HL Deb 23 January 1945 vol 134 cc656-62

3.30 p.m.

THE EARL OF ONSLOW asked His Majesty's Government which counties have been authorized by the Ministry of Agriculture to set steel traps for rabbits in the open, and not in accordance with Clause 5 (1) of the Prevention of Damage by Rabbits Act, 1939; how many of these counties have availed themselves of this permission; whether the Minister is satisfied that the operators concerned are thoroughly skilled in the proper methods of setting the traps; and whether he is aware of the danger caused by these traps to birds and animals, other than rabbits, and if so has this been called to the attention of the Committees; and what steps they are taking to avoid it.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in troubling your Lordships with this question I would say just a word or two if your Lordships will permit me. I am not raising the question particularly on the ground of cruelty to rabbits, nor on all the grounds dealt with under the Prevention of Damage by Rabbits Act, 1939, which resulted from the work of the Committee presided over by my noble friend Viscount Mersey, who, I regret to say, is not in his place to-night. What I wish to know is what is the real value of these traps if they have any. I gained some experience in this matter when, in order to assist in the destruction of rabbits after the outbreak of the war, I gave leave to a number of people—to the policemen and to a number of persons working on my property—to kill them. This was done most effectively so that now there is hardly a rabbit on the place. The method used for the destruction of the rabbits was, I believe, exclusively that of ferrets and nets. I understand from the war agricultural executive committee of my own county, Surrey, that they have given permission to use steel traps in the open in only a few cases—barely half a dozen in all. I wonder, therefore, whether a campaign against rabbits carried on by these means on such a small scale can be of the slightest value at all, and whether in view of the nuisance caused by these traps set in the open, the method should not—as it could quite easily—be abolished.

I am speaking on behalf of the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire, of which I happen to be President. We are anxious to know whether it would not be possible to make some modification at least in this unfortunate Order. The reason is not, as I have said, that of cruelty to rabbits. That is not what we are particularly dealing with at the present moment. The suggestion I put forward is that this method of trapping is quite unnecessary, and it involves the destruction of a large number of birds and animals who get caught in these traps when they are set in the open. A great many birds, we are told, have been caught and killed by these steel traps set in the open. Nobody wants to see that sort of thing happen. As we all know, there are birds which are of great value in connexion with agriculture. If the Natural History Museum were open, your Lordships might go there and see, in the front hall, a glass case in which are displayed specimens of a number of birds which are valuable to agriculture and which, no doubt, are liable to be caught by these traps. I cannot see what value these traps can have. From the evidence we have in Surrey and from what the war agricultural executive committee say I do not believe that they have any value for catching rabbits in large quantities. The only people who seem to me likely to benefit from the use of these traps in this way are poachers and poulterers. I am told that poulterers offer good prices for rabbits which are captured by some method which does not cause such damage as shooting, for example. The poachers, no doubt, if they hear of places where these traps are set will naturally go and steal them, and thereby increase their own gains. I do not see how anybody else benefits very much by this system of trapping.

The information which is available to me suggests that this method, while it does not do any particular good in reducing rabbits in large numbers, does do a considerable amount of harm. One knows that if these traps had been set before the war it would have been against the will of Parliament, and against the will of most people, and those who had done it would have been liable to imprisonment or to being fined. Therefore, my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk and my right honourable friend Mr. Hudson might have found themselves in a very difficult position. But, of course, they have protected themselves by the Order to which I have referred in my question. I do not know whether it will be suggested that great advantage has been derived from the Order. I understand that an inquiry was held a little while before the war, but that there was not time for it to be brought to a conclusion, and therefore any deductions drawn from that inquiry cannot be of great value. I would be very grateful if the noble Duke will tell me the names of the counties which have power to issue these licences and will give me any other information relating to matters touched upon in my question, which he is at liberty to disclose.

3.37 P.m.


My Lords, if I may interpose before the noble Duke replies, I would like to say just a few words. Perhaps I may claim to have rather special knowledge in this matter, as I am the Chairman of a county war agricultural executive committee. When I read this question, I understood that the noble Earl was placing emphasis on the words "in the open." So far as I am aware it has always been legal—or anyhow it has been legal for some considerable time —to set steel traps, and the only difference between what is being done now and what is permitted under the ordinary law is that they may now be set in the open. The permission has been given by the war agricultural executive committees acting as agents of the Minister. Having said that, may I add that I would not like noble Lords to think that the experience to which the noble Earl has referred, of the county war agricultural executive committee of his county is common, or that the view which that committee appears to have formed is held by the committees of other counties?


My Lords, I only said that the war agricultural executive committee in my county has issued licences to the number of less than half a dozen, I think. I did not express any opinion otherwise regarding their experience.


I understood that the noble Earl was saying—and if I am mistaken I apologize—that the view expressed by the war agricultural executive committee of his county was that these traps were of no practical value in destroying rabbits.


No, that is the deduction I drew. It is my own opinion.


I think that is a wrong deduction to draw from such an answer as that given by the Surrey County War Agricultural Executive Committee. I say that in view of the experience of my own committee and of the committees of other counties in which I have had the opportunity of making inquiries. Certainly in my own county, Leicestershire, which I represent as Chairman of the county war agricultural executive committee, our experience has been that there are only two means by which rabbits can be reduced in large numbers. These methods are gassing and the use of steel traps—not set in the open, but put inside the runs and down the holes.


I was speaking entirely of traps set in the open under this Order.


The noble Earl did not emphasize that point, and I thought that perhaps noble Lords might have misunderstood his question. If he confines his remarks to traps in the open that is another point. But these traps would still be efficacious if set in the open. I do not approve of them being used in that way, and in my county we do not authorize traps to be used in the open at all. My view is that gassing and traps are the only two really efficacious ways of doing away with rabbits when they have become very numerous on any estate. The disadvantage of gassing is that the rabbits are lost for food for the nation. The advantage of traps is that by their use the animals are kept down to a reasonable number, and the ones caught are available for consumption by the people of this country.

3.39 P.m.


My Lords, I think that possibly I had better make it quite clear in fairness to the noble Earl who asked this question that it is specifically stated in the second line of his question, as set out on the Order Paper, that he is asking about authorization "to set steel traps for rabbits in the open." Although the noble Lord who has just sat down was, possibly, referring to steel traps in general, I have taken it that this question deals entirely with steel traps in the open.


If I may interrupt, I would state that it deals entirely with steel traps in the open. They are the only ones which can catch birds.


I will first reply to the various points raised by the noble Earl in his question. All county war agricultural executive committees in England and Wales have been authorized under powers conferred by Defence Regulation 63 (5B) to give authority for the setting of spring traps in the open for the purpose of killing rabbits. Of the 61 counties, 50 have given such authority since the Regulation was made in January, 1941. My right honourable friend the Minister has instructed the committees to take care that the operators concerned are thoroughly instructed in the proper method of setting the traps, and he is satisfied that the committees carry out these instructions. He is aware of the possible danger to birds and animals other than rabbits and, while he has not specifically called the attention of the committees to this danger, he is satisfied that they also are aware of it and that as responsible bodies they may be relied upon to do all in their power to minimize the possibility of injury to birds and other animals.

I think that all your Lordships will agree when I say that the wild rabbit does do an enormous amount of damage to growing crops, and in certain areas, and particularly in woodlands and scrublands, there is really no possible means of destroying the surface-living rabbit except by the use of the steel trap. Gassing and netting in such country as I have described do not meet with any success. It was for that reason that in the national interest the use of extreme methods was considered justifiable, and the prohibition of the use of steel traps in. the open imposed by the Prevention of Damage by Rabbits Act, 1939, was removed by this Defence Regulation 63 (5B). I will quote the actual words of that Regulation. It provides: Nothing in subsection (1) of Section 5 of the Prevention of Damage by Rabbits Act, 1939 (which restricts the use of spring traps for the purpose of killing hares or rabbits), shall apply to anything done during the continuance in force of this paragraph under an authority given by the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and in accordance with such conditions as may be imposed by him. Under the powers which have been conferred by this Regulation, the Minister authorized the county war agricultural executive committees to give authority for the setting of these traps in the open, but only or the following conditions. First of all, the authority is given by the war agricultural executive committee to the occupier of lands or to trappers, and where the committee are of opinion that the open trapping is necessary in order to effect the destruction of rabbits. Secondly, any spring traps set in the open must be visited at reasonable times, and at least twice every day between sunrise and sunset. The county war agricultural executive committees have further been instructed that where possible they are to reduce the permission which they give to the minimum. That may well answer the question raised by my noble friend regarding the fact that in Surrey some half-dozen only have been given.

I want to emphasize to the noble Earl that, whereas an enormous number of rabbits may not be killed by this method, nevertheless there are cases in which it is not possible to kill rabbits other than by this method, and with the food shortage and the serious position which we are still in, we cannot allow rabbits to breed in certain areas simply because we do not use the one method by which we can keep them down. As I told the noble Lord, Lord Elton, when he raised this matter in this House in November last, my right honourable friend has considered very carefully whether he would be justified in withdrawing this war-time regulation, but, owing to the serious shortage of food, he has reluctantly decided that he is not in that position. I would, however, emphasize in conclusion that my right honourable friend and the Ministry of Agriculture consider that gassing is a very efficient means for destroying these rabbits, and we are doing everything possible to minimize the use of this trap in the open. We are satisfied that it is only in the very restricted areas to which I have referred, where we cannot manage with gassing or netting, that these operations are in fact being carried out.

3.44 P.m.


My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his very full reply. I am not quite satisfied with it; on the other hand, I am very glad to hear that the restriction on the use of traps in places where other means of destruction can be employed is to be rigorously insisted on, as is shown by the action which my county committee are taking. At the same time it has been shown that it is possible to destroy rabbits by other means than open traps, and therefore that open traps are not really necessary, except in cases where nothing else can be used. In these circumstances I hope that the noble Duke will impress on those with whom he has an opportunity of conferring that the restriction of these traps to a minimum should be proceeded with. I say this in the interests of those animals—and indeed of human beings—who may be caught in these traps, because the traps are a nuisance and a danger to all who come in contact with them.

House adjourned at a quarter before four o'clock.