HC Deb 16 January 1985 vol 71 cc450-66 11.57 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Chris Patten)

I beg to move, That the draft Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 22nd November, be approved.

This order, like the other which the House is to debate this evening, has benefited from the Assembly's scrutiny. A number of changes for the better have been included in it as a result.

I am particularly pleased to bring forward this proposal, as it represents the first comprehensive wildlife law for Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland's geographical separation from the rest of Europe has obviously been a constraint on the variety of its wildlife. It is therefore essential to protect what we have. The provisions will protect many species of wildlife. These correspond to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which brought the law in Great Britain into line with four international agreements entered into by the Government of the United Kingdom—the EEC directive on the conservation of wild birds, the Berne convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats, the Ramsar convention, which is concerned with the establishment and protection of internationally important wetlands, and the Bonn convention on the conservation of migratory species of wild animals. Part I of the Wildlife and Countryside Act and the Deer Acts 1963 to 1980 are the main sources of the draft order.

The order is in four parts. The first is procedural and deals with the title and commencement of the order. Part II relates to the protection of birds and other wild creatures and plants. The provisions relating to wild birds cover articles 4 to 9. The EEC directive contains the basic premise that all birds, their nests and eggs shall be fully protected and that requirement is achieved in article 4. Control of bird species is obviously essential, for example, in relation to pest birds which can be damaging to activities such as agriculture, and the birds which have traditionally been used for sport or food or both. The necessary exceptions can be found in article 5, although inhumane methods of killing and taking of such wild birds are banned by virtue of article 6, which restates the existing law on wild birds' protection in relation to the prohibition of traps, snares, hooks and nets and includes several new methods proscribed under the EEC directive. An additional provision has been added since the proposal was published for consultation, making it an offence for a landowner to permit or allow the use of these prohibited methods on his land. That provision is repeated later in the order in connection with wild animals.

Article 7 deals with the sale of live or dead wild birds. The sale of any live wild bird is prohibited entirely and only one species of dead wild bird may be sold—the wood pigeon. Regulations will be made, however, to permit certain individuals—taxidermists in the main—to trade in dead species. There is a later similar article on animals.

Under article 9 it will be an offence for any person to be involved in any event where captive birds are freed to be shot or hunted by trained birds of prey immediately after their liberation. That offence is a substantive change made since the proposal was published. The practice is apparently growing in some European countries and this provision, which is not included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, is designed to prevent its spread to Northern Ireland.

Provisions on the protection of other animals begin with article 10. Creatures such as the badger, pine marten, otter, red squirrel and certain butterflies are protected for the first time. A full list of protected creatures is contained in schedule 5. There must, of course, be exceptions—allowed for in article 11 — to safeguard domestic livestock, crops and other forms of property. In article 10 there is a further change from the published order. The protection afforded to structures or places used by wild animals for shelter has been extended to cover also anything that conceals or protects them. That change was made in the light of the difficulty experienced by the Nature Conservancy Council in interpreting the corresponding provision in the 1981 Act.

Article 12 prohibits the use of inhumane methods of killing and taking wild animals, and the ban on the use of self-locking snares has been reinforced by a new provision prohibiting their sale.

The special protection of plants is contained in article 14. In view of the possible difficulties in enforcing these particular provisions, it is my firm intention that there should be the widest publicity to impress on the public the importance of leaving the countryside as they find it. the provision is not entirely restrictive. The picking of wild flowers, apart from those in the specially protected category, is still permitted, but for obvious reasons it is an offence to uproot or destroy any wild plant.

Article 15 deals with the introduction of new species. There are two main reasons why introductions require strict control. First, foreign species may thrive and spread rapidly because of the lack of competition. Like the grey squirrel and the mink, they may then cause damage to trees, livestock or other forms of property. I think that that has been a problem in parts of County Tyrone. Secondly, they may cause the number of our native species to decline by competing for their food and space. The presence of American mink in Northern Ireland is an expensive reminder of how an introduction can be harmful both to property and to wildlife. The penalties for an offence under this article are high and reflect the need for tight controls on non-native species of plants and animals.

Article 16 deals with the establishment of wildlife refuges under which, for example, bird sanctuaries may be designated by order. The provisions of this article will not override the existing statutory rights of landowners as designations will only be through agreement.

The licensing provisions of the order are contained in article 18. There is a substantial list of activities that may be carried on that are otherwise in contravention of the provisions of the order, provided they are done under and in accordance with a licence issued by the Department of the Environment. It is intended that the administrative costs of issuing licences will be partially offset by a suitable charging system.

In this article there is a further change from the published order in that a licence relating to the killing of a species will require to specify the particular species which may be killed and the person authorised to do so. This tighter control is felt to be justified in such circumstances.

Part III of the order covering articles 19 to 23 relates to deer. During the late 1970s, several unsuccessful Deer Bills were introduced by various private Members at Westminster, each including the protection of deer in Northern Ireland. The final version. the Deer Act 1980, turned out to be a truncated version of earlier Bills and did not, unfortunately, embrace Northern Ireland. An undertaking was then given by one of my predecessors that the protection of deer would be included in any subsequent wildlife measure in the Province.

Until now, Northern Ireland has had the unenviable distinction of being the only country in western Europe not to have national laws for the protection of deer. The present proposals closely follow those contained in the Deer Acts 1963 to 1980 and cover items such as close seasons, nightly shooting times, prohibited weapons, poaching and the purchase and sales of venison.

Certain exceptions have been provided which will allow for the veterinary treatment of deer and the killing of deer out of season by an authorised person on certain agricultural land and garden grounds. The exceptions provided for deer farmers and for the purpose of protecting any person threatened by a deer have been limited in the former case to specified acts, and in the latter to circumstances where there is an immediate threat and by the application of a standard of reasonableness to the act carried out. This, again, is a change introduced following the consultation process.

Part IV of the order contains the miscellaneous provisions and deals with standard items such as enforcement, summary prosecutions, penalties and forfeitures and regulations, orders and notices. The level of penalties emphasises the gravity with which any breach of the laws on wildlife is and should be regarded.

I am confident that hon. Members will welcome this order as a necessary measure to protect the wildlife heritage of Northern Ireland. It places Northern Ireland on at least an equal footing with the rest of the United Kingdom and gives us a comprehensive code that will meet the requirements of various international agreements to which the United Kingdom is party.

I commend the order to the House.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I commend the Minister on taking us so carefully and succinctly through the order. Hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland constituencies will be as anxious as I am to ensure that provisions which offer protection to additional fauna and flora should be the same in Northern Ireland as they are on the mainland.

The positive aspect of this order is that while it is somewhat overdue — the bird section, for example, should have been in force by April 1983 to comply with the EEC directive on the conservation of wild birds—it offers protection to fauna and flora that were previously unprotected in Northern Ireland.

As the Under-Secretary said, the order brings us into line with our international obligations. Though it is sometimes overlooked, if not forgotten, these apply as much to Northern Ireland as they do to the mainland. Some of these obligations are imposed on us by the EEC, and we are dealing tonight with one such obligation which arises from the application of article 4 of the European directive to which I referred.

Those who take a strong interest in these matters in Northern Ireland are broadly satisfied with the provisions for the protection of the species. Their concern, however, is that the provisions should be fully implemented and that the powers, such as those which exist in article 4(10) to enable Northern Ireland to join in the special protection measures for, for example, quarry species in cold weather—measures which are currently in force in Great Britain—will not be weakened by any lack of resolve on the part of the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland. We join the Minister in commending the order to the House.

12.10 am
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I give a general welcome to the order and share the opinion of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) that we should appreciate the manner in which the Minister presented it. The Minister talked about the need to preserve wildlife because it may be in peril. I am happy that a similar order was not in force at the time of Patrick, who is alleged to have cleared the snakes out of Ireland. Many of us would like him back with us.

The Assembly has recommended that action should be taken to preserve the Irish hare. I do not think that that was a nationalistic or a Unionist ploy; I believe that the recommendation reflected the concern of the people of Northern Ireland.

The Minister has assured me in a letter that action would be taken on what he described as a "running sore" in Northern Ireland, which is the live coursing at Crebilly. In the Minister's response to the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland, we were told that it was not intended to legislate for the protection of the Irish hare as that came under gaming legislation. However, the hope was expressed that something would be done as soon as possible. Can the Minister say when such a measure might be brought before us? If there was a sense of urgency in bringing the order before the House because of the European directive, there should be an equal sense of urgency to respond to the will of the majority of the Ulster people on an evil form of sport of which few have spoken in support, irrespective of class, politics or creed.

12.13 am
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)

This is perhaps the first time that I have approached this subject in the House, but I have dealt with it for many hours in another place in Northern Ireland. During that process I have been struck by the widespread interest in it, which I, as a public representative, had not detected was so deeply held in the community. For that reason, I welcome the substance of the orders, which include provisions that will protect the flora and fauna and our wildlife. These are matters of primary interest to the people of Northern Ireland. They are interested especially in the conservation of wildlife.

The substance of my remarks is one of welcome, so it is unfortunate that any cloud should appear in the sky, especially a grey one, in taking up the remarks of the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) on the practice of enclosed live park hare coursing in Northern Ireland.

Those in this place who do not represent Northern Ireland constituencies may think that hare coursing is hare coursing whether it is in Great Britain, Northern Ireland or even the Republic of Ireland. It is not the same throughout the United Kingdom. Hon. Members should be aware of what park hare coursing in Northern Ireland really is. In Great Britain—I do not argue the merits of hare coursing there — the rules allow a hare an opportunity to escape that is not available to a hare in Northern Ireland. If a hare in Northern Ireland escapes once, it is recycled and again put through the process. If it escapes the next time, it is recycled and put through the process once more.

I have protested at Crebilly, so I can tell the House about the procedures adopted. The hare does not have a great opportunity to escape. It is given a relatively short start with the hounds following on after it. The hounds can follow the hare into the enclosure and corner it in a smaller and more confined space. The stewards are simply in the area to kick the hare to death rather than see it torn to pieces by the dogs. That is park hare coursing Northern Ireland style. It is more barbaric, cruel and evil than the style practised in the rest of the United Kingdom.

With that background in mind, the Assembly would have considered the proposal for a draft order and the section dealing with the prohibition of certain methods of killing or taking wild animals. It would be appropriate to include a proscription of the use of enclosed park hare coursing.

The political parties in Northern Ireland did not line up with the Unionists on one side of the argument and the Nationalists on the other or with Protestants and Roman Catholics on different sides. There was a degree of agreement that the Minister might like to see in other subjects. With a great deal of agreement, the Members of the Assembly accepted the argument and recommendations presented by the Environment Committee that there should be a ban on enclosed park hare coursing. The Assembly's view was not out of tune with what the people in the country as a whole felt. There was widespread worry about the practice of hare coursing and widespread approval for the Assembly's recommendations.

I support the principle that Northern Ireland politicians should have a role to play in their own affairs. The Assembly has been useful in that it has a scrutinising role and has enabled us to put a bridle on hitherto unaccountable direct rule. The confidence of many people was shaken when they noticed that a proposal which had such widespread acceptance was treated so cavalierly by the Minister's Department. I should have thought that a Tory Minister would have had an excellent opportunity to agree with a proposal that would not cost anything, financially at least.

Some people in Northern Ireland are less generous than I am. If you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had been in that other place, you might have been alarmed at some of the comments made. One Member said: The Minister responsible for this decision is either very stupid, very ignorant, or downright deceitful". He allowed the Minister some grace, because he said: the latter is the most likely". Although a constituent might forgive a politician for being deceitful, he could not forgive him for being stupid or ignorant. I do not believe that any of those three descriptions applies. I have noticed over and over that when the subject of park hare coursing has arisen in Northern Ireland, something always stops action. I do not know whether there is an over-abundance of tweedy sorts in the Department of the Environment. Whatever it is, something does not allow the Department to think in the same terms as the majority of the people and elected representatives in Northern Ireland. I wonder whether the Minister can support that activity. When he responded to the Assembly, he said that there were reasons for not accepting such a ban. He said that the Irish Coursing Club had decided to change its rules and that, with self-regulation, the Assembly might achieve what it sought better than by legislation.

I am not convinced that those who practise barbarity are the best people to regulate it, nor am I convinced that those people who only change the rules when under pressure are likely to keep them when the pressure appears to be off. With self-regulation, they could regulate the rules back to what they were. What is to stop a group that is not affiliated to the Irish Coursing Club from having a meeting similar to Crebilly before self-regulation?

Hon. Members should know what the great changes in the rules at Crebilly are that encouraged the Minister not to go ahead with a ban on park hare coursing. The first change was an increase in the number of stewards who would attend the meeting. I am sure that the hare was impressed by the fact that there would be more stewards to kick it to death when the hounds caught it. If it was not impressed. it would feel the same as Members of the Assembly, who were equally unimpressed.

The other great move was to give the hare a few yards extra start. It would be able to go a few more yards up the course before the hounds killed it. I am sure that the hare was impressed that under the new regulation it would have an extra couple of seconds to live.

The third change in the regulations was that the promoters of the event would clip the ears of the hares that survived after they had gone through the course, so that they could be released within 48 hours of the completion of the event. Neither the Minister nor the ICC has said who will referee such a procedure. The ICC's reaction to the RSPCA's previous request to watch the hares being let into the wild after the events was strange. I suspect that if the ICC is still reluctant to allow supervison of its activities, self-regulation is meaningless.

The Minister has been so impressed by the ICC's generosity in making those three major concessions that he does not feel it necessary to impose a ban. I say that, but I do him an injustice, because in a letter to me he says that he has decided for the present not to introduce separate legislation. I seek some clarification from the Minister. He will be aware that the coursing club's rule 13 states: points are awarded during the course to hounds which do the most to kill the hare. I am sure that the rules for hare coursing in Northern Ireland are different from those followed in Great Britain. As that rule has not been amended, how long does the Minister intend to allow the review of the ICC's self-regulation to continue before he is prepared to say whether it meets the criterion that he set down when he felt that self-regulation would meet the Assembly's request?

I urge the Minister to say that if the self-regulation does not meet his requirements for hare coursing in Northern Ireland and does not bring it closely into line with hare coursing as practised in Great Britain, he will introduce legislation to ban that barbaric and evil practice in Northern Ireland.

I end as I began, by giving a general welcome at least to that part of the order which appeared at the end of the day. It provides overall a better balance between the interests and responsibilities of the different users of the countryside. But in welcoming the order, I urge the Minister to consider legislation.

12.25 am
Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

As one who sat through the Committee stage of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, and moved an amendment that the Bill should apply to Northern Ireland, I welcome the order.

Anyone who saw the film on BBC television on Sunday night will appreciate how rich and varied is the wildlife of Ireland, both north and south. It was marvellous to see red squirrels—there are not many left in Britain, but we have them in the Isle of Wight — as well, as pine martens, hares, otters, peregrine falcons, chuffs, bitterns, and even the corncrake, which I think now exists only in the Western Isles. Long may they survive.

Under article 4(10), the Minister is enabled to introduce special protection measures for quarry species, particularly in cold weather. I believe that art this moment his colleagues in the Department of the Environment are thinking of banning wildfowling in Britain because of the prolonged cold weather that we are experiencing. May something similar be considered for Northern Ireland if the cold spell continues for any length of time? The weather may not be as severe in Northern Ireland; others will be able to tell me whether it is or not. But if there is to be a prolonged period of cold weather, that article should be implemented.

I am sorry to see that the curlew and the scaup can be hunted in Northern Ireland, because they are protected in Britain. We had an argument about curlew in Committee on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. Perhaps the scaup might have been included in the order; I am sorry that it was not. However, I welcome the order and hope that it will be implemented speedily.

12.29 am
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

I was glad to hear the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) refer to an amendment that he moved in Committee on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. If it had been carried, we should not have had to sit here until 3 am. No doubt many hon. Members on the Government Benches would have been even more pleased if that Liberal amendment had been carried.

The order deals with an enormous number of matters. The hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) concentrated on one aspect of the order; indeed, that has been the hallmark of the examination of the order. Article 4(10) says that a person who takes or destroys an egg of any wild bird…shall be guilty of an offence. Most wild birds' nests are destroyed or interfered with by children—often relatively small children—who go bird-nesting. The practice is not as common now as it was when I was a child, but certainly in regard to small birds that is where the real problem lies.

I suggest that the Minister could approach the education authorities to see what could be done through the schools to relieve pressure on nesting birds from children. If we do not start the process of education when children are young, we shall never get anywhere in that respect.

Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)

Will my hon. Friend agree with me that, because of the importance of conveying the contents of the order to schoolchildren, copies should be made readily available to them? We are dependent on the help of teachers in encouraging children to be thoughtful with regard to wildlife. Indeed, we are very much indebted to organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for the work they do and the literature they circulate.

Mr. Ross

I agree with my hon. Friend. I do not see any reason why the Department of Education and Science should not make material available to schools.

There is an enabling power to restrict shooting in hard weather. I assume that normally any such restriction would apply to the entire Province, yet it is not unknown for the Province to benefit, with regard to game and wildfowl, when there is hard weather in Great Britain or elsewhere in the island of Ireland. I am curious as to whether the Government are thinking of putting a blanket ban on the entire Province, or only on parts of it that might from time to time be affected by hard weather, when the rest of the Province would be clear and shooting could be permitted there. I should be obliged if the Minister told us what the Government's thinking is on that issue.

In article 6 of the order one reads about the means of killing or taking wild birds that are banned. Later it refers to wild animals. One thing that has concerned me very much is the banning of the automatic shotgun. I have not been able to understand why that should be so. I believe that the measure results purely from the EEC directive. I should be greatly obliged if the Minister could give us the benefit of the Government's thinking when they accepted that restriction. There is nothing wrong with an automatic shotgun. My experience, as a user of one, which I fear none of the members of the Assembly Committee are, is that whenever one fires a gun at any target, and misses two shots, one does not waste ammunition firing a third shot because the target is far out of range by that time. In the control of vermin and ferreting rabbits, the automatic shotgun has tremendous advantages over the standard double-barrelled shotgun. I cannot understand why the Government have been so willing to accept that demand from the EEC.

The Minister will appreciate the difficulties, especially in Northern Ireland, when an individual wants to get a second shotgun, and the police are most unwilling to grant a firearms certificate for that weapon. Therefore, the individual who owns an automatic shotgun may be prohibited when the order comes into operation from using that firearm in the taking of wildlife or game, and may find that not only has its market value diminished but that he is incapable of holding it and a second gun. Perhaps the Minister will have a word with the chief constable and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the matter when he is confronted with applications for a second gun.

I also notice that a shotgun that has an internal barrel diameter of more than 1¾ in. is banned. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what bore of shotgun that represents because elsewhere in the order we find references to the size of shot, the bore and so on. Instead of using the same measurements throughout, we seem to hop from one measurement to the other, which is confusing.

The order also refers to the prohibition of any device for illuminating a target or any sighting device for night shooting". It may not be known to the House, but several different gadgets can be used for shooting. There is the image intensifier, used by the Army, which is a highly sophisticated piece of equipment and extremely unlikely to be available to sportsmen. There are things such as the red spot that appears on the target when one has the device mounted on the gun. When one puts the gun to one's shoulder, once the red spot appears on the target, one knows that one is on it. Is that banned? There is also the extremely simple device for shooting duck in the late evening of putting a piece of white paper on the muzzle of the gun so that one can see it. I have used that device and am curious to know whether it would be banned. I wonder whether anyone asked the Minister those questions before, and whether any practical shooting men talked to him about what it is like on the ground when one is trying to bring down game in bad light conditions.

I am also concerned about the release of wild birds to be shot or to be pursued by birds of prey. The Minister has cleared my mind because I was worried that that practice was taking place in Northern Ireland, but has he any evidence that in any place in Northern Ireland or Great Britain the shooting of live birds in place of clay pigeons is still practised? If so, I should be surprised and shocked to hear it because I thought that it died out a long time ago, and I would not like to think that it had been revived.

Another matter that concerned a great many people was the use of the self-locking snare. A great many people have said a great deal about the cruelty of this device. Having listened to the views of a large number of people, and having seen the snare in use, I remain unconvinced by the arguments for banning it. Any snare that is properly set should catch and kill its quarry. The soft, brass-coloured wire used for rabbit snares would tighten up and have much the same effect as a self-locking snare. If the snare is properly used there should be no problems. We are really seeking to legislate not for responsible, able users but for the cowboys and we shall not stop the people like that by legislation unless the most extreme steps are taken to enforce it. I cannot see the necessary money and effort being put into enforcement to deal with the problem effectively, so I remain unconvinced by the arguments and I am unlikely to be convinced unless much stronger evidence appears.

The reference to the taking of animals through the use of gases and poisons is clearly directed at the use of cymag. Anyone who lives in the country knows how widely that powder is misused and the problems that it causes, especially for fish stocks, and I hope that serious steps will be taken to stop it getting into the wrong hands. This has been a matter of concern for many years to everyone who cares about wildlife. Yet the poacher still goes on his merry way, apparently getting away with it.

The provision about the purchase and sale of parts of animals is presumably intended to stop the purchase and sale of fox skins and I note that the fox appears in one of the schedules as an animal that may not be sold. I was not aware that the fox was in any danger of extinction in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the place sometimes seems to be overrun with them. Until recently there was a bounty on foxes and large numbers have undoubtedly been taken by various means and skinned. Yet there still seem to be quite a large number of them trotting around, causing a great deal of damage.

There is practically no fox hunting of the type practised in England. Foxes in Ireland generally are killed by trapping and shooting or gassing and they will go on being killed. All that is being done here is to remove an incentive to hunt them down. At the end of the day, there is no danger to the number of these animals in Northern Ireland, so I see no justification for the provision.

I was astonished to learn that primroses are to be protected. If there is one plant in Northern Ireland that does not need protecting, I should have thought it was primroses. Such a provision seems to me quite ridiculous.

Mr. Chris Patten

From my experience, one group of people from whom primroses may need to be protected in Northern Ireland is visitors from Great Britain.

Mr. Ross

Let us hope that the tourist trade benefits when they come and pick them. My experience of primroses is that they are rather too early in the season for most tourists anyway. What is the policeman going to say when he meets the five-year-old child coming up the road with a bunch of primroses for his mother, a child who would be breaking the law by picking a perfectly common flower? I think that the measure is quite unnecessary.

Article 15 is a useful and interesting one. and has not up to now received the attention that it deserves. It relates to the prohibition of the introduction of new plants and animals. The Minister mentioned two of these—grey squirrels and mink. This article is excellent so far as it goes. but there is not one word anywhere in the order about the responsibility of any person or any public authority to remedy the current situation. In the light of that, I think it is just empty words. If the Government intend to say that we must not introduce things that are harmful, they should be trying to get rid of the existing harmful species instead of allowing them to run round causing the damage that has resulted in Northern Ireland over many years.

Article 20 deals with regulations to cover smooth bore shotguns and so on. Could the Minister translate that into layman's terms? Could he tell the House what shot size is represented by the figures that are referred to and what sort of rifle calibre he is referring to? Is he really saying that instead of a .236 or 6 mm the Government will accept only a rifle of .240 calibre and a ball for the taking of deer? That is my understanding of the provision. The people in Northern Ireland who engage in these such activities need to know the exact position in layman's terms.

Article 28 provides for a number of wide powers. In my view, the Government, in exercising those powers, would be enforcing orders which would have no parliamentary sanction whatsoever. I hope that the Minister will say whether I am correct in my assumption and, if so that he will make some effort to ensure that parliamentary procedure exists before the orders come into force.

I welcome particularly the deer protection aspect of the order. Will a game licence be needed by a person going to shoot deer in Northern Ireland? That is not clear from what has so far been said.

On hare coursing, can the Minister say how these hares are captured? I assume that they do not grow on trees but that somebody has to go out and catch them. How are they caught, where are they caught and who has the shooting rights on the land from which the hares are taken? If the source of the hares could be restricted, many of the problems mentioned might disappear. During the Assembly's investigation, a number of people remarked that hares were an endangered species, or to some extent under threat. I recall clearly that before myxomatosis hit the rabbit population, hares were unknown in the lowlands in Northern Ireland except in a rare place like Nutts Corner airport.

Whenever the rabbits had been nearly wiped out, within two or three years the hares would appear in large numbers all over Northern Ireland. They stopped being an animal of the hill and the open moor. The explanation given at the time was that the male rabbits tended to kill the leverets in the first few days of their life. It was noticeable that, as soon as the rabbit population recovered, the hares in the lowlands diminished in number and eventually vanished. If the explanation was correct, the Minister should try to find out the size of the hare population in the hills today, and what it was before the rabbit population crashed. That might give us an idea of the abundance of hares today compared with past years. I do not believe that the hare is in as much danger as some people believe.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could clarify his reference to the number of hares? Because the number of hares may be greater than was suggested by some members of the Assembly, would it be right to treat them in the manner in which they are treated at Clibelly?

Mr. Ross

The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I was not referring to anything said by any member of the Assembly Committee. I was referring to what was said by those who gave evidence to that Committee. At least two or three of them expressed that view. I would lot want anyone to believe that the Irish hare is vanishing from the face of the earth. I do not believe it is. I believe that the population of hares rises and diminishes naturally, and not always in the same place. It is noticeable to any shooting man that there has been a vast change. Hares are now found in a more restricted area than they were a few years ago, and I wonder whether that fact has been taken into account by those who fear for the future of the species.

This important order is, in the main, to be welcomed. I have mentioned two or three points that I am concerned about—two or three Government decisions that puzzle me—and I hope that it will be possible for them to be reconsidered at a later stage.

12.47 am
Sir John Farr (Harborough)

I do not know whether the order is the right vehicle for a discussion of hare coursing, but I am sure that no hon. Member would support any sport in the United Kingdom in which the quarry was not given a fair chance of escape—whether coursing, shooting, fishing or hunting. The quarry must have a fair chance of escape if a sport is to be worthy of support in a civilised society.

Part III of the order relates to deer. Why has my hon. Friend not followed the useful precedent established in England and Wales with the Deer Act 1980 and in Scotland with an order of last December? Both the Act and the order gave deer of all species much more watertight protection.

I realise that the House would not wish superfluous additions to be made to an order that is already long, but both the Deer Act and the Scottish order gave much greater protection to the deer in relation to the disposal of the carcases. A schedule was incorporated in the venison register which all dealers in venison in England and Wales, and in Scotland, have to keep. The register must be kept, the columns must be filled in and it must be available for inspection for at least three years. Two years' operation of that scheme in England and Wales has proved of great benefit to the police and the authorities in curtailing deer poaching and in tracking down poached carcases of venison. I am surprised and disappointed that it is missing from part III of the order.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) and I shared the enjoyment of the Committee stage of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. What he said about harsh weather is important. Provision should be made for it in the order. As from today, we have imposed a harsh weather ban on wildfowl, woodcock for a start. The order should enable the Minister to make a direction, when, as recently, there have been a couple of weeks of harsh weather, to ban or curtail the shooting of all forms of quarry that are under threat because of that harsh weather.

Having made those remarks, I welcome the order.

12.50 am
Mr. A. Cecil Walker (Belfast, North)

I am a dedicated conservationist, especially with regard to the protection of all forms of wildlife, whether indigenous or visiting during migration.

In my younger days I was interested in sport shooting. I have given it up, not because I am a bit long in the tooth to by lying in wet ditches in the middle of winter or out in the mud flats of Strangford lough waiting for the morning flight, but because I feel that, with the drastic changes that have occurred in our environment, our wildlife is under more pressure for day-to-day existence. It needs all the help that it can get. That is why I give a generous welcome to the Government's efforts, through the order, which is an honest attempt to protect our wildlife from the human species.

I am especially pleased to see that article 6(1)(c) (iv) provides that it will now be an offence to use any shotgun of which the barrel has an internal diameter at the muzzle of more than one and three-quarter inches". I remember such cannons being used on the shores of Belfast and Strangford loughs. They were mounted on what were known as duck punts, which were camouflaged to look like a piece of floating debris. They were manned by two people, who were usually lying down. They were always used during the hours of darkness. Moonlit nights were especially favoured because the quarry, the migratory flocks of ducks and geese, was more easily recognised then. One of the hunters quietly paddled the punt until he was among his victims and then the other one blasted off with this diabolical instrument of death and destruction. It was common to kill or maim upward of 20 to 30 birds with one shot. In the light, one could see many of them flapping about in the water, condemned to a lingering death if not retrieved and put out of their agony.

I am also pleased that article 6(1)(e) makes it an offence to use any mechanically propelled vehicle in immediate pursuit of a wild bird for the purpose of killing or taking that bird". The prohibition extends to animals. I have seen fast planing boats manned by trigger happy so-called sportsmen running down on all types of sea birds. The swiftest birds might get out of range, but the diving species invariably fall victim as they have not the speed to get into the air. They are therefore slaughtered on the surface as soon as they exhaust themselves. I have seen the same tactics employed in seal hunting. Although many fishermen would say that seals are a legitimate target, the cruel killing of them by such methods must be condemned.

In article 12(1)(a) there is reference to "self-locking snares". Here I might have to take issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross). I maintain that all snares can be self-locking; when the animal is caught, its struggles invariably cause a locking effect. If such snares killed the animals they trapped, as can happen when rabbits hit them hard, I would not be so concerned; but when the animal is caught by the neck, body or hind leg, it must suffer. The real cruelty occurs when the setter of the snares leaves them for several days before he inspects them. Many of his victims may be domestic animals. I have heard of instances where dogs, sheep and even cattle have been caught and severely injured in snares which were meant for foxes.

I would like to have seen a provision in the order for duly appointed wardens to be able to enforce the various prohibitions. In several instances culprits who were observed by wardens blatantly breaking the wildlife laws were not apprehended because the wardens did not have the necessary authority. It must be recognised in this connection that our police force cannot be everywhere at one time.

12.56 am
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (South Down)

The Minister has already taken on board a heavy cargo, perhaps more than he can cope with conveniently in his winding-up speech, contributed to not least in an expert fashion by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) and others. I want to make only one addition to the cargo, of which I hope he will at least acknowledge the importance, namely, the matter of identification.

Most citizens will wish to observe the law as we are making it in this order. To do so, they must be able to identify the species that are protected. With animals, and to a lesser degree birds, there is no problem. Most people are familiar with and can recognise the species of animals that are protected by the order. Even if people are less commonly able to identify all the birds that are named, at any rate the general drift of the prohibitions which the order contains is clear and could be carried in anyone's mind.

There is a different order of difficulty in relation to the flora. Schedule 8, which occupies a page and a quarter, sets out a list of plants of which even those who, without being expert botanists, take an interest in the countryside are mostly unaware. Nor are they much helped by the fact that the popular names, so-called, are occasionally inserted. I found it no assistance to identify moschatel to know that it is also called town hall clock. I have to admit to not knowing what it looks like or whether I am likely to encounter it in my wanderings in the Mourne mountains.

No doubt the Minister, who referred in his opening speech to publicising the contents of the order, has in mind some ways in which this problem can be dealt with. It would be helpful if he could give some indication to the House in his concluding speech of what those are. It is not so easy perhaps to ensure that the only effective method of identification, namely, good and coloured diagrams and illustrations, are readily visible and available.

In some of the areas with which we may be dealing in the next order to come before the House one could, with perhaps not too much risk of falling victim to vandalism, erect a series of pictures of protected flora, as we find of the duck life in St. James's park. I do not have a suggestion to offer as to how the range of protected flora in schedule 8 can be brought to the knowledge and attention of those who might otherwise be tempted to pick a rather exciting and attractive flower and thus unwittingly break the law.

Having a wife who has a passion for picking primroses, I was at first alarmed by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry, East, but then reassured by my inspection of schedule 8, which informed me that so long as she did not uproot them I did not have to restrain her from breaking the law on her many excursions into the lanes of County Down.

I hope the Minister will realise that the problem to which I have drawn attention is real and practical, and I trust that he and his advisers will address their minds to it.

1 am

Mr. Chris Patten

I am grateful to hon. Members for their thoughtful speeches on this important and valuable order. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), whom we again welcome to these debates, thought that the order might be a trifle overdue. At least we now have it. It is a good, comprehensive piece of legislation.

The hon. Gentleman said that the voluntary bodies in Northern Ireland were broadly in sympathy with the intentions of the order. I am sure that is right. I am equally sure that it is incumbent on officials in the Department of the Environment to show that we are determined to implement the order's provisions fully and vigorously.

The hon. Members for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) understandably introduced a slightly more controversial note into our deliberations with a reference to park hare coursing, on which I recognise that passions run high. As I have told both hon. Members previously, the introduction of provisions on park hare coursing would have been a significant change in the policy content of the draft wildlife order and would, under existing legislative conventions, have necessitated further consultation. That would have seriously delayed progress on the order, and that would have been unacceptable in view of the Government's obligations.

Given the content of the speeches on this subject, I should point out that the objections raised by the Northern Ireland Assembly about certain specific rules and practices of park coursing were discussed with the controlling body, the Irish Coursing Club. I am sure that it was an inadvertent mistake on the part of the hon. Member for Belfast, East, but the rule to which he referred stating that points are given for hares being killed was amended several years ago. It would, therefore, be injudicious to rest an argument on that point.

I understand that the Irish Coursing Club has introduced a number of practical changes this season to bring coursing in Northern Ireland more into line with coursing as practised in Great Britain. The Government believe that voluntary action of this sort is the quickest and most fitting response to the objections to park coursing, and that, in view of this development, it would not be appropriate to introduce legislation on the subject.

As the hon. Member for Belfast, East noted, the ICC has introduced a number of changes in park hare coursing, the effect of which, as I have said, is intended to bring park coursing more into line with open coursing as practised on this side of the water.

I have looked closely at the law governing coursing. There is no substantial difference between the state of the law in Northern Ireland and the position in the rest of the United Kingdom. When I was first lobbied on this subject, I was told that what was required was not the banning of hare coursing, but the bringing of the practice of coursing in Northern Ireland as far as possible into line with the practice in Great Britain. I was also told — which I dispute — that there is a substantial difference in the legal framework in Northern Ireland compared with Great Britain. Allowing for the differences dictated by topography, the ICC sought to bring it into line.

If hon. Members want to move further and faster and ban all coursing, they should use private Members' legislation, on which they have a free vote. It is nonsense to suggest that that route is not open in connection with Northern Ireland. For example, the Video Recordings Act, introduced as a private Member's Bill, is now the law and applies to the whole of the United Kingdom.

It would not be appropriate to use the order to try to ban park coursing. Since there is no difference between the legal position in Northern Ireland and Great Britain—certainly hares in Northern Ireland are at no legal disadvantage—it would not make sense to depart from our normal procedures.

Mr. Peter Robinson

Like the hares in Northern Ireland, I am thankful that they are not at a legal disadvantage, but they are dying because of the so-called sport which the Minister believes can be rectified only by a private Member's conscience. If the ICC's regulations do not have the required effect, is the Minister prepared to bring in the necessary legislative change instead of leaving it to hon. Members to pray and hope that they might have that opportunity?

Mr. Patten

For reasons which might not always be obscure, I retain the most profound antipathy to answering hypothetical questions. I repeat that when I was first lobbied by the hon. Gentleman and others on the issue, I was told to bring Northern Ireland into line with the practice on this side of the water. It is curious but not surprising, that the argument has been changed —perhaps for understandable reasons—but my answer has to remain the same.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) referred to article 4(10). My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir J. Farr) has great knowledge of the subject, and we welcome his contribution. That paragraph makes it possible to protect quarry species during what would normally be the open season whenever exceptional circumstances justify it—for example, in the event of oil pollution of inclement weather, such as we are having now.

I must tell the hon. Member for Isle of Wight that we can encourage a voluntary ban on wildfowling even before the legislation comes into force, as we did successfully in 1981. We were grateful to the parties to that agreement.

I can tell the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) that a ban can be applied to small areas of the Province as well as to the entire Province. That takes account of his practical and accurate observation about weather conditions in the Province.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight referred to the curlew. He and other's, including my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, will recall that the curlew achieved complete protection as the result of an eleventh hour change to the Wildlife and Countryside Act by means of a Lords amendment. The species is more widespread and abundant in winter in Northern Ireland than it is in Britain. There is a tradition of shooting curlew—mainly inland birds, of which there are a large number in Northern Ireland—for food. However, there is no evidence that the species is suffering as a result of shooting, no doubt because the shooting of waders generally is infrequently practised by wildfowlers. The list of birds that may be shot during an open season has been substantially reduced. In the absence of compelling reasons, the curlew's status as a quarry species remains unchanged. That is obviously a position that we shall need to keep under review.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East spoke quite properly of the importance of teaching children about conservation and wildlife. I wholly accept that. It is our intention to take a much more active role educationally, and we shall be distributing to all schools literature on this order and on the one that we shall be discussing shortly.

The hon. Gentleman asked about automatic shotguns. He was right in thinking that the ban on birds results from the EEC directive. He will probably know that automatic shotguns can still be used for controlling pests and that the ban applies only to those birds and animals listed in schedule 6. The hon. Gentleman explained the practical experience of a shooting man and asked whether there was any evidence of birds being shot after liberation. I can say that there is no such evidence of that happening in Northern Ireland. It is spreading in Europe and we do not wish to see it happening in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman asked about self-locking snares. I would have had a great deal more sympathy with his argument had he been talking about free-running snares. I share the view expressed by the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Walker), that self-locking snares are banned under the EEC wild birds directive.

Mr. William Ross

Can the hon. Gentleman tell me how many times he has actually set a snare?

Mr. Patten

I assume that the hon. Gentleman was being literal rather than figurative. I have not made it a practice to set snares. I appreciate that sometimes one is called upon to speak at the Dispatch Box on subjects of which one does not always have such an intimate knowledge as some hon. Members. This is clearly one such occasion in regard to snares, about which the hon. Gentleman knows more than I do. I can only say that I received a number of representations about that subject. It may be that views differ, but the overwhelming view agreed with the hon. Member for Belfast, North.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East asked about article 15. I was interested to hear what he had to say. With the best will in the world, it is not possible for the Government to eradicate the existing species because of their widespread distribution. We are talking not only about animals, but, as anyone who knows and loves Strangford lough will know, about Spartina. The order is designed to prevent the spread of the undesirable species. I hope that we can do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough spoke from his great love and knowledge of deer. Venison in Northern Ireland can be sold only to a licensed game dealer. I shall write to my hon. Friend giving details of the licensing conditions applicable to game dealers.

The hon. Member for Belfast, North made a powerful argument for conservation. He thought that the wardens, among others, should be given more extensive powers. I am bound to say that I have great personal reluctance towards extending police powers to those outside the constabulary. That is why I resisted arguments from a number of sources to do that in this order.

The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) spoke of the importance of being able to identify those species which are referred to in schedule 8. That is a substantial point, of which we shall have to consider how best to take account in our publicity and explanatory booklet that we shall be issuing about the order. I hope that we shall be able to satisfy him that we have done all that we reasonably can to identify the species, some of which, I fancy, are not familiar to either of us.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of the primrose. He is right to say that the danger is the uprooting or tearing out of primroses which sometimes happens when people want to enhance the quality of their gardens, but at the expense of the countryside. That is why we have included the primrose in the schedule. On that Primrose League point, I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 22nd November, be approved.