HL Deb 14 May 1936 vol 100 cc1061-6

LORD MERTHYR had the following Notice on the Paper:—To move, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider whether any measures, and if so what, ought to be taken for better protection of agriculture and the land against the ravages of rabbits, and to what extent, if any, the prohibition of the use of gin traps would affect the attainment of the object aforesaid.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion that stands in my name. I shall say only a few words in support of it at this late hour of the evening, but it will be generally agreed by your Lordships that there is at the present time a very serious position arising out of the prevalence of rabbits in this country, due especially to a succession of fine summers and other causes. That position is causing a good deal of concern not only to agriculturists but to many other people in this country. As to the damage which is done by rabbits annually, I do not propose to give your Lordships any specific figure, because it is plainly incalculable, but it will be agreed it must amount to a very large sum indeed, certainly to many millions of pounds. It is also equally true and beyond dispute that a vast quantity of food is consumed by rabbits annually, and a very large amount of damage otherwise done by them. To mention only one or two instances, it is agreed that afforestation and the planting of trees is very much hindered by the prevalance of rabbits and rendered very much more expensive. I must confess that, although I thought it was a serious matter for foresters, I was staggered by one figure that I discovered, and that was that the cost of wire netting alone to the Forestry Commissioners, not counting the cost of its erection and maintenance, is £7,000 per annum.

Then again, much money is being spent in this country, privately and publicly, in the improvement of grass land, and much very good work is being done, but it is hardly necessary to ask your Lordships how much of that money is going to be wasted if the prevalence of rabbits is allowed to continue. It is considered by the majority of people that rabbits are a pest, and that they ought to be treated as vermin. Extraordinary to relate, it is considered by a minority of people that rabbits are, to quote a passage from a letter in The Times a few days ago, "a valuable medium, if properly exploited, for engendering good feelings between landlords and tenants." I must say that that came as a surprise to me. But if rabbits are a pest and vermin then more adequate steps ought to be taken for putting an end to this pest. It is undoubtedly true that in some parts of the country, at any rate, there is being carried on at this moment a system of rabbit farming, by which I mean the letting out of rabbits by farmers to professional trappers for so much a year, and the question arises whether this form of farming is or is not in opposition to other forms of agriculture. That is a question, I respectfully submit, which should be discussed, debated, and reported on by some such body as a Select Committee of your Lordships' House. The question arises whether instead of a policy of wiring out rabbits from selected areas, where they cannot be allowed to be, they should be wired in to selected areas and the remainder of the country kept free. I am expressing no view myself on that except that I think it is a question which should be explored by a Select Committee.

I consider the same body should discuss the extent of the rabbit trade and how that trade would be affected by the suppression, partial or complete, of rabbits. Another point is how the existing rabbit trade—because it is undeniable that many people at present derive their living from the presence of rabbits—is at the present moment in conflict with agriculturists; to what extent the two trades come into conflict one with the other. Then again, it is thought that a Select Committee could profitably explore the several means that now exist of killing rabbits. There is a great difference of opinion as to the methods employed and as to which are the most effective. The Committee might consider therefore whether any one method should be uniformly operative, and whether any one method should be prohibited. I want to say just one word on the question of cruelty. It is commonly agreed that the trapping of rabbits is cruel, but the further point arises—and here there is not agreement—is this cruelty necessary or unnecessary? That also is a question which could and should be discussed by a Select Committee. Again, if traps were abolished, what would be the result? In that case also very great difference of opinion exists, and certainly no harm, and possibly much good, would result if that question were discussed by a Select Committee.

Just twelve months ago a debate took place in this House upon a Bill promoted with the idea of abolishing traps. Your Lordships, by a very narrow majority, declined to send that Bill to a Select Committee. The present request is for a question to be referred to a Select Committee which is very much wider than the question then under discussion, and I venture to think some of the criticisms which were on that occasion directed against that Bill would not be applicable on this occasion when the question covers so very much more ground. I do not want to detain the House any further. I venture to think that the expense of this Select Committee in time and money would be amply justified. In the seriousness of the problem as it exists to-day there is a warning which we should not neglect. There is a danger that if nothing is done this country may become to some extent, it could not become wholly, another Australia so far as rabbits are concerned. Many lessons have been learned in Australia at great cost to that country which could be turned to the benefit of this and other countries, and I think there could be no more appropriate way of turning those lessons to good account than for a Select Committee to be appointed with the terms of reference which I have ventured to put down on the Order Paper. I beg to move.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider whether any measures, and if so what, ought to be taken for better protection of agriculture and the land against the ravages of rabbits, and to what extent, if any, the prohibition of the use of gin traps would affect the attainment of the object aforesaid.—(Lord Merthyr.)


My Lords, I think we shall be all agreed that the noble Lord has rendered a service to the country in general by bringing this matter forward, because it is an urgent one and one that is becoming more and more urgent every day. I have risen only because the matter came before the Agricultural Committee of the County Councils Association this morning, and that Committee unanimously agreed to support the Government in any measure that it might bring forward to deal with what undoubtedly is a national evil. The only point on which I want to enter a caveat as to a Select Committee is this. From the communication we received this morning I gathered that the Government had it in their mind to deal with the matter quickly. Will my noble friend on the Front Bench forgive me for saying that I have known Governments, when they are urged to deal with a matter, put it off by saying that it is already under consideration of a Select Committee? I hope that if a Select Committee is appointed to inquire into this matter the Government will not adopt that attiude, because the matter is one which is really urgent. There have been attempts to deal with it by Private Bills. Those attempts have failed, because there is a certain amount of opposition owing to the rabbit trapping interests. There are a certain number of people, especially in South Wales, who want to keep rabbits alive in order that they may catch them. There are very disastrous results to certain portions of those counties, and it is really urgent that the matter should be dealt with soon. While quite ready to support this Motion, I hope the fact of a Select Committee being appointed will not delay the Government from taking urgent action in the matter.


My Lords, I am as pleased as my noble friend who spoke last that the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, should have seen fit to bring this Motion before the House, and I can assure him on behalf of His Majesty's Government that they share with him the anxiety that he has expressed in regard to rabbits and his judgment upon the rabbit as a pest of our society. I can also associate myself with what he said as to the financial cost that the rabbit imposes upon the Forestry Commissioners and all who have to do with them. All of us who live in the country realise, as the result of the last three or four dry summers, how greatly the expense of keeping rabbits within bounds has increased, and, even by great efforts, how only partial in many cases is the success that we are able to achieve. Therefore I am entirely in agreement with the object that the noble Lord wishes to attain.

It is unhappily true in all parts of the country from one end to the other, less so I am happy to say in my part of the country than I understand it to be in his, that there are particular individuals, sometimes farming land or controlling land, who deliberately aggravate the evil out of a mistaken idea that the rabbit is a profitable object of cultivation, It is a most short-sighted and most mistaken view. I remember very well, I think it was in the debate to which the noble Lord referred, that the late Duke of Buccleuch made a speech in which he said the rabbit had never yet been born and sold that on sale did not owe somebody four shillings. I myself believe that to be about true, even if not an under-estimate. Therefore I was extremely glad on the general question to hear what the noble Lord who moved the Motion had to say, and also very glad to hear what my noble friend behind me (Lord Bayford) had to say as to the attitude of the County Councils Association. I can readily assure, him that if this Motion is passed by your Lordships' House it would not be treated by the Minister of Agriculture or by the Government as a convenient method of blanketing other practical steps which might be possible for them to take in the meanwhile while the Select Committee had the matter under their examination. So far as the Government are concerned they will raise no objection, and indeed welcome the suggestion of the noble Lord for a Select Committee, and do so the more readily hearing what my noble friend who has just spoken had to say in regard to the attitude of the County Councils Association.

One other word before I conclude. The noble Lord who moved the Motion desires that the examination to be conducted by the Select Committee should also cover the question of the most efficacious method of catching rabbits. I suppose that on the question of steel traps no one who has had anything to do with them would contest the view that they are inevitably cruel. On the other hand, I should suspect that when the matter was investigated it might very well be found, as I believe is claimed by the National Farmers' Union, that no other device has yet been invented that could reasonably be expected to be as effective as the steel trap which is at present in more or less general use. Indeed, I have long come to the conclusion myself—I do not know whether your Lordships would agree with me—that the only humane method of dealing with rabbits is not to have any and, therefore, not to be under the necessity of making use of one method or another that is almost inevitably bound to contain some element of cruelty. I think that is all that I need say in assuring the noble Lord who moved the Motion that we shall be quite ready to accept it and shall give the Select Committee if and when it is set up all our best wishes as a Government.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.

House adjourned at half past seven o'clock.