HL Deb 29 June 1937 vol 105 cc862-71

My Lords, the Special Orders Committee under the Chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, have reported to your Lordships' House that this Order, which is now submitted for approval, is not founded on any precedent, and the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, feels it desirable that I should explain shortly to your Lordships the purpose of the Order. The Order has been made under the Destructive Imported Animals Act, 1932. The immediate object of that Act was to exterminate the musk rat which was then threatening the countryside, but it also includes powers to extend its application to other destructive mammals not native to this country and not established in a wild state in Great Britain or which had become so established only in the last fifty years. The present Order intends to bring the grey squirrel within the operation of the Act so that it may be prohibited from being imported or being kept in this country.

The indictment against the grey squirrel is a serious one. I feel sure that many of your Lordships will be aware that it causes great damage to farm and horticultural crops, to woodlands and to bird life. As your Lordships no doubt know it feeds upon ripe and unripe fruits, green shoots, buds and inner bark of certain trees, upon bulbs and roots, birds' eggs and young birds. In fact, its reputation as a pest is unassailable and the damage that it causes is of certain economic importance. Propaganda measures have not checked its ravages and something further is therefore thought to be necessary. By applying the Act of 1932 to the grey squirrel, this Order will have the effect of preventing the animal from being imported from abroad and of authorising the Agricultural Departments to take such steps as they think necessary to destroy all grey squirrels at large. In England the Ministry of Agriculture may authorise the agricultural committee of a county council to exercise the powers under the Act on the Department's behalf and at the Department's expense.

But we think that the grey squirrel can best be brought under control by voluntary agencies and the Government do not intend to undertake shooting and trapping or to use the power of entry on private land which would be conferred on it if approval is given to this Order. Those powers will not be exercised unless voluntary efforts at control and extermination fail. This Order is in fact an opening step in a campaign of propaganda and publicity which it is hoped will encourage the owners of land to exterminate the grey squirrel by their own efforts. Such efforts will now have the moral backing of this legislation and, in consequence, it is hoped that landowners will be encouraged to persist in the work of extermination until success is achieved, thereby making it unnecessary for the Government to exercise the statutory powers which this Order will confer upon them. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Order, as reported from the Special Orders Committee on the 9th instant, be approved (The Earl of Feversham.)


My Lords, I only want to say as I was Chairman of the Special Orders Committee that I think, as the noble Earl has told you, this Order wants a certain amount of explanation. It seems to me that what is to happen is that the grey squirrel is to become a musk rat, subject to all the disabilities of that pest. I was under the impression from what was told us in Committee—perhaps the noble Earl will correct me if I am wrong or say if my impression is right—that the Government would render substantial assistance to those who were willing to co-operate in destroying the pest, that they would tell them the best way of dealing with it, and would also share some of the expense which must be entailed if the animal is to be destroyed and got rid of altogether. Perhaps the noble Earl will tell me whether I am right or wrong about that.


My Lords, I do not want to oppose this Order, but I would like to draw attention to one fact. The Government apparently obtained powers under an Act of 1932 and this year is 1937. The grey squirrel has been known as a menace for a great deal longer than five years. It seems to me rather dilatory for the Government to take action after such long delay. I quite appreciate that the Destructive Imported. Animals Act was passed under the menace of the musk rat. I had the impression that the last musk rat free in the open was killed not so very long ago. From that one gets the idea that the mind of the Ministry of Agriculture is something of the nature of a one-track mind. When the musk rat has been exterminated they take steps to exterminate the next menace. I hope that in future steps will be taken before the menace becomes so widespread as the grey squirrel is now. The grey squirrel has not yet reached my part of the world, but I think that landowners will welcome the Order and that the co-operation of the Department in the extermination of the grey squirrel will be extremely helpful. I would, however, like to ask the noble Earl—I am ignorant of the law—whether the word "keeping" means that if you have unwanted grey squirrels on your land you are keeping them. I do not know whether if that is so you are committing an offence and are liable to a penalty. It would relieve my mind if the noble Earl would tell me that that is not so, because none of us who are landowners wish to keep grey squirrels, although we sometimes cannot help it.


My Lords, the noble Earl has spoken of measures to be taken in England. I hope that he will be able to inform your Lordships that some similar measures will be taken in Scotland. Unfortunately, in at least one area in Fife, we have that abominable little pest with us. It is said—I do not know whether it is true—that that is due to the mistaken action of the Carnegie Trustees in letting one loose in Dunfermline to amuse the children in a public park. However that may be, a considerable area is now subject to its ravages. I should like an assurance that something will be done to minimise those ravages. I whole-heartedly commend the Order, because I do not think many people in this country will be found who are not prepared to agree that the grey squirrel is a most undesirable alien.


My Lords, I do not know what is the peculiar offence that the Carnegie Trustees have committed in Dunfermline, although I happen to be one of them. At any rate, I should like the particular offence crystallised for consideration by the Trustees, and I am quite sure—always assuming that they have committed this misdemeanour—that they will take steps to remedy the effect of their action. I really rose because the noble Earl who submitted this Order to your Lordships' House appealed to landowners to do their part in supporting the Government in suppressing the activities, and indeed in destroying the lives, of grey squirrels. He went on to say that the Government themselves did not propose to take any active measures in the matter. As regards the first suggestion, although I speak with some hesitation in the presence of my noble friend Lord Hastings, who is Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Central Landowners' Association, I feel sure that he will allow me as a member of the Council of that Association to say that we will do all in our power in this respect, recognising as we do the very widespread damage for which the grey squirrel is responsible. But I venture to hope that the Government will do their part, too, and that where they control large areas of land where grey squirrels abound they will do their best to prevent grey squirrels spreading on to private property.

I am not in the fortunate position of the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, because I happen to have a property in the immediate neighbourhood of the Forest of Dean, and we have also suffered very seriously in recent years from the depredations of foxes. There is no hunting in the district, but we suffer from those depredations entirely owing to the view of the Government Department that the fox has some value in promoting the growth of forest trees. I have never yet discovered what it is; however, I believe that the Department have revised their policy in this respect. I should think there are few parts of the country where the grey squirrel is more rampant or more destructive than in the neighbourhood of the Forest of Dean, and therefore I venture to hope that the noble Earl will see that Government Departments, at least as much as private landowners, will do their best to destroy this pest.


My Lords, may I say a few words to reinforce what has just been said by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe? The Government must recognise that the amount of property now in the hands of Government Departments is very large. The Forestry Commission are one of the owners of such property, and it is quite impossible for landowners to compete either with this kind of pest or with any other unless they have the co-operation of those owners or administrators of public property in the sense that the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, has mentioned. Quite truly landowners may be relied upon to co-operate with the Government, as they always have been, but their best efforts will be of no avail unless the Forestry Commission and other large public bodies can be induced to follow suit and not only to look upon birds and animals solely from the standpoint of the damage or good they do to property, but to adopt a larger view altogether and treat the matter from a wide national standpoint. The purpose of the noble Earl's Motion and of the Paper which he has laid upon the Table will be very largely defeated unless he can prevail upon Departments and public authorities to follow the advice which he has given, and very properly given, to landowners.


May I ask a question on one practical point? When this Order comes into force, will local authorities be empowered by the Ministry of Agriculture to give their assistance to private landowners in exterminating the grey squirrel?


My Lords, I wish to assure the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, in answer to the question that he put to me that the Ministry of Agriculture will endeavour in the future, as they have in the past, to give every assistance possible to private landowners in the campaign for the extermination of the grey squirrel.


Does that include financial assistance?


No, not financial assistance.


They told us that in Committee.


There was a few years ago an organisation called the National Anti-Grey-Squirrel Campaign, and as a result of that campaign certain resolutions were passed at a Conference in 1931 and were sent to the Ministry of Agriculture. One was a recommendation to issue an educational pamphlet on the grey squirrel and to suggest means by which its extermination could be most suitably brought about. These resolutions have been carried into effect by the Ministry of Agriculture. An advisory pamphlet has been circulated, a broadcast talk has been arranged and county councils have been circularised on two occasions about the need for an intensive campaign against the grey squirrel within their boundaries. Therefore, my Lords, a certain amount has been done in the past few years under the auspices of the Government Department concerned, with the co-operation of the county councils, to organise a campaign on a national basis.

I should like to give the assurance not only to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, but also to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, that it certainly is the most earnest intention of the Ministry of Agriculture to see that the problem is more successfully dealt with as a result of the moral backing given by this Order, empowering the employees of the State, either through the assistance of the county council or direct from the central authority, to enter on private ground. I know from my own estate in Yorkshire, which is one of the areas most thickly populated with grey squirrels, that a constant difficulty in eliminating the pest is the fact that they come from extensive forest areas such as that which the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, has mentioned. And as soon as one kills 300 or 400 grey squirrels in any given month a similar number come the next month and take their places. I am in entire agreement that it is essential that, if the grey squirrel is to be exterminated, the campaign must be on a nation-wide basis. It is with that object in view that the Order has been placed before your Lordships' House this afternoon for approval.


Might I ask the noble Earl whether he is speaking on behalf of the Secretary of State for Scotland as well as of the Minister of Agriculture?


I am very glad that the noble Marquess has been so kind as to bring forward that point, which the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, has also raised. I referred first to the procedure that could be undertaken in England: the Ministry of Agriculture might authorise county councils to exterminate the grey squirrel and pay their expenses. That could not apply to Scotland, for I understand that the Department of Agriculture there is solely responsible for the elimination of the grey squirrel. It cannot be done there through the local authority, for there is no constituted agricultural committee similar to that which is in being in this country. Nevertheless, the work will be undertaken centrally in Scotland by the Department of Agriculture.

The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, made the accusation that the Ministry of Agriculture had a one-track mind, and he referred to the fact that this Order had not been submitted to your Lordships for approval until the problem of the musk rat had been dealt with. I do not admit that the noble Earl is correct in his statement that we have a one-track mind. In the particular instance of the musk rat, we have been successful in eliminating that pest from England since the Act came into force in 1932, and 4,000 musk rats have been killed. I believe that rumours have been reported that the musk rat still exists in Scotland, but I hope that if our one-track mind can prevail as successfully in the campaign against the grey squirrel as it was able to do against the musk rat the noble Earl will, at a later date, be prepared to withdraw such a severe indictment.

The noble Viscount, Lord Mersey, asked me whether it was possible to give assistance to individual landowners in the extermination of the grey squirrel. It is not intended, unless voluntary enterprise fails of effect, to use the power of entry upon private property, and no such assistance is contemplated from State sources at present; but it is expected that with the publicity which will be given in the near future to this question, and with the increased propaganda which will be conducted both by the organisation which was instituted for this particular purpose and by the broadcast talks which may be given, it will not be necessary for State employees to have powers of entry to kill the grey squirrel.


If I may say so the analogy which the noble Earl has drawn of the effective measures against the musk rat, where real means were taken by the local authorities, is not quite a fair one, because the propaganda against the grey squirrel is only to be a paper one. The musk rat was treated quite differently, and effectively.


The noble Viscount is quite correct. It is true that at present there is only paper propaganda; but if voluntary means are not successful, then, without further submission to your Lordships' House, this Order can be implemented, as it was in the case of the musk rat. But I do not think it would be generally acceptable to landowners throughout the country if at this stage, without further endeavour on the part of private enterprise, the Government were to take action immediately by right of entry in all cases.


The noble Earl has stated that no financial assistance will be given to landowners in exterminating the grey squirrel. I was a member of the Special Orders Committee and there we distinctly understood that financial assistance would be given, and traps would be supplied.


I am disappointed with the statement of the noble Earl. Of course we all want to get rid of the grey squirrel immediately, but the measures described to us seem to me to be very far away. Of what use is it to kill a grey squirrel to-day, when you know that another will come over the hedge from the property of someone else to-morrow? You may spend money in killing them off on your property, but no effort is made to kill them where they are breeding in somebody else's wood, or garden, it may be. I think we had better begin as soon as we can, and that the sooner we get these animals put upon a penal basis the better. I am certainly sorry that none of these traps will be supplied to those who have not got them, or the means of assistance to destroy the nests of these animals. One's neighbours may be able to give information about the grey squirrel, but they have not the means perhaps of destroying them, and I hope we shall not be long before we get some slight financial assistance, for without some Government assistance I do not see how we are going to exterminate these animals at present.


Perhaps when he replies the noble Earl will answer my question, whether it is an offence for an owner to have a grey squirrel upon his land.


I am sure my right honourable friend will be very pleased at the expressions of opinion which have been made in this House this afternoon, because it was felt that the action that was proposed to be taken might not meet with the unanimous approval which your Lordships have expressed in this debate. I should like to assure Lord Iveagh that, in the event of the nation-wide campaign for the extermination of the grey squirrel being unsuccessful, then it would be possible at some future date to make some financial provision for assistance to be given to those persons, to whom the noble Earl referred, who could not exterminate the grey squirrel with their own private resources. It is not, however, contemplated that such action should be taken until the result of the campaign which I have outlined is ascertained.

Lord Radnor asked a question as to the definition of the word "keeping." The noble Earl is quite right, inasmuch as the word "keeping" does not mean that those persons who have grey squirrels on their property will on that account be contravening the Order. The word "keeping" is directed against any person inducing a grey squirrel, whether in captivity or wild, to remain on his property. Some people keep grey squirrels as pets, and there is no incentive to trap or shoot if the squirrel next door happens to escape from the cage in which it is kept as a pet. The prohibition of "keeping" would apply to such cases as these, where the act of keeping was the result of a deliberate intention.

On Question, Motion agreed to.