HL Deb 14 February 1928 vol 70 cc79-89

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I feel that I owe some apology for asking you for a third time to give your attention to this small measure, but if it seems to you tiresome I trust you to believe that the fault is not mine. I have been unable to understand what reasons exist to prevent the Government from giving effect to this measure, which does nothing except reproduce in the form of a single Bill a clause which they themselves accepted in one of their own Bills intended to protect wild birds, with which they never proceeded. This matter, as I said, has been before you now three times, once when it was introduced in the Government measure, once last year when, without Division and practically without controversy, it passed through your Lordships' House, and again today. I might, I think, almost leave the Matter there and occupy your time no more and I would but for the reason that I most sincerely hope that on this occasion the Government will take steps to carry this Bill and make it law.

It therefore may not be unwise to repeat very briefly the reasons why it is I think this Bill should be accepted. In the first place I do not think there is any one who will dispute the extreme value of the plover to agriculture. In a censorious world the plover is almost the only blameless thing. I have never heard any one suggest that in any of its activities it does anything but good. It lives upon the wireworm and upon the leather-jacket, which are plagues of farmers to such an extent that, as you all know, the Government last year extended a Bill for the purpose of spreading poison to get rid of these pests instead of doing what was the obvious thing to do, trying to encourage their natural enemies in order that nature herself might find the real remedy for the loss she has caused us. I do not think their utility would be challenged by any one. My next point is that they are diminishing, and I suggest diminishing fast, in numbers. Any one remembering the condition of the meadows in the immediate neighbourhood of London thirty years ago will know that every meadow had three or four pairs of lapwings whereas to-day they will not find one for miles. They have been reduced beyond the reduction that has affected many other birds.

I have a remarkable confirmation of that in a letter written by a man whose name is familiar to some of the noble Lords opposite who had the pleasure of sitting with him in another place. I refer to Colonel Yate who, though he sat on the opposite side of the House to myself, was a man between whom and myself, I am glad to think, there was always very kindly feeling. This is what Colonel Yate writes:— It is appalling to see the diminishing flocks that are now in the fields. As Colonel Yate is a Conservative I wish that the noble Marquess the Leader of the House would pay attention to the following sentence. Possibly he knew it was coming and he is not here. Colonel Yate continues:— I do hope you will succeed in arousing the Government to a sense of their duty in this respect, and I am only sorry I am no longer in the House to back you up. This is my desire, to arouse the Government to a sense of their obvious duty in this matter, and I should like to know why it is that that duty has remained so long unfulfilled. In case it may be suggested that this Bill is unnecessary, or that it will effect no good purpose, may I just ask one or two questions? That the birds have diminished as Colonel Yate says to an appalling degree is, I believe, beyond dispute. What is suggested as the reason? Their only natural enemies, so far as the young are concerned, are the hawks and the crows and they are better kept down to-day than they were thirty years ago. Why is it then that these birds have been diminishing to this extent? I think the answer is to be found in what is, to me, the abominable spectacle that every poulterer's shop will exhibit in the next few weeks if this Bill is not passed. From end to end of the country, not merely in London but in every little seaside place, poulterers' shops will be smothered with plovers' eggs. It seems to me that the necessary result to the plovers must be disastrous.

There are one or two people who say: "Oh! well, you see, only the first sets of eggs are taken and these are laid at a bad moment. It is much better that the birds should not be allowed to lay their eggs at this moment." I have a shrewd suspicion that nature knows much better the time of the year at which a bird ought to lay its eggs than even the members of Government Departments. I cannot help thinking that if these birds in the course of nature lay eggs at a certain time and place it probably is the best time and the best place for them to do it. The next thing that is said is: "But the first set of eggs would be rolled over and harrowed over and destroyed." The answer to that is that in these very meadows to which I have referred that were alive with plovers thirty years ago, rolling and harrowing took place but it did not destroy the plovers. It may be that the first set of eggs were rolled over and the birds laid more. That I do not know, but this I do know: that the plovers were there. The next thing that is said is: "Well, the plovers always lay eggs twice. It will not do any harm if the first set is taken." The obvious answer to that is that the second set of eggs will be taken as well as the first. That is quite plain, because the birds will lay again within a week or a fortnight and a second set will meet the same misfortune as the first.

There really is no excuse whatever for withholding general protection from these birds. Protection is occasionally afforded by some local authorities, but that is perfectly useless. It is no use trying to protect birds within the imaginary area of a county council. Birds are not confined in a parish. Unless you can get protection which is general it will be practically without avail. At the end of last Session Lord Bledisloe, whose absence I very much regret, a man who has a more intimate knowledge and more scientific knowledge of agricultural matters than almost any other man, introduced a Bill in your Lordships' House for the purpose of putting into national hands the power of dealing with insect pests on the grounds that it was no use having local control. I took the occasion of the debate on that Bill to ask why it was that the Government had not adopted and carried this Bill. He was unable to give me any answer, but he was a warm supporter of my Bill and very anxious indeed that it should get through. I then obtained from the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, a promise, which I know quite well he would carry out, that he would represent to the Government the importance of putting this Bill through. I much regret he is not here, because I want to know, when he did that, what was the reply he received. I am surely entitled to know that and the House is entitled to know that, when for the third time we are putting Forward this Bill upon which we have been unanimous.

What is the answer the Government are going to make? It cannot be lack of time. I beg anybody to look at this measure. It is not possible that they can plead lack of time. What are the other reasons which make the Government say this Bill ought not to be proceeded with, and proceeded with at once before the present egg season? I have had letter after letter from a class of people who are not accustomed to writing, such as farmers, begging me to go on with this Bill because of the injury they suffer now from the diminution of these birds, but the Government have done nothing else but profess their anxiety to help agriculture. Why, when they have this small opportunity of doing some good, do they not do it? I sincerely hope that now at last they will repent and take steps to do something to carry out their promise, because, though I am anxious to give them credit for good intentions, if they fail to do it I shall say their protestations of a desire to help agriculture are nothing but vain phrases and their words are empty things. I sincerely trust that this opportunity will not be afforded me and that the Government will accept this Bill, the Second Reading of which I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Buckmaster.)


My Lords, it falls to my lot, not for the first time, to reply to the eloquent speech on behalf of the lapwing which has been made, also not for the first time, by my noble and learned friend opposite. One of his first questions was why his Bill, which was passed with the general assent of the whole House last Session, did not get through in another place. I think the reason really was that it practically formed part of a larger measure which had also passed through this House with certain Amendments, which went to another place and was under discussion there but which unfortunately did not meet with acceptance. I do not know why, but it seems to me to be very difficult to pass a Bill relating to birds through the House of Commons. I can assure my noble and learned friend, however, that the Government look upon his Bill with the greatest possible favour and, speaking on behalf of the Home Office, I can only say that we shall be delighted if it finds a place on the Statute Book. As regards anything that concerns the time of the House, I am hardly in a position to make any satisfactory reply. I can only say, in the absence of my noble friend the Leader of the House, that I will certainly not fail to bring before him the very cogent remarks which have been made by my noble and learned friend, and I assure him that efforts on my part to secure a place for this Bill, as I suppose my noble and learned friend would desire, as a Government measure, will not be wanting. I cannot assure him, however, that I shall be absolutely successful.

My noble and learned friend has made certain ornithological remarks to which, from a certain point of view, I take some exception. With regard to taking the first clutches of eggs, the matter is not, perhaps, quite so easy as he seems to think. I pointed out to him on a previous occasion that attention was given to this matter by the two very eminent Committees that sat to inquire into it, and that opinion was very much divided. I think that the early clutches of plovers have rather a poor chance of surviving in this world, and attention has already been drawn to the fact that the agricultural operations of harrowing, ploughing and the rest of it do militate against the successful hatching of eggs, which are often crushed into the ground. In any case the early clutches do not have much chance in the struggle for existence. There is very little insect food about at that, time, and it is very much better that these family arrangements should be postponed until there is a greater chance of their being successful.

For my own part—people always say this about drink, and about everything else, including plovers' eggs—I do not care whether I have these eggs or not. I rather dislike them on the whole, but I think that, if I had to rear plovers in any large numbers, I should certainly take the first eggs up to a certain time and get the birds to postpone their matrimonial arrangements, as is done with very great success with regard to ducks. A great friend of mine breeds an enormous number of semi-wild ducks, and he makes a point of not allowing the first eggs, which in his experience never come to anything, to mature. If you took the eggs up to a certain point, the birds would have to postpone rearing their families at a time when there was very little chance of their reaching maturity. I do not lay any great stress on that point, and, so far as I am instructed, the Government are very much in favour of this Bill. As to whether they will have time to pass it or not, I am not one who can give any authoritative opinion, but, so far as the Home Office are concerned, they do look upon it with great favour, and I would certainly sing the praises of the plover if they had not been sung very much better already by my noble and learned friend opposite.

With regard to the scarcity or otherwise of plovers, it so happens that I am very much interested in a bird sanctuary that was started by my noble friend Viscount Grey of Fallodon, some years before the War, in the district of Hick-ling in Norfolk. There is here a very large area that I am looking after in succession to him, and I should like to give the House an extract from a letter I received the other day from a watcher there with regard to lapwings. This man keeps a log of every bird he sees every day, and I think this extract from his letter tends to contradict my learned and noble friend's dicta on this point. Here is his note for January 20, 1927: The principal feature of to-day has been the immense flocks of lapwings on the marshes adjoining Heigham Sounds. This is near Hickling, and is one part of the sanctuary. He goes on to say: I have never witnessed such a sight before anywhere. They were quite forty to fifty thousand strong. This seems a large number, and the man had several witnesses. The other watcher and also an artist were present at the time. I asked him how he counted this very large number. He is quite accustomed to this work, and after counting them in sections this is the conclusion that he came to. No doubt these, were migratory birds, and I quite agree with my noble and learned friend that there is not nearly so much nesting of lapwings in this country now as there used to be ten or twenty years ago.

This is largely owing to the very great changes that have taken place in the land. Most of England now is becoming concrete roads, villas and bungalows, and the haunts of the plover are being very much diminished. I know that in my neighbourhood, the agricultural aspect of the country has changed a great deal. There is much less cultivation and many of the marshes are getting very thick with rushes. Lapwings and other birds do not like nesting in very dense places. I am trying to cut the rushes and get nesting places for the lapwings, and I have no doubt that, when this is done, there will be a good deal of nesting there, both of lapwings, and, I hope, also of ruffs and reeves, avocets, spoonbills and other birds. The change that has taken place in the aspect of the country has caused a diminution of home-bred lapwings, but I hope that steps will be taken to increase them.

With regard to the Bill itself, this is a very good Bill. It seems to me to be absolutely unobjectionable. I do not know whether I might make one suggestion to the noble and learned Lord opposite. The date which he puts in his Bill is taken from the Wild Birds Protection Bill, which was unfortunately killed in another place. I do not know whether he would consider in Committee whether it would not be a good thing to alter the dates which he mentions in his Bill for the purpose of bringing it into line with the dates in the Wild Birds Protection Act, 1880. That would mean altering the dates in his Bill to March 15 and August 1. That is a suggestion which I throw out. I do not know that I have anything more to say about this Bill, except to give it a hearty welcome, and I only wish that I could find it a place so as to secure its passage.


My Lords, I should like to say a word or two because I inherited from my father a very large sanctuary in which there are all kinds of things. It is about 60 acres in extent and it has got an island upon it. The guns are not allowed to be let off anywhere near it and we have had some very remarkable birds there. A curious thing, however, is the very extraordinary diminution in the last four or five years of rare birds. I have my own theory upon the subject, that it is due to the infernal tar which comes down off the roads. It has not yet got to the river which flows into my lake, but I know of places where it has destroyed every single fish. Whether that is the reason that the lapwing does not come as much as it used to do I am unable to say. With regard to taking the first eggs, nature provides when the bird should lay its eggs and I believe that the early eggs produce the strongest birds. I hope sincerely that this Bill will pass. What has struck me in the last few years is the enormous number of lapwings hanging up in poulterers' shops. I am sure that if your Lordships ate one you would never eat another, for they are horrible. I hope that this Bill will be taken up by the Government, for the lapwing is a harmless and pretty bird, and does enormous good to agriculture.


My Lords, I would not trouble you again for a moment, but now that we have the advantage of the presence of the noble Marquess the Leader of the House, he will, I think, forgive me if I repeat to him the question which I put in his absence. He will recall that at the end of last Session, when discussing a Bill introduced by Lord Bledisloe, I raised this question of the lapwing, and I asked him to use his influence with the Government to secure that this Bill should be undertaken by them. He promised to do what he could, and the question which I asked in his absence is: What did the Government say?—because it is really not much use for Lord Desborough to try to persuade this House that it is lack of time which prevents the Government from putting forward this Bill and giving it a chance.

I should think that two hours might see the whole thing through, but the Government will not even try, and so it cannot be lack of time. Then why is it? Is it that they do not believe in the Bill? It is of no use saying that ornithologists have their own views on the subject. The chambers of agriculture are very strong about the Bill. Is there some one in the Government who prefers eating plover's eggs to protecting the bird? That is the only conclusion which is left. There is no other. If the Government will not undertake this Bill, why will they not do so? That is a question to which hitherto I have received no answer at all. I will not deal with what Lord Desborough said, except to observe that in all probability this large flock of plovers came in a protected area. No one can doubt the diminution elsewhere. My points are first, that these birds are dwindling, secondly, that they are most valuable birds, and, thirdly, I do not think that any one can doubt that the wholesale consumption of their eggs must be one of the causes of the diminution.


My Lords, I must apologise for not having been in my place when the noble and learned Lord first spoke. I remember quite well his doing me the honour of conversing with me about the fate of this very subject last year. I do not remember that I promised to find out what attitude the Government would adopt towards it, but what I did promise, and what I carried out, was to mention in the proper quarter how very important this particular Bill was from the point of view of agriculture, and how in the noble and learned Lord's opinion—which I dare say is a very sound one—much more important it was that this particular measure should be put forward than other measures for promoting agriculture. When he asks me what reasons the Government would have for not putting this Bill forward I am sure that he will know what the answer is. It is perfectly true that a Bill of this kind is not likely to take up a great deal of time, but it must take up a certain amount of time, and if the Government were to promise to give facilities to a private Peer's Bill—even a Peer so distinguished as the noble and learned Lord—they would have great difficulty in refusing similar claims in the case of other Bills of which they did not themselves disapprove. The result would be that, although one Bill might not take more than two hours, added together these Bills would take a considerable time.


The Government can adopt my Bill now.


There is an obvious reason why the Government are very reluctant to give pledges on matters of this kind. The reason why these Bills take time is not that the Government take time over them but that time is taken by other political parties. I am not putting forward any charge at all—it is not a question of obstruction—but it is in the hands of the friends of the noble and learned Lord, and of the noble and learned Viscount who leads the Labour Party in this House, that it lies whether a Bill of this kind can get easily through. I am not going to make any promise, nor am I in a position to do so, but I would suggest, if I may, very respectfully to the noble and learned Lord who is sponsoring this Bill, and to the noble and learned Viscount the Leader of the Opposition in this House, that they might enter into communication with their friends in another place, and that then, when they get their assent, they might come to us and say that if this Bill is put forward in another place it will be received as a non-controversial Bill, and will be allowed to get through. Then the Bill will have a chance. Without that assent it is clear that it is in the power of any member, or at any rate of any small body of members in the House of Commons, to make the Bill a ground for the consumption of very valuable time.

I do not want to go into the ordinary procedure with which we used to be very familiar when we were members of the House of Commons, but I may hint at it when I say that, if there should be upon the Order Paper of the House of Commons a Bill to which the Opposition of the day have considerable reluctance to agree, the Opposition take care to discuss at such length the Bill preceding it that it has not very much chance of coming on. That is a very familiar process, and it is one of the reasons which make it so difficult to pass these admirable Bills. If, however, the noble and learned Lord will get from his friends in another place—and the Labour Party will do the same—an assurance that this Bill will be allowed to go through without discussion, then, while I cannot promise, of course, I can hold out a much better hope of the Bill passing.

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