HL Deb 14 February 1933 vol 86 cc689-700

LORD KILMAINE had given Notice that he would call attention to the Wild Birds Protection Act, and move to resolve, That in the opinion of this House the said Act should be so amended as to deal with the case of sea-birds whose plumage becomes saturated with oil-fuel waste. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I was led to put down this Motion in the first instance from what I have seen myself in the last year and a half when I have been living on the south coast. My knowledge of oil pollution is exclusively confined to its effect on sea-birds. I have often walked along the sea-front and, seeing a crowd, have gone to find out what was the cause, and have seen one or more, sometimes a considerable number of sea-birds dead or in a dying condition. It was this repeated sight and the very grave indignation which exists in seaside places that led me to put clown this Motion. Your Lordships may not be aware that if you see one of these birds lying on the beach in a dying condition and you go and wring its neck, which is the only humane thing to do, you will be Table to prosecution under the Wild Birds Protection Act. I was first told this by a sailor, who said he had asked an inspector of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about this matter and the inspector—I hope I am not giving him away, but I mention no name—said: "Well, if you come across a bird like that, as long as you are not seen, put it under your coat and take it away behind a wall or somewhere and wring its neck."

Since I put down the Motion my knowledge of this subject has been increased. I have a cutting from the Daily Express of February 7, which states: Hundreds of sea-birds—some of them dead, others dying of starvation—have been found washed up on the southern coast-line east of St. Alban's Head, Dorset. They are victims of what has been described as most flagrant case of cruelty in the world.' They have been choked and crippled by oil waste from steamers. 'Oil is crawling round the world like a horrible cancer, eating into bird life,' said Mr. de Vere Stacpoole, the novelist, to a Daily Express representative yesterday. The thing is a national disgrace because it is absolutely preventable by the use of the new oil separators. The pollution of the sea by discharge of fuel oil from ships is a growing menace. Any sea-bird coming into contact with the oil becomes tangled in it. It can neither float, swim, nor dive, and dies after days, sometimes weeks, of starvation and torture. It is scandalous, and something should be done immediately.' Some time ago ninety seabirds, their wings clogged with oil, were washed up at Brighton, and seventy-eight at Folkestone. Sir Cooper Rawson, M.P., stated the facts in Parliament and the House unanimously gave him leave to introduce a Bill to prevent waste oil being emptied into the sea from the tanks of oil-driven vessels. Sir Cooper's Bill made it compulsory for oil-driven ships to be equipped with separators. Nothing further was heard about the Bill. The equipment of apparatus for separating oil from water for a large liner costs only £250. For a small trawler £10 or £15.

The other day I was sent a document headed "Pollution" by Lieut. Commander E. Kirkpatrick-Crockett, R.N., Fishery Officer. It is an address published "by authority of the South Wales Sea Fisheries District Committee." So I presume this gentleman must be rather learned and knows what he is talking about. According to him: Large areas of the shores from low to high water marks are now denuded of marine fauna, and this is attributable to pollution brought by the advancement made in industry, and an increase in the peoples who have subordinated the gifts of Mother Earth to their use and comfort. It is significant that when our basic industries are idle or working short time, pollution is considerably lessened, with an improvement in our rivers and around the sea coasts; but when work is again in full blast, pollution is again intensified. Many persons are conversant with the irritating and nauseating effect of oily water when bathing in the sea; it clings to the body, it is offensive and particularly objectionable. We somewhat peevishly complain but the trouble goes on year after year. … How this oil pollution advertised itself, coming as it did at the height of the visitors' season, when many local people were taking holiday also ! The need for drastic remedy was never more emphasised than when the Penarth foreshore was plastered with fuel oil. The irony of this particular fouling of the beach was that, after definite evidence was forthcoming as to who was the offender, and the presentation of the facts before the authorities, no action under existing legislation could be taken.

Alluding to children, the author of this address says: Playing about, the kiddies get themselves smothered with an oily substance, that treacle-like deposit we find so often left by the wind and the tide. …

Here is another extract, quoted from a statement by the Council of the Fresh Water Biological Association of the British Empire: An increase in the amount of organic matter in the water which is a common consequence of pollution will result in an increase of bacterial activity with a consequent decrease in the amount of oxygen dissolved in the water. The amount of the dissolved oxygen may easily be lowered below the limit at which certain animals can exist, and this will cause the destruction of all such forms.

Again: But heavy oils denuded of their volatile content become impregnated with floating particles, they soon take on the characteristics of tarry substances, and finally sink to the sea bottom or river bed. So our contention is, and so has been observed in actual investigation, the sea and river bed becomes fouled and in the course of time life becomes steadily but surely obliterated or gives way to types which are parasitical. Indeed, this alone may be a direct cause of (from pollution) the tendency of parasites being harboured by marine and fresh water fishes, which set up obscure forms of disease in their hosts which baffle the scientists in many cases.

I make no excuse for giving these quotations because this man knows far more of the subject than I do. In another passage he says: That is the menace we have to fight against to-day, the hidden form of destruction in the form of pollution which is responsible for loss of life in an unseen direction, mainly at the moment confined to our inshore waters, but which, if unchecked, will steadily spread with evil results. … It has been observed that when shoals of herring and mackerel are about, there are whitebait, britt, or sprats to be seen. The herring feeds upon minute life consisting of miscroscopic plants and animals, but mackerel also consume the tiny fish. If oil covers the surface of the water the shoals have been seen to avoid it, and over a very wide area I have noticed this fact. I have seen herring fleets lying at their nets over many miles from the Thames to the Orkneys and on the West Coast of Ireland; to leeward has stretched long lines of oily film from bilges. On the return to the grounds after landing their shots 'I have found that the catches have been considerably less particularly when large numbers of merchant shipping have passed to and fro and, as they alter course to clear the long lines of nets, in the ordinary routine of the voyage, have pumped bilges and the oily films, widely scattered, no doubt contributed largely to the mysteries attached to the question: 'Where are the fish?' …. The Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1922, fails lamentably. It has many flaws, yet there has been no definite movement towards revision of the Act, since the Bill presented before the House of Commons became practically null and void under the present National Government, when so many Bills were abandoned, and Sir Cooper Raw-son's received only a First Reading.

In asking what attitude is taken with regard to oil-carrying vessels, this same writer says: Well ! These are not the primary offenders. The greatest menace at the present time arises from vessels which pump overboard indiscriminately their bilges and oil-fired vessels who dispose of their residues by means of the sea. The case is met by my own report made to the South Wales Sea Fisheries District Committee some time ago, and which was subsequently placed before the National Association of Fishery Boards for the information of the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, which Government Department have annually placed before them relative matters requiring attention and seeking constructive action and co-operation.

Under the heading "Apply Remedies," there is this: The position of sea-birds is a terrible indictment. We may enforce laws for the preservation of our feathered friends but permit wholesale suffering and death to, these birds from oil pollution, which smothers the feathers as the birds alight upon the water or along our sea shores. Surely, that is a terrible state of affairs, and I can testify that the indignation of animal lovers and other kind-hearted people is growing in intensity. I beg your Lordships, if you possibly can, to bring in some means by which this state of affairs can be prevented. If these birds cannot be saved then it should be made possible for those who see a bird in this state to put it out of its misery without risk of prosecution.

Moved to resolve, That in the opinion of this House the Wild Birds Protection Act should be so amended as to deal with the case of sea-birds whose plumage becomes saturated with oil-fuel waste.—(Lord Kilmaine.)


My Lords, this matter has been so constantly before the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, of which I am Chairman, that I think it right to say a word or two about it. We have a, report upon it by experts, which the Trustees will shortly consider, and I hope it will be possible to carry this matter further. Incidentally, I think it is rather noteworthy that your Lordships should have given so much attention on one afternoon to the protection of wild birds. So far as this most painful matter to which the noble Lord has drawn attention is concerned it is, I think, thirteen years since the Royal Society for the Protection of Wild Birds called public attention to the devastation wrought among sea-birds by the discharge of oil waste into the sea. That society, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and other societies have made repeated representations to the shipping authorities and to the Government, and the noble Lord drew attention to the amiable but very short-lived effort made in the House of Commons, but the destruction nevertheless continues unabated—indeed, it almost seems to increase.

The matter was further considered by the International Conference on the Protection of Migratory Fowl, under the Chairmanship of Lord Ullswater. I wish the noble Viscount had been here to tell us what conclusions were reached. As I have said, no efforts, so far, have produced any result whatsoever, and this devastation of the life of sea-birds goes on all round our shores. I suppose one reason why it does not attract more attention is that the discharge of oil does not seem seriously, I understand, to affect the life of the fish on which so much the food of our people depends, and so far as our sea-coast places are concerned the damage appears mostly to be done during rough weather, and in the winter and spring. It does not call so much attention at other times. I have in my hands a map drawn up by the British section of the International Committee for the Protection of Wild Birds, giving a picture of the regions round our south and east coasts where this devastation is most marked, and it is most lamentable. A friend of mine only a few days ago said he had been on Beachy Head and that it was heartrending to see numbers of birds all along the beach suffering from this evil. It is pleasant to know that there was one person who, as a mere act of mercy, went about killing large numbers of these unfortunate birds.

What happens is that the oil saturates the bodies of these birds, so that they cannot fly, and therefore cannot feed. When they come ashore, sometimes they are still able to swim, but when they reach the shore the oil gets over their legs and they become perfectly helpless. All along our coasts there are numbers of these birds waiting for death. It is easy to paint the picture and it cannot he painted too strongly, but it is most difficult to discern the remedy. I suppose ultimately the only hope is that by international action the discharge of this oil wastage may be prevented beyond our own territorial limit of three miles. It is difficult to say whether that can be done, but at all events it will take a long time and, meanwhile, I suppose the best thing that can be done is to bring the pressure of public opinion upon shipping companies and others, with a view to advances towards making the use of this waste product a profitable undertaking, or towards disposing of it by mechanical means. There is, however, the evil, and it is a good thing from time to time to take the opportunity of calling public attention to this most lamentable destruction of sea-birds all along our coasts. Those who delight in watching the flights of these beautiful birds must realise that probably their delight in flying is even greater than the delight of those who watch them. These birds are entitled to the freedom of the sea and it is intolerable that the waters which, with the air and the cliffs, nature meant should he their homes should be the means of their destruction. I trust that the Government may be able to indicate some line of hope.


My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the noble Lord who moved the Motion for calling attention to a serious defect in the law as it now stands—namely, that if you find one of these unfortunate birds in the last stage of misery the law says you must not put an end to its suffering. That defect would be easy to remedy, but the main question, as pointed out by the noble Lord and by the most rev. Primate, is the far larger one of the appalling suffering to sea-birds caused by the discharge of oil into the sea. We have passed an Act of Parliament which makes it an offence to discharge this oil waste within the three miles limit, but that is not enough, because after storms or high winds the oil which is discharged into the sea outside the three miles limit is blown in on to the shore and causes these sufferings. The most rev. Primate has asked how that is to be remedied. I know of only one way, and that is by international action. I would appeal to the Government to represent in the proper quarters that we should do our utmost by diplomatic action to get the shipping Powers of the world to consent to a convention which would make it compulsory upon all ships which ply to our ports to have a separator, which would prevent this oil from coming on to the water and in that way prevent the oil from coming into our ports. If that could be done I believe it would obviate very nearly all the appalling suffering which is caused.


My Lords, I do not wish for a moment to minimise the terrible effect of oil pollution on bird life, which has been so forcibly put before your Lordships, but there is one other aspect of the matter which I should like to bring forward. We have always in this country cared about our sea and our coasts. One of the most famous tributes in our literature to our sea is that it performs its work of preventing the pollution of our shores. Is all that to come to an end ! Apart from what oil pollution does to the birds, it is a horrible thought from our own point of view that our shores should be made filthy. If the thing can be prevented that is surely a thing on which the public, especially in this country where we are really proud of our sea, feel strongly, and they rely upon the Government to take some action, if action is possible, to prevent it.


My Lords, I am sure nobody can complain of this subject having been brought forward this afternoon, or of the way in which it has been brought forward. But it is rather diffi- cult for me to answer the noble Lord, because his Motion is rather paradoxical. He wants the Wild Birds Protection Act amended so as to deal with the case of sea-birds whose plumage becomes saturated with oil, but I understand that, if it is not so amended, all he wants to do is to wring their necks; and, as regards the other thing that he is complaining of, that has got nothing to do with the Wild Birds Protection Act.


I thought I said in my speech I was not aware whether any remedial action could be taken, and that, short of that, the only thing was that the sea-birds should be put out of their misery by death.


That would be one way. But, as I was saying, the subject does not really come under the Wild Birds Protection Act, but under the other Act that has been mentioned, the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1922. The two points that I understand the noble Lord makes are, first, that a power is needed to put the birds out of their misery, and, second, that the oil which comes into these waters should as far as possible be curtailed. A certain amount of confusion has arisen over this question. The Board of Trade is really the Department which would have to deal with matters relating to the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, and I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord very much information on that subject. But, as regards the protection of wild birds, as he knows, the principle on which these Acts proceed is the protection of birds and their eggs either during the breeding season or throughout the year. The Motion proposes that these Acts should be amended so as to deal with the birds whose plumage becomes saturated with oil-fuel waste. It would be almost impossible, as the noble Lord will admit, to fix any responsibility for the amount of oil which has been cast ashore, and which gets on to these birds. Therefore it is difficult to know what remedy can be suggested. That is especially so as the Wild Birds Protection Act and Orders made under it do not at present extend beyond the jurisdiction of county councils, that is, they only go as far as low-water mark. After that the only possible way to protect them would seem to be to take some means of curtailing the amount of oil discharged into the sea from ships passing our coasts.

I would ask the noble Lord to put his Question down again if he wants a very detailed answer about the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, because I have not got very full information on the subject. But I can tell him and the most rev. Primate that the Oil in Navigable Waters Act, 1922, makes it a penal offence to discharge oil or oily water within the territorial waters of Great Britain and Ireland. The detection of offenders is, from the nature of the case, very difficult. Specific evidence of the source of the oil is essential before any definite action can be taken. But the Board are aware of twenty-seven cases of prosecutions under the Act, and convictions have been obtained in twenty cases.

The whole question of oil pollution was considered at an International Conference held at Washington in June, 1926. That Conference considered two main proposals: (1) the compulsory fitting of separators on oil-carrying and oil-burning vessels; and (2) the establishment of zones in which no oil or oily water should be discharged. It was found impossible to secure international agreement to the compulsory fitting of separators, and the Conference decided to recommend the establishment of a system of zones. After the Conference British shipowners and those of some foreign nations voluntarily agreed to instruct the masters of their ships not to discharge oil or oily water within fifty miles of the coast. In addition, a number of British shipowners and those of certain foreign countries have voluntarily fitted separators on their vessels. But I understand that the recommendation of 1926 to institute zones has not been formally adopted by the Governments concerned; so that up till now within the territorial waters of the United Kingdom the regulations are governed by the Act of 1922. I am told that the available evidence goes to show that pollution is decreasing.


My Lords, I am disappointed with the answer of the noble Earl. It is quite true that the noble Lord who introduced this matter did speak specially of the Wild Birds Protection Act. Quite clearly that is not the main proposition which I think he had in his mind. He was, I imagine, asking the Government what they suggested in order to deal with the matter from the point of view of birds. Other aspects of it have been raised in the general interests of the public at large. What I would suggest is that the noble Lord should put down a Motion which would raise the whole question. I think it is invaluable. It is important, as the most rev. Primate has said, that this matter should receive greater public attention than it does now, and the best way to do that would be to put down a Motion which could be answered by the Government so that they could tell us what they propose to do, which is of a great deal more importance than what has occurred in the past.

I understand the noble Earl to say that there was an international Conference six years ago and nothing had come of that in regard either to general prohibition or to the question of zones. A good deal of oil has passed under the bridges since then, and I should have thought the matter had become so extremely important now that the Government might endeavour in some way to bring about agreement with regard to the subject. It is really very urgent not only for the various places in which it is especially bad, but one of the great anxieties of the matter is that unfortunately the oil, once there, practically remains there and does not evaporate. Therefore it is an increasing evil all round the coast. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Kilmaine, will raise this matter as a general one, so that we may have an answer from the Government as to the action they propose to take. I understand that the noble Earl, Lord Lucan, is unable to give us that information at the present moment and therefore I hope that this matter, on which public opinion is very much exercised, will be raised again.


My Lords, I am surprised at Lord Lucan saying that he thought that this scandal was on the decrease. I do not think that is the case. It is cumulative. The oil deposited six months ago may be there to-day and is getting more foul. Perhaps one reason the noble Lord thinks it is less is that the sea is being plied every week by hundreds of thousands of tonnage less than a few years ago, but as soon as a better freight market re-emerges you may be sure that the danger of increased pollution will revive. I should have thought myself that it is more serious to-day than it was five years ago.

Certainly at points on the seashore now birds are being killed, which was not the case, I think, quite recently, and we hear to-day far more complaints from seaside resorts than was the case before. My impression is that the scandal, so far from decreasing, has become more serious. I hope the Government will not be discouraged by the fact that the Washington Conference did not achieve any marked success. You cannot expect a thing like that to be settled all at once, and I hope that the Government will take the initiative towards a fresh international Conference on the subject. I am sure it is more likely to have results than it was then.


I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.


May I ask what are we to do if we find birds in the condition of which we have been speaking?


I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord information on that point.


It is not a question of one bird being found on the rocks. You find large numbers on the seashore.


My Lords, I have no more right to speak than any other of your Lordships, but I would point out that the Motion has been withdrawn: we seem to be continuing the discussion.


I apologise to the House, and will bring the subject forward again.