HL Deb 13 July 1926 vol 64 cc1037-51

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill was introduced in another place by a private member and obtained both Second and Third Readings without opposition. His Majesty's Government have now decided to adopt it and hope that, having regard to its importance from the point of view of food production, it will be passed this Session. It follows on the Report of the Game and Heather Burning Committee of 1921, which went into the matter carefully in the light of experience of War-time Regulations on this subject, and to a large extent it gives effect to the recommendations of that Committee, which was so ably presided over by the Duke of Buccleuch. Its purpose is to enable heather burning to be carried out more efficiently than at present with a view to the improvement of sheep pasture, but actually its provisions will be of no avail unless the heather is burnt systematically.

Under the present law heather burning is permissible only from November 1 to April 10, with a fortnight's extension for high, wet moorlands. This Bill permits heather burning from October 1 to April 15, and provides that the proprietor of any land, or the tenant with the permission of the proprietor, may burn heather until April 30, or in the case of land in deer forests over 1,500 feet above sea level, up to May 15. Provision is also made whereby, in the event of the proprietor refusing to grant permission, the Board of Agriculture for Scotland may, if completely satisfied as to the expediency of so doing owing to the situation or altitude of the land or for other sufficient reasons, authorise a tenant to burn heather up to May 15. On that, point I may assure your Lordships that the intention is to employ only senior officers on the Board's staff, men with practical experience and knowledge of hill grazings, or, if circumstances call for it, a man who is specially skilled in those matters, brought, in from outside altogether and not being a member of the staff of the Board.

The other main provision of the Bill is the conferring of power upon the Board of Agriculture for Scotland to regulate heather burning in cases where the tenant is precluded by the terms of his lease or otherwise from burning heather in such manner or to such extent to him necessary or expedient. Before making the Order the Board may conduct an inquiry and consider any representations lodged with them and, in making the Order, the Board have to prescribe conditions subject to which heather may be burnt and must have regard to the interests of the proprietor, of the tenant and of any other person whom they may deem to have an interest. The justification for the intervention of the Board of Agriculture in these matters is, of course, the importance in the national interest of protecting food production in Scotland. The question as to the period fin heather burning was discussed at length in the Committee stage in another place. Amendments to allow heather burning up to April 30 and in deer forests above 1,500 feet up to May 31 were negatived, but the Bill was amended so that heather burning up to April 30 by the proprietor, or with his permission, or on the authority of the Board of Agriculture for Scotland, should not be confined to high and wet moor lands.

It is hoped that the provisions of the Bill will be of real service to agriculture. It is understood that farming opinion in Scotland approves the Bill, though in this as in other matters a more drastic alteraton of the law would no doubt have been welcomed in some quarters. Both the promoters of the Bill and the Government have been anxious to secure, consistently with the national interest, a fair balance between the interests of the proprietors and those of tenants. I believe that certain noble Lords who have great knowledge in these matters will have Amendments to move on the Committee stage. I can assure your Lordships that His Majesty's Government will welcome the consideration of those Amendments and wish to deal fairly in all respects with all parties interested in this matter. An Amendment has been drafted to deal with the forestry point of view, and to protect woodlands from any danger of fire caused by indiscriminate heather burning. This, I believe, will be avoided under this Bill to the satisfaction of the Forestry Commission and, I believe, of my noble friend Lord Lovat, who originally raised this point with me. Any other Amendment will be gladly welcomed by His Majesty's Government, and accepted if it is possible to do so in conformity with the spirit of the Bill. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Duke of Sutherland.)


My Lords, I desire very briefly to call your Lordships' attention to one aspect of this question which did not receive adequate consideration in the Committee of the House of Commons in which this Bill was considered. I refer to the question of how the burning of heather up to the dates mentioned in this Bill will affect the preservation or destruction of wild bird life in the districts in question There are many people who consider that the dates fixed in this Bill up to which burning is allowed are too late—that April 30 is too late for lowlands and May 15 gives too long a period for land above 1,500 feet. It is only with reference to those higher lands that I desire to say a word or two.

The omission to deal with this aspect of the question is perhaps all the more remarkable considering that your Lordships have been occupied to-day with the preservation of the wild birds, whose interests have been neglected, as I venture to think, in this Bill. May I quote a few words from an article by Dr. Eagle Clarke, who wrote in the Scottish Naturalist in November, 1917, in the following terms: The Highland deer forests are the most promising haunt for the preservation of wild life in the British Isles. They are, in fact, natural reserves. These are the very districts dealt with in the part of the Bill that refers to land over 1,500 feet above sea level. This distinguished person goes on to tell us of some of the birds that are to be found in these districts between 1,500 feet and 2,000 feet. They include the curlew, the red grouse, the lapwing, of which we have heard so much to-day, the snipe, the mallard, the teal, the little grebe, owls, both tawny and long-eared, the buzzard and the black-throated diver; and your Lordships will notice that very nearly all the birds to which I have referred are birds that are specially pro- tected either in Part I or Part II of the First Schedule of the Bill with which your Lordships have been dealing to-day.

May I suggest for the consideration of the Scottish Board of Agriculture, which will have to deal with this question of allowing the burning to go on until May 15, whether some words ought not to be put into the Bill that in giving their decision as to how long burning shall be allowed to continue, they shall have regard, as far as possible, to the preservation of this bird life? The precise form, perhaps, the Scottish Board of Agriculture will consider, but that some such words should be put in I think your Lordships will agree.


My Lords, I cannot let this occasion pass without saying that I very much regret that the Government should have thought necessary to take up this Bill, which I understand was introduced by a private member, and to pass it through Parliament under their own auspices. The noble Duke, in the short speech which he made as to the reasons for the Government's action in this matter, told us that it was in the interests of food production. I suppose that owing to the great facility given for the burning of heather it was thought that there would be a larger supply of grass for sheep grazing. I am very doubtful whether this great increase in food production which is anticipated by the noble Duke will take place. I know a great many areas in Scotland where, during the War, under the Defence of the Realm Act, tenants had the power to burn heather indiscriminately. Vast tracks of heather were burnt with the only result that a little, sparse, bad-looking grass came tip on which it was possible to keep only a very few sheep. That there was any large increase in the number of sheep grazed I do not think will be contended.

On the other hand, I am perfectly willing to admit that in the case of certain classes of land, by continual burning and the heavy stocking of sheep, you may get rid of the heather altogether, and get a fair amount of grass. That kind of land, however, is not of any great extent and I do not believe that there is a very large area where an increase in our flocks may be expected. The noble Duke has given us no information on that point at all, and I think that this Bill has largely been forced upon the Government by the action of a certain number of large sheep farmers, who, during the past few years, have been more prosperous than any other class of farmer in the United Kingdom. I happen to know that because I am one myself. In addition to the power given in this Bill, for which I think no sound reason is advanced, the Bill also contains the old fault of breaking existing contracts. These men, a large number of whom during the last ten or fourteen years have had an exceedingly good time in farming, are to be allowed to break contracts into which they have entered with their landlords that the heather burning should be in the hands of the landlord. Clause 2 now gives the tenant power, in order to break the conditions of his lease, to go behind the landowner's back and to get permission to burn heather just as he likes.

It is perfectly known to all of your Lordships in this House that the grouse shooting in many parts of Scotland is worth two and three times what the grazing is worth. Of course the noble Duke may get up and say it is in the interests of food production, but even then it is doubtful whether grouse, which is an exceedingly valuable bird and very good to eat, is not also, when bred in large numbers, a valuable form of food production in this country. It is a question whether the extra number of sheep which it is hoped to raise will make up for the elimination of what is, perhaps, the best eating bird in the whole of the British Isles. We have just been spending some of our time, perhaps very profitably, trying to preserve a great many birds of which I have never heard, and of which I honestly confess I never want, to hear again. Having spent, I think, nearly two hours of this evening in considering a Bill for the preservation of these wild birds, of which I suspect that a good many of your Lordships are in the same ignorance as myself, we are now asked to pass a Bill which will have the effect of banishing from our Isles one of the birds of which we ought to be very proud.

Your Lordships may feel inclined to ask why, holding these views, I do not put down an Amendment to reject the Bill on the Second Reading. I do not do that for the simple reason that, unfortunately, one's powers are very limited. If an evilly-disposed tenant wishes to do harm, of course he can do a very great deal of damage for which the landowner can get very little redress. When I first looked at the Bill I thought there was something to be said for it. I rather hoped it would have stopped at the first clause, but unfortunately such is not the case. I hope that in Committee some noble Lords from the North will be able to suggest Amendments which to some extent will allow the owners some little control over their property, and that the effect of the Bill will not in the result be so serious as I honestly fear it will be. I hope, too, that the measure may not have such dire effect as I fear, owing to the good will of the tenants themselves. As I read the Bill, however, it places the whole control in the tenant and the landlord is only to be a rent-receiver.


I am glad to hear that after representations made by the Forestry Commission the Government has decided to take notice of forestry in this Bill. As the Bill was originally drafted the words "woods," "plantations" or "forests" did not appear in any part of it. This was a privately drafted Bill and, as is often the case in Private Bills, was not conceived on very broad lines. It was more concerned with the differences of interest between landlord and tenant than as to how it would affect the general interest of the community. One of the greatest enemies of forestry is fire. In the small State forests which at present exist in Britain there were one hundred and twenty-six fires last year. In countries like America something like two million acres of timber are burnt in a dry season, while all who have travelled in the south of France know the great fires which occur on healthy land there, in the Esterels or Landes.

I trust that the Government will see that at this late hour sufficient protection is given not only to State forests, but also to those landowners who wish to plant in the neighbourhood of moorland. The forests of the future, which are going to be run by the State will, if the programme accepted in 1919 is continued, amount to an area of 1,700,000 acres, and their value ultimately will be certainly well over £100,000,000 or £200,000,000. At a time when we are legislating for land which is to be in the neighbourhood of some of these great forest areas, it is important that adequate steps should be taken that the danger of fire is kept as small as possible. During the last two months, we have had many representations from tree planters in Scotland that this will add a very considerable risk to the tree planting industry. I do not wish to associate myself with opposition to the Bill, provided that forestry is adequately safeguarded in the way that the noble Duke who represents the Government says that it is to be safeguarded.


My Lords, two or three months ago a certain noble Lord, a member of this House, informed me that the Secretary of State for Scotland was introducing a Bolshevist measure on heather burning. I must confess that if our friends the Bolsheviks never burn anything worse than heather—or should I say anything more desirable to burn than heather?—I shall have found my first and only argument in favour of that particular cult. For a good many years we have had desultory talk on the subject of heather burning, coinciding with the meetings of the Farmers' Unions and General Elections. But as the matter is of little more than academic interest to the generality of those most concerned, and would not turn fifty votes in the country, it has so far been severely left alone by various Governments, and has not been dealt with until the present day. At the same time, there is no smoke without fire, and it is possible in the first place that there may be isolated cases of injustice; and in the second place, as the law at present stands, in wet years and on the high ground it has been difficult to get burning done in the time allowed.

With regard to questions of injustice, even if they are few, I think the Secretary for Scotland has done wisely in trying to meet them. For we all know that a small personal grievance is very often exaggerated and used as a lever for quite different ends. I am all in favour of this Bill, so far as it removes any legitimate grievance and so far as it safeguards certain points which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Lovat. With regard to the second point, there are certain orators who on the correct occasions go about suggesting that landlords do not wish to burn the heather on their lands, in order to encourage sport and injure the sheep-farmers' stock—the only animal which apparently is the special concern of a great benign Providence. The contrary, of course, is the case, as is well known to your Lordships.

In nearly every shooting lease a special burden is put upon the shooting tenant if possible to burn his ground, so that there may be young heather for the grouse and grazing for the deer; and what suits the sheep-farmer equally suits the landlord. In my own experience the difficulty has been rather to get the sheep farmer to burn the ground than the reverse. If you want to get it burned it has been found best in practice to insist that the shooting tenant should undertake the job. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred where there is also a sheep farmer, on most well managed estates, there is happy co-operation between the farmer and the landlord or shooting tenant. If there is a difficulty I think it really lies in trying to get what I may term the two sections to go in for a style of burning that suits both parties.

You have to remember, first of all, that the land is the property of the landowner, and it is only correct that his rights should be considered. On the other hand, it is necessary that, to get the best advantage out of the grazing for the food supply of the country sufficient of the moor should be burnt to provide young grass for the sheep. We have to remember the enormous amount of money that is brought into the country by sporting subjects, and the very considerable contribution which they make to the rates; and we therefore have to look upon not only the sheep but also the deer as an alternative crop, and grouse as a sort of catch crop on both, in order to get the best advantage out of the land. All this means that the land has to be burned scientifically, and not in a haphazard way. A sheep farmer with only a couple of shepherds has usually not got the labour to control the fire. The result is that if it were left entirely to the shepherds they would probably drop two or three matches about the place and let the whole country burn out; whereas, if the two sections work together and the shooting tenant helps with labour, the work is more scientifically carried out.

The Grouse Disease Committee, of which some of us were members, and which issued its Report some years ago, showed very clearly that sheep, within limits, were of advantage to a grouse moor, and not the reverse. I can quote a case in my own knowledge of a moor which a few years ago carried 750 brace of grouse as an average, and whose average has now been lowered to 40 brace, simply because a sheep farmer had stripped the moor of all heather. That the proprietors naturally want to prevent. It was of very little advantage to the sheep but it had a very detrimental effect on the financial resources of the district.

The Secretary for Scotland has, I think, tackled the matter courageously, and given a fair judgment in the matter, and for that reason I am going to support the Bill. There are many criticisms which I could make, but I think its advantages, if it is going to secure peace and get this perpetually festering sore out of the way, compensate for its disadvantages. I am not qualified to speak for the Lowlands, but in the Highlands the free extra days given will do no harm, and the additional ones, if properly controlled by the Board, as I think is provided for in this Bill, will not do harm to any high-lying wet districts, but will actually be of advantage.

I could put some awkward questions to the noble Duke who has moved the Second Reading on the question of deer forests. I might ask him, What is a deer forest? I might say, If it is a deer forest, in what way would it affect the sheep farmer, and why is he dragged in? Why is it necessary to talk about deer forests in the Bill at all? I might point out that under this Bill deer forests over the 1,500 feet level may be burned, but if they are sheep farms they cannot have the extended time of burning under the Act, whilst grouse moors over 1,500 feet will apparently get off scot free. I am not asking the noble Duke to alter this; I thoroughly agree with the Bill. I can almost visualise proprietors of grouse moors in this altitude asking for a special indulgence in certain years, to have the same privilege of late burning on certain patches as is given to owners of deer forests. But these are all points which I think your Lordships need not trouble about or take seriously, as few-people will be affected.

Two points I think have to be elucidated, points of which I understand the Secretary for Scotland is aware and with which he may yet deal, first, it is not clear who is; the tenant within the meaning of the Act in respect of crofter townships. In that case it seems to me that it must be the Crofter Committee, acting for all the crofters in a common grazing, and that in some way the Land Court, which is the existing authority, must be brought in. The second point is that special provision must be made with regard to the safety of neighbouring woodlands, as the noble Lord, Lord Lovat, has pointed out. A large area of Scotland has recently been planted and is highly inflammable, and badly controlled burning might do many thousands of pounds' worth of damage.

Two minor points that I want to make in conclusion are, first, that I think there should be an addition of words to Clause 1 to the effect that the Board must take into consideration any representation made by the proprietor. At present they are not bound to do so. This seems to be implied, but I think it might be better to have the words inserted in the clause. The last point that I would make is that there should be an addition to Clause 1 of words making it obligatory on the tenant to notify the proprietor of any application he makes to the Board. I think that is only fair and right. Otherwise, I beg to support the Bill and, while everybody may not have got exactly what he wants out of it, I hope that both sides will take is as an honest endeavour to meet the reasonable views of both parties.


My Lords, as I was Chairman of the Game and Heather Burning (Scotland) Committee I should like to say something about the Bill introduced by the noble Duke. As I understand it, the Bill is a compromise between landowners and tenants and I should like to remind the noble Duke that the Committee over which I presided, which sat for some time and wag a very representative one, made certain suggestions. But the Bill goes far beyond what we suggested, and it seems to me that if the Government desires to keep proper control of the heather burning it ought not to go very much off the line laid down by my Committee.

One objection to this Bill is that which is offered to many Private Members' Bills—that the drafting is not what it should be. It was altered, I understand, a good deal in Committee in another place and no one now knows exactly what it means. That is nearly always a disadvantge of Private Members' Bills which have been amended as compared with Public Bills in which Government draftsmen have had a hand. As regards the power to burn, many people argue that the tenant farmer is the man who ought to do the burning because he knows what to do and is not likely to injure his farm. But it has been already pointed out that the landowners' interest is a permanent interest, whereas the tenant farmer may have only a temporary interest, though I am glad to say in many cases that his temporary interest continues for a good many years. But unless proper care is exercised, there is not only a danger of the fire going too far but even of its spreading to other people's plantations.

It is suggested in the Report of my Committee that the general permission given to burn up to April 30 under Regulation 2 M. (10) should not be made permanent, but that the normal limit of burning should be the 15th of April. The Committee recommended, however, that the power given to proprietors to burn or to give their tenants permission to burn up to April 25 on "high and wet muir lands" should be continued, but should not go beyond that date. On that point the Committee said:— We are led to this conclusion "— that the normal limit of burning should be the 15th April— not only by the evidence laid before us as to the time at which the nesting of grouse becomes general, but by the consideration that on most hill sheep farms lambing is in full progress before the end of April. We are thus disposed to add five days to the period normally permitted under the Act of 1772–73. The few days left beyond that date make the burnings late enough at any rate in the South of Scotland. When, during the War, permission was given for burnings up to May 1, the lambing was greatly interfered with in one place that I know. The fire raged for three days and affected a number of farms. Your Lordships will readily see that there may be considerable danger to sheep and lambs in such cases.

It seems to me that it is in Clause 1 that the Bill goes wrong to the greatest extent. That clause, I think, is difficult to understand. The Game and Heather Burning Committee reported that a grazing tenant who had failed to obtain an extension from the proprietor should be entitled to apply to the agricultural executive committee for a permit to burn up to April 25. That refers, of course, to tenants to whom the landowner had handed over his right to burn. When the Committee reported the agricultural executive committees were in existence, but they were abolished some years ago. It was on their Report that the permit was granted by the Board of Agriculture for Scotland, but seeing that those committees have disappeared the only body left to deal with the matter is the Board of Agriculture. If a complaint is made that the owner has not burned sufficient heath the Board, under the Bill, may make an order regulating the burning of the heather on the land in question if it is satisfied that it is expedient so to do. If the Board of Agriculture has already inquired and satisfied itself that more heather ought to be burnt it seems to me that it is in a position to make an order. On the other hand, unless proper inquiries have been made it cannot possibly do that.

As to the extension of the Bill to the autumn I was glad to hear what the noble Duke said in moving the Second Reading. Many people, of course, look upon the question of heather-burning as purely a game question. In the North of Scotland the game question is very important and the sheep question is in some cases comparatively unimportant. On the other hand, in the South of Scotland it is the sheep question to which attention has to be paid. Land may be very greatly damaged by over-burning, more even than by under-burning, which, of course, is more easily corrected. The greatest care ought to be taken in giving permission to burn. I once had a tenant who, on leaving the farm, admitted that he had not been round the farm lands or inspected the ditches and did not know their condition. It would be perfectly absurd to give such a man permission to burn heather. I have other cases, not very many, where complaint was made of the heather not being properly burned. One was the case of a very good tenant and the agent was instructed to go there. The tenant was unable to point out the places where the heather had been improperly burner, but other places which had not been mentioned were found where it had not been properly burned.

I am afraid it is not by any means the case that sheep fanners do take this great interest in heather burning that has been represented. On the whole, there is general give and take in this matter and, broadly speaking, I believe the interests of the grouse and of the sheep in my part of the world are not very far apart. Personally, I have to look at both sides of the question, because I have a considerable amount of hill land in my own parish. I do not know whether it is less burned than that of neighbouring farmers, but certainly I have not suffered from under-burning. I think this Bill should make quite clear exactly what is meant, and I hope the Government will look into the first clause: it seems to me somewhat ambiguous. At any rate, I do not quite understand it. I trust also that the Government will favourably consider any Amendments that we may suggest to remedy what is complained of without inflicting any very great hardship on anybody.


My Lords, His Majesty's Government are very grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken upon this Bill, and I can assure them that the suggestions which they have made will meet with full consideration before the Committee stage. Any Amendments that noble Lords themselves feel disposed to put down will have our most earnest consideration. With regard to the matter raised by my noble friend Lord Ancaster, I think he was in a little doubt—though I may have misunderstood him—as to whether the increase in food production would be very material as the result of this Bill. The Bill is based upon that expectation, although in certain respects it differs from the Report of the Duke of Buccleuch's Committee. In certain respects, however, it is based upon that Report and, in the opinion of that Committee, the steps which we now propose would increase the stock of wool and mutton in Scotland. Really we are acting upon that Report, which had the advantage of the evidence of the greatest experts who were available at that moment.

That Report also pointed out that in certain places in Scotland—perhaps not a great many places—there was a great deal of under-burning of heather. That perhaps does not apply everywhere, but in certain districts one can see that it is so. The Report, on the whole, strongly advocated heather burning, although, it may be, in a slightly different way from that which this Bill lays down. The reason is that agricultural executive committees existed at that time and they no longer exist; consequently, the Board of Agriculture is the only power left which can deal with this question and to whom an appeal can be made. The Report of the Committee on Grouse Disease, over which Lord Lovat presided some years age, has also pointed out that there was under-burning and that high heather was very often a cause of disease The existence of high heather shows the lack of burning. I think it was my noble friend Lord Ancaster who stated that this this was entirely in the farmers' interests. That is not so. Nearly everybody agrees that a proper system of heather burning is good for grouse, not perhaps in the same proportion or to the same degree as for sheep, but I believe a very useful via media may be found by which both grouse and sheep may be benefited by judicious heather burning.

There is no doubt that in certain cases heather burning has been neglected and it is at that that this Bill mainly aims. I agree most strongly with my noble friend the Duke of Atholl when he told us that it is the shooting rents which pay the rates and not the agricultural rents. That is absolutely true and one has to keep it in mind. As the noble Duke pointed out there are one or two anomalies in the Bill. There are in all Bills, or, at least, in a great many Bills. We invite the noble Duke to bring forward any Amendments to deal with the point that he raised. Such assistance would be of very great help to His Majesty's Government. Lastly, I should like do say that the Board of Agriculture, as your Lordships may be aware, are not likely to insist upon anything until after due consideration of the interests of all the parties and after receiving the very best advice from unbiased sources. There is a feeling that sometimes there may be unfairness, but I can assure noble Lords that the Board of Agriculture are not likely to be accused of that in the future.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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