HC Deb 26 February 1963 vol 672 cc1200-26

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

8.56 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

The vagaries of the Parliamentary timetable make it possible to devote a little more time than was expected to what I have described as the scandal of the livestock on Dartmoor.

A little while ago, I inquired of the Minister of Defence how much it had cost the taxpayer to provide helicopter services to the farmers of Dartmoor for animal rescue work. The answer I got was that the cost of these helicopter flights, gallantly performed by the Army and the Royal Air Force, came to about £26,000. This means that the taxpayer has some interest and to some extent is a shareholder in the livestock which still survives on Dartmoor. The right hon. Gentleman went on to say: I do not know what farming conditions in Brixton have been like, but they have been rather rough on Dartmoor … everybody has done his best and we should be very grateful …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 30th January, 1963; Vol. 670, c. 919.] Leaving on one side the rather feeble witticism of the first part of that reply, it will be of interest in the course of our discussion tonight to see to what extent everyone has done his best and to what extent we ought to be grateful.

When I asked the Minister of Agriculture the other day whether he was to carry out some investigation of the losses of livestock on Dartmoor in recent weeks, he rather offhandedly brushed my question on one side and said: Inevitably, there have been losses of livestock in some hill areas; it is inevitable in a winter like this ".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th February, 1963; Vol. 672, c. 9.] That is all the Minister had to say on what many people regard as a most deplorable state of affairs.

Farmers on Dartmoor realised that public opinion was becoming disturbed by what had been happening in the locality. According to a newspaper report, there was a special meeting in Exeter on 17th January of the Dartmoor Commoners' Association, representatives of the Duchy of Cornwall, the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Farmers' Union. It appears that there are about 400 hill farmers on Dartmoor, and that the 50,000 livestock estimated to exist on the moor are not regarded as excessive.

It is not the custom for hon. Members to criticise civil servants, but when civil servants make speeches in public they lay themselves open to rejoinder. At this meeting Mr. W. J. Bricknell, the Divisional Area Executive Officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, made this statement of the criticisms that appeared in the local Press and elsewhere: These frivolous and ill-informed charges are very unfair". We shall see in the course of the discussion to what extent Mr. Bricknell is entitled to take it upon himself as a civil servant in the Ministry of Agriculture to make comments of that kind.

The report of the meeting went on to say that: Hill farmers would like to take this opportunity of asking the general public not to disturb the livestock and to leave it to the farmers who know their own business. We shall see in a moment or so to what extent it is safe and humane to leave this kind of thing to these farmers who claim to know their own business best.

When the blizzard emergency struck Dartmoor—as I shall show in a moment, these people had ample warning that the blizzard was approaching—the commoners' association—consisting, of course, of farmers who know their own business best—immediately got in touch with the Ministry of Agriculture and asked for help. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also came to the rescue. In addition to the men who manned the helicopters in the rescue operation, a word of thanks is due to the R.S.P.C.A. for its help and co-operation in this difficult situation. It carried on the animal rescue operation for 58 days, helped some 50,000 sheep, cattle and ponies, and at one time 39 R.S.P.C.A. men were employed on the job.

It is always interesting to see to what extent the services of voluntary organi-sations are appreciated by those whom they are trying to help. In this connection two Dartmoor farmers deserve to be mentioned in dispatches. One of them, Mr. J. W. Reddaway of Kenwyn, Stickle-path, said that some of the sheep reported to have been found dead in the Taw had been frightened into the river by helicopters dropping hay on the R.S.P.C.A.'s instructions. That is the thanks which the R.S.P.C.A. got from that individual.

Another moor farmer, Mr. N. C. Grindley, of Lower Halstock Cottage, Okehampton, alleged that, instead of trying to assist animals in need of attention and co-operating with farmers, R.S.P.C.A. inspectors seemed to be on the look out for trouble and annoying the farmers.

I will not harrow the House with details of the terrible events which were noticed by independent observers in the course of the blizzard on Dartmoor. Sheep buried in snowdrifts round the Mary Tavy and Peter Tavy areas were the subject of a newspaper report: … one ram was being eaten alive at the end of a tunnel the foxes had made through the snow to get at the huddled flock. At Waspsworthy Farm, Peter Tavy, farmers and other helpers going to dig out sheep saw two foxes scamper away from the drift.… After digging for some time they came to the sheep huddled together. A ram was being eaten alive as it stood in the snow; others had been severely mauled and had to be destroyed. This is the kind of thing that happened despite the fact that some of these local farmers claimed to know their own business best. They do not seem to appreciate outside assistance, even when it is provided out of the taxpayers' pockets.

I do not base my comments and criticisms, my anger and disgust, on the statements of wild and wholly sentimentalists. Let me quote some evidence in the case. Mr. W. H. C. Blake, of Orchard Cottage, Dartington, said: It is undeniable that the present deplorably low standard of sheep husbandry as practised on Dartmoor demands drastic reform. This so-called farming is taken much on a gamble with the weather, with the wretched animals' lives as stake money. The plain facts show that Dartmoor sheep farming is little short of an agricultural disgrace. Mr. H. P. Twyford, the agricultural correspondent of the Western Morning News, in an article he wrote recently said: Whether there are more sheep than there should be on Dartmoor is not for me to say, more than there does seem to be a call for the control of numbers. The point could not have been put more mildly than that.

Mrs. Coote, of Ashton, in Devon, who is a farmer on the edge of Dartmoor, has also expressed herself on this subject.

Sir Henry Studholme (Tavistock)

Ashton is not on the edge of Dartmoor. It is in the Teign Valley.

Mr. Lipton

I am quoting a letter which appeared in the Daily Telegraph of 16th January last. Mrs. Coote, whose address is given as Ashton, Devon, and who claims to be a farmer on the edge of Dartmoor—the one is not inconsistent with the other; she is entitled to write from one address and be a farmer somewhere else, and I do not see the point of the interjection—also bears testimony to the unnecessary suffering caused to animals on Dartmoor which, she says, is due to the gross overstocking of the Moor by many people, of varying farming qualifications, tempted and encouraged by hill-farm subsidies, who have not accommodation, shelter, or feed for the animals. She goes on to say that these so-called farmers are gambling on mild winters, and if the gamble fails some of the animals perish miserably; some are rescued at vast public effort and expense. Even if the winter is mild, the overall productivity of the Moor is greatly depressed by constant and heavy over-grazing. One suggestion which she and others have put forward is that the open moor should be cleared of all stock from December to March inclusive. It has also been suggested that there should be an urgent inquiry into the necessity or otherwise of clearing the moor of livestock during the winter months and the findings of such an inquiry should be implemented speedily. I suggest that the Ministry should initiate such an inquiry, and ensure that it is conducted by independent people and not by anyone connected with the Dartmoor Commoners' Association.

I call in support of my case evidence that can be given by Lieut.-Colonel T. Stallard, D.S.O., of Harbourneford. For a long time he has been deeply concerned about the welfare of animals and livestock on Dartmoor. In September, 1962, he issued a circular letter to many organisations which he thought might be interested in the matter, in which he urged that Drastic action is vital to put things right. We wish to see a halt to the needless suffering of animals, which has resulted from the present use of the Moor That letter was widely circulated as long ago as last September, long before the blizzard hit Dartmoor. As he rightly pointed out, many people have been agitating for the past 10 years for some positive action to prevent recurrences of unnecessary hardship to the stock on the moor, which, in his opinion, is so often caused by inadequate grazing, by exposure, and sometimes by both.

He suggests that two conditions should be laid down which will immediately improve the wellbeing of the stock on the moor. The first is to rest the moor for a matter of three months each winter by clearing it of all stock, and the second is to allow graziers to graze only that number of stock which they can support in their own pastures during the winter months. That does not strike me as being a wildly unreasonable proposition. In any event, it is something which should be investigated by the Ministry.

The Parliamentary Secretary will probably refer to the difficulties and complications. They are always greater if there is no real desire to tackle them effectively. He will probably refer to the findings of the Royal Commission on Common Land which reported in July, 1958. Its Report cost about £24,000 to produce, but no visible action has yet been taken by the Government to implement any if its recommendations. In spite of its findings, the situation has deteriorated, and no improvements in animal husbandry can be claimed. As Lieut.-Colonel Stallard also points out The sooner a full measure of redress is effected to end what is a scandalous state of affairs, the better". Not all farmers on Dartmoor bear the stigma of condoning or allowing this kind of cruelty and suffering to continue. A number of them have sent me telegrams, which have reached me only today, congratulating me on raising this matter and telling me that they dissociate themselves from the malpractices which are responsible for this unnecessary suffering to animals on the moor. Many farmers do not use their grazing rights on the moor, because they know that it is heavily overstocked and even more heavily infested with the redwater-carrying tick.

Many farmers who do not exercise their grazing rights think that it is essential that the regulations concerning the number of beasts permitted to each farm, in accordance with its acreage, should be strictly enforced and backed by heavy penalties. I am informed that regulations exist, but they have obviously been ignored for many years. If the Parliamentary Secretary would like the names of the four farmers who put forward that proposition, I shall be very pleased to supply them. The farmers come from the Ivybridge area.

Mr. Stanley Goodman, who is also an authority on this matter, wrote an article in the Western Morning News on 18th January. It was not a letter to the editor but a feature article in which he said: We must put an end to a system which will allow every tuppeny ha'penny leaseholder and small tenant adjoining the Moor to run unlimited numbers of stock on the Moor. I suggest that the Ministry should look into that aspect of the problem. Mr. R. E. St. Leger Gordon also wrote a feature article in the Western Morning News in which he said: The welfare of the animals is left largely to chance. Each one that survives spells clear profit. Each one that dies entails no loss, The enforcement of the wise old rule restricting every grazier to the number of cattle he can winter would go far to solving some of the present difficult and distressing problems. I referred earlier to the fact that the blizzard did not come as a surprise to the farmers of Dartmoor, and in support of that statement I quote the Reverend Courtney Johns, of Black Torrington, who wrote to the Press stating: Adequate warning was given of the approaching blizzard. The fact that owners of stock on Dartmoor took no action to bring their sheep and ponies to where they could be fed shows sheer neglect and callousness on the part of stock owners. The trouble is apparently that the only views which reach official circles are those of people who are financially interested in keeping large numbers of hill stock on the moor no matter what the conditions, and in some cases, the views are those of not very knowledgeable N.F.U. officials. I am informed that farmers whose land abuts the moor are invaded every spring by near-starving hill sheep and cattle, and there must be an explanation for that. It is something which ought to be investigated. There is ample evidence that it takes place.

I wish to add a few words on the subject of ponies. The chief inspector of the Horses and Ponies Protection Association, who was working on Dartmoor during the blizzard, has stated that the problem was to discover where the majority of ponies went when they fled from the blizzard, He was speaking during January and said that so far they had not been located either by helicopter or by search parties. The owner of the largest number of ponies in the district said that he had found only two dozen animals out of about 500 that he was seeking.

The question which has been put to me—I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to answer it—is why cannot some pressure be put on the farmers and others who own these animals to comply with the law which I understand requires that the ponies should be brought in, or at any rate fed, during the severest part of the winter? A correspondent writing from Middlemoor in Tavistock says: one sees the little creatures standing in forlorn and hungry groups in bitter weather, with nothing but long-since-eaten-off grass to live on … conditions in this Arctic spell beggar description. Only a few days ago there appeared … an account of two ponies completely frozen right in the residential part of Yelverton and the lives of these ponies were saved by the efforts of an A.A. patrolman.… Why, one asks, was the owner not rounded up by the police—not a difficult matter, since all ponies are branded—to rescue his own beasts and not have their fate left to the A. A … and the goodwill of passers-by". Mrs. M. D. Kirby, of Yelverton, is a lady who has bred ponies on the Welsh mountains and she has kept ponies out all along. She is a lady with some experience of what they can withstand. She said that she had …never before witnessed such callous disregard for stock. As late as June last year there were many starving mares and young stock seen around Princetown at the time of the sales. That was in June when it is to be hoped that these animals would have recovered to some extent from the rigours of their winter outings. This matter was most effectively put in a letter from Lady Sayer, who knows Dartmoor and who lives at Widecombe-in-the-Moor. I shall not quote one or two of the flattering things she said about me, but I quote this part of the communication because I think it as well to have it on record: We know that some Dartmoor farmers are both efficient and humane, and never run more animals on the Moor than they can drive down to their home fields for feeding in bad weather. We know there are others who simply exploit the suffering of the animals for the subsidies they can get from a Ministry of Agriculture which shells out' grants (of our money) without taking proper account of the consequences. She rightly points out that the National Farmers' Union defends the present situation. What is more surprising is that the Duchy of Cornwall, the largest landowner on Dartmoor, apparently also condones this deplorable and most unsatisfactory state of affairs. I am advised that years ago the Duchy took strict charge of its Dartmoor land, impounding strays, culling unfit animals and so on, but all that has been allowed to go into disuse. Here is another investigation which I hope the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will conduct.

I am not going to argue the case here and now, but we know that subsidies are paid for hill cows and sheep. I wonder to what extent the Ministry takes the trouble to enforce one of the conditions of those subsidies, namely that applicants may be required to use up to 40 per cent. of the subsidy in improving their land. It would be very interesting to know to what extent the Ministry has required any of these farmers on Dartmoor about whom I and so many other people are complaining to see that this very useful proviso is applied.

We shall never know how many hundreds, if not thousands, of sheep, cattle and ponies have been frozen or starved to death on Dartmoor. We know that this has been an exceptional winter, but this is not a unique but an annual and, particularly this year, predictable disaster. It happens this year only to be a little worse than ever before.

The situation can be fairly summed up in the words of the leader writer in the Daily Telegraph of 26th January last: What is wrong is that the moor is heavily over-stocked and that many animals are left out on it in the winter to fend for themselves The reason for this is that every animal carries a subsidy, whether or not its owner has, either the land or the fodder or the shelter for it. The result is that by the end of every winter the grazing is practically gone. The moor should in future be cleared from December to March and subsidies—perhaps increased—should be paid only to farmers who look after their stock properly. I submit that that is a not unreasonable request.

When public opinion was stirred by these calamitous events on Dartmoor some notice had to be taken of them. It is true that a meeting was held in the House of Commons on 14th February last. It was a private meeting called by the hon. Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme), which was attended by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who I am glad to see on the Front Bench tonight, but who on this occasion was in the chair at this private meeting. Representatives were present of Dartmoor Commoners' Association, the National Farmers' Union, the R.S.P.C.A., and the Horses and Ponies Protection Association. The Duchy of Cornwall, the War Department and the Air Ministry were also represented.

I have a copy of the Press reports released after the meeting. It seems to have been a very snug and smug affair in which everybody was patting everybody else on the back. What it boils down to is this. This seems to be the gist of it: It was also agreed that farmers in general were well aware of the needs of their livestock and had done their utmost to look after them properly. That was the considered verdict of this snug and smug little meeting held in a room at the Palace of Westminster a few days ago at which the Press was not present.

This snug and smug little meeting also put it on record that there was no overstocking on the moor. The concluding sentence of the Press report reads as follows: In the meantime, the Ministry would give careful study to the experience of the past' few weeks to see what lessons might be drawn against the recurrence of similar difficult conditions in future. It seems to have come as a blinding revelation that such conditions could develop, but there we have a promise from the Ministry that it will give careful study to the experience it has collected during the past few weeks.

It seems odd to me that for years past it has not done anything at all. It would have been very much more satisfactory if some of the ladies and gentlemen whose names I have quoted had also been invited to attend this meeting. Perhaps there would have been even greater interest if such a meeting could have been held in Exeter or elsewhere in Devon which all people who have something to contribute could have attended and given the Ministry the benefit of their knowledge and experience.

I do not know what happened at that private meeting. Apparently there was no item on the agenda about the sufferings of the stock on the moor. I repeat what I said about the meeting: it was a purely whitewashing operation to cover up the deficiencies of certain people who have some responsibility for the welfare of livestock on Dartmoor.

I am convinced that the British public has no intention of allowing the sheep, cattle and ponies to suffer again the slow starvation of another winter on the moor. It is a solemn obligation on the shoulders of the Government to see that this kind of thing is never allowed to happen again.

I have made several suggestions tonight. I hope that the Government will not allow what has happened on Dartmoor this winter to be repeated. I hope that they will not allow themselves to be deluded by the callous and irresponsible minority of Dartmoor farmers who, in the face of all that has happened in the past few weeks, keep on repeating, "We know best. Leave it to us, because we know what we are doing."

If we leave it to them we must look forward to a repetition of these hardships and cruelties, of which we have had ample evidence in the past few weeks. I hope, therefore, that the Government will take definite action to ensure that these revolting cruelties and hardships are not allowed to be repeated.

9.32 p.m.

Sir Henry Studholme (Tavistock)

We have listened to what I can only call a rather highly coloured discourse from the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton).

Mr. Lipton

An accurate one, nevertheless.

Sir H. Studholme

He has also shown that he is not altogether familiar with my part of the world and with its geography. As we all know, the trouble with the hon. Member for Brixton is that he can never resist the lure of publicity. He is never happier than when he is smelling out what he considers to be a juicy piece of scandal.

I should like to assure him that we had a warning that snow was on its way. I was there at the time. However, we had no warning to the effect that it would be a blizzard. No one knew about that, and that was the trouble. I am sorry for the people on neighbouring farms which were overrun by sheep. Anyone who knows the conditions of this area realises that with snowdrifts high above the fences the sheep could run for miles and nothing could keep them in. I am sorry for the people who were overrun, but it was inevitable. Of course, they are able to take legal action against the owners if they wish.

The hon. Member for Brixton raised the question of the ponies and where they had gone. The cattle grids were covered with snow and the ponies could get out over them almost anywhere. They would be miles away in no time all over the countryside. I recall a Question which the hon. Member asked in the House on 30th January last when he stated: …the callous and mercenary farmers in Dartmoor are exploiting the humane instincts of the public in efforts to minimise the appalling suffering caused by the selfishness and negligence of these farmers."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 30th January, 1963; Vol. 670. c. 919.] However, when he referred to "these farmers on Dartmoor" tonight he at least qualified the remark by referring to them as "a minority". Nevertheless, his wide and sweeping statements are extremely mischievous and irresponsible. It was very extravagant language.

The case of sheep being drowned which the hon. Member quoted is perfectly true. I do not want to decry what the R.S.P.C.A. did but by dropping bales of hay among the sheep, it is true that this disturbed many of them. They ran downhill and many were drowned in the river. I do not pretend that all farmers are angels, any more than are all Members of Parliament or any other collection of people, but I maintain that the great majority of farmers on Dartmoor do their very best to look after their stock. There are a few people who run animals on the moor—I would not call them all farmers—who are not as particular as the good farmers. I would never defend anyone who neglected his stock, but I would always stand up for the good farmers and they are in the majority.

In one of the shriller Sunday newspapers there was a very, lurid and sensational report of the horrors of Dartmoor as portrayed in an interview by the hon. Member for Brixton. Today in the Western Morning News I read: M.P. to stage ' showdown ' on Dartmoor Animals. Intends to deal caustically with London conference which Sir Henry Studholme convened to review whole problem. This private meeting in the House of Commons at which the Press was not represented was merely an exercise in whitewashing a Dartmoor scandal. It was true that it was a private meeting. It is often better to hold these meetings without the Press being present. I informed the Press beforehand and they were perfectly happy. I explained the position and they had a full report afterwards.

I was not concerned with making publicity. Unlike the hon. Member for Brixton, what I wanted to do was to arrive at a fair picture. After all these widespread, sweeping and even contradictory statements and allegations had been made I thought that it would be much better for all the people concerned to get down to it and explain their point of view and hear what each other had to say.

In consultation with my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. P. Browne) and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby), it was decided, I think rightly, to confine the invitations to the meeting to those organisations which represented people who were actually engaged in animal husbandry on Dartmoor. We included also the R.S.P.C.A. who had been busy working there in the past weeks and the Duchy of Cornwall which was naturally interested as the largest landowner on the moor. The War Department had observers at the meeting because the Department has a training area there and is in constant touch with the farmers. The Air Ministry was represented because it was responsible for the airlift which did such a fine and necessary job to help farmers to get fodder out to their stock in these terribly difficult conditions. I am sure that the hon. Member for Brixton has not the foggiest idea of what conditions were like. I was not concerned with publicity.

Mr. Lipton

No, with hushing it up.

Sir H. Studholme

I was concerned to see what practical steps could be taken to put right anything that was wrong. I hate cruelty to animals, but I was concerned to see that all who were involved had a fair crack of the whip. We had a frank, wide-ranging discussion and I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for assuring us that the Government are sympathetic towards introducing legislation to deal with commons and that they consider it urgent and necessary.

Last year I approached the Minister on this very question. He explained to me that although he was very sympathetic, what with the Common Market and all the other negotiations which were going on at the time, it was quite impossible to indicate when the Government would be able to consider legislation. That was fair enough. Now we have an assurance from my right hon. Friend.

I am very grateful because what we need is legislation to regulate the grazing on the moor. This is what the Dartmoor Commoners Association and the Duchy of Cornwall have been asking for for a long time. We have not had it yet because everything is governed by priorities. There was a series of mild winters, but, for the last two years, this problem has cropped up and now it is a matter of priority. I am very glad that it is.

I do not know how much the lion. Member for Brixton understands the problem. I do not think that he understands it very well. It is very complicated because of the ancient grazing rights on the moor which go back for hundreds of years. Two matters need definition. Who exactly are the commoners, and what exactly are their rights and obligations? Then some body must be set up to see that the rules are carried out, and this, of course, needs legislation.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has read the excellent Report presented by the Dartmoor commoners to the Royal Commission on Common Land in 1956. I do not know whether he has.

Mr. Lipton

I have.

Sir H. Studholme

I am very glad, although, in that case, the hon. Gentleman ought to know a little more about it than he does.

Mr. Lipton

I have taken the trouble to read what the commoners submitted to the Royal Commission in 1956. May I just quote what they said by way of conclusion and summary: We wish to make clear that what we seek to achieve is liberty in the sense in which Clemenceau defined it, namely, the right to discipline ourselves so as not to be disciplined by somebody else. They have not reached that stage even yet.

Sir H. Studholme

That is an excellent principle. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has overlooked the fact that the Dartmoor commoners produced an admirable set of rules for good animal husbandry on the moor. The application of these rules would enable them to discipline themselves. The rules are excellent. They cover the culling of all old ewes and cows. They include the control of swaling. I do not suppose that the hon. Gentleman knows what that is. Swaling is the burning of heather, and it has to be done in a certain way because otherwise it spoils the heather. The rules also cover such matters as the improvement of the type and the limiting of the number of stallions on Dartmoor. Further, they cover the provision of fodder banks from which stock can be fed in hard weather.

These rules could very well be embodied in legislation passed to deal with Dartmoor. I envisage some sort of body being set up like the Court of Verderers——

Mr. E. G. Willis (Edinburgh, East)

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. For some minutes now, the hon. Gentleman has been arguing the case for legislation to deal with Dartmoor. Is it in order to argue for legislation in an Adjournment debate?

Mr. Speaker

It is the practice on these occasions to allow such incidental reference to legislation as I think relevant to the burden of the debate. That is under the Standing Order. The hon. Member has not yet reached a stage when I think that that standard has been transgressed.

Sir H. Studholme

Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker.

I envisage the setting up of some such body as the Court of Verderers in the New Forest. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Brixton has read the New Forest Act, 1949. Perhaps he has not. The Court of Verderers functions extremely well, and something on those lines would be very useful for Dartmoor.

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman should not be so patronising.

Sir H. Studholme

If the hon. Member for Brixton has read it, he can say so.

Of course, the registering of commoners will take some time to complete, but it is an essential part of the scheme. There has been similar registration in the New Forest. I rejoice that we now see the prospect of getting grazing on Dartmoor properly regulated in the not too distant future.

Dartmoor consists of 140,000 acres. It is not overstocked. There is one ewe to every three or four acres and one cow to every thirty or forty acres. That is not over-stocking. But it is true that at certain times of the year some parts of the commons of Dartmoor tend to be overstocked because animals congregate there to get certain fodder and also because, unfortunately, there are many silly people who feed them by the roads and attract them from their feeding grounds, and, although they are fined for doing so if they are caught, this is a great pity and I hope that this practice will be discontinued.

It is very difficult to clear the moor of sheep in winter. Scotch sheep are bred for the hills. Dartmoor is not comparable to Scotland because if sheep are brought down from the high tops in Scotland they are brought down to the glens where their feed is much the same. If sheep are brought down from the moor to the lower land, their feed is different. In bad weather, the nature of the flock is to go to the hill where there is heather, gorse and rough moorland grass which the sheep can eat. To keep Scotch sheep in the valleys would do more harm than good because the herbage there is wrong and they will not stand improved pasturage because of their digestion. This is a big problem for the moorland farmers when they bring their sheep in for tupping. The veterinary evidence shows that sheep which move from the hill to richer pastures get all sorts of things wrong with them, inside.

I now turn to the subsidy. It has been suggested by people like like the hon. Member for Brixton that farmers do not care and that they let their sheep die because they can get a subsidy. But one does not let an animal worth £6 die in the problematical chance of getting a 6s. subsidy. This would be quite mad. This cruel winter has certainly caused hardship to animals on the moor; there is no doubt about that. It has caused hardship to animals all over the country. But if animals can get food they do not mind the cold. The airlift has certainly done a wonderful job. It has enabled many farmers to get fodder out to their animals which they would not otherwise have been able to do because of the snow drifts.

Accusations of cruelty have been made, but what prosecutions have there been? If there are accusations of cruelty, it is up to the R.S.P.C.A. to prosecute. Prosecution is a good thing if cruelty can be proved. No one can defend cruelty. It is easy to ascertain who are the owners of animals because the animals are earmarked.

The hon. Member for Brixton has made some very wild accusations and I very much wonder how much of the country outside London he has seen during the last snowy weeks. Has he tried, like some of us, to take fodder out to the cattle and sheep across the snow and ice in this wintry weather? Has he seen the moorland farmers himself and talked to both sides in this matter? If he had done so, perhaps he would not have spoken in the extravagant manner that he has.

This has been a cruel winter and I hope that when it is over it will be found that livestock have not really suffered unduly and that, in spite of the wild and sweeping accusations against Dartmoor farmers made by the hon. Member and other people not always best qualified to judge, the losses on the MOOT will turn out to be no greater in proportion to those on farms generally throughout the country.

9.49 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) has raised the question of livestock on Dartmoor, and I accept that he put forward the case in all sincerity. He is. however, almost completely wrong in most of what he has said, as are some of the so-called authorities that he has quoted. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme) has, on many points, refuted the case put forward by the hon. Member. I hope to prove conclusively to him and to the House that the measures which we have taken and are taking to look after the welfare of the stock on Dartmoor and elsewhere have been really worthwhile and that we and the farmers of Dartmoor care about their stock.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock, I cannot accept the sweeping accusations made by the hon. Member, from his slightest of personal knowledge of conditions down there, about what has gone on during the recent excessively bad weather. I hope that the hon. Member realises that this has been the worst winter weather on Dartmoor for many years. I am informed by the Meteorological Office experts that there has been snow on the ground for sixty days recently, which is the longest period for a very long time.

Whilst talking about the weather conditions, I should like to amplify a little what my hon. Friend has said in reply to the hon. Member's point about warning. The hon. Member's accusation was completely false. He said that ample warning was given to the farmers of Dartmoor. The forecast the day before the blizzard struck was that there would be light showers of snow, which do no harm whatever to stock on Dartmoor or other open moors. It was not until 6 p.m. on the night of the blizzard that the warning came that there would be a blizzard that night. It was at 6 p.m. in the winter, just after Christmas, when the nights are dark, that the warning came to the farmers of Dartmoor that they would be struck that very night by a blizzard. It is all very well for the hon. Member to wave his hand while he is sitting down, but he has made these accusations without proper knowledge. That is inexcusable.

The second thing that the hon. Member does not seem to realise concerns the condition and the type of stock on Dartmoor. The hon. Member has concentrated on the sheep population as suffering, according to him, the maximum hardship. Most of the sheep on Dartmoor are Scotch Black Face sheep. These sheep are accustomed to wintering on hills and high land. They do this in Scotland, on much higher land than we have down on Dartmoor, and they are used to the conditions which are met on Dartmoor and have, indeed, occurred during the recent bad weather.

I am informed that the normal practice on the hill land in Scotland is frequently to leave the sheep out and to lamb them there. They are perfectly able to stand this, no undue losses occur and they are perfectly healthy. My hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock has spoken about what happens if these hardy sheep are brought down from the moors and hills to the valleys or the in-bye land. The damage that this does to their constitutions and to the sheep themselves is considerable. The whole metabolism of the sheep is upset. As my hon. Friend has said, the digestive powers and resources of the animal are affected.

It is simply not good husbandry to bring hardy Highland sheep down from the hills into in-bye land, to send them back again two or three months later to lamb up on the moorland, and to expect them to remain hardy stock. This is a point which, I expect, the hon. Member, living in the cosy comfort of Brixton, does not understand. I do not expect him to understand it either, but I hope that he will read these words tomorrow.

The hon. Member for Brixton accused my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock of calling the meeting which was held here in the Palace of Westminster, and at which I had the pleasure of taking the chair, solely for the purpose of "whitewashing" the operation which had been carried out on Dartmoor. That simply was not the case.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman himself realises that the R.S.P.C.A. and the Horses and Ponies Protection Society were represented at that meeting. They had ample opportunity, of which they took advantage, to voice their feelings and opinions. This was a proper effort by my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock to go into what had happened with the other interested parties and to see how we could improve the arrangements.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman sneered at the last words of the Press notice about seeing what lessons might be learnt in case of a recurrence of this weather. One can always do better than one has done, and my right hon. Friend and the Department are continually improving on what they are doing—as, indeed, are the Conservative Government all along the line. Yes, I am speaking the truth, as the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. McCann), who is wriggling in his seat, will find.

At that meeting, we were not trying to whitewash anyone. We were trying to make certain that the arrangements for co-operation in any future operations of this nature were the best that could be made. We wanted to see that they would be smoother in future. When the hon. Member referred to emergency operations, I could not understand whether he was attacking us for spending too much money in looking after the welfare of these animals throughout these conditions or whether he was saying that we should make different arrangements.

Mr. Lipton

I was trying to express some surprise that after all this effort had been made and all this money had been spent, some of the farmers on Dartmoor seemed still so ungrateful, telling us to mind our own business.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

The people who were ungrateful were those who were referring to the R.S.P.C.A. and the damage which had been done to their stock by well-intentioned help. This frequently happens. Well-intentioned people can do more damage than good if they do not fully appreciate what they are doing. There are the two instances quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock. First, the stock brought down to villages and fed by hand, although it is an offence, which leads to a great deal of damage to the stock, and, secondly, the case of helicopter frightening sheep into a river.

Mr. Lipton

Then ban the R.S.P.C.A.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

The R.S.P.C.A., with the other bodies at that meeting, agreed that the farmers and commoners on Dartmoor have the welfare of their animals truly at heart.

I turn now to the emergency operation. I was in the South-West at my home in Cornwall, so I was on the spot. I was in constant communication by telephone with officials of the Ministry, and I join with my hon. Friend—and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join with us in doing so—in congratulating those officials and the members of the three Armed Forces who gave help to the farmers and commoners in getting fodder to the stock. They did a tremendous job in foul and beastly weather. The hon. Gentleman will understand how filthy and foul the weather can be there. These people did wonderful work over a very long and arduous period. I want to record our thanks to them for what they did.

Another point concerned the operation of the subsidy and the claim that there were too many sheep or too many animals on the moor. I dispute that statement altogether. There are approximately 140,000 acres of moor on which there are about 5,000 cattle, 2,000 ponies and 40,000 sheep. If a sheep is taken——

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

If I may quickly run through the figures again; 5,000 cattle, 2,000 ponies and 40,000 sheep run on the moor and, taking a sheep as a quarter of a cow unit—if one may use that expression—there are approximately 17,000 units on the moor, taking a cow or a pony as being equivalent to a unit. As there are 140,000 acres, in aggregate there is roughly one animal to every eight acres. That is an extremely good proportion and even the hon. Member for Brixton, with his lack of knowledge of these matters, cannot say on those figures that the moor is overstocked.

I am informed that there was not a farmer without fodder who had cattle and sheep on the moor during the period. There was adequate fodder to feed the animals and it was a question of getting it from the farmsteads to where the animals happened to be. I have explained why it is bad for the stock to come down off the moor, how it is injurious to their health, apart from the fact that drifting is much more severe off the moor and on in-bye land. The problem was simply and solely getting the fodder to the animals.

During the emergency services there were 199 sorties to farms on Dartmoor out of 616 in the whole of the South-West. Not a single request for help was refused during the emergency. The R.S.P.C.A. helped in dropping fodder to ponies and other stock. It was agreed at the meeting which the hon. Member mentioned that in future we should cooperate more closely—that is, that the R.S.P.C.A. would co-operate more closely with us in tying in its operations with our own larger-scale help to farm animals on Dartmoor.

The hon. Member referred to the 40 per cent. of the subsidy which should be used, he said, for the improvement of the pasture on Dartmoor. I do not know whether he realises that this is common land and that no farmer who put this part of his subsidy into improving the moorland could be sure by any means that he would get the benefit from it. The power is entirely discretionary, and it is not practical at the moment because of the multiplicity and the indeterminate number of commoners. What is needed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock said, is legislation and registration of commoners and those who have common rights. Although there is discretionary power in the legislation which the hon. Member for Brixton quoted, as with many of his other suggestions, it would be impracticable and not worth trying to operate in these conditions.

The crux of the matter is what we can now do and what my hon. Friend referred to when he talked of legislation and the needs of the future. However, before I come to that I want to reply to the attack by the hon. Member for Brixton concerning the conditions of the ponies on the moor. I am sure that he is aware that my right hon. Friend has no power to control their numbers and that, of course, no subsidy is payable to farmers in respect of ponies. It is also true that the R.S.P.C.A. has helped with the feeding. However, our experience is the experience of most who know that part of the world—that these types of ponies winter better than any other kind of stock. Fear has been expressed that many of them will be found in rather far-flung places after all this snow has covered up their normal feeding grounds. But ponies usually go back to the grounds where they were foaled and to their normal feeding grounds, and I would not think that there would be very great losses on that score.

I turn again to the important point raised by my hon. Friend about what we must do in future to try to regulate the commons. I said that we must accept—and, indeed, the Government do accept —the recommendations of the Royal Commission Report about registering the rights of commoners and common lands throughout England and Wales. We accept that we must do this on the lines of the recommendations, and we shall do it as soon as Parliamentary time permits. There has been a heavy programme of legislation to date, but I hope it will not be too long before Parliamentary time will permit us to do this. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be with us in our desire to get such legislation on the Statute Book.

Mr. Lipton

It will take time.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

It is a very complex matter, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, and it will require a great deal of understanding of the minute details. It would be a great mistake to make an error in completely recasting and reshaping our laws concerning common land, which forms a very important part of our heritage. But it will go a very long way towards removing the practical difficulty that, because of uncertainties over grazing rights and land, commoners find it impossible to co-operate among themselves and agree on rules to regulate the grazing or to stop "pirate graziers" putting out their stock.

We recognise the need to establish once and for all the nature, extent and ownership of common land and common rights over the whole country. We believe it can be done in far less time than the twelve years recommended by the Royal Commission. We expect to see the job through in about five years. Time unavoidably lost on the legislation swings should be largely, if not entirely, recovered on the registration roundabouts. In this connection, I will certainly take note of the suggestions made by my hon. Friend and would also suggest that in the meantime the commoners might usefully address their minds to the claims—the extent and nature of their rights—which they may wish to enter when the time comes.

I hope I have, perhaps not convinced, but shown the hon. Gentleman that many of his accusations and many of the authorities which he quoted were not right in their facts and their premises, and that the farmers of Dartmoor have risked life and limb over the past six or seven weeks in looking after their stock. They have had a very difficult and hard time, and I trust that the hon. Gentleman will not make it more difficult for them in the future. I think that they have done an extremely good job in looking after their stock. I am sure that it is their intention not to have any losses if they can possibly avoid it. As my hon. Friend said, what man, other than a fool, wants to throw money and capital away? That has not happened, and I am certain that in the future the farmers will do their utmost, as they have done in the past and as they have done this year, to look after their stock.

I think that the services which the Government have rendered them have been well employed, both on humanitarian grounds and on sheer good husbandry grounds, in helping them out. I am sure that the expenditure has been well worth while. Even if what I have said does not satisfy the hon. Gentleman, I hope that it will set his mind at rest that we, the commoners, and the farmers and graziers on Dartmoor are not complacent but that we entirely and utterly reject his accusations.

10.10 p.m.

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

We are grateful to the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) for initiating this debate, to the hon. Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme) for putting his side of the case, and to the Parliamentary Secretary for his contribution. However, after listening to the Parliamentary Secretary I still feel that many people in the West Country will be uneasy about what may happen if during the next five years, or even during any one of those five years, we get severe winters of the kind we have just experienced.

I think that he hon. Gentleman dismissed too lightly the question of overstocking the moor. I am not sure of the figures. The hon. Gentleman spoke about 140,000 acres of Dartmoor, but half that area is in military occupation, and I am not sure to what extent the military half of Dartmoor is stocked during the winter.

Sir H. Studholme

I believe that the military occupy about 25,000 acres, which, compared with the whole of Dartmoor, is a fairly small area.

Mr. Hayman

I am grateful to the hon. Member, but I was under the impression that the military occupied a larger proportion of the moor.

My information coincides with that of the hon. Member and the Parliamentary Secretary, that mountain sheep suffer physically if they are brought down to lowland grass. I think that the hon. Gentleman gave a figure of 14,000 sheep on Dartmoor. If mountain sheep suffer in that way, is it not all the more necessary to take care to see that these sheep, which cannot be fed in the valleys in the same way as mountain sheep in Scotland can be fed in the glens because the herb- age is similar, are provided for by ensuring that the moor is not overstocked? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will carry out an investigation into this aspect of the difficulty.

I do not subscribe to the widespread accusations made against farmers on Dartmoor, but I think that there is some substance in the widespread complaints in the correspondence columns of the Western Morning News in recent weeks. The hon. Member for Brixton quoted extensively from newspaper reports, and I think that there is something in those arguments which merits attention.

Like the other hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, I pay tribute to the men who manned the helicopters for the magnificent work they did. I also pay tribute to all those who assisted them. I think that we were all taken by surprise by this terrific series of blizzards. Even yesterday when I came up in the train I noticed that some of the heights of Dartmoor were still covered in snow and there were deep drifts along the hedges. I hope that there will be a thorough investigation into the problem of looking after sheep in severe winters.

I believe that at a meeting last Thursday the R.S.P.C.A. said that in its view cattle and ponies ought not to be out on the moor in winter. I accept what has been said, that ponies can probably weather the winter better than any other stock, but I still feel that there are far too many ponies on Dartmoor, and there will still be silly people who feed them, no matter how drastic may be the penalties. I hope that they will be made much more drastic, because it makes me furious to see people in their cars, with small children, feeding these animals, which could quite easily snap at them—quite apart from the danger to pedestrians and everybody else.

We are grateful to those who manned the helicopters. Some people were landed in the field just behind my house to go into an adjoining hospital. It was a magnificent service both ways. We are extremely grateful to all concerned.

It was a pity that the Dartmoor Preservation Association and one or two other similar bodies were not represented at last Thursday's meeting, especially as the Parliamentary Secretary was in the chair. If further meetings are held I hope that all bodies which are interested in the moor will have a chance to voice their views. Their absence last Thursday caused some anxiety.

The Parliamentary Secretary said that we shall probably have to wait five years for the promised legislation to be implemented. I am less concerned about that than I am about some measures being taken to see that, if we have another winter like this one, the animals on the moor will not be exposed to the hazards that they have experienced this winter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes past Ten o'clock.