HL Deb 03 July 1906 vol 159 cc1560-8


Order of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, the measure which I venture to ask your Lordships to read a second time this afternoon is a small one, but with a somewhat ominous title—a title which will remind those of your Lordships who are unfortunately old enough to remember the difficulties of a quarter of a century ago of the considerable amount of opposition that was aroused to the Ground Game Act of 1880, which was brought in by the late Sir William. Harcourt and my noble and learned friend Lord James of Hereford.

The purport of this Bill may, I think, be summed up briefly, but accurately, in a single sentence. It is to extend to the sheep farmers of the Highlands the privilege which every other tenant farmer in Great Britain has enjoyed for many years past—the right of trapping and snaring ground game all the year round. As a matter of fact, this particular right was given to the tenant farmers of Scotland in the Bill of 1880 as it was originally introduced into the House of Commons, for that Bill, as Sir William Harcourt said on the First Reading, was brought in to establish the principle that the right to destroy animals which preyed upon the crops of the farmer should be inseparably incident to the occupation of the soil.

But in the course of the discussions in another place, Mr. Duff, whom some of your Lordships will remember, raised opposition to this privilege being extended to the grouse moors of Scotland. He stated that if moorland was included it would practically do away with sheep farms, and that all the farmers of Scotland would turn their land into deer forests. Mr. Duff took a too pessimistic view of the matter, but Sir William Harcourt seemed to be convinced by his arguments, or, at any rate, he was convinced of the difficulty of piloting so controversial a measure through the House of Commons, and he introduced an Amendment in the Committee stage, which Amendment this measure is designed to delete. The Amendment is in sub-section (3) of Section 1 of the Ground Game Act of 1880. That subsection practically takes away from the occupiers of moorland the right given to every other occupant of agricultural tenancies in Great Britain—namely, the right to trap and snare ground game all the year round.

During the past five or six years this question has been a somewhat burning one among the tenant farmers of Scotland. Sheep farmers allege for various reasons that this sub-section (3), which, as I have shown, is in itself an exception to the principle of the Act, and takes away a right from the tenant farmers in the Highlands only, places them in an exceptional and invidious position, and they have agitated to have it repealed. I would ask your Lordships to remember that the Scottish Chamber of Agriculture, which, as noble Lords opposite know, is by no means a partisan body, have on two occasions—at Edinburgh in 1903 and at Perth in 1905—passed unanimously a resolution advocating the principle of the measure which I now ask your Lordships to read a second time. On those occasions two ex-Presidents of the Board of Agriculture were present—at the first, my noble friend, Lord Onslow, and at the second, my right hon. friend Mr. Ailwyn Fellowes; and I gather from the reports of their speeches that these two ex-Ministers for Agriculture looked with a favourable eye on the Resolution unanimously passed in their presence.

Perhaps I should state the principal reasons which were put forward at the meetings in question why the Highland farmers wished this Bill to be brought in. In the first place, they point out that as their right to snare and trap ground game was confined to the period from December 11th to April 1st, the climatic condition of the north of Scotland rendered it somewhat difficult for them to obtain the full advantage of that privilege. As your Lordships know, the higher ground in Scotland is very often covered with snow during a considerable period of the time I have mentioned, and it is impossible for them, during that period, to trap and snare rabbits. The second reason put forward is this, that owing to the custom, which your Lordships know is prevalent in Scotland, of moving sheep early in August to the higher ground, rabbits come in at that time and eat a good deal of the winter feed. The sheep, moreover, trample out the rabbit runs, and render it almost impossible for farmers to fix their snares to catch rabbits. Another I reason put forward is that the tenants are unable to get a sufficient supply of rabbits which by sale might in some way or other compensate them for the winter keep which had been eaten.

I do not say that these are the only reasons which can be given, but they were the reasons put forward by the tenant farmers, and which the Chamber of Agriculture endorsed by a unanimous vote. Anybody who has talked with tenant farmers in the Highlands on this subject will know perfectly well that they are just as much impressed as anybody with the value of grouse moors, which they recognise as generally beneficial to the interests of the country; and I am certain that if in the discussions of this Bill any one on behalf of the landlords of Scotland points out that there is anything in the measure detrimental to the preservation of grouse, or in any way injurious to the interests of landlords, the promoters of the Bill and the tenant farmers of Scotland will regard any such suggestion in the most reasonable spirit, so long as it does not directly interfere with the principle of the measure.

Speaking as one who has had considerable experience of grouse moors, I do not believe this Bill would do any harm at all, because the trapping would invariably take place on the fringe of the moor, where birds do not nest in any quantity, for the reason that that part of the moor is constantly being disturbed as it is contiguous to the inhabited farms. I would also point out that in Clause 3 of this Bill there is a provision by which tenants and landlords, should any special circumstances occur to render it necessary that such a step should be taken, can make an agreement for joint exercise. I do not know that it is necessary for me to explain the Bill at any greater length; it is a very short Bill, and it explains itself. Clause 2, as I have said, repeals sub-section (3) of Section 1 of the Ground Game Act of 1880, and enables the occupier of moorland and unenclosed land to kill ground game at any period of the year.

As your Lordships know, in the Ground Game Act no tenant is allowed to make an agreement or contract himself out of the provisions of that Act, but by Clause 3 of this Bill it is permitted that landlords and tenants may make agreements, so long as the agreements they arrive at are to their joint benefit. What that means is this, that if a landlord thought it would be better for his own gamekeeper to destroy the rabbits on the moor, he might come to an agreement with his tenant by giving that tenant a certain proportion of the rabbits that were killed to compensate him for the arrangement. By this it will be seen that Clause 3 is by no means a useless measure. I would remind the House that when the Act of 1880 was first brought in there were some gloomy prophets who said that its introduction would have an injurious effect on the game preservation of Great Britain, but I think your Lordships will acknowledge that, instead of its having had an injurious effect, there never was a time when there was a greater preservation of game than now. Those of your Lordships who wore in political life before that time must remember the agitation for doing away with the game laws altogether. Since the passing of the Act of 1880, however, there has been no agitation against the game laws, and the state of preservation of game at the present moment is considerably better than it was before that much contested Act came into operation. For these reasons I venture to commend this small measure to your Lordships' consideration. I do not think it can possibly do any harm to the interests of grouse moors and shooting tenants, but it will remove a real and legitimate grievance of which the Highland farmers have, in my opinion, every reason to complain.

Moved,"That the Bill be now read 2a.'—(Lord Burghclere.)


My Lords, my noble friend has referred to me as being one of those representing the Department over which at one time he presided who have attended the meetings of the Central Chamber of Agriculture in Scotland. That was an annual event always attended by the President of the Board of Agriculture, and which I used to dub by the title of"the annual heckle." We were always asked a number of questions as to what were the intentions of the Government, and amongst others I was asked whether it was possible for the late Government to bring in a measure similar to this one. I took the precaution of writing round to a large number of my friends, many of them Members of your Lordships' House and large owners of property in the Highlands of Scotland, to ask whether a measure of this kind would meet with their approval. I am bound to say that in the great majority of cases, the replies which I received were entirely in favour of some modification of the existing law, which it was generally felt worked hardly on the tenants of moorlands in Scotland.

But the proposal put before me when I was President of the Board of Agriculture differed in some respects from the one which the noble Lord has introduced tonight. The proposal was that ground game—hares and rabbits should be destroyed by the tenant, not all the year round, but from October 1st, instead of from December 10th. I am not sure whether it will not be worth while, when, your Lordships go into Committee on this Bill, to give consideration to the question whether the power to destroy rabbits during the grouse nesting season is absolutely necessary. I know that when the Ground Game Act was passed, that was one of the very strong reasons why the existing exemption in respect of moorlands was inserted, so that it might not interfere with the grouse at the time they were nesting. I venture to submit for the consideration of my noble friend, whether some alteration of that kind might not with advantage be introduced; but, so far as the general principle of the Bill is concerned, I believe that no right-thinking landlord in Scotland would object to some extention of the conditions under which tenants of moorlands may destroy rabbits. I, therefore, offer no objection to the Second Reading of the Bill.


My Lords, I do not think that there can be any real harm in tenants having the right to kill rabbits all the year round, but what I do fear is that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, the men they employ may trap or snare birds. During the season when birds are nesting and breeding they are very tame; they move about the runs and are very easily trapped and snared. I think some provision ought to be made for the protection of birds during the nesting season. If my noble friend who has brought in this Bill would accede to that request I would be quite satisfied with the Bill. What I propose—and I will be frank—is to move an Amendment in Committee to make the season begin on September 1st. I hope my noble friend will induce the promoters of the Bill to accept that Amendment, in which event I shall have no objection to the Bill, which would do no harm whatever.


My Lords, this is not a Bill which applies solely to Scotland. It applies generally to the United Kingdom. It has, however, a special application to Scotland, and has therefore had the earnest consideration of Mr. Sinclair (the Secretary for Scotland). Your Lordships have heard how the restrictions of the snaring of hares and rabbits came to be introduced into the Ground Game Act, 1880, and I should like to call attention to a phrase that was used by the late Sir William Harcourt when he introduced this Amendment. He said that the Amendment was consistent with the principle which he had over and over again stated—namely, that where he could accomplish the object of protecting crops without injuring sport he would do so. He said he had good reason to believe that three-and-a-half months was a sufficient period for farmers on moorlands and unenclosed land to keep down the ground game, and he was, therefore, content that the limitation should be introduced into the Bill.

The attitude of His Majesty's Government in this matter is precisely the same to-day as that taken up by Sir William Harcourt twenty-six years ago. Their desire is to protect agriculture and not to injure sport, and as it has been found in practice that the period allowed under the Act of 1880 is not sufficient, His Majesty's Government will have no objection to the Second Reading of this Bill. They would like, however, to point out to the noble Lord who has introduced it that it might perhaps be desirable in Committee to consider whether the period might not be slightly restricted. This Bill in the other House had the names of two Conservative Members upon it—Lord Dalrymple and Mr. Lane Fox. I think your Lordships will allow that those are two names with a good sporting ring about them. The Bill passed through the other House without Amendment and I believe without discussion, and I hope your Lordships will see your way to give it a Second Reading.


My Lords, I do not think that any of my noble friends who sit near me are likely to take exception to this Bill. It seems to me, if I may be allowed to say so, a very reasonable measure. It may be desirable in Committee to introduce certain changes in detail, but I will not enter into the consideration of those at present. The Bill as it stands seems to me to be one which, as the noble mover told us, is not calculated to do any material injury to sporting rights in unenclosed places; but I confess I support it on a somewhat broader ground—I mean on the ground that it is not-desirable that during nearly nine months of the year occupiers of land in any part of the country should be absolutely pro-vented from protecting themselves against the ravages of mischievous and destructive animals. I am the more inclined to regard the Bill favourably because I observe that it contains two important provisions which to some extent qualify its effects. Under one of them the use of fire-arms, which for a purpose of this kind are clearly unnecessary, is not permitted, and, under the other, leave is given to the owners and occupiers of these holdings to make and enforce agreements for the exercise for their joint benefit of the right to kill and take ground game. I welcome that admission that questions of this kind can be best dealt with by the joint efforts of the two parties interested in the land of this country, and I for one shall therefore raise no objection to the passing of the Bill.


My Lords, although the course of the debate renders it unnecessary for any words from me, perhaps your Lordships will not think it unnatural that I should like to say something at this stage. The noble Lord in charge of the Bill stated that the Act of 1880 was jointly introduced by the late Sir William Harcourt and myself. In one sense that is true, but it is not an entirely accurate description of what took place. The credit for that Bill was due to Sir William Harcourt. I, as law officer, rendered him all the assistance I could, but it was he who designed the Bill and carried it through the House of Commons. Sir William Harcourt took charge of the negotiations with every possible interest that could be affected, and the skill with which he managed those negotiations can well be understood by every one who knew him.

We were in a strange position then. There were very great fears that the Bill would irritate more than it would soothe. The interests opposed to the landlords were then in a state of great anger. The Bill, however, passed, and those anticipations have been proved to be entirely unfounded If the Act of 1880 had not been passed, what would have been the state of our game laws now? Probably there would now be no protection for game. The Act has by its justice produced a state of protection for game, and has also got rid of that unhappy feeling which in 1880 existed between the owner of the land and his occupying tenant.

What is the evil that the tenant now complains of? He says that you give him only three months' protection at a time o the year when he cannot take full advantage of it. The three months are of no use to him comparatively. He is shut out during nine months of the year from taking ground game. If we think that there is any hardship on the landlord, that can be dealt with in Committee; but my present view is that we shall not do sufficient to redress the present wrongs if we do not pass the Bill as it is. There will be no more facilities given by this Bill to the tenant to poach the landlord's grouse than exist at present. As tenant he is already on the gronnd. The only practical question to be considered is whether there shall be any alteration in the period of time in the Bill during which ground game may be killed, but I think if you reduce the time mentioned in the Bill it will not give satisfaction to the farmers. There is a desire to do justice to both parties, and I am sure that a satisfactory measure will result from the' consideration of this Bill in Committee.

On question, Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Monday next.