HL Deb 14 February 1933 vol 86 cc657-71

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, before I ask your close attention to the terms of this measure it would, I think, be well to state in general language what the law is at the present moment with regard to wild birds. The governing Act is an Act passed in 1880, 53 years ago, and it provided that certain named birds set out in the Schedule should be protected between March 1 and August 1 in any year, and that anybody who exposed or offered for sale, or used any net, to take any bird between those dates should upon conviction suffer the penalties stated in the Act. It also enabled an extension to be made of the time during which birds might be protected, on a representation made by the justices assembled in Quarter Sessions.

The Act appears to have had as many leaks as an old tin kettle, for it has been amended no fewer than seven or eight times since it was passed. One amendment permitted the inclusion by the Secretary of State of a bird that was not originally mentioned in the Schedule. Another enabled the Secretary of State, for special reasons, to extend the period during which birds were protected. Then came Acts to prevent people from affixing traps, gins and snares for taking birds. In 1908 there was an Act that provided that any attempt to take a wild bird by means of a hook should be the subject of punishment; while in 1925 the capture of a bird by decoy or bird lime was prevented. At the same time there was a provision that any person who kept or confined a bird in any cage or other receptacle which was not of sufficient dimensions in height, breadth, etc., to enable the bird to stretch its wings, should be guilty of an offence; but it was provided specially that that should have no application while a bird was being shown for the purpose of public exhibition or competition, though the bird was not for that purpose to be shut up for more than 72 hours.

Having heard this summary of the provisions of these Acts of Parliament, it must be plain to your Lordships that during the whole period of the year that is not covered, from August to March, there is almost unlimited opportunity, in areas that have not been protected by orders made by the Secretary of State, to capture wild birds practically to any extent. That this opportunity has been used and is being used to-day to a degree that I think people do not fully realise, can be seen by anyone who goes to a place in London that is known as Club Row. I have not been there myself, but I do not think that any one of your Lordships would dispute that the evidence of a man like the editor of the Field would be very valuable, to tell you what it is that goes on there. I know of no paper more honest, more manly and straightforward than the Field, and I believe that every one of your Lordships will agree with that verdict. You do not go to the Field to find people being needlessly sentimental over suffering of wild creatures. Cruelty they do hate, but they have never interfered with sport.

This is what he saw. He found a barrow with wooden cages containing linnets, goldfinches, and a variety of other birds, and as buying was brisk he described exactly what took place. The woman in charge of the birds took linnet after linnet from a tiny cage. She held it up by its tail and legs, dipped its beak into a little glass of dirty water, poked it bead first into a cardboard box, closed the box and pocketed a shilling. She took and dipped a goldfinch and sold that. The writer goes on: Then I caught sight of a song thrush, in a wire cage, crouching against the bars.-Others watched it besides myself. 'New to it; don't know where he are, in that cage,' I heard behind me. He asked how much it was and was told 6s. He bought it and the thrush with open beak was placed in a cardboard box. He then bought some linnets and went away with them.

As soon as he got out of London he opened the box and the linnets flew away. The thrush could not move. After a little it fluttered along the ground to creep into a corner of dead bracken packed over a myrtle bush. He put water near the bird and left it in the sun and wind. In two hours' time it fluttered out and sat up, so he knew that its leg was not, as he feared, dislocated. Ten minutes later it found its wings. The article continued: Wild birds are sold in this way. … Can we not alter the law? … Cannot the British Government, even in these hard days, spare an hour to save these wild singing birds from paper bags? Now, my Lords, I want to show you the extent to which this trade is carried on. Bird competitions are established all over England and are conducted in almost every place you can think of, from the Crystal Palace to a public-house, and men are encouraged to take and keep these wild birds in the hope of getting some of the very valuable prizes that are provided at these shows for anybody who has managed to induce some wretched little creature to prolong its life in captivity, because of the birds taken it is estimated that not more than 10 per cent. live.

They die probably of great wretchedness, through being confined, but these shows explain that it is a good thing to take these wild birds and rear them. In one of the opening sentences in their catalogues they ask: "Does it pay?" Yes, I have no doubt it pays very well. Here are some of the lists of birds in the recent exhibition given at the Crystal Palace. I take one class alone: Hedge, house and tree sparrows; long-tailed, great, coal, marsh, blue and crested tits; bearded reedling; common, golden-crested and fire-crested wrens; pied and spotted fly-catchers; tree-creeper, wry-neck and nuthatch. That is one class, and the first prize for a tree-creeper is £50. All down this catalogue you will find prizes that I estimate amounted to several thousands of pounds for people who could produce these birds at this exhibition. The next list contains names familiar to many of your Lordships—the nightingale, the blackcap, the willow, wood and garden warblers, the chiffchaff, the whitethroat and lesser whitethroat, the whinchat, stonechat, redstart and black redstart. I could go on with any number—practically every bird you know; all the wagtails, the wood and the shore-larks, the meadow- and tree-pipits, the dipper. The idea of there being a class for a water ouzel is certainly a startling thing. And for all of them there are these large prices.

Let me tell you, my Lords, what the editor of the Field, who went to see this, thought about it. This is what he says: One of the tree-creepers ran unceasingly from one side of his cage to the other, upside down along the roof; the ceiling cloth was worn to tatters. Another unceasingly crept backwards and forwards over the back of its cage. The nuthatch never stopped jumping from one side of its cage to the other. The wren went ceaselessly from a perch into a hole in a box, out of the hole on to the floor, up from the floor to the perch. Then he makes a comment, which I think is not unfair: "How many people in England realise what it is that is going on?" It is not merely birds such as those that I mentioned. Among other birds that I have seen a note of were the kingfisher and the swallow—the kingfisher, with the flight of an arrow and a flame of blue, shut for ever in a cage, where it will never again be able to show the miracle and wonder of its wings; and the swallow—a bird which under the impulse of some power greater than any that we can measure, is driven every autumn across the ocean and across the desert to seek the sun; fancy that bird shut up in a cage and exhibited as a curiosity at a show !

Surely we do owe something to these creatures. Those of us who take pleasure in enjoying the sight of them must feel that we owe them something, and that something, I suggest, will find expression in an attempt to redeem them from the condition in which they are placed. It is not only that. Take the lark. They not only imprison the lark, shut up within a narrow cage the wings that were built for the sky, but you will find a full account of the best way to treat a lark in order to make it sing. I cannot possibly guarantee the accuracy of statements that are made in periodicals or papers, but I can give you the paper and the date. On April 21, 1928, in the Surrey Comet, a paper that I have always known as a thoroughly reputable paper, there is this statement: Recent prosecutions in the police court at Kingston have focussed attention on particularly abhorrent forms of cruelty practiced by bird catchers. Statements were made of a bird having been deliberately blinded by the use of a red-hot needle, the birds being absolutely smothered with that vile glue-like composition known as bird lime. There is another form of blinding which, although perhaps less deliberate, is hardly less cruel. This other process is a slow one, and it may be that many months pass during which the victim slowly loses its sight. To prepare for the competitions, the birds are kept in tiny cages covered with a black cloth, or in a lightless room or cupboard for weeks or months, only catching a glance of light at times for their food. And that that is true is made perfectly plain by a book that is quoted by the editor of the Field. It is called "How to make a skylark sing." He describes how for many of these competitions you have to shut the bird up in absolute darkness up to a period of four days, and I. imagine that if that does not succeed you can try more. You feed it on meal-worms soaked in old whisky, and then, at the end of four days, you have to bring this bird forward and hope that the excitement of the light will make it sing. And this is the lark, a bird that at the very first flush of the morning rises to seek the sun; this is what you do to the thing that I regard as the only true optimist that has been left in this machine and trouble-ridden world.

I want to have the whole of this ended, and with your Lordships' help, I believe it possible. The Bill applies only to the English birds, and for this reason. Canaries have been bred so long in captivity that it may be expected that they will have forgotten the liberty of the air, just as man, in the long course of his evolutionary development, has forgotten the freedom of the forests. They no longer know what it is to want to fly. They are happy in their cages. They will sing, they can be delightful companions, and there is an excuse for anybody who says: "What I want to do is to keep a bird"; there is no reason why he should not keep a canary, and my Bill does not propose to affect that right. What the Bill does is to provide that any person who takes alive aid keeps in a cage any of the scheduled birds, or exhibits alive in a cage at a competition any bird, or sells or offers for sale or has in his possession any bird mentioned in the Schedule, with the proper provisions enabling birds already existing to be excluded, shall be guilty of an offence against the Act, for which the punishment is merely a matter of £2.

It is not merely the question of the punishment. If we can only get this Bill through I feel quite certain that you will find that public opinion will gather behind the law, just exactly as the gulls gather behind the plough. Your Lordships in 1928 passed a Bill after three years' attack upon the stubborn apathy of the Government, and I do not believe it would have got through then but for the aid given to it by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury. But that Bill became law, and I feel quite satisfied that any one of your Lordships must have felt some sense of satisfaction on seeing the increasing number of the flocks of those birds whenever your good fortune has taken you to the spots where the winds sweep and the plover cry. I want you to extend your treatment to these other and smaller birds; and, just as you saved the plover from something that was threatening its extinction, so I ask you now to redeem these birds from a cruel and shameful captivity. I beg to move.

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


My Lords, I am sure the noble and learned Lord will have the sympathy of all your Lordships in the subject which he has brought forward this afternoon. But I have to say, on behalf of the Government, that the proposals in this Bill are very drastic and far-reaching, and it is quite certain, I should say, that considerable opposition to them may be expected from persons interested or those who would be adversely affected. I need not go into the provisions of the Bill or the different methods which have been adopted in the last ten or fifteen years for the protection of birds. This Bill is intended to go further. The effect of the Bill is to stamp out within six months the trade in British cage birds. Perhaps this is what is intended, but it would apparently be an offence to keep or sell birds taken abroad and imported. I see that finches and larks are mentioned in the Schedule and the scheduling of quails would also, I understand, appear to make the importation of live foreign quails illegal. The selling or keeping of any scheduled bird as a pet or for exhibition would be illegal, the trade of bird shops which cater for keepers and exhibitors would be taken away, and the very considerable trade in bird seed and other food would be very seriously affected.

Apart from that, there is the question of enforcing this measure. The provisions of the Bill would be very difficult to enforce and no machinery is set up in the Bill for that purpose. The enforcement of the provisions as to taking, exhibiting and selling would require wide powers of entry and inspection, and to enforce the prohibition of keeping birds in cages would involve entry and inspection and possibly search of any private house where there was reason to believe that a scheduled bird was kept in captivity. The four main points in this Bill were considered by a Departmental Committee in 1919 and in no case did they consider such drastic measures as are now proposed necessary for the protection of birds from cruelty. That Committee, after full inquiry, came to the conclusion that it would be sufficient to safeguard against cruelty if bird catchers and bird shop-keepers were required to take out a licence.

As regards the exhibition of birds the Report shows that the Committee saw no reason for any interference in the matter on the part of the Government. I can give your Lordships one or two extracts from that Report. They deal in one paragraph with the question of bird catchers. These bird catchers, as your Lordships know, are hired by farmers to catch birds which are damaging their crops. The Committee says: In the case of these professional bird catchers we were told, and we can readily believe it, that the trade was not attended by cruelty, and that in their own interests the men gave proper care and attention to their birds. There are, however, bird catchers who are amateurs, and therefore less expert, and in their case it has been found that a certain amount of cruelty has been inflicted. But the police and the inspectors of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals inspect the braced and decoy birds used by bird catchers on common or waste land, and there have been a considerable number of prosecutions. The noble Lord, Lord Buckmaster, referred to a case reported in the Surrey Comet. That was a prosecution. I think that would show that there is a certain amount of supervision at the present moment.

As regards bird shop keepers, the Committee went on to say: We recommend that there should be regular and careful inspection of shops and places where birds are kept with a view to the prevention of the keeping of birds under bad conditions. In order that the police may have adequate powers to deal with this question we recommend also that bird dealers should be required to take out a licence in the same way as bird catchers. As to shows, the Committee received a number of allegations with regard to the exhibition of British birds at shows. The Report says: It is in fact the practice to provide classes for British birds at many cage-birds shows, while British birds are, we understand, often shown also in non-British classes. The number of such exhibits is, however, not large, and it is in the interests of exhibitors to take the greatest care of their birds in order that they may be shown in good condition. We see no reason for any interference in the matter on the part of the Government provided the birds shown have been legally taken. The trade in wild birds is very large. We were told that an average week's catch by one man would be six dozen, while catches of eighteen dozen a week and five to seven dozen a day by professionals were mentioned. The action of the Police and the Sunday Protection Orders have largely put a stop to the operations of the amateur bird catcher, but we think it would be well if all bird catchers were required to take out a licence costing, say, 5s. a year. Since 1919, of course, many steps have been taken still further to protect birds from cruelty.

As regards the attitude of the Government, whilst sympathising with the desire to protect wild birds from cruelty the Government is doubtful whether public opinion is prepared to go as far as is proposed in the direction of entirely prohibiting birds being kept in captivity. Complete prohibition would affect the livelihood of some people and the innocent recreation of others. On the other hand, there appears to be room for inquiry in which the parties interested would be heard. Such an inquiry may produce less drastic and equally effective proposals which will be more capable of effective enforcement. Although the Government therefore cannot commit themselves to the principles embodied in this Bill and cannot promise facilities for the further stages of the Bill, they think that if your Lordships wish to give a Second Reading to this Bill this afternoon, the best way of having that inquiry carried out would be to refer the Bill to a Select Committee, who would be able to undertake any further inquiry that seemed to be necessary.


My Lords, I rise chiefly to ask a question about the drafting of this Bill. I understand the noble and learned Lord opposite to say that birds which are now in captivity are safeguarded, so to speak, under the proposal. Is that so?


I think so.


I cannot find it in the Bill. But if that is the noble and learned Lord's intention, I have no doubt, if it is not implicit in the Bill, he will make it clear during the subsequent stages. I cannot quite see where it appears in the Bill.


I think I can point out where it arises.


My noble friend Lord Lucan said it applied to foreign birds. He mentioned larks and finches, I think, and also quail. That is not the case. This Bill only applies to British birds. The actual words used by Lord Buckmaster are "English birds," and the effect of this proposal would be to transfer the trade in caged birds from British birds to foreign and to Irish birds. I wonder what the result of that will be in attaining the ideals to which Lord Buckmaster directed our attention. The trade in foreign birds will replace the trade in British or English birds. We shall have thrushes, blackbirds and finches and so on brought in from Ireland, or from the Continent. The risk involved would be much greater probably in the long run, and the mortality would be far greater too. I would have preferred that the matter should have been approached in a much more simple and more direct manner.

I do not think the Schedule is adequate. You may not keep a hoopoe in a cage, or a golden oriole, or a great grey shrike, but you may keep a ring dove or a kestrel in captivity. There is no group of wild birds which appear to me to suffer more from captivity than the accipitres. We are going to get into the difficulty mentioned by Lord Lucan very quickly if we say that a certain group of birds may not be taken and kept in England, but may be imported from abroad—the same identical birds, but non-British, which birds, of course, will be constantly substituted for the English birds which are in captivity. In order to determine that point you must have all sorts of difficulties, and often very vexatious inspection. There is one inspection, by the way, in subsection (3) of Clause 1, which, I think, is not necessary; that is, that the Zoo should have to be instructed how to look after its birds by the Home Secretary. I really do not think that ought to be pressed.

My other point is this. I do not think it is necessary that the Secretary of State for the Home Department should be entitled to add to the Schedule any birds that he thinks fit. That power has been granted in one or two other Bills, but only in a very limited sense, sometimes merely to extend the periods of protection, and once to add a bird that had been omitted by mistake, but that was done by Parliament. I think there is one other case where it is done, but here the Secretary of State is entitled to include any other bird. I can well imagine a Secretary of State saying: "We will forbid pheasant farms," or, "We will not allow wild fowl pens." Those points ought to be considered; but what is more serious is that this will transfer this trade to foreign birds of identical species, and in doing so will very likely bring about a larger total amount of cruelty than is the case to-day.


My Lords, may I say one word in the hope that those of your Lordships who are supporting this Bill may accept the suggestion which has been made by my noble friend Lord Lucan, with regard to a Select Committee? No one hopes that this Bill will receive a Second Reading more strongly than I do, and no one feels more strongly than I do the weight of the arguments which have been used by my noble friend Lord Buckmaster in pressing upon your Lordships that something should be done to prevent this trade, and prevent the cruel usage of these birds; but I, like my noble friend opposite, Lord Crawford, feel that this Bill does require a good deal of consideration before it is accepted as the law. I think there will be great administrative difficulties.

The main question arises in Clause 1—that is to say, the Bill prohibits the taking alive and keeping in a, cage or other receptacle any bird to which the Bill applies after its passing as an Act. That is very important. That means that any powers which there are now will not be affected, but the difficulty which I perceive is this—how are you going to prove that the bird which is kept in captivity is actually a bird which has been taken in this country? You do not propose in the Bill to prohibit the keeping of British wild birds which have been bred and reared in captivity, and I do not think there would be any interference by the Customs with the importation of birds from abroad. You do not intend to prevent the importation of wild birds from abroad which are of the same species as British birds. The noble Earl, Lord Lucan, has suggested that there is no machinery for control in the Bill, and probably that would have to be added to make it effective.

You might administer it in two ways. You might presume that all birds of British species have been taken alive, and you might put upon the owner the necessity of proving that his birds had been imported from abroad, or that they had been reared in captivity. I think this raises very great difficulties indeed, because it might be impossible to prove that the bird had been imported, or that it had been reared in captivity. You might put the onus of proving it upon the police, and say to the police: "You cannot prosecute unless you can prove that the bird has been taken in this country." This dilemma would do a lot to make the measure very difficult to enforce, and it would lose the value which my noble friend Lord Buckmaster seeks to give it for the protection of birds and the prevention of cruelty. The great difficulty that I see in the Bill is in making it effective, and that is one of the reasons why I think it would be desirable that it should be submitted, as my noble friend Lord Lucan suggested, to a Select Committee. I believe the Select Committee could make it a workable Bill which could be enforced, and would be able to bring about the end which my noble friend Lord Buckmaster advocates and which I am certain every member of your Lordships' House desires to see carried out.

There is another paint, the question of the Schedule. I think the Schedule requires very considerable revision. It is rather difficult, or probably will be difficult, to interpret, but I do not see that there will be any great difficulty in specifying definitely the particular birds to which it refers. My noble and learned friend Lord Buckmaster referred to canaries. I imagine they would not come within the scope of the Bill as the title only deals with British birds, but still as a matter of fact a canary is a finch and the Schedule contains "Finches (all species)." That is another point which might be considered by a Select Committee. Then the Zoological Society is not the only responsible body which keeps a collection of birds. I believe the London County Council have birds in Battersea Park. There are other bodies besides the Zoological Society who are able to keep, and do keep, birds under the same conditions as they are kept by the Zoological Society. I think that the provision that the Secretary of State should lay down conditions is necessary because only the Secretary of State could make by-laws which would have to govern any society which sought permission to start an aviary or a collection of birds.

If this Bill were to go before a Select Committee evidence might be taken from local authorities who have to administer the Acts, and who would be able to say how successful they have been, and witnesses from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals could be examined as well as all those who are anxious to keep birds under proper conditions and prevent cruelty. It has been said very often in your Lordships' House that reference of a Bill to a Select Committee is tantamount to sentencing it to death, but I do not think that is quite correct. I have served on two Select Committees—one dealing with a Bill for Criminal Law amendment and the other a Bill relating to the guardianship of infants—and within a very short time, and I think consequent upon the fact that they were referred to a Select Committee, those Bills became Acts of Parliament. I do not see why examination by a Select Committee should take long. I should think it could be done by Easter or by Whitsuntide at the latest, and if the result was a Bill so drafted that the Government could give it support I do not see why it should not go through Parliament this Session. Therefore I rather hope that the noble and learned Lord will consider favourably the idea put forward by my noble friend the Earl of Lucan.


My Lords, having listened to the speech of the noble Earl, the representative of the Government, I gather that acceptance of the suggestion that it should be referred to a Select Committee would so far as he is concerned remove objections to the Second Reading of the Bill. I speak as one who has been actively engaged in putting forward this Bill, and so far as I am concerned, though I am not authorised to speak on behalf of anyone else, I would say that our object has been to get a Bill which will not only carry out the principle involved but which will be thoroughly watertight and therefore effective. The noble Earl who represents the Government raised objections on the ground of the difficulty of administration. That difficulty would not be increased but, indeed, diminished by this Bill. At present there are all sorts of different Schedules. There is the original Schedule and there are Schedules for different counties, and they give protection for certain periods, sometimes for a year and sometimes only for a season. So far as I can see, this Bill would enormously simplify administration.

The point is that we want an effective Bill. Those of us who have studied the question have come to the conclusion that there is at the present moment in two ways an enormous amount of cruelty involved in caging wild birds. In the first place, as my noble friend has pointed out, the mere fact of keeping these wild birds in cages necessarily involves a great deal of suffering and cruelty and mortality. That is one way in which there is cruelty, but there is also suffering and injury and mortality caused by the netting, the taking and selling of these birds under the conditions indicated by my noble friend. That does not apply to classes of foreign birds, like canaries and budgerigars, which are bred in captivity or at any rate taken out of the nest as young. They, never having really felt freedom, do not suffer in the same way as wild birds. So far as wild birds are concerned they cannot be taken from the nest and tamed while they are young because under the original Schedule and under the Schedules of various county councils no birds such as larks, bullfinches and so on can be taken between March 1 and August 1 or sometimes August 15. Therefore there is no possibility of their being tamed by being taken into captivity at an early age.

The cruelty, therefore, is far greater when we are dealing with birds which are neither bred in captivity nor taken as young but are captured when adult birds. All this makes those who have studied the matter feel that some drastic steps should be taken to prevent the increasing cruelty which exists. I for one would welcome the proposal of the noble Earl who represents the Government to send the Bill to a Select Committee. I understand, as the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, endeavoured to show, that there are various difficulties as regards the question of foreign birds and the administration of the Schedules. Therefore, if the House assented to the Second Reading and thereby accepted the general principle that some drastic steps ought to be taken to prevent cruelty, I myself would be prepared to agree to the Bill going before a Select Committee where the whole matter could be thrashed out and, I hope, a unanimous conclusion reached.


My Lords, I should like to deal with one point in the speech of my noble friend the Earl of Crawford. He seems to think that a large number of birds of an English type might be brought over from the Continent and Ireland. I understand that at the present moment it is impossible to import from Ireland many of the birds named in the Schedule into this country. Therefore the danger he apprehends would not occur. It seems to me that it would be quite simple to introduce an Amendment to arrange for the prohibition of the birds named in the Schedule being brought into this country.


My Lords, as often happens in discussions on Bills in your Lordships' House some of the apprehended difficulties vanish on examination and it may be that others emerge. I think the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, was unduly apprehensive in thinking that this Bill could affect anything except a bird taken after the passing of the Act, for those are the words of the first subsection.


If the noble and learned Lord says so.


I only say so because the first subsection speaks of any person who takes alive and keeps in a cage or other receptacle any bird to which this Act applies, or keeps in a cage or other receptacle any bird to which this Act applies taken after the passage of this Act.


That does not satisfy me.


I dare say not, but it seems to satisfy me.


Of course I have not said what I have without consultation. If what the noble and learned Lord says is so they seem very redundant words in the subsection.


The mere fact that we might make it shorter does not prove that it is wrong. It really is no use discussing details of this kind nor considering again the character of the Schedule which was taken upon an examination of the classes of birds exhibited at these shows. I think there might be some arrangement made in regard to zoological societies. Nobody will accuse me of an undue admiration of the skill of Government Departments, but even I never suggested that a head of a Government Department could control or destroy or prohibit a pheasant farm. If I had it would have been said that it was an undignified attack on a Government Department. As for the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, I must say I feel there is a good deal of point in what was urged about the Select Committee. A great number of administrative difficulties must already exist with regard to the present law and I think that if you got a Select Committee prepared to join this Bill to existing Acts of Parliament it might be possible to make a comprehensive working measure. Whether the Department represented by the noble Earl would pay the least attention to it is another matter, but at least we might try, and therefore I am prepared to accept the proposal of the noble Earl and let them work this out if they can.

On Question, Bill read 2a.

Moved, That the Bill be referred to a Select Committee.—(The Earl of Lucan.)

On Question, Motion agreed to: Bill referred to a Select Committee accordingly.