HL Deb 15 July 1898 vol 61 cc1140-50

My Lords, I rise to call attention to the present unsatisfactory condition of the Irish salmon fisheries, and to move to resolve— That whereas a Royal Commission was lately granted to consider and report on the laws, modes of fishing, and conditions of the Tweedside and Solway district fisheries of Scotland, Ireland has now a paramount claim upon the Government to appoint a similar Royal Commission or Committee to advise and report upon the salmon fisheries of that country. My Lords, it is perfectly well known by the public that the Irish angling salmon fisheries have been utterly ruined owing to the want of salmon fish in the fresh water of that country. Since the year 1886 I have been somewhat actively engaged in endeavouring to support angling interests but I have found Her Majesty's Government in Ireland—and I may add, also, the honourable Privy Council—so cold and so averse to seeing any more salmon admitted into the Irish rivers that I gave up the case. I have now turned round, my Lords, and have taken up the cause of what may be termed the mercantile salmon fisheries of Ireland, and I shall endeavour to explain to your Lordships that, for the benefit of those fisheries, a great deal more fish should be allowed into the Irish upper streams. By way of argument I will first of all allude to what is done by different nations. It is well known that Canada is the first nation in the world in so far as the management of her fisheries is concerned, and Canada adopts every possible means that can be found in order to get the upper waters of her rivers largely filled with fish. She only allows one-third of the water to be occupied by nets, and the other two-thirds of the water are occupied by the salmon getting up the river. In Ireland, my Lords, every effort is made to prevent salmon getting up the rivers. The law of netting in Ireland is in a dreadful condition, and only a short time ago the present Master of the Rolls made some attempt to define this law, but found the task impossible. I would ask your Lordships to look at the great difference between the law of Ireland and the law of Canada in reference to netting. I now turn to Norway. It is well known that in Norway experiments have been tried by Herr Landmark—perhaps the first authority on fisheries in Europe—and by a gentleman whose name was mentioned in your Lordships' House only three or four days ago—Mr. Archer, the Inspector of Scottish Fisheries, and extraordinary results have been obtained by allowing more salmon into the upper waters. This is what is required in Ireland. Scotland has always had a great deal more fish in the upper waters of her rivers than Ireland, and this is at once distinctly proved by the value of the inland fisheries in Scotland—prominently of the river Tay and other rivers; while in Ireland there is no place—at least, I have not heard of one—where there are any valuable inland fisheries. A short time ago the Scottish people complained of what was going on on the river Tweed. A great deal of rioting existed there, and it became so strong that a gunboat was sent up, but had to come down in consequence of one of the poachers being wounded. A Royal Commission was appointed to consider the laws, and they expressed themselves very strongly in favour of letting the salmon up into the upper waters. Here are the observations of the Royal Commission— It seems to us that, as a general principle, Mr. Archer is right in advocating that netting in the sea, for commercial purposes, should be encouraged, and that netting in the narrow waters of rivers should be restricted. The rivers should be kept for breeding the fish, rod-fishing being only allowed. This will give sufficient inducement to those who have rights of fishing to protect the fish during and after the spawning season, which, in our opinion, is absolutely necessary if the production of fish in the river is to be adequately maintained. Evidence was put before us as to the great improvement effected in the value of the fisheries in several rivers, the Sands river in Norway, the Dee in Aberdeenshire, and certain rivers on the west coast of Sutherland, where these principles have been applied to a considerable extent. Ireland alone has been neglected in this matter, and I would urge upon your Lordships the paramount claim which Ireland has upon the Government for the appointment of a similar Royal Commission or Committee to advise and report upon the salmon fisheries of that country. Her Majesty's Government and the Privy Council are opposed to any more fish being let up into the upper waters of Ireland, but if the Government and the Privy Council were to ask themselves, "Are we acting rightly in doing in Ireland exactly contrary to what is done by all the great nations of the world?" I think they would have to admit that they were not. I wish to refer, first of all, my Lords, to the question of poaching. Ireland is a nation to whom Providence has been bountiful in giving her a large produce of salmon, and Providence has also been bountiful in supplying a peasantry whose greatest delight is in poaching, killing and slaying, especially in the spawning time, when they do an enormous amount of damage to their unfortunate fellow-fishermen down below the river; in fact, I should not be surprised if they took 30 per cent. in many rivers off the value of the fish that are taken. This is a great scandal. Now, as regards the quantity of fishing that is going on. A very important angling society in Ireland, called the Irish Tourist Association —of which the Earl of Mayo is chairman—sent round circulars all over the country, and the replies they received were to the effect that the whole of the rivers of Ireland, with the exception of a very few, were in the hands of poachers. This is the case from one end of the country to the other, and the loss of property by poaching during the last 30 years amounts to a king's ransom. The deterioration of Irish angling has been most noticeable during the last 10 or 12 years, in which space of time matters seem to have been going from bad to worse. The lakes and rivers, except in some few favoured districts, seem to be without supervision of any kind and at the mercy of poachers. In Ireland there are the most perfect natural salmon and trout rivers in the world, rivers whose upper waters offer the best possible spawning grounds, and whose deeper and lower reaches afford everything necessary in the way of suitable shelter and haunts for mature fish. The causes militating against an adequate supply of fish are found to be poaching and the want of proper protection. The peasantry of Ireland have assumed such a spirit of independence, especially in connection with salmon, that they carry on their poaching practices in every direction without let or hindrance. There is the other very serious point, that the bailiffs who are supposed to look after the poachers are extremely lax in the performance of their duties. I could give many instances of the correctness of this statement. I respectfully submit that if Ireland's fisheries are to flourish the present system of poaching must be done away with. I would suggest that a law should be passed making it almost a felony to poach salmon from, say, October 10th to January 10th. I would further suggest that during these months the Government should give the police a free hand, and that in the more important districts the police from out stations should be allowed to come in and render assistance during the active spawning season. I will now call your Lordships' attention to a fact that has not been very generally, if ever, brought before the public, which will, I think, prove, and prove conclusively, the great difficulty that is experienced in Ireland in order to secure immunity from poaching. Of the districts in Ireland only six or seven have what may be termed a dominant interest—that is, some vested right or interest that has sufficient power to get value for money expended on salmon preservation—over the fisheries of their river, and these are principally in the north of Ireland. Among the districts I refer to are Bangor, which employs 100 bailiffs; Ballina, which employs 420 bailiffs; Ballyshannon, which is another district well preserved, employing 200 bailiffs; and Londonderry, which, on paper, is the most flourishing district in Ireland, employing 280 bailiffs. The funds at the disposal of the various boards of conservators, particularly in the smaller districts, are only the proceeds of the sale of licences, and are totally inadequate even to pay a sufficient staff of water bailiffs to watch the rivers, and what we suggest is that these funds should be supplemented by an annual grant of money in aid from the Government. The fact that salmon is yearly getting scarcer in the upper waters is easily accounted for. Fishes, like animals and birds, if they are persecuted by men, in the first instance change their habits, and after having changed their habits they desert the locality. We have it on the most undoubted authority that the irregularity that is going on at the sea mouths of the rivers is very great, and that the fish are so frightened and alarmed that they turn back into the sea. They then await the close time when the nets are up, and go in their hundreds and thousands up to the spawning beds and breed an enormous number of salmon, which has inflated to an excessive degree the production of salmon and the export statistics. Ireland is entitled to an inquiry into this subject, and a report thereon. The present state of things will lead ultimately to the ruin of the Irish salmon fisheries. That is perfectly well known. The first river I will refer to is the Suir. An appeal case was heard before the Judicial Privy Council on October 23, 1896, in reference to the fishing in the fresh waters of the Suir. Let me just quote a few samples of the official evidence. In stating the case Mr. Wright, Q.C, said that nets and boats were formed in a circuit, by means of which the fish were entrapped. Those boats and nets were used for some 16 miles in fresh water, and some nets were fished from bank to bank. Mr. Cormack (Inspector) stated that by this mode of fishing very few fish escaped. Quoting an inspector as his authority, Mr. Barton, Q.C., stated that there were 50 miles of spawning water with only one bailiff to protect it. The second evidence was given by the police, who said the poachers had their own way in consequence of the small number of bailiffs there were to look after them. Mr. Jones handed in statistics to prove that the police, with all their other duties, effected as many prosecutions for poaching as all the bailiffs put together. I will now refer to the river Blackwater, of which I was an angling tenant for five years. For the first two years there was a very fine show of fish, and no run of fish was late. In the third and fourth seasons the fish became scarcer, and in the last year the fish became so scarce that I gave up the water. Mr. Foley, tenant of the Lismore Weir and Artificial Fishery, close by the tideway, reported in 1895 to the Salmon Fisheries Inspector that he had caught a great number of gravid fish in November in nets, and even while fishing for parent fish for his hatchery. In 1895 the Conservators' report stated that the fish were small on the spawning beds, and that the Blackwater fisheries had deteriorated. In 1896 the Conservators' report stated that the stock of breeding fish was much smaller than the previous winter, and that the general run was of a very small size. The report expressed the opinion that the fisheries had declined, and were declining, on the Blackwater. With regard to the hatcheries Mr. Foley stated that on November 15th, 1896, 131 salmon were taken out of the weir. He stated that in all 35 spring fish and over 450 spawning fish were caught and returned to the water. The question therefore occurs, Why did not these fish find their way to the spawning beds? That is what we want to know, and what we want a Royal Commission to inquire into. An independent report was made a short time ago by Mr. Ffennell, the Times correspondent, and a well-known authority, on the Blackwater. A considerable portion of the report appeared in the Field of last Saturday. In his concluding remarks Mr. Ffennell says— The Blackwater is not producing anything like its proper quantity of fish owing to the improvident manner fisheries are carried on at Lismore. The development of the fisheries is not only kept in check, but it is threatened with inevitable deterioration. I, my Lords, can add a rider to this report, and can assert and prove, if angling be a test, that there are rivers in Ireland where there are even less salmon than in the Blackwater. I refer to the Suir, the Nore, and the Boyne—all valuable mercantile salmon rivers. I have also, in conclusion, to refer to the river Shannon. This is the greatest river in Ireland, if not in the United Kingdom, and nothing could be more melancholy than its present condition. A member of your Lordships' House—Lord Massy—said it had been deteriorating every day since 1867. Several hundreds of anglers have deserted the river, and it was only last April that the citizens of Limerick met, figuratively speaking, in sackcloth and ashes to bewail the ruinous condition of their noble river. There are 13,000 persons connected with the licence system of Ireland, and they pay £10,817 for salmon licences. That is a tremendous representation, and I claim that we are entitled to a Commission. I therefore move the Motion which stands in my name.


My Lords, I can corroborate much that the noble Earl has stated. He has all the facts at his fingers' ends, and I have not; but I have had the experience of a lifetime on one of the rivers he mentioned—the Nore. I have been a fisherman all my life, and I do not know a prettier stream in any part of the United Kingdom. I have been telling my countrymen for years that they are letting thousands a year run to waste by not preserving that stream. It is no joke, my Lords, but a fact, that all that is preserved are the poachers. If your Lordships could see what goes on in the dusk of the evening with the cots you would be surprised that any fish got up at all. There is another river that borders my county—the Suir—which the noble Earl mentioned. I have been along that river by rail, and I have often wondered, seeing the number of cots and nets, how any fish could possibly get up. I think the noble Earl has made out his case, and I do hope your Lordships will grant this Commission, because many of the rivers in Ireland, if not most of them, are undoubtedly running to ruin.


My Lords, I cannot help confessing that, as a fisherman myself, my own personal sympathies are entirely with the noble Earl who has brought forward this Motion in his endeavours to improve the fisheries of Ireland, and though I am aware it is a somewhat risky thing for anybody occupying a subordinate position in the Government to give utterance to a personal opinion, I am comforted by the knowledge that the sympathies of Her Majesty's Government are also to a very great extent with the noble Earl. I entirely repudiate the statement made by the noble Earl that the Privy Council or the Government authorities in Ireland have done anything to prevent fish from getting up into the upper waters, or have in any way tried to injure the fisheries of Ireland. I think, my Lords, that the Government and the inspectors of fisheries are fully alive to the fact that a good deal might be done to improve the fishing in Irish rivers; and though it is a fact that there has been no actual legislation on the subject, or any inquiry since the year 1870, still, I know that the Irish inspectors have made certain definite recommendations with regard to the suppression of poaching, and with regard to the enactment of a minimum penalty, which is a most important matter. It is true that these recommendations have not yet been acted upon, but the noble Earl must know that public time in regard to Ireland has been very fully taken up in years past, and that there has not been time for everything. But I can assure the noble Earl that the Government have in no way lost sight of the recommendations made by the inspectors. They consider that it is certainly worthy of careful consideration, whether or not an inquiry by Royal Commission or otherwise should precede any legislation which might be brought in to deal with the question. Further than that, my Lords, I am afraid I cannot pledge the Irish Government at the present moment. I should like to say that the inspectors do not quite agree with the alarmist view which is taken by the noble Earl with regard to the Irish fisheries, and they consider that the figures of the last few years of the exports to nine of the principal markets give very fair indication of the prosperity of the Irish fisheries. Although in 1897 the number of boxes of salmon sent off was considerably below that of previous years, still the number for the three previous years—1894, 1895, and 1896—showed a great improvement compared with the preceding years. With regard to the question of poaching, I would call attention to the report of the Irish fisheries inspectors for 1897, which has, I think, only been laid upon the Table of your Lordship's House during the last few days. In that report the inspectors say— In regard to offences generally against the Fisheries Laws, we are glad to say they have diminished. This is owing to the vigilance of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and the better supervision by the water bailiffs in some districts. Well, my Lords, I am sorry that I cannot give the noble Earl a more definite answer than I have given him. I can only say this question will meet with the earnest consideration of the Irish Government. They think, and the Irish fisheries inspectors think, that the money which would be expended in a Royal Commission might very likely be more satisfactorily employed in an experimental investigation into the habits and natural history of the salmon, about which we are still a good deal in the dark. Still, as I have said before, they will give careful consideration to the question as to whether or not legislation on the subject had better be preceded by a public inquiry.


My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships one moment, but with regard to the answer made on behalf of the Irish Government, I should like to say that, as usual, we get a great deal of sympathy, but very little is done. The Irish Government have been fully informed on the subject by a committee formed by the Irish Tourist Association. This committee took the trouble to send a number of questions round the country, and the very full and voluminous answers, numbering 103, which the Committee received, showed that the deterioration was appalling. All that is asked is that the existing laws should be properly carried out. The Acts of Parliament take cognisance of all the practices, and the law as it stands is capable of dealing with anyone so offending, save and except the taking of small and undersized fish; but the chief difficulty is to get it set in motion. River bailiffs, watchers, and others in authority are few and far between, while the police—except in the Dublin districts and neighbourhood, where they do what they can and render considerable assistance—although in possession of the necessary powers, abstain, as a rule, from exercising them, and adopt generally an attitude on a par with that manifested by them in regard to the Game Laws; in other words, a policy of non-interference. This, however, is mainly owing to the Constabulary regulations. If instructed, the police could, while patrolling, stop an immense amount of poaching. When there is a conviction the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland very often reduces the fine to such a small sum that there is practically no conviction at all. We ask that the existing laws should be properly carried out, and, if they were, poaching in Ireland would be almost stopped. I therefore hope the Irish Government will do their utmost to relax some of those hard and fast rules by which the constabulary are unable to put in force the law as it at present exists.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words in reply to what the noble Earl has said with regard to the intentions of the Irish officials. It is very remarkable that Ireland should be the only place to which a Royal Commission has not been sent.


I rise to a point of order. Has the noble Earl a right to speak a second time on the same subject?


In 1869, when the Commissioners were—[Cries of "Order!"]


The question is that this Motion be agreed to.


What is the Motion?


I do not like to disagree with the noble Marquess on a point of this character, but, as a Motion has been moved, has not the noble Earl a right of reply?


That is the point. I did not understand the Motion was moved.


I certainly moved the Motion.


I hope the noble Earl will be satisfied with the assurance which he has received that the matter shall be looked into.


I withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.