HL Deb 10 December 1935 vol 99 cc150-64

THE EARL OF CRAWFORD rose to draw attention to the danger to the Abbotsbury Swannery arising from the projected firing range for the Royal Air Force; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg leave to refer to the danger to a famous Swannery on the coast of Dorsetshire, called the Abbotsbury Swannery. Not only is it the only thing of its kind in this country, but it is the only thing of its kind in Europe. Its value is in many ways incalculable, and once lost it would be of course irreplaceable. Many of those who are best acquainted with this place believe that the danger to the birds from machine gun practice is very real; not at the nesting place of the birds, but at their winter feeding ground. They nest at the western end of the bays, or "fleets" as they are called, and during the autumn move eastwards to the winter feeding grounds. Only a few days ago this majestic procession of birds moved eastwards to the area where the water weed zostera nana grows. There is not much of this weed, and the result is that the swannery is not much more than 500 in number. The flock goes there because it is the only place where the birds can get this sustenance.

At one time the flock, or as the Charter of 1591 calls it, "the game of swans," amounted to 1,400 in number. However, the food supplies are adequate for the smaller number; and I need not remind your Lordships that artificial feeding is quite inadequate for these birds. It is precisely within the danger area that the new machine gun range will be established. The birds, which are very tame when nesting in the spring, become wild and easily disturbed during the autumn and winter months, and once the birds are dispersed it is very doubtful whether they will ever collect together again. I should like, incidentally, to remind your Lordships that this swannery, which is already scheduled under the Wild Birds Protection Act, also contains a large number of very interesting and scarce wild bird colonies.

I would like to say a word about the nature of land involved. Chesil Bank or Beach is a long, narrow neck of land, eight or nine miles long, lying between two sheets of water—between the lagoon on the land-side and the open sea to the south. It is a bit of the Dorsetshire coast, 100 yards in width, and in places from twenty to thirty feet high. In itself this bank is of the utmost interest to botanists and geologists. Wild England is represented in a unique fashion in this little bit of seaward land. And machine gun targets are to be placed upon it!Apart from the natural history point of view, there has been much criticism of this siting of targets on purely technical grounds. The target in the first place is fixed, which is not a condition normal in time of war. Not only is the target fixed, but the distance of the target from the aerodrome is equally fixed, and equally emphatic, because the target on this narrow neck of land must be within a few yards, you might almost say within a few feet, of the water line, which of course marks the area of the target as nothing else in the world could do; so that the distance from the aerodrome being known to a yard, and the distance from the water edge being equally known, it must surely provide a very mediocre type of practice ground.

Under service conditions picking lip the enemy objective is quite as important as the actual firing, and certainly requires as much practice. Now a place is chosen where that condition is notable for its absence, and it seems a very poor and unvarying type of exercise and education. The situation of the target ought not to be as unchangeable as it must be upon the bit of land chosen. A few weeks ago, in the summer, the Air Ministry was good enough to allow some of my friends to see a demonstration of firing at Long Sutton. There also the firing was directed against fixed targets —targets visible a mile away. I noticed that the aeroplanes flew very low and very slowly, and yet the shooting was very erratic. I noticed in particular a smoke bomb which fell at least 200 yards away from the target. We are told by the Air Ministry that no bullets will fall into the sea on Chesil Bank, nothing but empty cartridges. Well, my fears in that respect were not dispelled by what I saw last summer at Long Sutton.

But I think really that apart from the nature of the target, Chesil Bank is badly chosen on technical grounds because of restrictive pledges which have been already given by the Air Ministry, such as those given to the Borough of Weymouth. I think I am right in saying that the noble Viscount (Lord Swinton) has given a. pledge that no flying of aeroplanes shall take place over the built-up area of Weymouth, and presumably over its suburb of Chickerell as well, nor must there be flying at night. I am not sure whether those are facts, but that is the general belief in that area. If so, the Air Ministry has deliberately precluded itself from approaching the target from due east; in other words, a very important type of practice, that is, flying towards the objective with the sun low down in your eyes at sunset, is going to be impossible. That, again, strengthens the view, which I know is held by professional people, that this area has been badly chosen from a technical point of view. There are many other objections, to which I do not propose to refer, economic objections—the fisher folk for instance—and very fine farm land has to be taken. But I am not going to refer to that; I am limiting myself to the other aspects of the problem.

It is no good saying that this site is inevitable. I should like to say that, again speaking with very good local advice, it appears that an alternative site is available not far distant, similar to this site, with the same climate, the same conditions of light and wind, with equal accessibility to Portsmouth, to Salisbury Plain and to London, and not more expensive. I think it would be a very good thing if all these practising grounds were not so much concentrated in Hampshire and Dorsetshire.


What is the situation of the alternative site?


It is to the west.


I thought so.


It is close on to the west, but on the same assumption of lines of attack, would just spare the water where the zostera nana, the little under-water weed, thrives, the only place where it grows. I think there are so many training areas in Dorsetshire and Hampshire, for tanks, for rifle ranges, for seaplanes, for gunnery targets, for mining areas, for mine-sweeping, for submarines, that Abbotsbury might be spared. The local feeling on the subject is very strong. I see the noble Earl His Majesty's Lieutenant of the County, Lord Shaftesbury, who will be able to say how keenly exercised the local feeling is, and I shall not insist upon that, but I should like to say that what you might call the learned societies are very much concerned. The Trustees of the Natural History Museum are very much interested in the preservation of these birds and the lovers of nature all over England are united in this matter. We asked for an experiment to be made, a trial while the birds are on their winter feeding grounds. But even this was refused. The Air Ministry have been good enough to say that they will change the targets later on if the Swannery is injured. But surely it would be better, would it not, to make the test before the injury is done? I am confident that, once dispersed by firing, the birds will get frightened, will scatter, will get killed, and this unique Swannery will never be rehabilitated.

I speak on behalf of a great -group of lovers of nature, on behalf of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. It is a federation of scores and hundreds of societies, including many public authorities, who are actuated by the motive of preserving rural England, as typified in its name. This Council knows perfectly well that the siting of aerodromes is a very complex affair. We admit that interference with all sorts of things is necessary when an aerodrome is set up—with shipping, with fishing, with industry, with agriculture, with residential areas and so on. And we most fully recognise the responsibility of the Air Ministry. To show our good faith, I should like to say that, though we are constantly approached by people who object to aerodromes being set up in their midst, we have never yet asked the Air Ministry to review or revise its decision on these matters—never once. This time we are doing it because we are confident that our case is really important, and because we believe that another site can be found.

Really, this Abbotsbury Swannery is a very precious asset, a real national asset. The very idea of its loss and dispersion fills my mind with horror and consternation. Do I exaggerate, if I rank it as one of the wonders of Britain, if I compare it with Kingley Vale, with Wicken Fen, with Rannoch Moor? For Abbots-bury Swannery in nature is what in human achievement are Maiden Castle, the Roman Wall and Stonehenge—great, glorious things which are irretrievable and irreplaceable. There is something solemn and grandiose about these great silent birds which have lived and thriven for 700 years in the lagoons called the Dorsetshire fleets. Now the interest in the preservation of nature is keen and it is growing constantly. We in Britain are now the best naturalists in the world We have got bird sanctuaries which are being extended all over the Empire. We have been very insensitive to these things in the past. We have allowed our country and our flora and our fauna to suffer very much from our heedlessness. We have lost the great bustard of the plains. We have lost the pine martin. In the last few years we have lost no fewer than thirty-five different kinds of wild flowers that have disappeared from our land—gone for ever. But we are making great efforts to try to arrest these losses. The eagle and the wild cat, the bittern and some of the greater lepidoptera, are no longer on the verge of extinction, but very much is still threatened. We cannot afford to lose any of the really wonderful things which still survive. That is why I ask your Lordships to be sympathetic about this Swannery at Abbotsbury. Its collective value, its value as a Swannery, is, as I say, unique and inestimable. I very earnestly press the Secretary of State to reconsider his decision. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, bear with me for a few moments while I add a remark or two to the arguments which have been so well put forward by the noble Earl who has introduced this subject. Born and bred in the County of Dorset I, with all others intimately connected with and intimately interested in that County, look askance at the proposals of the Air Ministry and at the plans which they have in view. I fully appreciate, and I am sure every noble Lord in this House will appreciate, the dire necessity that has forced the Air Minister to find some wild and remote spot free from harm and danger to the neighbouring district where the ever increasing numbers of the Airpersonnel can be trained, but here he seems to have lit upon a spot which, apart from its natural beauty, should, I think, claim to be immune from (shall I say?) his somewhat barbaric treatment. Take Chesil Beach for example.

As the noble Earl has told us, this is of real archæological interest. The age of it is, I think, not really known. It was formed certainly in prehistoric times, probably not much earlier than 2000 B.C. It is therefore of extraordinary geological interest, and were it not for this breakwater the Island of Portland would now be right out in the sea with the waves washing the chalk cliffs east and west of the point called Ridgway Hill, which is between Weymouth and Dorchester. Chesil Bank, as the noble Earl has said, is seven or eight miles long, and it has this curious property, that it grades its shingle continuously from west to east, from Bridport Bay to Portland. It has always been a surprise to me that this has not been long ago scheduled as an ancient monument. If it were so, I suppose we might have been treated to the spectacle of the Air Minister and the First Commissioner of Works scrapping over the carcase.

Not only has this Chesil Bank remarkable value, but there is also, as the noble Earl has told your Lordships, a danger inherent in these proposals to this Abbotsbury Swannery. This is, as must be realised by now, not only of local but also of national and European value and interest. It is absolutely unique and of paramount interest to all lovers of nature and of bird life. Cogent and weighty arguments were put forward by great authorities when the Air Minister was kind enough to receive a deputation, and weighty arguments have been put forward by the noble Earl this evening. Therefore I do not want to dwell upon this point. Suffice it for me to say that we on the County Council of Dorset have twice passed unanimous resolutions strongly deprecating these proposals, whilst our Archæological Society is really seriously perturbed and alarmed at the harm that may ensue. I really think that the swans might be allowed to rest in peace and pursue their peaceful practices unmolested and undisturbed by the marauding hand of man. I make this final appeal to the Air Minister that he should further seriously consider the objections we have raised, and that he should find some other spot altogether away from the County of Dorset, but if he cannot do that, let him take into consideration moving further west where the same objection cannot be raised.


My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Earl has raised this question in your Lordships' House, because it gives me the opportunity of making a very full statement, and I am sure your Lordships would wish to have a full statement about the whole position of the proposed firing range. The matter was exhaustively considered by the Air Ministry before I went there and decisions had been taken, but in view of the representations which I received from the noble Earl and others, and the great interest rightly attaching to the Swannery, I felt it my duty to review the whole question myself.

I came to it entirely new and with a completely unprejudiced mind. No, that is hardly true. I came to it rather with a prejudiced mind because I came to it with the natural inclination to find some way out which was agreeable to everybody. In a great national undertaking like the expansion of the Air Force one has a very keen desire to carry everyone with one, to get the maximum of co-operation and the minimum of friction. I also came to it frankly with a prejudice that it must be possible to find some alternative site somewhere along the British coast. I want to give your Lordships the facts, as I have found them to be, from the national point of view, and I am sure your Lordships will give me credit for having made a very close personal investigation of all the considerations involved.

Under the expansion scheme in which the Home Air Force will be at least trebled, it is absolutely necessary for us to have nine or ten of these machine-gun ranges. These ranges have got to be in constant use in order to give the necessary training, and if you select a site for a range that you can only put to a limited use and use at certain seasons only, that means you must have a larger number of ranges, because ten is, I think, really the minimum number required for the central training of the Force. Every single squadron has to undertake this form of training every year. There are a number of factors every one of which has to be present in a range which is to afford a satisfactory training ground. First of all the range must be suitable for two types of training. My noble friend said that this would be a bad place because a stationary target was not in itself enough. That is perfectly true, although firing at a stationary target is a very necessary part of training. We have all of us who were trained to use rifles had to fire at a stationary object upon a rifle range.


Stationary in the sense that it, cannot be moved, because the ground on which it is situated is so narrow.


I do not think the opinion of the experts—and I have to rely upon expert advice for this—is that this is a very material consideration. But you have to have two types of firing. There is not merely the firing at a target on the ground, there has to be firing at a moving target out at sea, and both of these kinds of practice must be done by every single one of these aeroplanes. You therefore have to have not only a target on the ground but you have to have what we call a "towed" target—a target which is towed along behind the aeroplane, and at which the other plane, in order to carry out its practice, fires. That, of course, involves the width of the danger zone. The result of that is that all the ranges that are selected must be upon the coast. That is the second condition. Then, because you have to have both types of firing made possible, you have to have a danger zone which will extend to three miles out to sea in order to ensure safety when you are firing against this moving target in the air.

It follows, as another condition, that you must find a site which interferes as little as possible with shipping or fishing and which does not inconvenience a populous area. There is a further consideration which, I am bound to say, had not occurred to me at first but which is very necessary, and that is that the meteorological conditions of the air should be suitable. You must be able, if you are to carry out your training, to carry it out day after day, and you cannot, therefore, select some site, which might otherwise appear suitable, if there is a constant prevalence of low cloud or of fog. Another consideration is that you have to have unobstructed approach to the target. These machines, as an essential part of their practice, must dive out of the air in order to descend upon their ground target. That is an essential part of their practice for the work required of them in war. That means that you cannot take a site with hills close behind you, a fact which in itself rules out a very large number of sites. It rules out, incidentally, a site further to the west to which the noble Earl referred. The Ministry has most carefully considered this particular site which was suggested to us, with a very genuine anxiety to adopt it if it were possible to do so, but I am advised that to adopt that site would definitely be either to render your fire largely impracticable or to involve a risk which, if diving is to be done, you would not be justified in asking your men to undertake. Lastly, you have to have a range which is reasonably near either to an existing aerodrome or a place where you can site an aerodrome, because you have to move these squadrons into their training camp one after another, and they must be able to get fairly quickly from the aerodrome to the target.

Every one of those conditions has to be present in any range which is taken. The whole coast of England and Wales and Scotland has been most carefully surveyed in order to find a suitable range, and we have not yet succeeded in getting the minimum number that we require. There are four already in existence out of the nine or ten required—Catfoss, Yorkshire, North Coates Fittes, Lincolnshire, Sutton Bridge, Cambridgeshire, and Leuchars, Fifeshire (which is well known to the noble Earl). Two more have been selected and approved—a place appropriately called Hell's Mouth, Carnarvonshire, and Luce Bay, Wigtownshire. There are, further, two provisional sites, of which Chesil Beach is one and the other is in Northumberland. We have even gone as far afield as Cromarty Firth, which is now under investigation, although it is expensive and inconvenient to have a site so far away from where the squadrons undergo their ordinary training and from their ordinary stations. The mere fact that we are investigating there, and probably shall have to go there if it is practicable, does show your Lordships how wide is our search to find suitable places and how far afield we are prepared to go.

Now, my Lords, these are facts which I simply could not get away from in coming to a decision on this matter. I felt, as I am sure any of your Lordships in my position would have felt, that, charged with the duty of seeing this expansion scheme go through in a short space of time, and the necessity of maintaining efficient training during that period, when one squadron would succeed another, and in the period coming after, nothing but the very strongest grounds could justify me in reversing the action already taken and taking a decision which I honestly felt, and could not help but honestly feel, would be definitely prejudicial to national defence. That is the national case for this site. Let me come to the objections. Objections were taken on three grounds, only one of which is urgently pressed in your Lordships' House to-day. There were certain objections originally raised by the Weymouth Council in respect of which, they tell me, they are completely satisfied.


Was I correct in saying what I did about that?


Yes. Assurances have been given, and given frequently, in the case of Weymouth, that there will not be flying by night over the town, but that does not include Chickerell. I am advised that the noble Earl is wrong in his assertion that those assurances will prejudice us in the use of the range. I am bound to give the noble Earl the considered view of my expert advisers, and I would ask your Lordships to accept that. As regards the fishing interests, the Ministry of Agriculture, who are always consulted with regard to any of these ranges, advise us that no site in the southern area was likely to cause so little interference with fishing. That is their considered view. Fortunately there is no shipping along this route, and your Lordships will appreciate how difficult it is, when you must have a three mile danger area out to sea, to find an area where you do not cause some interference with either coastal or other shipping. Special arrangements have been made in order to protect the interests of the seine fishermen, who fish from the ridge of Chesil Beach and who will have free access to the whole of the area of the beach except over 1,000 yards at the time of actual firing. I think the maximum that is possible has been done to meet their case.

The real issue, I quite agree, is the case of the swannery. I have already dealt with the question of the site considerably further west to which the noble Earl referred. We would have taken that with the greatest pleasure if it had been practicable, but because of the hills it is not a site which we could use as a range. It was originally proposed, as the noble Earl will remember, that the range should be sited rather further to the west; but we were asked not to do that because that would interfere with what I think is called the "summer range" of the swans. Therefore the present site was selected. That involves possible risk when the swans are on their winter feeding ground, to which they are attracted by a weed which grows in this particular place and which forms their winter feed. Any one who is not familiar with air experience would naturally think that any bird is likely to be terrified by an aeroplane flying over it, particularly if it is flying low, and by the firing of machine guns from aeroplanes. But I would ask your Lordships, in weighing the merits of this case, as it has been my duty to do, to take into account the accumulated experience which has been gained by the Air Ministry on other ranges of the same kind. There is Leuchars, where firing has been going on for years. There a ternery runs right up to the targets, and a bird sanctuary lies between the aerodrome and the targets, I think only a mile and a half away.


Less, about a mile.


This bird sanctuary is only a mile away from the targets, and the birds continue to live there between where the aeroplanes take off and the actual target at which they shoot. It is interesting to note that long before there was any controversy over this particular site there were photographs in Country Life of the birds on the ranges, showing how little could be the effect of guns and aeroplanes upon them. Then there is Leysdown, in Sheppey, where there is an armament school and where firing experiments take place and have taken place for twenty years. Yet, summer and winter, every kind of wild fowl congregates and stays there. Then there is Lydd, near Dungeness, where we have another of these targets, and I would like to quote to your Lordships a letter written recently to The Times by Mr. Reginald Denham. He wrote: Those ornithologists who criticise the decision of the Air Ministry regarding Chesil Bank would do well to pay a visit to Lydd, where aeroplane target practice is a regular occurrence throughout the year. A mile to the east of the target field is the well-known Dungeness ternery; a mile to the west the Midrips, a series of saltwater fleets, 'where almost any bird may be seen any day of the year.' I have been present several times this year while firing has been in progress, and have seen swans, shelduck, grey plover, whinbrel, innumerable terns, duck gulls, and waders completely unperturbed by the 'terrifying swoops' of aeroplanes driving over the fleets. This summer there has been an enormous increase of trippers to the. Camber Sands near by. Their bungalows disfigure the coastline, and their sardine tins desecrate the foreshore. Fortunately these people are forbidden to approach or overrun the Midrips owing to danger from aeroplane fire. The birds may therefore be said paradoxically to be protected by target practice. It is true that we have never had a target at a swannery, but on that point I should like to quote a letter from Sir Kenneth Crossley, who lives at Comber-mere Abbey, Shropshire. He wrote a letter to The Times in which he said: Judging from my own experience the Trustees of the British Museum and the Council of the Linnean Society need have no apprehension as regards the swans being disturbed by aeroplanes. There are frequently between 50 and 100 swans on my mere, and I can fly at 100 ft. above them without their taking the slightest notice. It is the same with Canada geese, which are much wilder birds. Mallard occasionally swim into the reeds, but never rise. I need not read the rest of his letter, but he goes on to say that there is a heronry which he constantly flies over when the birds are nesting.

In view of the accumulated experience I think one is bound to come to the conclusion that what are quite natural anticipations of serious risk and cause for anxiety are really very unlikely to materialise. It fell to my unhappy lot to have to take the decision as to whether, in the face of that evidence, I was to do a thing which I must say without hesitation to your Lordships would seriously prejudice the training and efficiency of -the Air Force. If I could find another site, I would take it to-morrow and take it thankfully, but the question I had to face was whether the use of this range at Chesil Beach was to be stopped with the certain knowledge that if I did stop it I was going to prejudice, and prejudice seriously, the training of a large number of squadrons in the Air Force. I am perfectly certain that any of your Lordships if put in my position of responsibility could have come to no other conclusion than to say, as I said, "I must endorse the decision previously taken."

By that I must stand, but I am most anxious to do anything to avoid any possibility of risk to this Swannery. I made the suggestion that in the winter, if serious disturbance were caused to the swans, the targets could be put out at sea. It would be highly inconvenient, but we would do it. I have another suggestion provided the area is satisfactory, and I think it would be, from a technical point of view. There is no question about the summer time, when the swans are away in the Swannery to the west. In that time, no injury can possibly be done. It is a perfectly reasonable site for this range during the summer. The anxiety is in the winter months, when they are on this narrow triangle of water where the weed grows most extensively. What I would suggest is that, as the swans move, so we should move, and that when the swans come on to their winter feeding-ground we should move the target a distance of about two miles to the west, which would be rather near to the site which was previously considered, but was found unsuitable for them on their summer range. If that is, from a technical point of view, a possibility for the Air Force, I would undertake that it should be done. In that way I think we could do the maximum possible to ensure that, whether the swans are in their summer or their winter quarters, they shall incur the least possible risk.

I am afraid I have spoken at rather great length, but I felt that your Lordships had a really genuine anxiety in this matter—as I had. I want your Lordships to appreciate the national side as well as—I am not going to call it the local side; the two national aspects of this question. I hope after what I have said that your Lordships will agree that I have taken the only decision which was possible to one who has my responsibilities, and that I have given such undertaking as is possible to make this further variation, which I hope will insure against any conceivable risk, however remote.


My Lords, may I be allowed to thank the Secretary of State for his very interesting reply? I will not comment on many controversial things that he has stated, but I should like, if I may, just to thank him for his concluding words. It is difficult to appreciate off-hand without large-scale maps the exact connotation of what he proposes. I hope it means that his advisers feel that there may be a possible alternative site, variable according to the season of the year, to the west of the proposed targets.


; No, my Lords, I do not want my noble friend to be under a misapprehension. It would mean that during the summer we use the site which is at present selected, but during the winter, when, as I understand, the swans move to the water immediately behind that target, we should move further west and have a target to the west during the winter months.


That is to say that the movement of the swans should vary inversely with that of the airmen. I am very much obliged to my noble friend. I will merely ask him in conclusion if he will permit us to talk the matter over with him in his office at his leisure. I wish, if it he your pleasure, to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.