has happened in recent years, they become a menace and a source of great financial loss.

10.24 p.m.

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

I make no apology for intervening in this debate because the grey seal is a mammal found round all our coasts. I represent a constituency which includes 12 miles of the north Cornish coast where, thirty years ago, there were seal colonies. Today there is none.

Sir J. Duncan

Not grey seals.

Mr. Hayman

Yes, I think so. After all, the grey seal is found on the Atlantic coast and is confined to the North Atlantic.

The Order was made effective for the destruction of the grey seal, which is now almost exterminated. It used to be one of the delights of going down on the cliffs not far from my home, or anywhere along that part of the Cornish coast, to watch the grey seals. There were not great numbers of them. If one saw five at a time it would be unusual. There was a seal colony where one could observe up to forty seals at a time near Portreath I know that at the Fame Islands there is a much bigger colony. A lot has been said in the debate about it, and it would seem that some method of control is necessary. However, I beg the House to be careful. I beg the Minister to take note of what some of us have said. The seal, which used to be Common on the north Cornish coast, is almost exterminated.

I would take leave to question something which was said by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley) about the damage done to salmon. Is there any evidence to show that the damage was done only by seals? Off the Cornish coast we have thousands of sharks which we did not realise were there. In a book entitled "The Land's End," written by the great naturalist W.H. Hudson and published about 1906, the writer speaks of a battle between a seal and a conger, off Godrevy Lighthouse at, the eastern end of St. Ives Bay. He recalls that after a long battle both of them died. Perhaps the grey seal may not be the only culprit.

We are indebted to the hon. Member who has raised this Prayer and to the Natural History Society of Northumberland and Durham for giving the necessary preparatory work. I wish I could always feel that I could rely on the National Trust and the Nature Conservancy. Now that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) is a member of the Nature Conservancy, perhaps it will improve its ways.

10.29 p.m.

Sir James Duncan (South Angus)

I do not think that it is necessary to add much to this debate, but I should like to answer a point made by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman). About 15 per cent. of the salmon caught in the nets in the Tweed area have been eaten by the grey seal. The bite of the grey seal is quite distinctive. As far as I know, there are no sharks in the Tweed area. I would also add that the seals on the Cornish coast may be common seals.

Mr. Short

In an estuary it is quite common for otters to fish. The hon. Member referred to the Tweed estuary. I do not know whether there is any difference between the bite of an otter and the bite of a seal. They breed in considerable numbers there.

Sir J. Duncan

The otter does attack salmon, but the bite of the otter is very much smaller than that of the seal. A seal, which is a big animal, has a bite which is distinct from that of the otter. The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) suggested that this was not the way to deal with the matter, but he did not suggest any other way. It seems to me that there is no other way. The real point is not that there are grey seals in the Farne Islands, but that there are too many of them. Since the passing of the 1932 Act the number has increased out of all proportion. Admittedly, there were too few up to 1932 because the use of their fur encouraged the killing of baby seals, but since the 1932 Act it has been illegal to kill any seal at any time. Even in the 1932 Act there was provision for an Order such as this to be made if the numbers should grow. The question is, are there too many? In my submission, and in the submission of the Government, there are too many.

Mr. Blenkinsop

The point I made was that some doubt has been cast by some people who seem to have scientific evidence behind them—I say no more than that—to suggest that in killing the seal we may be causing other difficulties which we do not fully understand at present, such as the effect on lobsters and marine life which feeds on lobsters. This is the very sort of problem which the Nature Conservancy wants to investigate. We believe there should be more research.

Sir J. Duncan

What would be the likely effect of this Order? I believe this is the only way to deal with the problem. These seals congregate in the Farne Islands in the breeding season and later they disperse. It would be inhuman to send out fishermen, Ministry vets, or even Army marksmen to shoot from a bobbing boat at the head of an adult seal, perhaps 200 yards away in the sea. I think it was the Natural History Society which sent me a booklet on the subject, which pointed out that adult seals are not too tame. If they happened to be on the rocks on the Farne Islands when they saw a boat approaching they would hasten to get into the sea before it got within reasonable rifle range.

Therefore, there is little possibility of making any effective contribution to the reduction of the seal population by attempting to shoot at seals in the sea, or of getting near enough to those on rocks for a marksman to be quite certain he would be able to effect a kill. There is the additional danger that one might wound the seal, and that we want to avoid. Although it goes against the grain with me to kill babies—because that is what it boils down to—this seems the only way of reducing the population.

The remaining question is, is it necessary to do so? My hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley) has given the figures of the increase. We know that the grey seal is doing a great deal of damage to fish. My hon. Friend said that on the East Coast of Scotland 10 per cent. of the net fish caught were damaged. I am told that at the mouth of the Tweed estuary the figure is 15 per cent. That is a very heavy loss for fishermen, quite apart from the numbers which are caught and eaten by seals, of which, of course, there is no record. Therefore, I say that there is a case for this protection, which has been going on now for twenty-six years, to be temporarily suspended in order to see whether we cannot reduce this seal population, and, we hope, thereby halt the damage done to the salmon fishing industry. This seems to be the only way out.

The hon. Gentleman said that this is not the way, but I submit that it is the only way. Although it may be cruel, in a way, to kill babies, nonetheless the strict way in which it has to be done, as specified in the Order, makes me feel that it is to be a humane way of culling a sufficient number. My only remaining doubt is whether the culling will be done to a sufficient degree.

I have heard mention of a figure of 300. I do not know whether or not that is the intention of the Government, but the hon. Gentleman knows the climate of the north-east coast of England better than I—though I do know the climate of the north-east coast of Scotland at that time of year; and the rough seas that one can get. There are days when one cannot get out to the Farne Islands, and the problem attending the Ministry's veterinary inspector, his crew and the people who are to do this work will be fairly formidable, particularly if the weather is intemperate, and the sea rough.

Although certain hon. Members opposite are complaining about this Order, I think that the real danger is that, having gone through the necessary Parliamentary procedure to get the Order, the experiment may fail because of the weather; and because the cull may not be sufficient to be effective. I do not say this in order to ask for another Order next year—we must wait to see what happens—but it will not be at all easy to cull 300 calves this year. I am particularly of that view after reading, as I did with very great care, the report of the Natural History Society of Northumberland.

I can only hope that, this year, the experiment may be successful and so balance the number of grey seals—which, incidentally, I like to see just as much as does anybody else. I know of a colony off the north-east coast of Scotland which hon. Members have not yet mentioned. I like to see these grey seals, but I also want to protect the interests of the fishermen of the north-east coast of Scotland, because it is due to their complaints that I originally raised this matter in the House.

10.37 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Blenkinsop) for introducing this debate tonight, which has, I think, been of a very high standard on both sides. It is clearly no party matter, in any sense, and that is as it should be. There has been a wide divergence of opinion, and it has been very helpful to have those divergent opinions expressed, as those differences of opinion have emphasised the difficult considerations that underlie this Order.

On the one hand, we have heard the view that, in order to protect the salmon fisheries against the depredations of these grey seals, it is necessary to take much more drastic action than is now contemplated. On the other hand, we have heard from the hon. Members who introduced this Prayer appeals which, I am sure, are of the greatest sincerity, that nothing should be done to interfere with the grey seal colony on the Farne Islands unless it is absolutely essential.

I hope that no hon. Member will think me guilty in any way of insincerity if I say that I have a great deal of sympathy with both points of view. In deciding to undertake what is really a small experimental cull this autumn, we have had to weigh in the balance the damage suffered by the valuable salmon fisheries near the Tweed, in particular, and further north, against our natural repugnance to interfere with the seals which, apart from their unfortunate liking for salmon, are charming and inoffensive animals. The decision to kill these baby seals—for, indeed, that is what it is—even on a small scale must trouble the consciences of us all, and I will explain why, if we accept that there is a need to take some measure against the seals, we felt bound to explore the possibilities of this particular means of control.

The hard facts of the problem which face us are these. Since the grey seals on the Farne Islands were protected in 1932, their numbers have increased. One or two hon. Members have mentioned figures, and their figures are as accurate as it is possible to get. It was estimated that in 1932 there were about 800 seals on these islands and, according to the latest census that we have got with any accuracy, they are given as about 3,000, which is a very substantial increase. That increase is still going on. There is no doubt about that. There are no grounds for believing that natural causes will introduce any early check on this increase in the size of the colony.

An increase in damage to the salmon fisheries has coincided with the increase in the numbers of grey seals, and the Nature Conservancy is satisfied beyond doubt that the grey seals are taking salmon and damaging the nets. The Tweed salmon fisheries are famous as one of the most important salmon fisheries in the British Isles, with an annual catch of a value of approaching £150,000. This is merely in the Tweed. Much larger sums relating to the Scottish coast have been mentioned. No one can dismiss as trivial the continued and increasing damage to this famous fishery on which many local fishermen depend for their livelihood.

What can be done to try to keep this damage at a minimum? We think that the netsmen can do much to help themselves by shooting seals at the nets. An hon. Member has already mentioned that. There is no reason why that should not be done; but I hope that as and when they do that, they will try to ensure, as far as they can, that they kill the seals. We have heard of instances tonight of how difficult this is. Perhaps they can help themselves by modification of their gear—again we have heard something about this from another hon. Member—and the use of new materials more resistant to the seals' attacks, such as nylon and Terylene, are possibilities.

Indeed, the Scottish Home Department—and my hon. and noble Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has been active in this respect—has arranged with the fishermen experimental tests with nets made from these new kinds of fibre. They are also looking at the possibility of seal traps which might intercept seals without interfering with the run of salmon. The River Tweed Commissioners have increased the reward paid to fishermen for the bodies of seals killed by them outside the close season. All these measures should prove helpful. At the same time, we cannot shut our eyes to the continued growth of the seal colony also.

We consulted the Nature Conservancy about possible ways of protecting the salmon fishery and, as hon. Members are aware, the Nature Conservancy made three recommendations, which have already been referred to tonight. They were published in its Annual Report last autumn. I will refer to them once more. It recommended, first, that the scientific work which it is arranging itself should be continued. By tagging seals and making other observations it expects to learn more about the seals' habits and movements. It recommended, secondly, that the experimental work at the nets should be intensified, and that is being done; and, finally, as an experimental and interim measure, an annual cull of 300 seal calves at the breeding stations on the Fame Islands.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I should like to ask a question about research. Is the hon. Gentleman's Ministry prepared to reconsider the matter of a special grant for which the Nature Conservancy orginally asked when putting forward its special programme?

Mr. Godber

I took careful note of what the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East said about that. I should like to think about it and study just what he said, if I may. I should not like to give an answer on the point at this moment.

In view of the danger that an increasing colony on the Fame Islands might extend its activity and seek to found new colonies elsewhere, in the absence of any likelihood that measures at the nets could provide a complete answer, the Nature Conservancy felt that an experimental control of the seals' numbers must be considered. The Conservancy was convinced that the only satisfactory way of killing substantial number of seals is culling the calves at the breeding stations before they take to the sea.

We consulted the National Trust and its Fame Islands Committee and other bodies interested in the seal colony. I will say at once that some of these bodies considered that it was premature, before the results of the measures at the nets were known, to contemplate killing seal calves on the islands; but we considered that culling the seal calves cannot be ruled out of account as a possible means of control, and that we must know—this is really important—whether or not this method is practicable. One or two hon. Members instanced how difficult it is. The islands are difficult to approach during the late autumn months when breeding takes place. The rocks on which the seals breed are covered with seaweed and are extremely rough. We do not know whether killing 300 calves a year or any other substantial number is a real possibility in practical terms.

My right hon. Friend's decision announced on 19th May to proceed with a limited experimental cull this autumn is intended to give us information which we really must have about the practicability of culling. If culling is impracticable, it is a waste of time to continue discussing it. But I want to make it clear that we have not taken any final decision about the merits of culling as a means of control, and we have not undertaken any commitment to continue culling next year. This year, we are concerned only to find out whether culling is practicable or not.

So much for our reasons. I should like to say a word or two about the means to be employed. As announced by my right hon. Friend, the culling will be undertaken under the supervision of the veterinary staff of my Ministry. If practicable, the humane killer will be used. If our veterinary officer finds that use of the humane killer is impracticable, then, and only then, will the seals be killed by club. I must tell the House that, although it sounds extremely cruel, that is the means employed by American trappers, and it is found to be effective in causing instantaneous death at a time when the young seals' skulls are very thin.

Mr. Short

They are skilled in it; they know how to do it.

Mr. Godber

That may be so, but we are going to try the humane killer and use it if we can. I should not have thought that it was particularly difficult, and I consider it as humane a way as we can find. As I say, these are the sort of things we want to know about. I do not pretend that we know all the answers. We decided that the use of shot guns, which was recommended by one of the humanitarian societies, was unsuitable. I am glad to be able to assure hon. Members that the R.S.P.C.A. is in agreement with the means we propose to use. I emphasise that.

I should explain that the form of the Order, which suspends the close season for twelve months, does not imply that any decision has yet been taken to proceed with culling next year. It was necessary, for technical reasons, to make the Order in this particular form, but our present intentions are only to carry out a limited cull this autumn. If we decide to continue culling, hon. Members will be given a further opportunity of considering the question in the light of our experience this year.

That is the background to the whole problem. It is a very difficult one. I have tried to indicate to the House the reasons which led us to take the decision we have. I assure hon. Members that I have given a great deal of personal thought to the matter because I realise how hon. Members on both sides feel on these humanitarian problems. It was only when I was convinced that it was our duty to try to find some means of safeguarding the interests of the salmon fisheries that I agreed that this was the right line to take. I emphasise that this is only in an experimental stage, and we must see how it works out.

I have been asked one or two particular points. One was a rather technical question on whether if we destroy the seals it will affect the lobster position. I do not know, but I am advised that these seals feed largely on things called lump-suckers, which are their main diet, and I would have thought that as long as they stick to lump-suckers we can keep the grey seals in reasonable numbers.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

The lump-suckers live on lobsters.

Mr. Godber

I am grateful for that information, which shows that I am not fully versed on the point. Indeed, I can see that it could be argued that the lobsters would be affected if we reduced the seals by too many, but we are not seeking to do that. The colony has in fact risen from about 800 to 3,000, so it does not seem to have limited the lump-sucker population. It would appear that there is a natural balance in this, whether it be lump-suckers or lobsters. But this is getting me into very deep water and I had better come back inshore.

I can assure the House that we are not looking on this as the only means of trying to overcome this problem. I have indicated some of the other measures being taken, and that we are trying to approach this very cautiously. We are just as anxious as are hon. Members that there should not be any unnecessary slaughter of these mammals and we are anxious to avoid any inhumane treatment. We have tried to take the best advice we could find, and it is on that basis that I ask the House to reject this Prayer, to allow this Order to come into force and to let us have an experimental cull this year.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I should like to join the Parliamentary Secretary in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle, East (Mr. Short) for permitting this debate on grey seals. I would also thank the Parliamentary Secretary for the careful and sympathetic way in which he replied and the action he has taken.

Before I seek to reconcile the divisions within our Whips' Office, I should like to declare a personal interest, because as soon as I escape from the House I will be off, as quickly as I can, to Lindisfarne, where I find it refreshing and rewarding to watch the grey seal, after spending an arduous spell watching hon. Members on the Government benches.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle, East, said, the seals are amusing and intelligent. I find this is a reciprocal pastime, too, because the seals are equally interested in the people who watch them, and repay our curiosity in them. I do not, however, watch the lump-suckers. I think that one of the weaknesses in the case the Parliamentary Secretary made was his ignorance of the lump-sucker. This is a difficult matter, and we are concerned with two things: with conserving forms of natural life and avoiding prejudicing the people following an arduous livelihood. We have to reconcile those two things to serve both purposes.

One of the difficulties about the seals is that there is a prejudice against grey seals. When there are poor salmon catches, the seal is blamed for keeping the salmon out of the nets. When there are record catches, as over the last two or three years, the misbehaviour of the seal is more noticeable. Whatever the catch, the seal is blamed.

I am speaking only of the Tweed area, but we have to face the fact that not only is the seal population increasing, but the catches are increasing. I agree with the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley) that there may be varying interpretations of that, but it emphasises the need for more knowledge about the subject, just as we want to know more about the lump-suckers. We are obviously ignorant of the effect of the grey seal on the lobster catch. We are here dealing with a balance of nature and making sure that we do not prevent an increase of the grey seals which will prejudice the lobster fishing.

The Parliamentary Secretary has demonstrated that any action which he takes under this Order will be taken most reluctantly and I therefore urge him again to consider whether he can re-examine the question of a grant for promoting as much research as possible, so that we can satisfy ourselves that there is no alternative step.

My second point concerns something with which the hon. Gentleman dealt, but something which we should pursue a little more vigorously. That is how far, by dealing with the actual process of catching, we can avoid the danger of the grey seal interfering with the salmon catch. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members said that there were indications which were, at any rate, hopeful. On the subject of dealing with the seals generally, or with the rogue seals, again we are in some difficulty, because we do not know how far the damage is caused by individual seals, or how far it reflects an increase in the seal colony.

I have some doubts about shooting seals and I was, therefore, heartened by the fact that the Parliamentary Secretary apparently does not go as far as it originally seemed he intended in the culling of the seals. I agree that the difficulty is that it is a very limited cull. If there are weather difficulties, there will be an argument for a greater cull, which will be very unfortunate, because that is what we want to avoid.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will vigorously pursue the alternative course of seeing whether we can avoid this and that his promise to keep the matter under review means that he will keep the House informed of the results of operations this year. I hope that the House will join with me in hoping that we may avoid drastic culling of the seal colony. I recognise that, although we have to safeguard the seals, if there is a conflict between the salmon fishermen's interests and the seals the seals will be prejudiced.

Having said that, I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will pursue the other course and that it will not be necessary for him to come back to the House for another Order such as this.

Mr. Blenkinsop

In view of the explanation that we have had from the Parliamentary Secretary, and the promise that he will look at the problem, or at the possibility of assisting further research work, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.