HC Deb 11 July 1975 vol 895 cc949-61

Lords Amendment: No. 30, page 7, line 34, after "the" insert "Conservation of"

Mr. Hardy

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It will be convenient to take at the same time Lords Amendment No. 31, page 7, line 35, leave out "Protection".

Mr. Hardy

I entirely agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Both amendments make what appear to be minor changes in the Bill in the sense of achieving the change of Title of which many of us strongly approved. When we first began to put together the two separate Bills which were before their Lordships, it was decided, probably in the rather hurried days which followed my good fortune, if that is the right term, of drawing first place in the Private Members' Ballot, of putting these Bills together, it seemed that the word "protection" would be better than "conservation". Almost as soon as that was done, however, all those associated with the Bill began to regret the choice, feeling that we would have been wiser to have used "conservation" rather than "protection". Conservation is the major purpose of the Bill and perhaps it would be better to leave protection to other kinds of consideration and possibly to other attitudes towards the animal and vegetable kindgdom.

1.0 p.m.

The Bill seeks to make sure that the species survive and that an adequate range of variety is maintained within our natural heritage. That means that "conservation" is the watchword of the Bill. There are other enactments which use "protection" when "conservation" might be a better definition, but in more recent years—I think of the Conservation of Seals Act 1970—"conservation" has been properly used.

Lord Cranbrook acted as sponsor of the Bill in the other place, and I am extremely grateful to him for his insistence and determination which led to the change in Title being regarded as possible, just as I am grateful to all who have been involved in the consideration of the Bill for seizing the point and allowing the amendment to be made.

The Bill received a great deal of publicity as the Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Protection Bill. I have no complaint about that, but I hope that all concerned in local government and education, and especially those who are interested and active in nature conservation, will have noted the change. In that respect the change is significant, although it does not mean that any of the provisions in or intentions of the Bill have been sacrificed.

The major purpose of Lords Amendment No. 31 is to ensure that the Title of the Bill is changed and that all the alterations required in the Bill to permit that change are carried through. I hope the House will accept that this is a valuable step and that we might as well make sure that we use the most appropriate title.

Mr. Mather

I do not know whether this would be an appropriate moment to say to the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) that he has done a very good job on this Bill. I have been with him through all its stages. I have conservation, or protection—whatever one calls it—very much at heart, and the hon. Gentleman has been extremely skilful in bringing together into the Bill all the creatures and plants that need to be protected. The Bill is the successor to a series of Bills which have dealt with wild birds, badgers and other creatures, and it is probably the last Bill which will be needed. It is the end of a series.

The great advantage of the Bill is that it gives the Secretary of State power to add to or subtract from the list of creatures which are protected. I think I am in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in speaking of the Bill in general terms as the words "conservation and protection" encompass the whole Bill. The Bill can he said to be very flexible and, therefore, it should provide the powers which are necessary for the Secretary of State to add to or subtract from the list of creatures and plants protected. We are indebted to the other place for the amendment which we have already discussed, which gives this added flexibility, as indeed we are indebted to the other place for the major amendment which deals with the buying, selling and providing of dead creatures in skeleton or skin form.

When the Bill becomes law I hope that publicity will be given to it and that the date will be made known to members of the public. I hope, too, that there will be freely available pictures or diagrams of the creatures and plants which are to be protected. I have seen a good coloured posted produced by the Nature Conservancy Council, but it does not include all the creatures and plants which are specified in the Bill. One of the orchids is omitted. Now that the Ghost Orchid is to be added, we shall need to have a poster which clearly demonstrates all the plants and creatures which we are seeking to protect.

That the flexibility that the Bill provides is necessary is demonstrated by the fact that within a period of two months some creatures have already been withdrawn from the list and others have been added. The flexibility will make it possible for the Secretary of State to make changes when the need arises.

I have been involved in a great deal of legislation dealing with wild creatures, natural history and so on. My introduction to the subject was when we passed the Wild Creatures and Forest Law Act 1971. That Act deals with animals which previously came under forest law. We had a series of interesting debates on the Bill in 1971. I do not know whether guard dogs—which we are to consider later—come within the same category. A measure of protection is involved, but it is protection for people rather than dogs.

Most of my hon. Friends who serve on the Committee which is considering the Hare Coursing Bill are concerned with conservation. That may seem strange to some hon. Members, but we believe that if hare coursing is abolished there will be a rapid decline in the hare population. Hares are tolerated at present in some areas because coursing and coursing clubs exist in areas where the hare population is quite high. I think you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am just in order on this point, as we are talking about protection and conservation as a whole.

We are concerned that if the Hare Coursing Bill becomes law it will result in a rapid decline in the hare population because farmers will not be prepared to allow an excessive number of hares on their farming areas and the animals will almost certainly be shot.

It is interesting to recall the last occasion when legislation of this type came before the House. In 1880 the Ground Game Act became law, and that gave a right to tenant farmers to take ground game—rabbits and hares—on land which they rented. Previously, those animals had been reserved for the landowner. This legislation came about because of a very bad harvest in 1879. The Ground Game Bill was introduced so that farmers could have protection against the depredations of rabbits and hares, and the Act became known as the "Rabbits and Hares Act". It was the subject of the General Election of 1880, when Mr. Gladstone swept the country. I am sorry that there are no Liberals present today. The Liberals might have been interested in this subject and wished to intervene. It is an interesting story, and it is apposite to the Bill we are discussing.

As a result of the ground game legislation, farmers had the right to shoot rabbits and hares on their land. That led to a rapid decrease in the hare population. Twelve years later, the Hare Preservation Act 1892 was introduced. That was the first animal protection Act.

Mr. Hardy

I am grateful for the complimentary remarks which the hon. Gentleman made at the beginning of his speech.

The point made by the hon. Gentleman is important. He emphasised how seriously the House of Commons and the other place take the question of conserving our national heritage. The measure to which the hon Gentleman referred, although significant at the time of its introduction, covered little ground. It provided that hares might be shot but should not be displayed for sale during certain periods of the year. We have moved a long way since then.

Mr. Mather

At a time when the proceedings on this Bill draw to a close, it is appropriate that we should look at this subject in a slightly wider manner. I do not entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said. The Ground Game Act 1880 came into effect as a result of the bad harvests of the two preceding years. That Act resulted in a massive slaughter of hares. Some years afterwards, it was thought necessary to introduce the Hares Preservation Act. That Act bears a title similar to the legislation proposed by the hon. Gentleman before it went to the other place. After that, further legislation was passed to provide a close season for these animals. Previously, there had not been a close season.

The Opposition are worried that if the Hare Coursing Bill becomes law, it will result in the rapid decline of the hare population. It may subsequently be found necessary to introduce hare conservation legislation. We may find that a new schedule must be added to the Bill to protect the lepus Europaeus and the lepus timidus, the blue Scottish hare. The lepus Europaeus is the brown hare. Before passing such legislation, we must consider the effects it will have.

If you think that I am in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to say more about these matters. I should like to go into the natural history of the hare, as we may have to introduce legislation to protect it sooner than we expect. Perhaps we can devote a few minutes to this matter so that we can be prepared for the legislation when the time comes.

Mr. Denis Howell

Which hare is the hon. Member chasing next?

1.15 p.m.

Mr. Mather

I have become so involved in the question of the preservation of the hare that it may be appropriate for me to say one or two words about it.

This fascinating creature does not make burrows. It has its home above ground in forms, which are fairly shallow excavations in the ground. In winter the forms are found to be about 6 ins. deep, while in summer they are about 1½ ins. deep, for obvious reasons. The leverets are born fully furred and with their eyes open. That is not the case with the rabbit. The rabbit is born with its eyes closed. It is a pink animal without fur. The young leveret is able to run from the moment it is dropped by the doe. The does place their young, which have to live above ground, in widely separated forms.

Mr. Hardy

Hon. Members may find it difficult to relate the subject of the hare to the amendment to the title of the Bill. I thought that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were on the point of failing to grasp that relationship.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member should never be misled by my movements in the Chair. They are made only for my greater ease and do not indicate that I am about to interrupt.

Mr. Hardy

I apologise for my misunderstanding.

I think that the hon. Gentleman will be making the point that if the hare population diminishes as a result of this Bill—I do not subscribe to that view—at least we should be able to include, if the nature conservancy body thought fit, the European hare and the mountain hare or the blue hare, which are not referred to, but which are much more interesting than the common or garden hare, which I frequently watch. We should be able to include in the Bill both species of either sex living in any area, in which case the Bill would have a valuable effect on the hare population of the British Isles.

Mr. Mather

I mentioned the blue hare, or mountain hare, lepus timidus, lepus Scoticus.

As I was saying, the doe moves the leverets to widely separated areas for their own protection by carrying them in her mouth by the scruff of the neck, as a cat carries a kitten. I thought that the House would be interested in that. However, I am referring to a separate Bill, which arouses strong emotions. We believe that it will bring about more cruelty and that the hare population will be decimated by shooting.

The hon. Member for Rother Valley is right to agree to the word "conservation" as opposed to "protection". Conservation is something with which we on this side of the House are in accord. We call ourselves Conservatives. Inherent in in that word is the ability to grow and prosper. The word also engenders a sense of well-being.

We are aware that we are taking part in the battle to save our environment. We have only to look at continental countries to see how Nature has been despoiled and the land turned into a near wild life desert. If man cannot learn to live in harmony with Nature man will be impoverished and ultimately doomed.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

I apologise to the House for not being able to be present earlier today, although I did take part in some of the discussions in the earlier stages of this Bill. I should declare an interest in that I am a former member of the Nature Conservancy and am much concerned with the proposal we are discussing.

The proposal to insert the word "conservation" in place of the word "protection" is of importance from a wider point of view. There is a great deal of public misunderstanding about what we are after. There are many people who find it strange that those of us concerned with conservancy and the development of wild life and plants should at the same time talk about the necessity of culls from time to time. We have a particular problem in the North-East with the seal culls. It is thought by many people, undestandably, that those of us who are involved with the whole question of the interaction of our life with wild life should not accept the necessity for such culls. It has been proved scientifically that these are essential for the preservation of the seal.

There has to be an understanding and appreciation of the need to maintain the relationship between one kind of life and another, which is the basic concept of conservation. It is a concept which we must further. It does not mean that we should altogether reject the idea of culling or, indeed, the struggle that goes on naturally between one species and another. There is an inevitable process of natural selection.

There is a difference between the word "protection", which is more generally used, and "conservation", which has quite properly been inserted in another place. It is important to get across to the general public an understanding of the objective of the Bill. Our objective is conservation and the balance between one kind of life and another rather than protection in the narrow sense.

Mr. Denis Howell

I am glad that the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) took this opportunity to express himself favourably towards the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy). I find myself astonished by the hon. Gentleman's attempts on this Bill, dealing with the protection of rare animals and plants, to bring in the bestial practice of hare coursing and seek to associate that with the desire of most civilised people to protect rare species.

Mr. Mather


Mr. Howell

If the hon. Gentleman is getting agitated already I do not know what he will say when I come to my next remarks.

Mr. Mather

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that I was trying to help the House in a difficulty which it was approaching. I had not originally intended to introduce that somewhat extraneous matter. I was trying to make the point that the Hare Coursing Bill was based on ignorance, prejudice and emotion and that the end result might be a drop in the hare population by means which not all of us would accept.

Mr. Howell

I am grateful for those further and better particulars. Since the hon. Gentleman related his views to this Bill, it is right that one or two Labour Members should express strong disagreement with his sentiments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I was very generous to the hon. Member for Esher (Mr. Mather) and I shall be nearly as generous to the Minister. I hope that we are not about to argue over the Hare Coursing Bill. Having made his riposte and the hare having been sighted, I hope that the Minister will feel that we can get on with the amendments.

Mr. Howell

I shall do my best to be a little more speedy than I would have been a moment or two ago. I was about to say that your movements in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were perfectly well understood by me because no doubt they were due to the same great unease and sense of indignation which I felt as we listened to the hon. Gentleman unfold his tortuous logic. Most of us would find it extremely difficult to understand how it can be suggested that the abolition of hare coursing in any way endangers that species of animal. It is an extraordinary piece of logic.

The House may be interested in a personal comment. This week I had the good fortune to entertain to dinner in this House an old friend of mine, Mr. Peter Wilson, probably the country's most distinguished sports journalist, and his wife. Mr. Wilson took the opportunity to ask me "What is happening to the Hare Coursing Bill?"

1.30 p.m.

I was rather surprised that he, being a sports journalist, was interested in it. I told him that during the passage of the Bill a Conservative Member raised the question that I, as the Minister for Sport, was not present. I was grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. Price) for standing up and explaining to the House that the reason I was not present was that I did not believe that hare coursing was a sport and, therefore, had no responsibility or association with it. Mr. Wilson was very interested in this and told me that many years ago he wrote one of his most trenchant articles in the Daily Mirror on the subject.

As Mr. Bate, the sports editor of the Daily Mirror, was also present at the dinner, I urged him to reprint the article. Mr. Wilson told me that he had actually been to a hare coursing meeting before writing his article and he explained the intense feeling of disgust he felt when two dogs got hold of one hare. He said that there was no quick kill or anything of the sort, that it was a most bestial and cruel business, and that he can remember the screams to this day.

Mr. Mather

We have found that when these stories of hares being torn to pieces have been examined and the evidence has been made available they have in almost every case been found to be groundless. If the hon. Gentleman would give me the details of this particular case I will certainly ensure that it is investigated and produce the true facts. However, I have no wish to spoil the Bill of the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), so perhaps we might slide of this particular subject.

Mr. Howell

I can understand the hon. Gentleman wanting to slide off this subject, although I have not quite reached the bottom of the slide.

I have made it clear that the incident to which I was referring occurred some years ago when Mr. Wilson was just about to enter the illustrious profession of journalism. I cannot believe that it is now possible to train greyhounds to behave differently towards hares than it was in the days which Mr. Wilson was so eloquently describing to me. I certainly cannot believe that there is any relationship, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, between the present practice of those who engage in hare coursing of breeding hares to be chased, killed and preserving hares exclusively for that purpose, and the shooting of hares in the normal course of the control of the hare population.

Mr. Mather

The hon. Gentleman must be sure of his facts. It is absolutely untrue that hares are bred specially for coursing purposes. They are there entirely in the natural state. Hares are bred for coursing purposes in Ireland for enclosed coursing, but this does not happen in this country.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. When the Minister has answered the intervention of the hon. Gentleman, I hope that honour will be satisfied and that we can proceed with the Bill.

Mr. Howell

I hope so too, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I know that this specifically happens in Ireland and that the practice may be different here. Nevertheless, the truth of the matter is that hares have to he captured. They have to be maintained—

Mr. Mather

That is entirely untrue The hon. Gentleman must get his facts right.

Mr. Howell

The hon. Gentleman is getting extremely agitated. It is certainly true, is it not, that the hares have to be available at the moment coursing matches take place? I have never heard of a coursing match without a hare.

Mr. Mather

The hon. Gentleman really must understand what his own Government's Bill does and the facts about this. Hares are not captured. It is stories of this kind that are being put round the country that have got hare coursing its bad name. Hares are on the ground in their natural state. It is in the Republic of Ireland and some parts of Northern Ireland that they are captured. There they have an entirely different type of coursing called park or enclosed coursing. In this country, according to the National Coursing Club's rules, the hares are entirely in their natural state and are moved on to coursing grounds by the beaters, who move them from the area where they are naturally lying.

Mr. Howell

I regard that as almost the same thing. I cannot understand why the hon. Gentleman is quibbing. Before a hare coursing match can take place, with dogs trying to capture and kill a hare, the hare has to be released. It cannot be released until it is under some degree of control.

Mr. Mather

It is driven.

Mr. Howell

Of course it is driven, but one has to know it is there before one can start driving it. It has to be, in that sense, protected, controlled and gathered up. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman quibbles with the word "captured". That is exactly what it means. I should have thought that was obvious.

I have made the points I wanted to make. I find it astonishing to say the least that the hon. Gentleman thinks that there is any affinity of interest at all between the opponents of the Hare Coursing Bill and the noble purposes of my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley in relation to the Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Protection Bill.

I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be pleased if I now move to my concluding remarks. To tell the truth I shall be also. This is the last chance that I shall have to speak on the Bill because the next two amendments are, I hope, acceptable to all hon. Members.

I should not like the opportunity to pass without paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley and to the officials in the Department of the Environment, who have had the most co-operative association with my hon. Friend in the preparation and passage of the Bill. My hon. Friend has piloted us through the amendments this morning, as he normally does, extremely efficiently and eloquently. I should like to con- gratulate him on what I am sure he can regard as a most satisfactory period of his parliamentary life. He has achieved something that very few hon. Members have the opportunity of achieving. He has put on the statute book a Bill that will receive wide acclaim and will be of great benefit to this nation for many years to come.

It is also obvious from the number of amendments before us that there has been a lot of activity in another place. On behalf of the Government I am glad to acknowledge the contribution that has been made there by many distinguished Lords who have a great expertise in wild life matters and who have been of considerable help. It has been a great pleasure for us to accept all their many amendments today and to acknowledge the improvement in the Bill as a result. Equally we must appreciate the assistance given by the Nature Conservancy Council, which is the Government's statutory adviser on all these matters. That council has given great support and encouragement to my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley and to the Government to support the Bill.

I turn to publicity. I am told that the sponsors will be stepping up their publicity in the field, which is of extreme importance. I am pleased to tell the House that I am planning a few modest measures to support what the sponsors are doing, and I am picking up and endorsing some of the helpful suggestions made by the hon. Member for Esher.

A departmental circular will be sent to all local authorities, including parish and community councils, and I hope that that will enable them to carry out their responsibilities and help educate the public in this area. The circular will explain the objectives of the Bill and draw attention to the powers of local authorities.

I also agree with what the hon. Member for Esher said about coloured posters. It is extremely important that we attract the attention and imagination of school children. Therefore, I am hoping to send copies of coloured posters depicting the protected creatures and plants to our secondary schools. That is probably the most positive thing we can do as a Government. It will enable teachers to draw the school population's attention to the will of Parliament and to the very scarce creatures and plants that we have a duty to protect if we are to maintain our national heritage.

I very much hope that the coloured poster campaign meets with the welcome it deserves. If any educationists or nature conservators have any other ideas as to how they think that the Government can help, within the confines of our great difficulties over economic matters and the availability of finance, we shall be very happy to consider such suggestions.

I thank hon. Members for their attention today, which has been very assiduous and welcome. I am happy that it is now possible for the Bill to become law and to give much needed protection to wild plants and our rarer wild creatures before the end of the current holiday season. The Government are grateful, as I am sure will be the public at large, for the co-operative endeavours of the House, which far too often go unnoticed but in this case are to be very much welcomed.

Question put and agreed to.

Forward to