HC Deb 16 December 1960 vol 632 cc843-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

4.8 p.m.

Mr. J. M. L. Prior (Lowestoft)

Since I was lucky enough to obtain this Adjournment debate, so many people have asked me precisely what coypu are that I think I had better start by very briefly explaining their nature. Coypu were imported to this country before the war for their furs. They weigh from 10 lbs. to 20 lbs., and are rather similar to a large-scale rat. During the war, when there was no food or labour available to keep these animals, they were let out. As a result, they were able to spread and multiply in their natural habitat of the Broads and waterways of Norfolk and Suffolk.

Their numbers were kept down to a reasonable extent by the fact that their furs were still worth quite a bit of money, and local people used to shoot the coypu and sell the furs for 10s. or 15s. That process continued until about 1953, when nylon fur coats were introduced. After that, these furs became practically valueless, and it was no longer worth while for local people to shoot the animals. Since 1953 there has been a quite staggering increase in their numbers. I think some of that increase was probably due to the big floods of 1953. Certainly, from that time onwards, the coypu have extended over a much greater area. Although, as I have said, in the early days it confined itself to waterways chiefly, it is now spreading from these lowlands and is getting on to what are known in Norfolk and Suffolk as the uplands as well. In fact, my own farm is a good way from any of the main rivers, and this autumn we have noticed several coypu in the ponds and small streams around the farm.

It is true to say that although in recent months certain measures have been taken to keep them down, they are still increasing considerably. They cause damage particularly on three counts. The first is to rivers and dyke banks. They burrow into the side of a dyke bank or river bank and make quite a big hole. The water gets into the hole and into the bank and eventually causes the collapse of the bank. That is becoming quite a serious problem.

They cause trouble to cattle. They tend to burrow from the bank of a dyke right out into the marsh, causing deep holes in which cattle get their legs caught, and then the cattle break their legs. In addition, coypu are prodigious eaters, and vegetarians at that, and they eat considerable amounts of the crops, which could become a very serious nuisance indeed.

These animals do not seem to have any particular value. One feels that with all animals of this sort, which are imported and are not indigenous to the country—one thinks particularly of rabbits from Australia—we might get into a very serious position indeed.

I want to quote from a letter received from the East Suffolk and Norfolk River Board last April. Talking about the coypu, the letter said: They are already causing serious damage to internal drains and the growing crops adjoining the drains. In connection with the former, it is feared that if an all-out, vigorous and co-ordinated campaign to check the multiplying coypu is not put in hand at the earliest possible date it is not beyond the realms of possibility for the whole drainage system of marshes in Norfolk to become completely undermined. At the meeting referred to above instances were reported where coypu have burrowed right through tidal banks and left holes ten inches in diameter—one at Martham in Norfolk was dug out and filled up and within two days it had been re-opened. A similar position occurred at St. Olaves in Norfolk. One member of the Board (farming some 2,000 acres in the Yare Valley) informed the Board he had seen coypu running about in thousands 'like flocks of sheep'—another landowner member of the Board stated he had had 500 killed on his land in Norfolk last winter. I have also to inform the Department"— This letter went to the Ministry— that for the past three years this Board has employed one of their labour force in Norfolk on the task of exterminating coypu, and other vermin, and the alarming situation has now been reached that he is at present killing seventy coypu a week. That shows that the problem, which was serious enough, is becoming even more serious. I wrote to the Ministry about it as long ago as last March and I received a reply in April, which, I think, shows that the Ministry under-estimated the seriousness of the position. That letter says: My information is that although individual farmers are in some cases suffering damage from coypu, the animal's natural habitat is in marshland and it is not considered that it is ever likely to become a major pest in this country. That letter was from my hon. Friend who is now a Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He agreed in later correspondence and in talks with me that the position had been under-estimated. As a result of his further inquiries, the Ministry decided to hand over the responsibility for killing these pests to rabbit clearance societies.

Unfortunately, this has not been very effective because the main breeding areas still for the animals are the marshes, the surroundings of the rivers and the internal drainage board districts, and not many owners or occupiers are members of the rabbit clearance societies. The reason is that most of the marshes are let for seasonal grazing and, therefore, the occupier is there for only a portion of the year. Naturally, he does not want to belong to the rabbit clearance society. On the other hand, the owner who lets the marshes obtains no benefit from occupation and he is not interested. Therefore, on the whole, handing over responsibility to the rabbit clearance societies is not really effective in the main breeding grounds of the coypu, although it will help tremendously, I think, now that the animals have started to breed on the uplands. Here, I think, the rabbit clearance societies will be able to help.

At the moment, the coypu are not very difficult to kill. They can be shot. They can be trapped. They are, however, becoming mare difficult to kill each year as they become wilder and they realise that people are after them. I assume that the first rabbits were not too difficult to shoot or to exterminate. The problem presented by a great number of them, however, is altogether different.

I suggest that the pest officers of the Ministry, in the Eastern Counties par- ticularly, should co-operate more with the river boards and internal drainage boards and work out a plan for complete extermination. I feel that we have a problem in the making here. To tackle it now will cost very little money and very little effort. If it is allowed to continue and grow for another two or three years, we may well face an extremely serious situation.

I should mention that I have one constituent who does not agree with my policy. This lady keeps coypu in her garden as pets. I mention her, but I really must say that I feel that coypu are the most unattractive pets that one could possibly have; they have very little to commend them in any way at all and, although I respect this lady's views, I think that it should be insisted that if she wishes to keep them as pets they should at least be kept in a cage or in some way prevented from getting out.

We have had some fairly serious losses in recent months. I have a letter from one man who has a small osier bed down on the marshes. He sent his his men to cut the osiers in the autumn for making into baskets and he found that the whole crop had been eaten by coypu. He estimated the damage on about 6 acres to be about £600.

I ask my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to accept that this is becoming a serious problem and it is now time that the Ministry, in conjunction with the local farmers, the landowners, the Country Landowners' Association, the river boards and the internal drainage boards tackled it by co-ordinating their efforts so that we may destroy this pest once and for all.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for staying behind on Friday afternoon to take part in this debate with me.

4.18 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. W. M. F. Vane)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) for giving me the opportunity to say something about the increasing numbers of coypu in this country. I am grateful to him also for his final words about me and my personal arrangements. The matter he has put before the House, of course, is much more important.

The coypu presents just one more case of the trouble which may arise as a result of letting exotic animals loose in this country either by design or by mistake. We now have the problem of these animals which have bred in considerable numbers, largely in one part of the country as yet, threatening to get out of hand. I do not want to stand between my hon. Friend and any of his constituents, but I hope that he will bring home not only to the particular person he mentioned but to others that the coypu is really not a suitable pet in this country. I hope that those dealers and others who have recently offered coypu for sale as breeding stock will, after what has come out in the course of this debate, realise that they are making a great mistake and adding, perhaps, to a far greater degree than they may at first think to the troubles of their neighbours.

I now turn to the extent of this damage and the threat which we are facing. It is true, as my hon. Friend said, that for some time there have been a number of escaped coypu in East Anglia in the main, but, until fairly recently, there have been no widespread complaints of serious damage to crops or property. This is a comparatively recent development. One can but have sympathy with farmers and others who are suffering from the increasing depredations of these creatures.

One of the reasons why most of us do not appreciate the full extent of this problem is that the coypu tends to move about in the dusk or at night. Few of us are able to claim the experience of seeing about 500 of them moving about like a flock of sheep. Generally, they move about in smaller numbers and tend to keep themselves out of the way during the daylight hours. Hence probably the reason why comparatively few of us appreciate the extent of the developing habitat of this animal in Norfolk and Suffolk and, now, areas beyond.

I note from the Guardian today that the first coypu has been killed in the Lake District. I cannot believe that it went all the way from East Anglia on its own four legs. More likely it was an unfortunate escape from a fur farm or from someone who thought that he had a harmless pet. I hope this is not the forerunner of big colonies in another part of the country where there is a considerable amount of water and the sort of country where they could easily settle.

My hon. Friend asked whether we had considered the full extent of this threat and how we might help to deal with the task facing us. We felt that several elements are necessary in this campaign against the coypu. First, there must be concerted efforts on the part of farmers, river boards, drainage boards, and other interests concerned, and a general willingness to deal with the problem. This problem is similar to the rabbit problem. It is no good stirring the coypu and moving them on to another area. We must have properly concerted plans. They must also be technically efficient and technically co-ordinated. We thought that the rabbit clearance societies were probably best fitted to tackle this problem. We want to avoid, if we can, setting up a fresh chain of organisations. The rabbit clearance societies qualify for financial assistance towards their work so that here we have an opportunity of helping on the financial front. We readily agree that help on these lines should be given.

Most of the areas now inhabited by a number of coypu fall within districts already covered by rabbit clearance societies. It seemed to us, therefore, that the necessary organisation for concerted action was already in being. Some rabbit clearance societies have already made representations to the Ministry that their responsibility and entitlement to grant should be extended for work in dealing with coypus. We agree that the Ministry's regional pests officer for the Eastern Region, who knows much about this problem, should co-ordinate this campaign, and, in consultation with the farmers' unions, we agreed that the costs incurred by rabbit clearance societies in dealing with coypu should rank for the 50 par cent. grant.

We also suggested that agricultural executive committees should consider serving notice under the Agriculture Act, 1947, requiring the destruction of coypu on any occupiers who harboured coypu which were damaging crops or waterways and who were unwilling to co-operate voluntarily in getting rid of them or keeping them within bounds. Rabbit clearance societies, river boards and other interests concerned were informed of these arrangements and, as my hon. Friend knows, they attended a meeting at Beccles under the chairmanship of the Ministry's liaison officer, Sir Robert Gooch, on 12th October to consider the plan of campaign against the coypu on these broad general lines. The meeting was well attended and various methods of co-ordinating control and of rendering financial assistance were discussed.

I am informed that there was a very satisfactory measure of agreement about the way in which this campaign should be conducted. Briefly, the proposals were for societies to co-operate in the provision of staff to comb through the area systematically. The estimated cost of this would work out at between 7d. and 10d. per acre of land, mainly along waterways to be cleared.

In answering my hon. Friend on this point, I do not think it is too much for the owners of the marsh land he was referring to to contribute on this basis towards the extermination of coypu, because they will benefit as much as anybody else, not least from the protection of their embankments. I do not see that that should offer any serious obstacle. It is hoped that river boards and internal drainage boards will also play their part and pay their share.

The representatives agreed to consider these proposals and to report back to discuss them in detail and, furthermore, to initiate action. Unfortunately these local meetings, which were planned to bring together rabbit clearing societies, drainage boards and others to formulate plans, had to be cancelled to a large extent because of the foot-and-mouth restrictions. That is largely responsible for the delay and it was unavoidable.

The first of the re-arranged meetings to cover societies and drainage boards in the North-East of Suffolk is to be held on 20th December. In Norfolk, a plan of campaign has already been drawn up for the Lodden area by the secretaries of the two rabbit societies mainly concerned. Here again, however, foot-and-mouth has prevented any material progress and details have still to be worked out.

I believe that a majority of farmers in the area will be encouraged by the considerable help and the lead they are receiving from the Ministry in dealing with this problem. It will, however, need effort on the part of occupiers and of rabbit clearing societies in exactly the same way as effort is needed if one is ever to get rid of any widespread pest.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the Ministry, having properly taken the lead, will continue to play an active part. I believe that there is no area in the country where more has been done in tackling the problem of rabbits and wood pigeons than in East Anglia. A very large proportion of the country we are concerned with is already covered by clearance societies. I hope that the small area of land not yet covered will soon be so covered.

I want to say how much my right hon. Friend and I appreciate the time and enthusiasm that chairmen, secretaries and members of these societies—particularly their committees—are putting into this important job, because it makes considerable inroads into their valuable time.

There are some who have voiced the view that all this is not enough, and would like to see statutory powers for dealing with unco-operative occupiers strengthened and have the coypu put on the same basis as the rabbit as a creature which must be destroyed by an occupier wherever it is found on his land. That would require legislation, and would take time, and I am not sure that we have yet got to the stage when measures of that severity are necessary.

I hope that my hon. Friend did not misunderstand my predecessor's letter, from which he quoted, because although it is true that the coypu is undoubtedly a major pest in certain local areas, in far the greater part of the country it is still unknown. Its habits are such that it is more inclined to frequent certain areas than the whole country.

I hope that my hon. Friend will see that my predecessor was trying not to exaggerate in writing that letter. It is easy to exaggerate in this context, and, without being discourteous, I think that the river board from which he quoted tended to exaggerate slightly. We realise that the time has come when one must take firm measures to keep the coypu under control.

I am sure that the majority of occupiers today are only too anxious to see an end of this pest, because of the damage it can do and which is now becoming much better known. I am satisfied that under the Agriculture Act we have all the powers we need for dealing with those who are unco-operative, and I do not think that there will be many of those.

Every farmer must realise that it is his responsibility first and foremost to deal with pests on his land. The Ministry's function is to back him up. In this case the Ministry has readily agreed not only to back up the efforts of the farmers but to assist them to strengthen their organisation and to help them to meet the cost. As I have said, a campaign of this kind against what is now a well-established pest in certain localities, must be properly planned. That has taken a little time and that time has been extended, unfortunately, by foot-and-mouth disease, but I am sure that it will be amply repaid when operations get under way.

Obviously, we cannot yet judge exactly what the arrangement will be, but the scheme which is now getting under way must be given time to show results, and I assure hon. Members that the Ministry is fully alive to the problem and I am sure that with our help occupiers will succeed in checking the spread of this pest.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Five o'clock.