HC Deb 24 June 1959 vol 607 cc1206-14

3.44 p.m.

Sir Frederick Messer (Tottenham)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the hunting with hounds of deer; to provide for the control of deer by approved methods; and for purposes connected therewith. Whatever may be the merits of any debate on this question, there can be no doubt whatever that throughout the country a growing and strong opinion is being formed that the time has come when deer hunting should be abolished. I am prepared to admit that there are exaggerations on both sides and that neither side helps its case by refusing to recognise that there is a quality in the case presented by the other.

At the beginning of the short time at my disposal, I want to put the case for the other side, because I do not think that its representatives put it fairly even to themselves. First, they claim that deer hunting is a healthy and stimulating sport. That may be true, but however stimulating it may be for the deer, it is not very healthy. They say that abolition would rob the countryman of his recreation and, indeed, that it is an attraction for countrymen to remain on the countryside because they can indulge in it. Is it suggested that that could be a solution of our agricultural difficulties and that if we had bloody sports up and down the country other than in merely the few spots where deer hunting takes place, we would keep the countryman at home? That, surely, cannot be a strong argument.

Those putting the case for the hunt say that its abolition would cause unemployment. I agree that it would cause unemployment of those engaged in a sport which it would be better for everyone concerned to abolish. They say, with truth, that deer are destructive and that their numbers cannot be kept down effectively other than by the method of hunting with hounds. It is argued that there can be such a thing as controlled shooting. Those who support hunting, however, will always say that shooting is even more cruel than hunting with hounds, for there will be deer which are wounded and which, somehow, will crawl away to the undergrowth, where their wounds will be agonising and their starvation and thirst so terrible that it is far worse torture than hunting with hounds.

Those who put the case for the hunt cannot have it both ways. The chairman of the management committee of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds wrote a letter some time ago to the Field and said: As you have given publicity in an article … to allegations, invariably anonymous, of wounded deer on Exmoor, I am obliged to ask the courtesy of space, and equal publicity, for a correction of some misconceptions of the author. … Not a single definite report of a wounded deer has beet, received by the hunt after a shoot.

What happens? Because the hunt is not able to control the number of deer, those taking part in the hunt indulge in shoots. Indulging in shoots obviously indicates that they recognise that some method other than hunting with hounds is necessary.

What is involved in a hunt? First, there is the meet, which is spectacular and certainly something to enjoy. Then there is the sighting of the deer and the hunt begins. I do not think that everybody who supports deer hunting is a bloodthirsty, cruel sadist. I realise that in the parts of the countryside where deer hunting is common the people have grown up with it and have become accustomed to it. It is a part of their life. By the time they have reached the age of maturity it is already part of an established custom, something which they regard as being due. Indeed, I know people who take part in hunts who are the kindest of people. From the way they look after their horses and hounds, indeed, from their ways in general, one would never dream that they would have any doubt whether or not hunting with hounds is cruel.

The excitement of the hunt, the thrill, the exhilaration? Let us recognise the type of animal with which we are dealing. Nature has been kind in the qualities it has bestowed. Courage with immense strength is given to those which are predatory animals. Other gifts, including the instinct to escape, is given to other animals whereby they may escape danger, and to the deer and its kind fear is the strongest emotion. Its swiftness is the only thing on which it can rely. When terror seizes it, then it becomes blind to other dangers, because of the one great danger which is following it. Thus, fear forces it through brambles. It takes no note of that suffering. It may be brought to the edge of a cliff, and because the fear of the known danger is stronger than the fear of the unknown, that may cause it to leap to what it believes to be safety.

It is said, and quite truly—I want to be as fair as I can be—that not all deer suffer a terrible death. What is customary, what is usual, is for the deer to be brought to bay and then, when it is held at bay, the hounds are whipped off, and the deer is killed by the knife, or with a shot. It is true that the majority of deer which are killed in hunts are not killed by the dogs, but it is also true that in its fear a deer gets into a situation in which it cannot be followed by the horses and their riders, a situation inaccessible to all but the dogs. Then what happens? Imagination is enough to tell us. The dogs do not go up to the deer and wait for the huntsman to call them off. Obviously, the dogs will tear the deer to pieces. I admit that that does not happen in the generality of cases, but it can happen, and that it can happen at all is bad enough.

There is an aspect of the case which, as one who takes a very great interest in young life, I think is very important. Young people, children even, are part of the hunt. They look forward to it. They hear it as a topic of conversation in their own homes. They look forward to the time when they, too, take part; and they do take part. We have a law which prohibits children seeing the signs of bloodshed—seeing signs of bloodshed in an abattoir. Children at the hunt are in at the kill.

Whatever may be said of the hunt, the kill is not a pleasant prospect. The hounds are whipped off; the huntsman shoots or knifes the deer. It is not left there. It is disembowelled. Its kidney and liver are cut out, cut up and distributed. Its feet are cut off. They are something to be prized. As young children watch this their minds become familiarised with violence and to the use of strength over weakness. That is not a nice thing.

I will concede that if the deer, as is alleged, are responsible for damage to crops and to trees and to plants, justice may claim the life of the deer, but if we concede that justice does claim it, mercy claims that that death should he sharp and not preceded by the torture of the hunt which may last many hours, travelling many miles.

The greatest master of phrase in the English language says that mercy is greater than justice: The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth, as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless'd; It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes: Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes The throned monarch better than his crown"—

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

He was a poacher of deer.

Sir F. Messer

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway, It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself. Though justice be thy plea, consider this— That in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy"—

Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)

He is enjoying this.

Sir F. Messer

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy. I ask that this House today shall render one deed of mercy to remove a blot from the fame and fair name of this country which for too long has disfigured it.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I beg to oppose this Motion for leave to introduce the Bill. I say at once that I absolutely recognise the sincerity and humanitarian motives which have prompted the hon. Member for Tottenham (Sir F. Messer) and the hon. Members who are his supporters, but I believe that they are wrong, and I propose to say why.

I hope that the House will understand that I am no less a lover of animals and an opponent of cruelty, whether it is cruelty to animals or cruelty to human beings, especially when I say that I am not myself a staghunter or a foxhunter and never have been. My interest in the deer derives from the fact that the majority of the deer in England are to be found on Exmoor, three-quarters of which is in my constituency, and I intend to speak of what I have seen for myself; not what I have heard about, but what I have seen for myself.

The first fact, about which there is no dispute, as the hon. Gentleman has said, is that although the deer are beautiful they are also destructive. They breed very rapidly, and herds build up quickly and they are voracious eaters of crops. Exmoor is populated mainly by small farmers. There is no dispute that the deer must be controlled. At present, the control is provided by the hunts, and hunting is one form of control. There is no dispute about this either, that that control, whether right or wrong, is effective, and support for the hunt as a method of control in the West Country is broadly based and is found among all classes of people.

What is the evidence for and against hunting the deer as a method of control? What discussion has there been? For example, in February, 1949, the House debated the Second Reading of a Bill for the abolition of all forms of hunting. I think that I should say, in parenthesis, that there are some who think that the Bill proposed to be brought in is the thin end of the wedge and that if it were successful it would be followed by other Bills to prohibit other forms of hunting [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—for instance, fox hunting [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am most interested to hear those cheers. The question is where to draw the line. Do we draw it at staghunting, foxhunting, shooting, fishing or the miners' sport of coursing?

Be that as it may, all forms of hunting were debated in the House in February, 1949. There was a full discussion and the Bill to abolish all forms of hunting was defeated by the very large margin of 214 votes to 101. That debate had at least one important and, I believe, highly relevant result. The Home Secretary of the day, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), whom I am pleased to see in his place, and the then Secretary of State for Scotland set up a Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals. It had very full terms of reference, including a duty to make recommendations as to legislation if that was thought either necessary or even desirable. It heard evidence from individuals and from bodies of persons opposed to hunting and it took into account suggestions for alternative forms of control, including controlled shooting.

The Committee's recommendations were unanimous. Paragraphs 217, 220 and 230 of the Committee's Report show that it was unanimously in favour of hunting as a form of control, and the Report stated that alternative forms of control would be likely to involve greater cruelty. Nevertheless, I believe that we are fully entitled to inquire into methods of hunting, regulation, control, and so on. I believe that we have a duty to do so and to satisfy ourselves that hunting at the moment is properly conducted. There is an Association of Masters of Staghounds which has rules for the conduct of hunting, of which I will place copies in the Library. There is a strict close season and hunting takes place publicly and openly.

I only wish that hon. Members who have doubts about hunting would come to Exmoor and see for themselves the hunt as it really is, not as it is imagined to be. We have sent invitations to persons who have spoken about or against hunting or have added their names to appeals, but I regret very much that the majority of those invitations have not been accepted.

The Committee had another comment to make which many of us in the West Country feel was highly relevant, when it said, in paragraph 132, that misconceptions about the manner of hunting were widely prevalent. That is true. Before I became the Member for Taunton and had the opportunity of seeing hunting for myself, I believed that it often happened that the hounds tore down the deer. That almost never happens. Indeed, the deer is killed either by a gun fired at close range when it stands at bay, or by a humane killer. Four guns and humane killers are always carried, for example, by the Devon and Somerset Hunt. Some people believe that when deer are disembowelled and bled it is a ghastly pagan ritual, but it is nothing of the sort. It has to be done to make the meat fit to eat, as any butcher knows. The entrails, thereafter, are given to the hounds, and this accounts sometimes for eye-witness reports that people have seen the hounds tear the deer apart. They do not do that, and I am glad to have the opportunity to say so in the House.

What is the alternative to hunting? We do not know the details of the proposed Bill. The hon. Member for Tottenham and his hon. Friends have not given them, but we are entitled to judge the situation by the Bill which it was attempted to introduce in 1957. I am encouraged to judge the proposed Bill in that way, because what the hon. Member for Tottenham said at the beginning of his speech was a precise quotation from that Bill.

Sir F. Messer

indicated assent.

Mr. du Cann

I am grateful to the hon. Member for nodding agreement.

A Bill on those lines is open to many objections of which I will mention four very briefly. The first is that it purports to abolish hunting with hounds and yet it provides for the continued use of hounds. Where is the logic of that? There is no prepared scheme, but merely a power to the Minister of Agriculture to introduce an unspecified scheme. There is no provision for the enforcement of any scheme, and not even provision for any finance. But, apart from those considerations, I would oppose a Bill on those lines on humanitarian grounds.

Let us suppose that it is necessary to kill an injured or wounded deer for humanitarian reasons during the close season, as I know it is from time to time. I am advised that the passage of the proposed Bill would make that illegal. Furthermore, there is no ban on uncontrolled shooting of any sort, which those who have experience say would follow the Bill as surely as night follows the day, probably leading to the extermination of the deer.

I wonder how many hon. Members have seen a wounded deer. There is no sight more pitiful or tragic than a deer with gangrenous wounds, often with maggots in them. The Bill would exacerbate the very evils which it is proposed to abolish. I am sorry to say these things, but they are the facts and it is no good ignoring them. In sum, I do not defend staghunting as a good thing in itself, but only as a good thing if deer are to be kept in the greatest possible freedom and contentment while they live and with the least possible pain when they die. The House must recognise the truth that all pain can doubtless be stopped, but it would cease only if all deer were exterminated, just as all human misery, which is the concomitant of our existence, would cease if all mankind were to die.

Some may think that we have our priorities wrong in debating this sort of thing, for example, in International Refugee Year, but I am glad to have had the opportunity of saying something on a matter which I agree troubles many people. Concern is right, but prejudice is wrong. That is why I welcome a debate of this sort. We all know that as a matter of practice the Bill has as little chance of becoming the law of the country this Session as, with respect, has the interesting Bill of the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) to nationalise The Times newspaper.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

Is the hon. Member ruling out that I am hopeful that the Government will give me their time for my Bill?

Mr. du Cann

I do not know what conversations the hon. Member may have had through the usual channels. That is a matter for him and no doubt it will become clear in due course, but many of us have our own ideas on the subject.

As there is no chance of the Bill becoming law in practice, I advise hon. Members to let it die a natural death and not delay the House, when we have important matters to deal with, by voting against it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 12 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business) and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir F. Messer, Mr. Viant, Mr. H. Johnson, Mr. Anthony Greenwood, Mr. G. Thomas, Mr. J. Paton, Mr. V. Yates, Mr. Reeves, and Sir F. Medlicott.

  1. PROTECTION OF DEER 47 words