HL Deb 29 November 1938 vol 111 cc212-24

Orders of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a short Bill on rather an urgent matter, to which I hope your Lordships will give a Second Reading. It is to prevent the gradual extinction of wild duck and wild geese, which is imminent owing to the commercialisation of their species. In recent years when these birds come into this country and to the north of Europe generally, to mate and to nest, they suffer a great many more dangers than they used to do. This is due to a variety of causes, partly owing to the fact that the haunts in which they used to breed are now invaded by urbanisation—by more buildings and more inhabitants—while other methods besides the old methods are used to pursue them. They are pursued by shooters in motor cars, by shooters in motor boats and by punt shooters. Then the drainage of lands which used to be derelict also takes away from the area in which, formerly, they could breed. Those are the principal troubles in this country, but there is another and much more serious danger which they have to suffer, and that is that on the Continent of Europe they are caught in immense numbers by decoys and are then sent over dead or in cold storage to this country. The object of this Bill is to prevent that as far as it is possible to do so during the close season.

It is a very modest Bill. It enlarges the close season by about ten days at each end; that is to say, in February and in August; and it prohibits during the same period the importation of dead wild duck or geese. There is one other small point to which I perhaps ought to call attention, because I have had a letter rather objecting to it. It is that with the increase of the facilities of transport, a large number of people go after wild duck and geese who are not particularly good shots and who very frequently leave them wounded. This Bill has been agreed upon by the British Section of the International Committee for Bird Preservation, by the poultry industry, and by the Home Office, which is the Department concerned. It naturally does not satisfy everybody—none of these Bills do—but it is the greatest common measure of agreement which it has been possible to obtain. It is hoped very much that the Bill may go through your Lordships' House so as to get to another place in time for it to become law by the end of the year.

To deal with the clauses, by Clause 1 the close time is extended from its present period, March 2 to July 31, to February 15 to August 11, and by Clause 3 a similar restriction is put upon the importation of dead birds from the Continent during the same period. By Clause 2 owners and occupiers of land are not allowed to shoot wild geese, as at present they are, during this period, though the Secretary of State on the recommendation of the county council may suspend this limitation. Clause 4 gives the schedule of the birds, and in case any of your Lordships should wonder why some are included and others not, it is because the Parliamentary draftsman advised that it was necessary to adhere to the words of the original Act of 1880 dealing with wild bird life. These are adhered to so scrupulously that even the spelling has been put down in the same way, but every other class of wild duck which is not specifically mentioned is included by the words: "wild duck of any other species whatsoever." I think that is all I need say at present. If there are any points to which I need reply, I will do my best to do so. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Viscount Mersey.)


My Lords, I should like to say a very few words in strong support of this Bill, and I have a few figures which I think might be of interest to your Lordships. Naturally, it is impossible in this country to get any statistics as to the number of ducks which are shot. Therefore we have to fall back on the few decoys which are left in this country. I have not the latest figures, but in 1935 there were only four decoys working full time and six part time. In the eleven years up to 1935, the average number of duck caught in those decoys as far as can be ascertained was about 12,000 per annum. In the five years before 1935 the number was 7,000 per annum. That is a very large decrease. That includes all duck, but the duck that we in this country particularly wish to protect is the mallard because that is the duck that is chiefly bred here. Besides the dangers that my noble friend told your Lordships they went through, there is another very important one. Under the present laws, unless the county councils have made special provisions, they can be shot when they are in an immature state and practically unable to fly, and at the end of the season they can be shot when they are paired. It is very important to prevent that.

There are many difficulties in making comparisons because there are fewer decoys working. The extraordinary disappearance of a certain weed that many of the ducks like, the zostera, has made a difference, though from what I hear this weed is beginning to come back. There is also the climatic difference. Some years are much milder than others, and it is a curious point that in the south of England practically no migratory ducks have arrived at all. They ought to have been here a month ago, but no doubt when the frost comes they will all appear. We in England are said to be responsible for a good deal of this disappearance of the duck, but figures I can give your Lordships as regards Holland show quite clearly what rubbish that is. A certain Herr Haverschmidt produced a monograph on duck decoys a few years ago in which he said there were 145 decoys in Holland. He calculated that every decoy took 2,000 duck a year. That amounts to some 300,000 duck, which is quite probably below the real figure, because the whole of the Dutch decoys are run on commercial lines and it is calculated that 2,000 duck are not enough to make a decoy, unless it is a very small one, a paying concern. That is a very great toll on the duck population of Europe, and what makes it more serious is that recent experiments in the ringing of ducks by catching them and letting them go again show that nearly all migratory duck come across Holland. Therefore an enormous number of them probably drop in on their way and do not come on. This duck ringing has been increased very much in the last few years. Two gentlemen have bought a disused decoy in Pembrokeshire which they have set up, and they are ringing everything they catch there. A few of us—I have a small decoy—are ringing a proportion of the duck we catch, and the results are most interesting because we are getting returns from Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and even Russia, besides places nearer home.

As regards the actual Bill, an increased close time is most desirable. What that close time should be is naturally a matter of opinion. Many of us would like to see it much more extended than this Bill actually provides for, but for the reasons my noble friend stated, when time is so important to get this Bill through, we must accept this as a compromise. Personally I should like to go further, but I feel that the compromise is a reasonable one and should appeal to every reasonable person. It is clearly laid down that though the close time cannot be shorter, it can be made longer by the counties concerned, and no doubt Scotland will do so if it wishes, as probably the dates there are later than they are in England. I should like also to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that quite a number of counties have tested these dates and have found them very satisfactory. Five or six years ago in my own County, Dorset, we adjusted our bird preservation schedules. We took interest and care with the duck schedule, and we put it forward to the very dates which have been produced in this Bill. We also were able to induce three or four other counties surrounding us to fix exactly the same periods, and as far as I know there has not been the smallest objection to the dates which are now proposed. That in my opinion is a strong point.

We went further—perhaps this does not come under the Bill—we made the dates for the shooting of snipe, waders, and certain other wild fowl exactly the same, for the reason that it was far simpler to understand complicated dates when they were made all the same. There were certain other reasons why we should do so—for example, the unscrupulous shooter who goes down into the meadows ostensibly to shoot snipe and really to shoot duck which he puts in his pocket, and equally those who go out to flight ducks at night after the time is over and say they are shooting something else. These orders are not affected in any way by the Bill, and the county councils can continue them. Further, the period when ducks can be exposed for sale is shortened by a fortnight, which is agreed with the poulterers and is therefore satisfactory to everyone. Better still, the prohibited period for importation is made to coincide with the period for close time. That is very important because, though I under- stand in Holland generally the close time is February 15, there is a district of North Brabant where the season goes on for another period, and on several occasions quite a big number of duck have been brought over to this country and sold at high prices. I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading to-day. It is not a perfect Bill, I fully agree, but it is a very big step in the right direction and should be supported.


My Lords, I am in entire agreement with the noble Viscount who moved the Second Reading of this Bill and with the noble Earl who has just addressed the House, that this is a most admirable measure. At the same time I confess to being a little sorry that it has been introduced in quite so much of a hurry, inasmuch as any attempt to amend it in Committee may possibly jeopardise its immediate passing into law. At the same time I would ask the noble Viscount whether it is not possible to accept one or two quite minor Amendments which would in no way alter the Bill except for the purpose of strengthening it. I do not think they would meet with any opposition. At the present time the numbers of wild duck breeding in this country, with the possible exception of one or two kinds, are actually increasing. It may therefore be asked why it is necessary to pass a measure protecting them further than they are protected at the present time. Well, there are several answers. The first is that the number of wild fowlers in this country has been increasing for a good many years past and seems still to be doing so. Furthermore, many of those duck congregate in estuaries where it is possible for them to be massacred, as the noble Earl has said, when quite unfit for use, in very large numbers.

If I may, I will cite what happened until some years ago in the estuary of the Tay. Up to that time, on the first of August every year, there sallied forth a large number of so-called sportsmen, many of whom had hardly ever used a gun at other seasons of the year, and they invaded the great reed beds that are a feature of the Tay estuary. No one knows how great the resultant slaughter was. It has been put at a minimum of one thousand, and a maximum of five thousand or even more thousands of duck in a day. Often people have returned home with bags containing, say, three dozen duck of which perhaps only two or three had been shot; the rest had been caught with dogs or knocked on the head. In one case that came to my knowledge over seventy were brought in, and only five of them had been actually shot. Not only was this destruction carried out, but a great many mother duck were killed, leaving their broods to die of starvation. We have now got, I am glad to say, an order from the Secretary of State for Scotland whereby, in those parishes immediately around the Tay estuary, all duck are protected up to the first of September. The result, despite one or two not very good duck breeding seasons, is already apparent and will be of benefit not only to the Tay but also to the whole of the East of Scotland.

At the same time there is no doubt that the great majority of the duck which visit our shores every year come from Northern and Eastern Europe, and there, as the noble Viscount said, their breeding places are being more and more invaded every year by so-called progress. Whatever one may think of the actions of the Soviet Government of Russia, there is no doubt that they have been opening up the very remote parts of that country in a most remarkable way. The result of this, though it may be advantageous from another point of view, has certainly been to decrease the available breeding ground for wild fowl, and has also brought about a new danger which has not yet been alluded to, which is this. It has been found that the albumen of duck and geese eggs is particularly valuable for the making of cinematograph films, and there has been a brisk trade in it.

Now, when our duck go from inland to the coast, they meet the foreign duck and are of course then indiscriminately pursued by shooters afloat and on land. If the migrating duck from the North become very much reduced in numbers, as they are becoming every year, it is obvious that the attention of the wild fowlers will be concentrated more and more upon the home-bred duck, which will mean that this increase in their numbers, which has very fortunately taken place during the last few years—a number of species which hardly ever have bred with us before have become not uncommon breeding species—will undoubtedly be checked. In that case a position will arise similar to that in the United States of America only a few years ago, when it was found that unless drastic measures were taken its duck would be extinct in a very few years. Those drastic measures of protection were taken, with the result that the duck population of America is again very much on the increase, so much so that they have been able this year, I understand, to lengthen the shooting season again.

So far as the actual importation of wild fowl is concerned, for our part I could have wished that the importation of dead duck could be curtailed by another fortnight, from the first of February. I am informed, indeed, that the poulterers would have been prepared to accede to this, and I am very much disappointed that it has not been done. We may find after a few years that it may be necessary to take even more strict measures of protection. It may be necessary to prohibit altogether the use of duck-decoys, and I should certainly like to see the close season extended at one end up to the first of September, although an extension up to the eleventh of August is most welcome. There may be areas, however, in which county councils will not take advantage of the powers they possess, and a good deal of unnecessary and wasteful destruction will take place.

Now I would respectfully ask the noble Viscount if he could not consider accepting certain Amendments. The first is the inclusion of wild swans as well as wild duck and wild geese. It is true, I believe, that the wild swan is protected in England by a number of Acts, but I do not think those Acts apply to Scotland. It is not the mute swan with which I am concerned; it is with two other varieties of swans which hitherto have come only rarely to this country as winter visitors. One is the Bewick swan and the other the whooper swan. The whooper swan is a magnificent bird, which has been trying to nest in Scotland. If wild swans could be added to this list it would give the whooper a very much better chance of establishing itself. Then there is the question of which the noble Viscount spoke, the arrangement of the species in the clause which acts as a schedule. Here I really think that your Lordships might insist upon a Parliamentary draftsman producing something a little less ridiculous, because it really is rather absurd at the present time. One or two distinctly un- common ducks are named and a great many quite common ones are not mentioned at all. Now if within the Bill as at present drafted Clause 4, paragraph (b) had read "'wild duck' means any variety of duck," that would have been quite understandable, but to say that it means a small collection of ducks, including a distinctly uncommon one, the smew, which has never been known to nest in this country, and to leave out birds like the tufted duck and pintail and gadwall, which are very common, is I think rather absurd.

I really cannot see why an extension of the list of names to cover all the varieties of duck should not be made without leaving out any that occur in the original Act. I cannot see why that would not be acceptable. A change of that kind would not in any way invalidate the Bill. I would also suggest that it might be as well to state definitely that the gannet, sometimes called the Solan goose, which, however, is in no way related to the geese, should be alluded to as not affected by this Bill. If these Amendments could be incorporated I think the Bill would be improved. They are of a comparatively trivial nature, and are suggested only for the purpose of strengthening the Bill and assisting, not hindering, the purpose of the Bill's promoters. I think if these Amendments were accepted it would be greatly to the advantage of the Bill.

There is just one other point to which I would allude. Your Lordships have no doubt observed that the noble Viscount drew attention to the fact that wild geese for the first time are now included under the provisions of the earlier Act. The Secretary of State will have power, on reasonable occasion being given, to exempt them from its provisions. The reason for that is that geese certainly in the spring do a considerable a mount of damage although at other times they actually do good when landing on the fields, by manuring them. But there are times when they do a good deal of harm to young wheat and young grass. In those circumstances it would be unfortunate if remedial measures could not be taken. With these remarks, I welcome the Bill and hope very much that it will be accorded a Second Reading.


My Lords, I very much hope that your Lordships will pass this Bill. It is a Bill which is very necessary and in some ways important. Bills of this kind have passed your Lordships' House before, and your Lordships, by accepting them, have, I think, conferred great benefits on the preservation of British species which otherwise might have suffered severely. All over the world, in the last fifty years, we have seen a constant diminution of species of useful and interesting animals and birds, which in some cases have been not only reduced very considerably in numbers but have disappeared altogether. I will draw your Lordships' attention to two cases in America. The pigeon, which used to exist in millions—literally millions—has become absolutely extinct, simply because it has been shot down for the market. Your Lordships, of course, are well aware of the imminent danger of extinction in which the bison stood until they were protected. The same fate may attend many other species unless Bills such as this are passed in your Lordships' House, and, of course, the same consideration applies in other countries.

My noble friend Viscount Mersey, in introducing the Bill, said it was a modest measure, but, as he and other noble Lords have said, it is also an important one. My noble friend told your Lordships that all interests have been carefully considered. They have all been consulted and this Bill represents the greatest common measure of agreement. Therefore I hope your Lordships will accept the Bill as it stands as an agreed measure, and let it proceed to another place as speedily as possible, and that it will shortly become law. I would for this reason deprecate Amendments in the Bill. If Amendments were introduced or suggested, other Amendments might be proposed, the Bill might be somewhat altered and then the possibility would arise of opposition being encountered, so that the opportunity of passing this excellent measure might be lost. I may perhaps tell your Lordships that the Home Office Advisory Committee, of which I have the honour to be Chairman, have been consulted by the Home Office and have recommended that this Bill should receive your Lordships' approval and the approval of the Government as well.

The Bill, as we all recognise, deals with one subject only, and there are many other subjects which your Lordships would wish to see included. It might be asked why this Bill has been introduced in this form and why other matters have not been dealt with. I would say that it is rather difficult to bring in a large and comprehensive measure. To do that takes time and may lead in some degree to controversy. A series of small amendments to the law may, I hope, be consolidated and brought up to date with the existing law, and I trust that His Majesty's Government will take that idea into consideration.

There is one other point I would like to mention. The noble Earl opposite spoke of the question of drafting in regard to Clause 4 (b). Acts of Parliament have been drafted in a manner which some of us are apt to criticise at the present time, but my experience has been that when you have certain sections drafted in a particular way in an Act of Parliament, it is better for the sake of clarity to adhere to that wording rather than embark upon something which you regard as an improvement but which may lead to misunderstanding. The clause as it stands corresponds with existing Acts of Parliament, and if you alter it people might say you meant something else when you did not do so at all. I very much hope that it will not be suggested that an amendment should be made in the law here. I have very little, if anything, else to say, but I repeat that I very much hope your Lordships will pass this Bill and will regard it as an agreed Bill, even though you may think it has certain shortcomings and limitations, as my noble friend opposite said, because any Amendment in its text which might not in itself be controversial might jeopardise an otherwise agreed measure.


My Lords, the noble Viscount who moved the Second Reading of this Bill has explained quite fully to your Lordships the intention and purpose of the measure and I need not therefore do more than refer quite briefly to the clauses in the Bill. It is, as he said, and as was said by the noble Earl behind me, quite admittedly a compromise. I understand that the dates proposed in the Bill are satisfactory and have in fact been agreed between all the parties concerned. It might be extremely unfortunate to endeavour to alter those dates during the Committee stage, or indeed to include in the Bill things which up to now, so far as I am aware, have not even been discussed by the parties. The noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, asked why certain species of duck were not included in the present Bill. I understand that the duck which are mentioned in the definition clause in this Bill are those which appear in the Schedule to the Act of 1880. It appears to us that it would be useful to remove any possibility of doubt as to whether this Bill refers to those particular birds mentioned in the Act of 1880 or not.

Lastly I would mention, in regard to what the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said, that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary considers that a Consolidation Act dealing with the whole of this quesiton would undoubtedly be useful. He has drawn up a memorandum which he is submitting to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, who is Chairman of the Home Secretary's Advisory Committee, with a view to having that memorandum circulated to all members of the Committee. Of course it will be realised that that is only the first stage in an attempt to revise the Wild Birds Protection Acts, and that some very considerable time must elapse before the stage is reached in which further legislation can be attempted or contemplated. Nevertheless, the Government believe that this Bill deals with an urgent matter and we are prepared to give it our support.


My Lords, there is very little more I need say except to answer two questions which the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, put to me. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, has already dealt with the question as to the schedule, and so has the noble Earl opposite. We do not want to do anything to make it possible for the Courts to say something different was meant. The other point mentioned was with reference to wild swans. Wild swans, I understand, can be very damaging things, but in any case the question of including them has not been considered by the Bird Preservation Committee.

The main objection that I would suggest to your Lordships against putting down Amendments is that, if one adds up the Parliamentary time as we stand at present, there is every chance of getting this Bill passed into law by the end of the year if there is no Report stage. The earliest day on which I understand that it can be put down for Committee is to-day week, and if it goes through Committee to-day week unamended we can have the Third Reading on the Thursday—that is to say, on December 8. It would then get to another place in time to become law before Parliament rose for the Christmas Recess. But if there is a Report stage, you lose a week, and the whole passage of the Bill would be jeopardised. I hope the noble Earl will give consideration to that argument, and particularly to the fact, which has been mentioned two or three times, that this is an agreed Bill by all the parties concerned and that to introduce Amendments to it would risk losing their approval.


May I have your Lordships' indulgence for one word? In view of what the noble Viscount has said, and on the principle that seven-eighths of a loaf of bread is better than none, I will refrain from putting down the Amendments which I had intended to move. But might I respectfully say that I think it was a little unfortunate that the Bill should be brought forward, even with the wisdom of an Ornithological Advisory Committee and of the Home Office behind it, in such a way that it was impossible to put down any form of Amendment and have it discussed in your Lordships' House without endangering its passage? I fully realise that at the present time it is necessary that the Bill should go through unchanged in order that it may become law in time to prevent the unnecessary slaughter in the spring. However, those of us who have given a lifetime to the study of birds would feel a little happier if certain by no means controversial points could have been discussed in order that the measure might be improved.


I should very much like to thank the noble Earl for his concession in this matter.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.