HL Deb 06 December 1932 vol 86 cc229-48

THE EARL OF ILCHESTER rose to ask His Majesty's Government what further progress has been made in dealing with the musk rat and nutria danger; and whether the nutria has been scheduled under the Destructive Imported Animals Act, 1932, and what staff is employed by the Ministry upon the extermination of musk rats; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I make no apology for again bringing forward the subject of my Question which is on the Paper to-night, because the increase of musk rats in this country is becoming a very serious menace indeed and the Trustees of the British Museum can only look on the answers to the Questions which I put a few weeks ago as exceedingly unsatisfactory. I do not propose to detain your Lordships this evening by repeating matter which I mentioned in the House so recently. Therefore I do not want to take up very much of your Lordships' time, especially as your Lordships will probably have noticed that several interesting articles have appeared on the subject of the musk rat in the Press recently, drawing the attention of the public to this new danger which is threatening the country.

To take the subject of the nutria first, the nutria, as your Lordships probably know, is the coypu rat of South America. It is about the size of a beaver or a big otter. I do suggest to the Ministry of Agriculture that the only safe method of dealing with these animals, which are now being introduced into the fur farms of this country, is to schedule them under the recent Act. Possibly the nutria is not so prolific as, possibly it is less active in its methods than, the musk rat, but As greater size makes it an equal if not a greater danger. As far as we know it has exactly the same habits as the musk rat. At a conference which I understand was recently held at the Ministry of Agriculture between the members of the Ministry and the fur farm owners I am told that it was very noticeable that exactly the same arguments were used, often by the same speakers, as were used several years ago when the question of the musk rat was being discussed. I maintain that this animal should be treated with the gravest suspicion. What better way of keeping it under observation can there be than by scheduling it and putting the farms under licence so that the Ministry can keep them under full observation? I am afraid that the Ministry have been caught napping once over the musk rat and it seems to me that they would be very well advised not to take the risk a second time. Further, the nutria is a valuable animal, and surely one would have thought that the owners of these farms would welcome the assistance of the Ministry of Agriculture in preventing the escape of these animals from the farms.

Now I turn to the problem of the musk rat, which at the present moment is a much more serious matter. I was very glad to hear, on a recent occasion, the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, say that this was a very important matter. That is certainly a step in the right direction, because up to two or three months ago the Ministry of Agriculture did not seem in the least to realise the seriousness of the escape of these animals and they were doing extremely little towards combating it. They were really using methods which might have been employed by any man who set himself to kill a few harmless mice in a clover field. But now I believe they really are impressed by this danger, and it is up to them to impress the Treasury with the danger of the situation and to obtain the largest possible grant to deal with it. May we hope this evening to he given sonic idea of what grant is likely to be given for this purpose in the coming year? It is a serious matter, I know, at this moment, to have to suggest big expenditure, and I am afraid that it probably does mean big expenditure; but I believe that it would be an economy to go ahead at this time and not to waste one moment.

You may have to spend thousands of pounds now, but is it not worth spending thousands to save the reservoirs of this country, which may easily be undermined, and which will be undermined in time, by this pest; to save the banks of our rivers and to save the agricultural land on each side of our rivers; because, when the banks break down, that land becomes marsh and in time will have to be reclaimed, if it is possible to do so? I do say that unless this matter is tackled seriously all over the country you will be spending millions in a year or two's time, whereas you would probably be able to save the situation at the moment with thousands. Furthermore, you probably will not get to the bottom of the trouble if action is delayed. I am afraid that the Ministry of Agriculture have brought this situation on themselves. They were fully warned and they had before them the experience of Germany, where the situation is completely out of hand, as I told your Lordships a few weeks ago, but the Ministry did nothing for two years.

The noble Earl told us that he would have thirty fully trained men ready by the end of this year. That is a matter for great congratulation, but I hope that he is going to give us an assurance that he is not going to stop at thirty men. We want three, four, or five times that number and the sooner they are trained the better. Those men, as I understand it, are going to be employed only in Shropshire and in the counties round Shropshire. What is going to be done in the rest of England? On the last occasion I gave your Lordships' House a list of quite a number of counties in which this pest has been reported. Are the Ministry going to sit still and allow these rats to propagate all through next summer without doing anything to stop them? I sincerely hope that they will do nothing of the kind. It was for that reason that I pressed very strongly for a general survey of the whole country so that the Ministry should know exactly where these animals are. In answer to that, the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, said that I should be interested to know that circulars had been sent round to the drainage boards and to the catchment area boards. I shall be much more interested this evening if he will tell us what answers he got from those boards and whether they are going to help him. I raised the question with my own county council a week or two ago. I am glad to say that I think there are none of these animals in my own county, but I am quite sure, from the answer given, that if I had not raised the question that paper would have been put away and nothing more would have been heard of it.

I am very much afraid that probably the same thing is happening in other parts of the country. I noticed that in another place mention was made of some new pamphlet which was to be or has bene circulated, but this matter cannot be dealt with by circulars and pamphlets. The real difficulty is to detect the animal. The trappers have to be most skilful in finding out where he is. May I give an illustration? A man trained quite recently in Shropshire, an admirable man for the job, was told to clean up a small stream close to his own door. When he got to work he found that his own garden was full of rats and lie had not the slightest idea before that there were any there. That shows the difficulty of the situation. I urge that a thorough survey should be made of the whole country and in doing so I suggest to the Ministry that when their own trained men make this survey they should enlist the sympathy of the catchment boards, that they should hold lectures and teach as far as possible how the presence of the rat may be detected and how he may be caught.

I mentioned to your Lordships a few weeks ago the lamentable state of Shropshire and the neighbouring counties and I do not intend to repeat what I said, except that a recent survey of many miles of the Severn in the worst places at low water, showed that one could not go ten yards without discovering new traces. Another serious matter is that the rat is reported within two or three miles of the lake which is the chief water supply of Liverpool. To the list of counties I formerly gave may I now add the Fens of Cambridge and Hampshire? The rats are also reported from, Wiltshire. I am told that I exaggerated by saying that the embankments of the London Midland and Scottish Railway between Stirling and Perth were infested. The railway engineers have informed me that the embankments there are not infested and I have great pleasure in repeating their statement. It is only fair to add that the line runs through one of the worst districts for rats in Scotland. The water of the Allan river touches the embankments in several places. These are spots which the company, no doubt, will watch with the greatest care for it seems possible that even now the rats are there without their knowledge.

One of the danger spots is Carsebrech Loch, which was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, on a recent occasion. This is a lake a mile long and, I believe, a reservoir; it is within a stone's throw of the line, and I am told that the dams on two sides are riddled with holes—that it is only a matter of time before there will be a collapse. There is a large village not far off below the lake and it would be an unpleasant awakening for the inhabitants if these dams suddenly gave way. We were told that a start was going to be made during the winter, but nothing has been done there. The rat is reported from Fifeshire, Aberdeenshire, on the East Coast, and right across Loch Lomond; yet what have the Scottish Board of Agriculture done? We are told that they enclosed one loch, and incidentally I hear that the fence put up was so low that the rats jump in and out just as they like, and that a new fence is going to be erected. Bat surely that is not the way to deal with the matter. It seems to me that the Scottish Board at any rate must realise what they are up against. Is it surprising therefore that there is alarm at the situation? We insist on a very adequate grant from the Treasury and on an immediate and progressive increase of staff which car go about the country and find out where these animals are. This seems to us the only way of tackling the menace and catching up the two years which have so unfortunately been lost. I beg to move.


My Lords, before the noble Earl answers I would like to make one suggestion and that is that the best method of ascertaining where these rats arc would be to send instructions to every district fishery board throughout Scotland and England. They have watchers on all waters, especially at this time of the year, and probably would have better opportunities of detecting any animal than anybody else.


My Lords, the last time that this subject was raised by the noble Lord I took the opportunity of thanking him on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture for doing so, and may I on this occasion again thank him? I am very glad that he realises, as I think he said he did, that the Ministry of Agriculture is alive to the very grave danger with which this country is faced if we have an infestation of musk rats. May I assure him that we are determined to do everything in our power to see that the country is not allowed the infliction of such an infestation? Before I deal with the question of the musk rat perhaps I might touch very briefly on the nutria which has also been mentioned. The noble Lord brought up the question of nutria in the last debate. I then told him that there were certain inquiries upon the reply to which our answer must depend. I hope to have the reply to those inquiries in the next week or so, and let me assure him that if the result of those inquiries is to satisfy us, as I gather the Trustees of the British Museum are already satisfied, that action is necessary, then certainly we will not delay in taking action; but I think he is aware probably of the nature of those inquiries, and I think he will admit that we should not be justified in failing to await the reply.

May I now turn to the question of the mask rat, and the importance of the problem of dealing with the musk rat? We all of us know that Germany has been so overrun with this plague that they virtually, with the exception of certain important works, almost have given up hope of dealing with the question. We have one advantage over Germany, and that is we are an island, and the real problem, I gather, of Germany is that however thoroughly they deal with their own problem in their own country, there is a neighbouring country that does not deal with the problem, and accordingly Germany is being continually flooded by supplies of rats from this other country. We, fortunately, are not in that position and if, therefore, we can deal effectively with the musk rats in this country we can rest assured we are safe.

What exactly is the position at the present moment I think the matter has been put before your Lordships very thoroughly and very fairly by the noble Earl, Lord Ilchester. He has told you of the main disturbance, centring round Shropshire and going out into Montgomery, Stafford and other neighbouring counties, an area amounting to something over 300 square miles. In addition, the noble Earl has told you of other appearances of the mask rat. This is certainly most disturbing, but, although I do not want to minimise the importance of it a bit, I think it would be possible to exaggerate the fears which of necessity the appearance of a single musk rat must arouse. My reaction on first hearing of single musk rats having been seen in Sussex and Hampshire was to say that if one had been seen there were hundreds under ground, and that if there were hundreds under ground then there would be thousands next year. I find, however, that as far back as the beginning of 1931 single musk rats were found in Lincolnshire, Lancashire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire, and in none of those counties has there been a reappearance of the rat. It looked therefore as if it was an isolated escape from a farm before proper regulation was exercised, and that such escape has not been allowed again. There certainly have been outcrops of the rat and I assure your Lordships that it is our intention to see to it that every case of the appearance of this plague, in however apparently small a form, is being looked into and will be looked into by the Ministry.

Do let me assure your Lordships that if my last reply did not entirely satisfy you, if even this evening you are left with a feeling of disquiet, as everyone of us must be, it is not for lack of effort on the part of the Minister of Agriculture or his staff. It is a problem that has defeated Germany. We are going to do everything in our power to see that it does not defeat us. If your Lordships are not satisfied, when I tell you what we are doing, that we are taking all the action that is necessary, then I implore you to make every possible suggestion for increased effort or improved method, and we will be only too delighted to consider it. We are informed by our expert advisers—I might mention that one of our most valued expert adivsers is also connected with the National History Museum—that apart from certain improvements, and certain minor increases, which can be made, really everything is being done that could be done on the existing basis. If other methods of dealing with the matter can be suggested to us by experts we shall be delighted to consider them, but in so far as we are dealing by known methods with this plague we are doing everything that can be done.

The noble Earl mentioned the question of the Treasury. I cannot tell him beforehand exactly what the Treasury are going to allow, but I can tell him that hitherto we have asked the Treasury for everything that our experts have requested us to ask for, and the Treasury have granted us what we have asked for. Then, what exactly are we doing? In the area which I will call the Shropshire area we have thirty trappers working at the present moment, and—the next figure will perhaps astonish your Lordships—they are catching actually sixty to eighty rats a week. You will say then that the problem is only being played with, but the fact of the matter is this: We have a large area centring on Shropshire, where the numbers are really large. If we were to plunge our trappers into that main area the effect would inevitably he to drive the rats outwards, and the last position would be worse than the first. What we are really doing is that we are putting our trappers on the outside, where admittedly the rats are more scarce, and so we do not secure very large bags, but gradually we are driving in and I can tell your Lordships that we are expecting to reach the centre before next summer. Your Lordships will realise, therefore, that we are not proceeding at a slow rate. If we were advised by our experts that more trappers could be employed we are prepared to consider that, but at the present moment we are supplying all the trappers that have been demanded.

We are—and this is a very important part of our policy, because everything cannot be done by the Government—circularising all local authorities in the areas concerned. The noble Earl mentioned that his local authority had received notification but had not taken much interest. I think we may assume that the local authorities in the areas which are concerned will take great interest. In addition, we have circularised all the drainage authorities, the main catchment boards, and, through them, all the local drainage boards. We have also appealed to all landowners, both through the Press and through the Central Landowners Association and the Land Union, to co-operate with us in every possible way. I am not able to tell the noble Earl whether we have been in communication with the fishery boards, but I will certainly bring that point to the notice of the Department. In addition, we are issuing posters and leaflets to all interested parties, and we have received very great assistance from publicity in the Press. If some of that publicity has seemed at times to be rather critical of us, we "do not really mind in so far as the publicity for the musk rat will help us very much in waging our war.

I have said that we are perfectly prepared to consider an increase in the number of trappers, but can we say that the existing trappers are catching sufficient rats at the moment to make us feel that the doubling, if necessary, of their numbers is really going to offer your Lordships the progress which you desire? Supposing that every additional trapper caught as many rats per week as each of the trappers at present does, then our numbers would go up from between sixty and eighty to between 120 and 160. I think your Lordships would still, on those figures, say that we were playing with the problem. But I hope that the description that I gave to your Lordships of our policy, and the reasons I gave why the effect in numbers seems to be so small, will satisfy your Lordships that you must not at the moment judge the success of the policy by the actual numbers being caught week by week. I might tell the noble Lord—and I think he will be very glad to hear it—that we have been able to obtain an assurance from Herr Roith, the great German expert, that he is prepared to come over here and help us in oar campaign, especially in regard to training our trappers.

Might I add to the appeal that we have already made in oar circulars and in our letters to the various local authorities, catchment boards and landowners—might I add the appeal from this box of the Ministry of Agriculture to all those bodies to do everything possible to hack us up in our efforts? It is most essential that our intelligence work should be helped. I believe it is possible—the matter is under consideration at the moment—that the Department itself could do with an increase of official survey work, but in addition to that we require the backing up of all the various local institutions. When we are closing in, for instance, on this area there are bound to be some rats which will escape past our trappers. We find that the intelligence work is first-rate, and if individual rats do get by our trappers the keepers or other agencies inform us at once. Possibly there are other matters that we may have to consider.

We have discussed this matter already, but perhaps we could call in to a greater extent the assistance of science. It may be that the biologists or the zoologists could help us by evolving some form of disease or some scientific method of tackling this problem. To a layman—I am one— the suggestion may seem farfetched, but we are prepared at the Ministry to consider every possible alternative that is suggested to us. The noble Earl has mentioned that he would like a detailed survey of every single waterway in the country. Well, it may be that we shall have to come to that. Our information at present is that that survey would be a most tremendous expense and that the bulk of the answers would simply be negative. At the present moment we are relying mainly on those bodies which I have mentioned, to whom we have written. I think the noble Lord asked a question about the answers we were getting from them. I can tell him that in the vast majority of cases we have promises from the local authorities, the drainage boards, the railway authorities, the canal owners, and so on, of every cooperation, and we find that as soon as a rat is sighted we do now get a report, such is the public alarm about the matter. A suggestion has been made—and indeed in some areas for certain times it has been carried out—that we should offer a reward for every rat trapped. That is a policy that we have carried out to a certain extent. It is being carried out also in Scotland on a temporary basis, but I think your Lordships will admit that if we have that policy on a permanent basis it would have its dangers. It might be a temptation to some who are less scrupulous than others to encourage the breeding of rats rather than the destruction of them. At any rate, that is a point of view that most certainly has to be considered.

I think your Lordships will probably realise from what I have said that we are not complacent about this matter. We are satisfied that everything we can think of is being done, but that most certainly does not mean that we are happy about the situation. We should be most grateful to your Lordships, and to anybody, for any suggestions for further action. If trapping is not sufficient, is there anything else? Are there other methods that your Lordships are prepared to suggest? In the meanwhile I can tell your Lordships that, whilst pursuing our present policy to its utmost limits, we are prepared to push every item of policy hitherto pursued and to investigate every new item of policy that is proposed.


My Lords, my interest in the musk rat is not because of any episcopal responsibility for it, but because I happen to be Chairman of the Standing Committee of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. I should like on behalf of my colleagues to express to the noble Earl who has just spoken— and I waited until he had spoken before doing so— our gratitude to him for the evident signs of a renewed concern on the part of the Ministry of Agriculture which he represents. It was worth while my noble friend Lord Ilchester raising this matter again to get from the noble Earl, speaking on behalf of his Department, the assurance that his Department does consider this a very real menace to the whole country, and that there is no step which is likely to effect the reduction of that menace which the Ministry is not willing to take. I am most grateful to the noble Earl for that statement, and for the many assurances which his speech contained of the activity and concern of his Department.

I merely rose to say that the one thing which my colleagues specially desire and which Lord Ilchester specially mentioned, and which is contained in his Notice, was dealt with very cursorily at the end of the otherwise reassuring and, if I may say so, admirable speech of the noble Earl, and that is the necessity, in view of the greatness of the peril, of taking steps to have a really complete survey of the whole country in regard to this matter. I do not see how the admirable desires of the Ministry can really be carried out unless it is in a position to know how the matter stands, not merely in one or two areas where the evil has been particularly detected, but over the whole country. Your Lordships are familiar, after these two debates, with what has happened in Shropshire. It is to be remembered that only two years ago there was but a small colony of these rats in Shropshire and now the area infested, as he has pointed out, covers more than 350 square miles. The evil is spreading up and down the waters of the Severn and those waters that are connected with it. There must also be colonies of rats in different parts of the country which, in a very short time, may develop into as great a danger to all those areas.

I do not think it was mentioned, but take an area which is very well known to me, in the East and West Ridings of Yorkshire, all that marshy and watery land between York and Doncaster or Selby and York or Beverley and Hull. It is known that musk rats have appeared there, and very soon they may become serious, and that immense area, already as we know gravely in danger of floods, may have that danger rapidly increased. The noble Earl will say, no doubt, that these cases are well known, but I doubt very much whether the real gravity of them has been grasped by the local authorities, in spite of all these circulars, and nothing could be more effective—I am coming to that in a. moment—in dealing with these local authorities than being able to point to the results of a survey calling particular attention to the gravity of the position in a particular area. What I want to stress is the rapidity with which the little colonies of rats in one area can spread into a much wider area and do unmitigated mischief.

Again, as the noble Earl himself has confessed, it is not enough merely that the existence of these rats should be known. What requires to be known is the proper and scientific way of dealing with them when they have appeared. As he has rightly said, in Shropshire it would be madness, merely because rats have appeared, to set trappers at work, since that might only drive them into a further area. In Shropshire, quite properly, while dealing with the Severn itself, they are beginning with the outlying areas, and driving the rats in so as to prevent them spreading further, but with this kind of treatment these local authorities are imperfectly familiar, and I do not see how our local authorities can really tackle what is not only a most important but a most intricate subject, unless the Ministry of Agriculture will greatly increase the number of investigators and specialists who are prepared to give advice of that kind in the different areas which a survey will show to be really in danger.

Thirdly, I would impress upon the Ministry of Agriculture that these quite admirable admonitions which have been addressed to the various local authorities, the catchment boards and the drainage boards, would be immensely enhanced in their effect if the Ministry tackled the problem in a thorough way, and were able to make a survey of the position throughout the country, and call the attention of these local authorities to the position as it affects, or as it appears likely to affect, the various areas with which they are concerned. It may be, as the noble Earl has said, that this would be a matter that would entail some expense, but, in view of the weighty words with which he began his speech, I think that he will be able to persuade the Treasury that a large expense in this matter is really economical. It is far better to spend money to see how this great menace is affecting every par; of the country at this moment than to wait until an immense amount of money may have to be expended to repair the ravages of these rats throughout the whole of the country. Therefore, while cordially thanking the noble Earl for the considerate way in which he spoke and for the emphasis he gave to the greatness of this menace, I beg of him to implement the satisfaction which those parts of his speech gave to those of us who are concerned in this matter by an assurance, even now, that he will press the Treasury to enable the Ministry of Agriculture to make a thorough survey throughout the whole country.


My Lords, I would like to thank the noble Earl on the Treasury Bench for the spirit he has shown, but I must confess that I am still very much disturbed in my mind at the action which is being taken. I do not myself know anything about the nutria except that in Germany, and indeed in Central Europe, it is not scheduled as a pest; but that is not sufficient. Six weeks ago, with a full knowledge of the case, the Trustees of the Natural History Museum and the British Museum asked the Ministry of Agriculture to schedule this rat as a pest and nothing has been done. It is quite possible that an animal which is perfectly harmless in Germany may, in this country, with a different diet and a very much milder winter climate, be a real danger. They bring no allegation against the animal. They merely say that in the climate and in the dietetic circumstances of Great Britain it may be very dangerous and therefore should be scheduled. Nothing has been done except to make a few inquiries. I hope we are not going to see the comedy of the musk rat repeated.

May I just make a few technical observations about the musk rat to bring home to your Lordships more perhaps than has already been done how disastrous he is? The musk rat procreates its species with astonishing speed. A doe can have a many as five litters a year varying from three to fifteen offspring on each occasion. One doe has been known to introduce into the world no fewer than 65 young ones in a single year. And the trappers in Shropshire are killing them at the rate of two musk rats a week per trapper! That is not very helpful. The noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, says that apart from minor improvements everything is being done which is recommended. I really feel impelled by the complacency of the noble Earl to explain how this terrible situation has grown up owing to the caution of the Ministry of Agriculture and their passion for asking questions.

This matter was first brought to their notice by the Trustees of the Natural History British Museum on January 25, 1930. A second letter was sent to them two months later begging that importation should be prohibited and that existing farms should be controlled and supervised. Three months elapse. The Ministry of Agriculture then ask for the help of a distinguished member of the staff of the British Museum to whom special leave is immediately granted for a week or more. Then, having had the first communication from us in January, by the middle of June the Minister of Agriculture asks the British Museum if the musk rat is a rat within the meaning of the Rat Acts. After careful advice the Trustees reply, entirely without prejudice, and quite unofficially, and without impinging upon any judicial rights which your Lordships may possess on a subsequent occasion, that we do think the musk rat is a rat within the meaning of the Rat Acts. Four more months elapse. We are now at the end of October. We repeat our serious concern at the situation, and the Director is actually instructed to make personal representation on the subject pressing for prohibition and for licences. A month elapses and the Ministry of Agriculture agree that steps should be taken to eradicate the musk rat, but the legal position not being clear they think it desirable to consult the Law Officers of the Crown. Of course, the Trustees again have to protest.

Now we come to March, 1931. A conference at the Ministry of Agriculture decides that legislation is necessary. A good deal of trouble was taken about preparing an Act of Parliament and the Bill was read a second time on June 27, or thereabouts, but Parliament unfortunately was dissolved. If the Ministry of Agriculture had the slightest idea of the realities of the situation they would have got a Bill of this sort through Parliament in the last 48 hours, because every single representative of an agricultural constituency or of any constituency which has great waterways and canals and drainage systems realises how perilous the situation will be to husbandry, if it continues. But the Ministry of Agriculture did not realise the situation and allowed Parliament to separate with nothing done. But on October 24—again four months later —the Ministry decided that the Bill ought to be reintroduced and actually the Bill was passed into law sometime in April of this year. We very soon afterwards expressed our opinion as to the best type of appliances and on May 17 the Ministry of Agriculture told us that they considered the appliances and equipment adequate.

Now, my Lords, I do not know what the nutria is going to do when it gets loose in this country, whether he is going to behave as the other animal has behaved. He may possibly be like the perfect little gentleman that he is in Germany, but we do not know whether we are going to suffer the same trouble that we are suffering from the musk rat. It may be more serious, or it may be less serious, but there is danger. Why the Ministry do not immediately prohibit importation and provide for farms in this country to be supervised I cannot understand. I wish that any of your Lordships who happen to be passing the neighbourhood of the Natural History Museum would go in to see the interesting exhibit of the habitat and the habits of the animal, and the appalling devastation proved by photographs of some of the infested areas in Shropshire. As the most rev. Primate said just now it is essential that a proper survey of the country should take place. The noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, said that in Bedfordshire he knows there are not any there now. How does he know? He does not know. He is merely guessing. We ought to have a proper survey at once, and the Ministry of Agriculture ought to employ at once half-a-dozen inspectors ad hoc.

Think, my Lords, how active and how alert the Ministry of Agriculture are about foot-and-mouth disease. The moment there is an outbreak a huge area is scheduled. Inspectors are sent down by the dozen, by the car load. Chars-a-banes full of inspectors are sent down. Animals are collected and slaughtered and before you know where you are a whole herd of cattle has been burned. There is no system in Europe better equipped or more efficient for dealing with an outbreak of cattle disease than the system of the Ministry of Agriculture in this country. There is nothing in the whole world to touch it. Yet, when we are threatened with and actually in the throes of a risk of which we have all known for years, and which the Ministry of Agriculture have had before them since January 25, 1930, we really can scarcely get them to move. The noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, expressed some hope that money would be forthcoming in the new Estimates. The new Estimates do not come into force until April, 1933. The money ought to be spent now; the organisation ought to be laid down now for a great spring campaign. Unless we do that we really are going to have this musk rat nuisance becoming a plague and the plague will involve a very severe loss to farming as a whole.

I add only one further observation. If a biological attack can be safely made on this animal it would be a great triumph for science, and I hope that that subject will be investigated. I merely utter this word of caution. To poison these rats or to infect them with some parasitic disease may cause great damage to the musk rat, but it may bring about even greater damage to live stock of different descriptions. The fact that Lord De La Warr and his Department are considering the possibility of a biological attack upon the musk rat must not in any way allow them to be deflected from the immediate purpose of the Department, which is to kill the animals out by much more old-fashioned but less sensational methods. I again urge the noble Earl to be much more active, much more decisive, in this matter than he has been hitherto, because the more I hear about it the more alarmed I am at the progress of this very serious menace.


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will allow me to detain you for about two minutes, because I desire to support the observations which have been made by the noble Earl who moved this Motion. It must have occurred to your Lordships as somewhat remarkable that two debates have been raised on this subject with an interval of only some six weeks between them. Your Lordships are quite aware that repetition is the earliest form of emphasis, and it is because the Trustees of the British Museum have desired to emphasise the great importance of this matter that they have asked the noble Earl to present the case to your Lordships, in order that we may draw the attention not only of the. Ministry of Agriculture but of the public at large to this very serious menace of which the Trustees of the British Museum have cognisance and in respect of which they have a duty to perform.

Although one welcomes the observations which have been made by the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, I confess that there is too much of a note of futurity about them. If anything can be done or if anything can be told he hereby gives notice that the Ministry of Agriculture will consider it. The debate was raised six weeks ago and I should have liked to hear something of the past; I should have liked to hear him say that since the debate was initiated they have done this, that or the other. My Lords, they have done something. They have issued some leaflets and they have issued some posters, so I suppose that if your Lordships are detained waiting for a train at some station, side by side with the rates which are to be charged for the conveyance of goods your Lordships will have the opportunity of reading about the musk rat. That really is of no use whatever. You need skilled persons to deal with the menace. The musk rat burrows by the waterside; he does not reveal himself. It is no use telling people by a leaflet: "Please go and catch musk rats." They will not know where to find them and they will not know how to catch them. If one goes to the Museum at South Kensington one will see that the musk rat in winter builds a sort of curious beehive habitation. If one could find some of those, one might be able to destroy them; but to distribute leaflets and to issue posters is a waste of money.

We know that for this reason, that, although the noble Earl talks of the expert advisers of the Ministry of Agriculture, we know that they do not exist, or did not exist, because we at South Kensington were asked to provide an expert who knew something about it. There was nobody else who knew anything about it and they asked for our expert to advise them. More than that, they have quite recently asked that the expert should be given leave from South Kensington, because he was really the only expert they had and they wanted his services for a longer time. Thereupon the Trustees were asked to agree that this expert should be lent for a longer time to the Ministry of Agriculture. It is useless for the noble Earl to talk about his expert advisers. We know that the head and feature of the whole of them is the one whom we have allowed to go from the Museum at South Kensington to assist the Ministry of Agriculture. I should like to know how many experts have been trained? How many are there? What is the number of trappers who have been trained or who are in course of being trained for the purpose of dealing with this serious menace?

It was for the Trustees to reveal a responsibility which lies upon them. It was part of their duty to come to the House and to tell your Lordships what this menace is. It was part of their duty to try to rouse public opinion upon it, more particularly because they knew the imperfections in the equipment of the Ministry of Agriculture for dealing with this matter. I hope that the noble Earl will be able at no distant date to come and say that some trappers have been trained, that there are men authorised and equipped to deal with this matter, that the Treasury have been approached and that steps have been taken during this winter to see that the menace shall be dealt with. I do not want merely some story that a certain number of rats have been caught, which can easily be made good again by a score of does or rats in the course of a very few months. I wish to offer my thanks to the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, for the information which he has given. I confess that I have some sympathy with him in the position in which he is placed. The reason I got up to-night was in order to add my voice to those of noble Lords who have emphasised the importance of this question, and to press it upon the attention of your Lordships and of the public.

One more word about the nutria. The only step which can be taken and which should be taken is to schedule the nutria. Then the Ministry of Agriculture would be equipped to deal with it as and when the information comes that such and such regulations are necessary. Until it has been scheduled, with all the safeguards that are necessary, they are not equipped to deal with the nutria at all. They ought to take steps to schedule the nutria at once; then they will be able to deal with it. It is no use waiting until some replies have been received from the Continent or anywhere else. There has been a danger signal raised already about the nutria and it calls for immediate action by the Ministry of Agriculture.


My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, for his speech, because I realised from it that the Ministry are really seriously concerned about the situation. I confess that I am still very much alarmed because, as the noble Lord, Lord Hanworth, has just said, everything is too much in the future. What we want is that something shall be done at once, and the sooner the better. My reason for urging the noble Earl to increase his staff was that unfortunately trappers cannot be in two places at the same time. If they are going to deal with the Shropshire area, what is going to happen to the rest of England? Personally I do not mind the fact that not many animals are being caught, because I think the plan he outlined for Shropshire is the right one; but we want that done all over England. While the Ministry is sitting waiting you will have propagating all over the country next spring.

The noble Earl's speech was, I felt, an excellent one because it exemplified my point that a general survey was an absolute necessity. I feel I could not have made a better speech myself on that point. I hope that something may be done on these lines, as I think it is a purely technical matter and that you will not catch these rats unless you have trained experts. The noble Earl did not mention anything about Scotland. I hope the Scottish Board of Agriculture will be urged to take immediate steps. Further, I ask that the noble Earl will go to the Treasury not for £ 2,000 or £ 3,000, which I believe is what they are being granted. The noble Earl said the Treasury had been most kind and had given them all they wanted. I hope he will go to them for £ 50,000; and probably even that will not be enough. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.