HL Deb 31 May 1861 vol 163 cc346-50

rose to call the Attention of the House to the Report and Recommendations of the Commissioners upon the Salmon Fisheries of England and Wales. Upon one occasion the late Sir Robert Peel was said to have declared that he never knew a Session which could not boast of a Salmon Fisheries Bill, and it appeared that the present Session was to be no exception to the rule, because their Lordships were not only to be called upon to consider the provisions of a Salmon Bill, but they had upon their table a copious volume in the shape of a Report and recommendations of a Royal Commission issued to inspect the salmon fisheries of England and Wales, and to inquire into the causes of the diminution in the number of fish caught. He had spent many pleasant hours of his life in salmon fishing, and he was, therefore, not likely to pick holes in any recommendations that might be made for the preservation of that particular fish, but, on the contrary, was most anxious to encourage by all fair means its preservation and increase. At the same time, however, he could not put aside altogether the prejudices with respect to the liberty of the subject and the rights of private property, which they had all been taught to reverence and maintain: but he must say he thought the Royal Commissioners, in the exercise of their duty, which they seemed to have carried out with zeal and ability, and which had resulted in an excellent Report containing good advice, had been carried away by overmuch zeal, and had conducted their inquiries upon the principle that a salmon was almost the first animal in creation. Parodying the old lines they might have finished their report by saying— When a salmon's in the case All other things, of course, give place. Misled by exaggerated evidence as to the miraculous quantity of salmon that formerly existed, they had been brought to the conclusion that the same wonderful quantity might be restored by an Act of Parliament. He could not persuade himself that there ever existed the enormous quantities of salmon which were described in old charters, or that, supposing there were, we should ever see anything of the same kind again. The Commissioners laid stress Upon certain old documents, which said that apprentices should not be fed upon salmon oftener than twice a week. He knew that such parchments existed in Salisbury and other places at the heads of rivers, but we did not find them at the mouths of rivers. The natural inference was that the unfortunate apprentices concerned were crammed with black or foul fish, which were found in great quantities at the heads of rivers, and which were unfit for human food. We ad knew the exaggerations of old men—laudatores temporis acti. Every old fisherman believed that salmon were formerly twice as large and twice as numerous as now; but, as far as his own experience was concerned, he could not say that he saw much difference in the "take" of fish. In 1856 there were more fish caught in some of the rivers in the south of England than had been taken for twenty or thirty years before; and although some reasons might be given for a general diminution in the breed of salmon, yet the variations from year to year were as unaccountable as these in the number of woodcocks. There were several points on which he agreed with the Commissioners, and with respect to which he would offer no opposition to their recommendations. For example, he had no doubt that the removal of obstacles at the mouths of rivers was very desirable, inasmuch as it would allow the fish to reach the spawning beds in the upper water. He thought, also, that there should be a regular close time, to be ob- served most strictly during the breeding season, when the fish were really not fit to be eaten. A penalty should be attached to the sale of roe, provision should be made by which the fish should be allowed to attain a proper size before they were taken; and a stop should be put to the exportation of fish out of season, which could be done most effectually by an arrangement with the French Government. Such measures for preserving and increasing the breed of salmon might be easily put in execution without any infringement upon the rights of private property or upon the liberty of the subject, and he thought they were all that it would be wise or necessary to adopt. Other recommendations of the Commissioners—recommendations which were embodied in a Bill now before the other House—were, if not impossible, at least impolitic, and, he believed, impracticable. It was actually proposed that the whole of England, land as well as water, should be put under the paternal protection, as far as salmon were concerned, of the Home Office; that there should be a Central Board established to govern all fisheries; that local boards should act as the lieutenants of the Central Board. So complicated was the machinery for carrying out the supervision of the Board that he could almost imagine himself reading a new Reform Bill. All fisheries were to be valued, and rates levied upon them to defray the expenses of general superintendence and of constabulary for the protection of the fish; the water-bailiffs were to be empowered, whenever they pleased, to walk over the private property adjacent to rivers without let or hindrance. The last proposal pointed to an interference with the rights of private property which would be fatal to the peace of any rural community. In many cases the fishery belonged to one man, and the banks of the river to another, so that the landowner would be trespassed upon for the benefit of the fishery proprietor. If a man possessed both fishery and land, he surely might protect his own fish; if the water only belonged to him, he could protect it by going up and down the river in a boat. At present no person could land or net, or angle without the permission of the owner of the banks, and, therefore, it was proposed to give to other parties a power which even the proprietors of fisheries themselves did not possess. It was recommended, moreover, that all streams which were led from large rivers for pur- poses of irrigation, should be stopped at their entrances by gratings, with a view to prevent the passage of fish. To do that would sometimes be equivalent to the stoppage of the whole drainage of the country, owing to the accumulation of water which would take place in consequence. It was quite true, he admitted, that the Commissioners recommended that, in case any damage was occasioned by such stoppages, reasonable compensation should be made; but he could conceive nothing which would be likely to create more constant wrangling than that official gentlemen should at this time of the year walk through the grass and corn on the banks of rivers with the object of carrying that recommendation into effect. Their Lordships had no idea, in short, of the complicated machinery which the proposals made on the subject, if carried out, would entail; and when he took up the measure itself, in which these proposals were embodied, it appeared to him as if the Government had aimed at framing a new Reform Bill. It embraced a system of double election—that of a central as well of local boards—and provided for the supervision of the Home Office in the case of these bodies. If, he might add, the objections which he had pointed out were not removed, he felt assured that annoyances and disputes would prevail to such an extent that people would say they would rather have no salmon at all than be kept in such a continued state of turmoil. He trusted, therefore, the Government would not try to do too much in the matter, and would not, by following too strictly the recommendations of the Commissioners, embark on a course of impossible legislation, but would rather consider the advisability of introducing some less stringent measure.


said, he could not lay claim to this special knowledge possessed by his noble Friend, and he was one of the very few Members in either House of Parliament who happened never to have sat on a Committee on a Salmon Bill, or to have taken part in legislation on the interesting and vexed question to which the noble Earl had just called attention. He knew, however, sufficient of the subject to be able to form the opinion that there was a diminution in the quantity of salmon, and in that opinion he was confirmed by the Report of the Commissioners. Their Lordships would, he might add, be deceived by what had fallen from the noble Earl if it should lead them to suppose that the Commissioners had founded the conclusion at which they had arrived simply on the representations of some old fishermen. The increased cost of salmon, the diminished rental of rivers, as well as official and formal documents, had, in addition, furnished them with actual proof that both in number and in weight salmon had diminished in all the fisheries of the country. But, be that as it might, it would be entirely out of order to discuss the provisions of a Bill on the subject which had not yet come under their Lordship's consideration, while at the same time he thought it was; perhaps, desirable that an opportunity of ventilating—to use a vulgar phrase—a question of considerable importance should be afforded. He would, however, be going far beyond his duty if, as a member of the Government, he were to enter into a discussion of the details of a Bill now under the consideration of the other branch of the Legislature. He should, therefore, content himself with saying that the subject was one which required the introduction of a Reform Bill, and that the Government, acting on the advice of the Commissioners, had prepared a measure which was founded almost entirely on a law now in existence in Ireland on the same subject, which, he was informed, worked in a most satisfactory manner. The subject was well worthy the consideration of the House, and when the Bill came up to it in due course, he trusted its provisions would receive careful consideration and revision.