HC Deb 10 February 1965 vol 706 cc379-82

3.32 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the hunting with hounds of deer and the killing or capturing of deer with snares; to provide for the control of deer by approved methods; and for purposes connected therewith. Widespread and growing public opinion is coming to the conclusion that stag hunting with hounds is an abomination. It is not without significance that during the last 60 years the number of deer hunting packs has fallen from 19 to five at the present time. If my Bill were brought in and passed then the last five remaining packs would have to pack up. More modern methods of deer control are now being operated. In this respect, the Government are setting a very good example, and have done so for some years past. During the last three years, for instance, on estates owned by the Forestry Commission, about 21,000 deer were shot. In these circumstances I refuse to believe that the remaining five packs of staghounds make a worth-while contribution to the problem of deer control.

I said a moment ago that public opinion, in growing measure, was opposed to stag hunting. A recent opinion poll, conducted under independent auspices at the request of the League Against Cruel Sports, showed that 77 per cent. of the population were opposed to stag hunting. I am happy to say that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is prepared to support the Bill I am now seeking leave to bring in. According to a recent Press report, the joint master of the Devon and Somerset Hounds has said that deer have to be controlled. There I agree with him, but when he goes on to say hunting is the most humane way of doing it I most emphatically disagree. If hunting is the most humane way of doing it, why do not these staghunt masters conduct a raging propaganda campaign against the Forestry Commission in this connection?

It is true that the Deer Act, 1963, contains some useful features, but there are still too many loopholes. It is still legal to chase a deer for hours till it collapses through sheer exhaustion, or is driven into the sea to drown. It is still legal to drag the cornered deer into the open and slaughter it even in the middle of the street, with young children standing around. It is still legal to observe the bestial ritual of cutting out the deer's heart, liver and kidneys and to give the pieces to the nearest stander-by, to hack off the hooves and to present them to the hunters as charming souvenirs of what stag hunters would no doubt describe as "a bloody good day".

It is still part of the rules of this filthy game to "blood" newcomers, smearing the blood of the dead animal on the cheeks of young children. England is now one of the few countries in Europe yet to tolerate stag hunting in its present form.

I have had some letters of encouragement too numerous to acknowledge and from farmers and other residents in areas where staghunts still function. Most of the writers ask that their names should not be published for fear of reprisals and victimisation. Let me quote from one of these letters which I received only this morning. It is from a vicarage in Somerset. The vicar writes as follows: May I, from the heart of the hunt country, say how fervently my wife and I wish good success to the Bill you are about to present? I am not able to press my views as militantly as I long to do. Even so, I am certain that the vast majority of the people regard this so-called sport with utter loathing. Indeed, although this particular parish is almost given over to hunting I have been told that if a secret vote were taken in a parish not far from here 90 per cent. of the people would be found to be against it. That is only one of many letters I have received.

In my submission, the time has come to end stag hunting once and for all. This country prides itself on its reputation for sportsmanship and fair play, and yet this reputation can continue to be besmirched by this barbarous survival. I ask the House to accept the Motion.

3.37 p.m.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

I rise to oppose the Motion—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Shame."] If the same freedom which the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) wishes to accord to the stag is accorded to those who differ from his point of view, no doubt I shall be able to make known my reasons for opposing the Motion.

In the first place, I do not hunt, and I never have; nor, I suspect, does the hon. Member. In the second place, I share with him the wish that the most humane methods shall at all times be used and that cruelty should be minimised. Unlike him, having no personal knowledge of this hunting, I must turn to the most objective and most well-informed and the most experienced information which one can find, and that, I would suggest, is from the Royal Commission which reported to the then Labour Government in 1949, the Royal Commission under the chairmanship of Mr. Scott Henderson.

It may be thought that, because of his discoveries in another connection, some doubt may be cast upon his views, [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] All I can say is that if that was the view of hon. Members opposite it was not shared by Lord Chuter-Ede, the Home Secretary of the day. But I am not here to paper over the cracks in the party opposite.

I think that it is generally agreed that the number of stags—and I think that the hon. Member conceded it—has to be kept down, because if they proliferate damage is done to crops, particularly root crops and corn. Also, considerable damage is done to trees, especially young trees, by stags which rub off on them the fur, the velvet, of their antlers.

The Scott Henderson Report concluded that the range of a rifle was anything up to 3,000 yards, and that at that range there was a great danger that even if a shot were to succeed in hitting the stag it would wound and not kill, and that the only guarantee of painlessly killing stags with a rifle shot was to get within a range of 15 to 20 yards. Anybody who knows the speed with which stags can move, the woodland conditions in which they are found, and, speaking about Exmoor, the misty conditions which obtain, realises that it is virtually impossible to achieve that with any measure of certainty.

If any more humane method than hunting could be found, I would support it without any shadow of doubt at all. Snaring is a far more cruel method of destruction—and this is now illegal under the 1963 Act—but the alternative method, that of shooting, carries with it a far greater risk of inflicting calculated cruelty and injury to an animal which is maimed and not killed. This, I believe, is something which nobody in this House would wish to see as an effect of the Bill.

I merely refer to two short quotations from the Scott Henderson Report. Paragraph 207 says: We have made careful inquiries about some deer drives and are satisfied that there has been much indiscriminate shooting by those taking part in them. The evidence we have had makes us question the belief of some of the animal welfare organisations that deer are likely to be controlled without undue suffering if they are driven and shot. Our view is that the shooting of deer with shotguns must inevitably be accompanied by a great deal of suffering. In paragraph 230 the conclusion is drawn that although hunting does involve an element of suffering, it is the least cruel way of keeping the numbers down.

It may be that hon. Members who, like myself, have no practical experience of hunting would prefer to remain seated upon their prejudices. Speaking for myself, I would prefer to rely on the Report to which I have just referred. I believe that the effect of the Bill would not only not reduce cruelty to stags, but would go a long way towards increasing it.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (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 Mr. Marcus Lipton, Mr. Boston, Mr. Craddock, Mr. Dodds, Mr. Foot, Mr. Monslow, Mr. Newens, Mrs. Short, Mr. Solomons, Mr. Spriggs, Dr. Summer-skill, and Mr. Victor Yates.