HC Deb 10 November 1980 vol 992 cc155-66

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

9.49 pm
Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

I rise to speak on the subject of the avoidable destruction of wildlife. We all recognise that in the wild, many creatures prey upon one another. However, there is a pattern and balance in nature, which man has not always observed in his dealings with wildlife. With his vast powers of destruction man has too often been guilty of the most merciless exploitation, so that many species have become extinct or are in danger of becoming so.

I start from the principle that man should recognise the right to existence of wildlife and that in his dealings there should be respect and reverence for all creatures, great and small. As the hymn wisely observed The Lord God made them all. It follows, therefore, that, when animals and birds appear to damage human interests, that damage should be proved to the hilt. Too often, birds and animals are made easy scapegoats without full thought or consideration being given as to who is to blame. If it is proved to the hilt, farmers and others should, as far as possible, take deterrent measures and seek humane options to destruction. If that is not possible, destruction should be as humane and limited as possible.

I should like to deal with two aspects concerning the avoidable destruction of wildlife. I shall call the first aspect careless or reckless destruction, without deliberate intention. The second part is the deliberate but unnecessary destruction of wildlife by various means. I shall give two examples of what the first category involves. We have all seen distressing pictures of sea birds covered in oil. When that occurs they are usually unable to obtain food and, as a result, they gradually die of starvation. The lucky ones may be washed up on the beaches and rescued. However, for many thousands that oil will mean a lingering and unhappy death.

I am sure that nobody spills oil with the intention of causing birds suffering, but that is the end product. Of course I am aware of the initiatives that the Government have taken to prevent the accidental or deliberate spillage of oil and to provide for clearing it up should an accident occur. However, Governments never make funds available for cleaning sea birds. From my work with th Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—of whose council I am chairman—I know that it is a painstaking job which requires a great deal of expertise. It can take several hours to clean a bird. Furthermore, it is necessary to give the birds first aid treatment before they are ready to go through the washing process.

No detergent has been found that can remove some types of oil while leaving the bird undamaged. I was grateful to Shell for providing the RSPCA with a mobile bird unit for first aid treatment. Often, birds suffer as a result of having swallowed oil in an attempt to get it off their feathers. The unit is most helpful and useful. However, it remains a fact that welfare organisations with limited funds raised from private persons receive no Government aid. That is contrary to experience in the United States where I am told, such funds are made available.

The second type of destruction of birds that worries me is poisoning by lead left around from spent pellets or fishermen's weights. The problem particularly affects water fowl. A study listed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds showed that about half of a sample of mute swans died as a result of ingesting lead. The symptons are very distressing. The birds suffer from, among other things, anaemia, convulsions, paralysis of muscles, general lethargy, internal lesions and loss of weight, because they seem less able to take in food. Indeed, I gather that often the immediate cause of death is starvation induced by lead poisoning.

We ought to be doing research into means of overcoming such avoidable destruction of wildlife, either by the development of non-toxic pellets or by other means. I hope to hear my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary give me some hope and encouragement on that point. Thousands of birds are affected.

I turn to the deliberate destruction of wildlife, under which heading I put the use of unathorised poison on birds and mammals. I pay a great tribute to the booklet "Silent Death" produced by the RSPB of which I am a humble member. It is a scholarly investigation and I can hardly do justice to it in the short time at my disposal. Investigations between 1966 and 1978 showed that there were 338 confirmed instances of deliberate poisoning which could not be justified.

That is against a background of it being difficult to obtain evidence. Poisoning often takes place in remote parts of the countryside and one can safely say that the confirmed incidents represent only the tip of the iceberg and that instances of poisoning are probably very much greater than the figures suggest. The investigation involved 53 species of birds, some protected and some very rare, including birds of prey which we are desperately trying to conserve. Six species of mammals were also involved.

I was particularly horrified to discover that some of the animals and birds had been poisoned by the use of strychnine, that most diabolical of poisons, which leads to a painful and lingering death. Under the law, strychnine can be used only for the destruction of moles, but I gather that 14 lbs was purchased in 1978. One authority has observed that in his opinion that is far more than is needed for the destruction of any number of moles and it clearly indicates a misuse of the poison. I doubt greatly whether it is even necessary for the destruction of moles. There ought to be far greater efforts to trap them and not to use poison. They often die painfully underground where we cannot see them. Out of sight ought not to mean out of mind.

One wonders why there should be this use of poisons. The booklet "Silent Death" suggests that one reason may be the management of shooting estates, where gamekeepers and their helpers—mistakenly, I believe—seek to preserve their grouse or other stock by poisoning those that are thought to prey upon them. Another possible cause is the use of poisons by shepherds to protect lambs from birds.

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. Newton.]

Miss Fookes

The booklet "Silent Death", referring to birds attacking lambs, makes extraordinarily interesting reading: Crows are blamed for killing lambs and to a lesser extent attacking the eyes of helpless ewes. A study of hooded crow damage to hill sheep in Argyllshire showed that the damage to ewes was only slight in economic terms. Starvation, stillbirth and disease were the major causes of death among the lambs. Although 48 per cent. of the lambs found dead had been attacked by crows only 17 per cent. were alive at the time. In most instances the crows killed lambs that would have died anyway. The same situation probably applies to both crows and ravens in uplands elsewhere in Britain. That is a perfect example of what I said earlier, that birds and animals are often needlessly and wrongly blamed and action taken accordingly.

Indeed, the Royal Commission on environmental pollution very much supports the RSPB. It says: We strongly associate ourselves with the organisations concerned in regarding the practice"— the deliberate misuse of poisons— as reprehensible and we support the RSPB in its campaign to demonstrate that many bird species are not the vermin that they are held to be. I can only hope that my hon. Friend will take due note of those points and will give some words of comfort to me tonight.

Would that poisoning were the only worry. Alas, snaring continues and is still legal. It is highly indiscriminate, catching not only wildlife that was not intended to be caught but often domestic creatures as well. Again, it may cause an agonising and lingering death. Often, in its frantic attempts to free itself, the animal succeeds only in drawing the noose tighter. Some horrible pictures have been shown by the RSPCA of the small spaces into which animals have got themselves.

The use of crossbows is also uncontrolled. I remind the House that these were medieval weapons of war, and they are every bit as lethal now as they were when they were standard arms for medieval armies. With no control, they could fall into the hands of irresponsible people. Again, the RSPCA knows that many animals and birds have suffered from the use of crossbows.

The problem of badgers and bovine TB has exercised the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recently and is the subject of the exhaustive and recently published inquiry by Lord Zuckerman. I accept, sadly and reluctantly, that the connection between badgers and bovine TB has definitely been established, and I recognise of course that, where the badgers are suffering from bovine TB, they too will suffer for quite a long time if they are not put out of their misery. But whilst I realise that we must deal with this problem by control measures, there are several major reservations I want to make to that acceptance.

I remain very anxious about gassing as it is undertaken at present as a means of control on the ground that it is not humane. This is very largely because it is difficult to gas with proper quantities the very intricate underground passages which form the badgers' setts. I notice that Lord Zuckerman recommends that there should be improved techniques, possibly making use of the expertise of the Chemical Defence Establishment. I think that it it vital, if gassing is to continue, that this should be done. However, I deplore his recommendation that badgers in areas which are not infected but which are contigous to those which are should be sampled. That, of course, means that the badgers have to be killed. I do not see any justification for that in such areas.

I hope that we can look very seriously at the development of techniques for testing live badgers. This is possible with cattle, of course, but so far it has not been developed sufficiently with badgers. I hope also that the setts will be left alone and that people will not be brought in to destroy setts permanently. It is better that they be sealed for as long as necessary to end the infection, and that then they should be reopened so that badgers can recolonise them.

Above all, I hope that the Government will publicise the fact that infected badgers are a small minority of the badger population and occur only in specific geographical pockets. In general, badgers are still protected animals, and no one should be tempted to take the law into his own hands and kill badgers unlawfully. It is vital that people do not panic. I am thinking especially of farmers with cattle at risk.

I shall not deal with wildlife in other parts of the world save to make a passing mention. All of us who are concerned with the conservation of wildlife are very worried about what is often the wholesale and meaningless slaughter of such creatures as seals, dolphins and whales I hope that, whenever our Government are engaged in international activity, they will be very serious in the pressure that they put on other nations to try to improve the situation.

I realise that I am precluded by the rules of the House from directly advocating changes in legislation. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise the broad hints that I am dropping to him and that he will be able to give me words of encouragement indicating the concern that the Government feel about the conservation of wildlife and the humane treatment of wildlife when it is necessary to destroy it.

10.9 pm

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Hector Monro)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes) for affording the House the opportunity to discuss a problem that is of concern to all of us who have an interest in the countryside and who have its wildlife at heart, whether we be landowners, farmers, foresters, bird watchers, ardent conservationists or merely share a genuine concern that our wildlife should not unnecessarily be destroyed. I hope that by the end of my remarks I will have convinced my hon. Friend that the Department of the Environment has many of her views closely at heart and that, collectively, we shall do everything possible to play our part in the conservation of wild life.

We already have means for protecting wildlife. We probably have the best legislation in the world, although we intend to improve even that, if possible, in the not-too-distant future.

We have 167 national nature reserves in Great Britain that are owned or managed by the Nature Conservancy Council or are the subject of some agreement between the council and the owners. There are other reserves and areas in the custody of the voluntary bodies—the National Trusts, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the County Natural- ists Trusts, the Wildfowl Trust, and many others. There are local nature reserves, and bird sanctuaries.

There are areas of special scientific interest that have been notified by the Nature Conservancy Council to the local planning authorities because the land possesses some feature especially important for nature conservation. Additionally, the NCC is empowered to enter into agreements with owners of land that has been notified as an area of special scientific interest so that the land may continue to be managed in a way that is beneficial to the wildlife interest.

The House may have seen the letter in The Times today from Mr. Derek Barber, Sir Arthur Norman, Sir Peter Scott and Mr. Walter Lane, all dedicated and responsible conservationists. They draw attention to the continuing loss of wildlife habitats brought about by the growth of agriculture and forestry, and invite the Government to invest the Nature Conservancy Council, our advisers on wildlife matters, with power to safeguard the 3,000 or so—I believe the figure is nearly 4,000—sites of special scientific interest, and to provide the NCC with more resources to do this.

I can assure the House that the Government have been seized of the need presented by the loss of important sites for the past 18 months. We do not go all the way with the writers of the letters. Not all the sites notified to local authorities as of special scientific interest are likely to be subjected to a change in use which would threaten the wildlife interest.

The forthcoming Wildlife and Countryside Bill, which we plan to introduce as soon as parliamentary time permits, will contain measures aimed at protecting habitats and others that will have the effect of reducing avoidable destruction to wildlife. We shall be proposing that the Secretary of State shall desginate particularly sensitive areas that are important to wildlife and already notified as SSSIs where it will be a requirement for the landowner or occupier to give notice of some operations that are potentially damaging to the wildlife interest. The NCC must be informed before those operations are undertaken.

This will provide breathing space during which the council and the owner will have the opportunity to assess the impact on the wildlife that might be brought about by the proposed operation. Where appropriate, the council will open negotiations which it is hoped will result in an agreement, satisfactory both to landowners and the council and that will have the end product of maintaining the wildlife interest unimpaired. In my view, such mutually acceptable arrangements indicate the way forward.

We are, of course, conscious that extra resources may well be the inevitable consequence of the additional protection we want to afford to our sensitive sites.

I believe that that is a fair answer, at the earliest possible moment, to the letter in The Times. It reaffirms our determination to help.

Much of what I have said has been deployed in our consultative documents on the Bill, as my hon. Friend will be aware.

My hon. Friend mentioned the very sad effects of oil pollution. I know the important part played by the RSPCA and many enthusiasts, who will turn up at the drop of a hat to try to help to clean birds. We know the tragic plight of birds, which is inevitable after a major spillage. I have read Richard Mabey's book "The Common Ground", as perhaps my hon. Friend has. It shows how serious the whole issue is. I have taken on board my hon. Friend's point about the cost to the RSPCA and others.

Whilst I am thinking of consultative documents connected with the Bill—documents that were published earlier in the year—I am reminded of the question of crossbows that my hon. Friend raised. The matter will be taken care of in the legislation. I share my hon. Friend's view that the crossbow is an intolerable weapon to use against any living thing.

My hon. Friend rightly dwelt on "Silent Death". I am grateful to her for mentioning that publication by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for it enables me to express publicly my appreciation to the society for what is an extremely informative and thoroughly thought-provoking publication. I found it most interesting reading, as I know my hon. Friend and many others have.

The introduction says that the white-tailed eagle became extinct as a breeding species in about 1916, and has not returned naturally. By good fortune, I went to the Western Isles this autumn to see the white-tailed eagles that have been reintroduced from Norway. They are the most splendid birds that I have ever seen, and I am glad to say that the colonisation is going satisfactorily.

That is a side issue to the serious matter that my hon. Friend raised. "Silent Death" reveals a disturbing state of affairs and quite rightly points to one of the biggest threats facing some of our rarest birds, such as the golden eagle and red kites, namely, the deliberate misuse of agricultural chemicals such as strychnine, alphachloralose and mevinphos in poison baits. It is illegal for these pesticides to be used in the way that the report described—treating of a bait which the unsuspecting prey eats and then dies painfully. It is extremely difficult to detect all such offences, for they occur in remote areas of the countryside, and it may be many days, if ever, before the stricken bird is detected.

We must accept that the record of incidents compiled by the RSPB does not represent all the incidents that occur, but it represents a fair cross-section. These three pesticides account for over 90 per cent. of the detected incidents, mevinphos being detected in 45 per cent. of cases, alphachloralose in 30 per cent. and strychnine in 18 per cent. These three compounds are the most likely used, because they are acutely toxic and can be easily applied to a bait. All three are subject to the Poisons Acts 1972 and 1978. Therefore, their use is not only reprehensible but illegal.

The report suggests further controls on these substances, including—because greater quantities are misused illegally than are legally applied to crops in Great Britain—the withdrawal of mevinphos from the British market. My Department naturally is currently discussing with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and other Government Departments this suggestion, along with other recommendations, including those for legislative changes. I cannot, of course, pre-empt or predict the outturn of these continuing talks, but one matter that we considered for the Wildlife and Countryside Bill was an extension of the scope of search warrant powers, contained in the Protection of Birds Acts. This should help to give greater protection to those species, including our vulnerable birds of prey, which most require it. It will, we hope, enable the police authorities to enforce the law more easily.

I am personally appalled by the deliberate misuse of poisons to kill birds and mammals, and I hope that the wide publicity given to this practice by the report will bring home to those employing such methods that they are acting criminally and will go much of the way to stop them from using them.

The Times letter highlights sharply the present problem—that of reconciling wildlife and conservation with the need to face realities imposed upon modern agriculture by economic reality. We must try to prevent the unnecessary destruction of wildlife, whether it is plant or animal. That is why I read with interest the statement of intent that the National Farmers' Union and Country Landowners' Association produced three years ago called "Caring for the Countryside." The theme is clear. It is that the conservation of the landscape and wildlife depend largely on the action of individual farmers and landowners. The advice given is as correct now as it was then. It is: With care and foresight it is possible to increase production and the attractiveness of the farm as well as its ability to support native flora and fauna. Get advice. Think before you act. Conserving landscape and wildlife means taking care of what there is just as much as creating new scenery and new habitats If that advice were conscientiously followed, much of the destruction to our wildlife would be avoided. It is always open to the landowner or the farmer to seek advice from the local ADAS man or from the regional office of the NCC. We must also ensure that the basic necessity for any wildlife—the land itself—is not depleted by unnecessary development.

My hon. Friend mentioned a number of other important issues, and I shall try to deal with them in the time available. She spoke about lead shot. That comes from both fishing tackle and, in some wildfowling, from guns. I live in a wildfowling area and I find it reprehensible that many wildfowlers, perhaps inadvertently and perhaps from lack of judgment, shoot too many geese which are out of range.

This matter causes great anxiety to the society of which my hon. Friend is chairman. Indeed, the RSPCA drew attention in its report into shooting and angling, published in 1979, to the problem of discarded fishing tackle and the danger to mute swans caused by the ingestion of lead thought to be the consequence of picking up anglers spit shot and weights.

The advent of nylon line, which is practically indestructible, has resulted in many fatalities and injuries to wild animals caused by entanglement or even the swallowing of line left on the river banks. The various responsible angling bodies and the angling press have made laudable efforts to bring home to their members and readers how harmful such a practice can be and have enjoined their members and readers to act in a responsible manner. I hope that this discussion tonight will serve as a timely reminder to all those who fish on our rivers, reservoirs and lakes to exercise great care and to remove discarded tackle and litter, whether or not it is their own, when they have finished their day's fishing.

The death of mute swans on the River Avon at Stratford in 1978 and 1979 brought the subject of lead ingestion into sharp focus. Since then the NCC has been examining the problem through the medium of a working party composed of representatives of anglers, the veterinary service of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fishers and Food, water authorities and others interested in the problem. It is already clear that swans, particularly, are prone to ingesting lead shot, usually in mistake for grit, which is normally part of the diet, and that numbers of them suffer and die from lead poisoning as a result. It is also becoming clear that the scale of the problem is greater where aquatic plant life is scarce, normally in or near urban areas. I understand that the NCC hope to publish its report "Lead Poisoning in Swans" shortly and I look forward to its appearance.

My hon. Friend spoke feelingly and at great length about the problem of badgers. I share her concern—not about the tuberculosis issue but about the fact that badgers are being killed in other ways. I confess an affection for badgers. That is why I feel that it is a sad fact that the Badgers Act 1973 has not provided the protection for which many of us hoped. We all know that an unauthorised person may not kill a badger. In an area of special protection an unauthorised person may kill only to prevent serious damage, which must be obvious and easily proved. Yet we know that badgers are being killed without those qualifications being satisfied.

I think that the message was especially well brought out in the horrifying article in The Sunday Times yesterday about badger baiting and digging. It is an intolerable occupation, which must be stopped by every possible means.

The issue raised by my hon. Friend about badgers and tuberculosis is regrettable. I am afraid that the Zuckerman report is clear that we must accept the advice in the interests of agriculture so that cattle do not become infected through the movement of badgers. I hope that the steps that will be carried out by the Ministry will have their desired effects. In the long run it is probable that we shall see the continued stock of badgers throughout Britain that we all wish to see. It is tragic that they are carriers of tuberculosis. In the coming months we shall watch carefully over what must be done relative to the Zuckerman report.

I hope that what I have been able to say tonight shows that the Department of the Environment, in close co-operation with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, has a real understanding and feeling both for wildlife and the countryside. Over the months ahead we shall deploy—if parliamentary time permits—the arguments that we feel are important when discussing a Bill on wildlife and the countryside. We intend that Britain will be even safer for wildlife and wild plants and that everyone will be proud of the fact that Britain feels genuinely and sincerely about wildlife. We want to see Britain in the forefront, where it is at present. There is no question of our being complacent. We believe that we must keep the lead in the world in that respect.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.