HL Deb 28 November 1951 vol 174 cc547-59

2.41 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, perhaps I may be allowed to begin with an observation which I am sure will be entirely non-controversial. I have only just learned that this is the seventieth birthday of the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor, and as I am the first speaker, perhaps, even from this humble position, I may be allowed to offer him my respectful congratulations. I very much regret that the exigencies of Government business made it necessary to advance the date of this discussion by one day. The supporters of this Bill were, of course, glad to accommodate themselves to His Majesty's Government—in fact, they had no option in the matter. I greatly regret, however, that several noble Lords who had hoped to be here to-morrow to speak or vote in favour of this measure are unable to be present to-day, and I have no doubt that there are some noble Lords present this afternoon, whether to oppose or support the Bill, who are here at considerable additional inconvenience.

I daresay that a considerable number of your Lordships present to-day were in this Chamber, as I was, when a similar Bill was moved by the noble Viscount, Lord Tredegar, in 1935. The Second Reading of that Bill was defeated by 46 votes to 42. To-day, we know a great deal more about both rabbits and gin traps than we knew then, for serious research into rabbit ecology virtually began in 1937. I have been refreshing my memory—as, no doubt, have some of your Lordships—by glancing at the arguments used in the course of that debate sixteen years ago, and I am bound to say that a number of them appear to me to have been founded, even then, on insufficient information. And I must add that it seems to me that scarcely any of them will stand up in the light of the greatly increased knowledge which we possess to-day. I think it would be fair to say that the general tenor of the opposition to the Bill sixteen years ago was that gin traps were admittedly and regrettably cruel but that, most unfortunately, there was no satisfactory alternative; and, therefore, gin traps were still indispensable to agriculture.

At the outset, therefore, I wish to make it clear that the supporters of this measure found their case upon two entirely separate and distinct propositions. In the first place, we remind your Lordships of the deliberately chosen words in the Report of the recent Scott Henderson Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals: The gin trap is a diabolical instrument which causes an incalculable amount of suffering Its sale and use in this country should be banned by law within a short period of time. Many of your Lordships may think, as I do, that in view of the very strong words used by this Committee the Government themselves might well have taken this measure out of the hands of private persons altogether. We say that even if the only case against the gin trap were the incalculable suffering which it admittedly causes, even if it could be shown that it was the most effective means for the destruction of rabbits, we should still not be justified in condemning over 30,000,000 rabbits every year (that is a figure to which I shall refer in a moment) to prolonged suffering. But that is only half the case. We also say that, by now, there is overwhelming evidence that the gin trap positively increases, vastly increases, the number of rabbits in the country. It would be necessary, even if there were no humanitarian case for it at all, to ask for the abolition of the gin trap in the interests of agriculture itself. In other words, what we are saying is not that this is a terribly cruel instrument, and that, in the cause of humanity, farmers must put up with an addition to the rabbits on their farms, but that this is a diabolical instrument which causes incalculable suffering and should be abolished on that ground alone, and that there is an almost equally strong case against it in the interests of agriculture itself.

Before I go further, I would remind your Lordships that it is backed by the Universities' Federation for Animal Welfare, by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and by the Royal Society for the Protection of Wild Birds. We had better be quite clear—I expect all your Lordships are, but I admit that it puzzled me a little at first—about the distinction between the spring trap and the gin trap. The spring trap is the genus and the gin trap is the species. Or, to put it into English, the spring trap is the family of which the gin trap is one individual and very disreputable member. The gin trap is the black sheep, as it were, of the spring trap family. The spring trap is any trap operated by a spring. It may be used as a humane trap to kill outright. In some instances, I believe it may conceivably be used as a humane trap to capture, by imprisoning, a small mammal. Or it may have teeth and jaws—in which case it is a gin trap, captures animals alive and, inevitably and invariably, mutilates them. The gin trap is the disreputable species within the spring trap family whose characteristic is to possess jaws or teeth, to capture animals by these jaws or teeth and to mutilate them in so doing.

It is curious, if one looks back to the eighteenth century—which is about as far back as our knowledge of gin traps goes—that we find them in use predominantly against human beings. They were employed by land owners to "catch poachers"; and that equivocal use remained legal until 1827, when it was abolished by the Spring Guns Act of that year. It is quite interesting and entertaining to read the debate on the Second Reading in another place of the Spring Guns Act of 1827. All the familiar arguments against this sort of reform were employed. Members said they would resist the proposal because it was based on "morbid sensibility." It was said that the amount of human suffering after the abolition of the man-trap would be much greater than before. However, the mantrap was abolished, and I do not know of any evidence that anyone seriously regretted it. In 1880, there was passed an Act which permitted tenant farmers to trap but not in the open; and then, in 1911, came the Protection of Animals Act, which required trappers to visit their traps in daylight once every twenty-four hours. Neither of these measures has in fact proved enforceable—a fate which has also befallen the Prevention of Damage by Rabbits Act, 1939, which similarly forbade trapping in the open. Then there was Lord Tredegar's Bill, the Gin Traps (Prohibition) Bill, of which I have already spoken. Still later came the appointment of the Mersey Committee. And since 1937 a great deal more has been learnt about the rabbit and his ways, about methods of destruction and about the consequences in general of using the gin trap. But no special research was really needed to prove that the gin trap is an abominably, a devilishly cruel instrument.

It is not easy to know how to approach this matter. I am anxious not to create the impression that noble Lords who support this measure have a monopoly in disliking cruelty; I recognise that noble Lords who will oppose the Bill dislike cruelty as much as I do. I am anxious, also, not to create the impression that the case for this Bill rests solely on the devilish cruelty of this instrument. Nevertheless, the dimensions of the cruelty which it causes show how richly it has deserved the epithet of "diabolical." One of the numerous researchers who have been working on this problem on behalf of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, in co-operation with the Oxford Bureau of Animal Population, has taken a random sample of the rabbits killed in one trapping campaign in Carmarthenshire. She found that, of 222 rabbits, every single rabbit had a broken leg, and 73 had two legs broken. When one introduces a Bill of this kind one receives a great deal of correspondence. One lady wrote to me—her letter is typical of many who have told me of their personal experiences with regard to gin traps. All emphasised the horror of the lingering death of the victim. This lady said that she was walking one day in rough country when she came across a stoat in a trap, badly mangled but still alive. She did her best to release it but was unable to do so. She went home for assistance, but when she came back she was unable to find the trap or the stoat. She searched for some considerable time and then returned home. Two days later, she found the trap in the same neighbourhood—with the stoat still alive. I am aware, of course, that not all animals suffer for as long as that. As I have said, the law requires a visit to traps every twenty-four hours. Commercial trappers probably do visit their traps every twenty-four hours during the beginning of their campaign, but there is abundant evidence that towards the end, when the rabbits begin to thin out, they visit their traps far less regularly. The casual trapper—by which I mean the man who is not a professional—is always much more irregular in his visits. It may be worthwhile reading to your Lordships a sentence or two from some evidence given before Lord Mersey's Committee—I quote it because it illustrates this point of the lingering death. This evidence, which appears in paragraph 514 of the Committee's Report, was given by a manufacturer of traps, who in this context was concerned to point out that the commercial trapper probably does not want the rabbit killed outright. This is what he said: … I do not think the trapper wants the rabbits to be killed outright. I mean by that that the trap might be put down in the evening; the rabbit might be killed in the early evening and perhaps the trapper visits the trap early next day; the rabbit might have been dead in the trap for twelve hours; what would be the condition of the rabbit for the market? If he were killing it from the point of view of a pest or vermin, that would be all right; but from the point of view of the market, I do not myself consider … that the trap will be satisfactory. It is estimated that more than 30,000,000 rabbits are killed every year in this way. That figure, which is probably an underestimate, is derived from the known figure of the sales of these traps, plus certain returns we have from trappers showing the number of traps they have used in a particular season and the number of rabbits they have caught in them.

It is difficult to imagine 30,000,000 deaths of this kind in a year. One has to realise that this means that every night throughout the winter months at least 200,000 living creatures are lying in these traps throughout the hours of darkness. Rabbits, of course, are by no means the only form of life caught in these traps. I should like to read your Lordships a sentence or so from one of the answers to one of the questionnaires sent out some years ago by the old University of London Animal Welfare Society. This is from a man who has been a trapper for forty-four years. Incidentally, he starts his evidence by saving that experience has convinced him that trapping increases the number of rabbits. He says: The cruelty is very great indeed. I am very particular in attending to the trap at least twice during the day, and often once about an hour after it gets dark, but when I am going around and see others that often leave rabbits to stay for days at a time in the trap it makes the matter much more cruel. My opinion is that there is only one way to stop it, and that is to do away with the gin altogether. Then this witness gave figures, which I think will interest your Lordships, showing the various animals found caught in traps. One season's figures were: rabbits, 9,240; stoats, 28; cats, 25; hedgehogs, 12; birds, 312. And then came the significant footnote: Also numerous other creatures such as foxes, badgers, dogs, etc., which I don't enter on the list. And, of course, we have evidence of the capture in these traps of every kind of bird, ranging from the golden eagle to the blue tit. In one small garden, thirty blue tits were caught in the space of a few weeks. It is reckoned that more than 100,000 cats are caught every year. In addition, we have all heard of fox hounds returning home across great distances, mangled and exhausted, dragging one of these traps. Even sheep and cows have had their tongues caught in these instruments. There is no doubt that it is a diabolical instrument.

What is surprising is that so few of the general public know anything about it. During the last few weeks, a few neighbours of mine—I am a country dweller—have happened to learn that I had something to do with a Motion on gin traps; and not one of the three or four who have spoken to me on the subject had ever heard of a gin trap before. Admittedly, this is a part of the country where gin traps are not much in use; but I am fully persuaded that, if a living creature in one of these evil things could be exhibited for a week in Trafalgar Square, by the end of that week there would be such an outcry from the country that the Government would be compelled to take this measure out of the hands of Back Benchers and place it high on the list of official Bills.

Cruelty, though the chief ground and the ground on which I should prefer your Lordships to condemn it, is by no means the only case against this instrument. There is the case on behalf of agriculture itself. Here we have to start from the premise that the rabbit is not a source of food but a pest. Luckily, I am able to refer your Lordships to a Conference at the Ministry of Agriculture in July of last year, at which there were present representatives of the National Farmers' Union, the Country Landowners' Association, the National Union of Agricultural Workers and the Transport and General Workers' Union, as well as various official persons, and they unanimously agreed to the following resolution: The wild rabbit is a serious pest to agriculture and forestry, and its destructive capacity far outweighs its value as food. I should like to add that one of the researchers, a Miss Phillips, working on behalf of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, has proved that, in addition to its attacks on food, the rabbit has a remarkably deleterious effect on pasture, vastly reducing the proportion of grass and clover and vastly increasing the proportion of inedible weeds. I do not think we need any longer regard the rabbit as a potential source of food.

The popularity of the gin trap is, of course, due to the fact that it catches the rabbit alive for sale. Trapping has become a vast industry in many parts of the country, particularly in Wales, Devonshire and Cornwall. And it has actually caused an immense increase in the rabbit population of those areas. To take one, and perhaps the most conspicuous, public example; before the First World War Pembrokeshire was comparatively free from rabbits, except on the coast. During that war, rabbit trapping brought good profits and the steel trappers extended through Pembrokeshire and Western Carmarthenshire. The farmers of Eastern Carmarthenshire would have nothing to do with the gin trap, with the result that in the middle nineteen-thirties, Pembrokeshire and Western Carmarthenshire swarmed not only with gin traps but with rabbits, while Eastern Carmarthenshire was comparatively free. Since then, unfortunately, both the gin trap and the rabbit have spread into East Carmarthenshire too.

May I give your Lordships an example from one of the many replies to a questionnaire sent out some while ago by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare? This reply is from a farmer in South Devon who says: My experience amply confirms your claim that rabbit-trapping is responsible for increasing the number of rabbits. I know areas where rabbits were scarce before trapping was introduced and since then the rabbit population has increased enormously. The above facts are so well known in this district that many farmers are now abandoning their old custom of having their rabbits trapped. I might also quote to your Lordships a passage from art article by Sir William Beach Thomas, whose writings in the Spectator many of your Lordships have probably enjoyed: If you forbade the steel trap, which makes things easy and profitable for the professional trapper in proportion as it is cruel, you would see a steady decrease in the rabbits of the country. These men encourage rabbit production. The tenant or owner who lets out the right to take rabbits must hold his own hand. The trappers release a certain number of does; and it is the common experience that where trapping for profit is most systematically carried on, there the population of rabbits continues to be greatest. The conclusion of the whole matter is plain: abolish the steel trap. Rabbits would decrease, not multiply. So much for the association between rabbits and gin trapping. Let me now suggest the reasons for that association. There are three, of which one is incomparably the most important. It is first suggested, a very obvious suggestion, that the gin trap makes away not only with the rabbit but with its principal enemies, the fox, the stoat and the like. I do not lay undue stress on that argument, because I understand that the ecologists are not entirely certain as to the quantitative aspects of the relation between the predator and his prey. It seems very probable, but I understand that it is not entirely certain.

The second reason, though not the most important one, is that the commercial trapper gets rid predominantly of the buck rabbit, because the buck rabbit feeds on the surface where the gin trapper, in contravention of the law, places his traps in the open. The doe spends her time underground, and escapes. Let me quote figures as to an attack on rabbits after a commercial trapping campaign on a certain estate. After the trapper had left, when ferrets and other methods were used, 75 per cent. of the rabbits killed proved to be does; and, of course, it is a well-known physiological fact that a predominance of the female animal leads to excessive breeding. The third and chief reason, I have not the slightest doubt, why the gin trap produces a plague of rabbits is that it is all to the interest of the trapper to skim the cream off the market, so to speak, and then to move on to another area. When the rabbits begin to thin, or he finds that they have fled from the area he is trapping, he moves on. It no more pays him to exterminate rabbits than it would pay a butcher to exterminate sheep. Rabbits are his livelihood.

May I now quote some figures from one of the researchers to whom I have already referred, relating to commercial trapping campaigns in Carmarthenshire in the years 1947, 1948 and 1949? Miss Phillips used Lincoln Indexes, which, as many of your Lordships know, imply that the researcher catches a rabbit, marks it and releases it; and then, when the commercial trapping campaign is over, the researcher examines every rabbit killed and so discovers what percentage of the marked rabbits are among those killed. Miss Phillips found that in 1947 the trapper had killed only 37 per cent. of the rabbits; in 1948, he had killed only 40 per cent., and in 1949, only 32 per cent. The survivors, about two-thirds of the stock on the estate, not only survived but flourished. In the next breeding season there would be two fat rabbits, instead of two half-starved. I do not think that your Lordships need doubt that a prime cause of the rabbit plague is the practice of the commercial trapper to trap off quickly the easily caught rabbits and leave about two-thirds of the stock behind to breed.

Nor do I think that your Lordships will dissent from a passage which appeared in a letter written to The Times some while ago by Major Hume, the Chairman of the Universities Federation For Animal Welfare, who has done probably more research on rabbits, and has done more to bring about the passage of this Bill than anyone else. He wrote: Trapping, born of labour shortage, hard times, and slovenly farming, is no more compatible with healthy agriculture than with Christian ethics. Well, my Lords, what in effect we are doing, at the price of an immense aggregate of suffering, is bringing about widespread deterioration of agriculture. If I may adapt a sentence which I believe was spoken by the first Earl of Chatham in one of his American speeches, that is not the price which I would pay, neither is this the thing which I would purchase.

It may be said that that is all very well so far as commercial trapping is concerned, but what about the process in which most members of this House are more interested—namely, rabbit clearances? My Lords, the Oxford Bureau of Animal Population and the Universities Federation of which I have spoken have done a great deal of research in these last four or five years, and they are quite convinced that by far the most effective means of getting rid of rabbits is by cyanide gassing. I am well aware that in its early days cyanide gassing gained a rather bad name, partly because there may have been inexpert handling and partly, I am bound to say, because on some estates it was handled by employees who had a vested interest in the maintenance of some rabbits on the estate. But it has, I think, been irrefutably shown that cyanide gassing is instantaneous and humane, and that it does not poison the carcase or make it unfit to eat. Anyone who is fit to kill rabbits with a gun is fit to poison with cyanide gas. Cyanide gassing is a difficult art, but it is not so difficult an art as shooting. Admittedly, there are certain areas where it is not practicable to use gassing, such as cliffs, scrub, and woodlands with heavy undergrowth. I do not want, nor am I qualified, to go into details on matters about which your Lordships know much more than I do. I can only refer you to Instructions for Dealing with Rabbits, seventh Edition, September, 1951, published by the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare. All I would say is that traps are never any use unless you can find the hole or rabbit run, and if you can find those then there are always other methods to be used.

Some of your Lordships may feel that I have been speaking only about researchers and laboratories, and that I have not referred to the problems of the practical land owner. May I read you a sentence or two from a letter which I received yesterday from the noble Earl, Lord Stradbroke, who unfortunately cannot be here this afternoon, recounting his experiences, without traps and using gas, on his estate? I do not for a moment suppose that the noble Earl would claim to be in close touch with the latest results of research, but here we have the evidence of a practical land owner using his own strong common sense and organising ability to tackle this problem. He says of his estate: … by and large, the 600 acres of potential agricultural land were feeding a stock of rabbits large enough to enable, on an average, 4,000 a year to be killed without any diminution of the stock. On taking over the estate about eighteen months ago, I decided to abolish both gins and rabbits. In spite of vigorous protests from the gamekeepers, my shooting tenant and my farm staff, all of whom have some vested interest in seeing some rabbits about the place, I went ahead. Now I cannot claim to have yet rid my land of rabbits, but it is significant that two lots of Scouts who camped here this year, one at Whitsuntide, one at August Bank Holiday, immediately remarked on the absence of rabbits: 'What have you done with all your rabbits?' Also a friendly butcher, who has for years come over at harvest time to help shoot and buy all the harvest-killed rabbits, found this year that we had so few that in spite of their high value in cold storage it was not worth his while to drive over the four miles to get them. The methods I have used to do the job are mainly ferreting and shooting, and gassing. As regards the latter, I was repeatedly told that gassing would be no use on my sandy land with its large burys. Indeed, after a time began to wonder whether that was not after all right. But I found the clue to success was to give the job to the only employees who have a vested interest in the complete abolition of every rabbit off the place—namely, the woodland staff. I found that they were 100 per cent. for gassing and did a very good job with it under very unfavourable conditions. Later in his letter the noble Earl says: As regards humane traps as approved by the R.S.P.C.A., I have had these tested and they are 100 per cent. sure killers, but rather cumbersome and awkward to set where space is restricted; further research is needed, as there are a few places, but only a very few, where gassing and ferreting may not be quite effective. My Lords, we do not admit that traps are necessary except for commercial exploitation, which in any case should be ruled out once it is admitted that the rabbit is not a source of food supply but a pest. But for those who do desire spring traps there are several in existence. There is the Sawyer trap, which is backed by the R.S.P.C.A., and there is a version which, I understand, is being experimented with by the Ministry of Agriculture; and there is the Miller trap, backed by the Scottish S.P.C.A. Admittedly, these traps have been having "teething troubles," if that is an appropriate metaphor for a trap, the essential characteristic of which is that it does not possess any teeth. As an example, the Miller trap was a 100 per cent. sure killer at its trials, but inferior steel had been used for its springs, and these rapidly wore out. The springs are now being replaced with more highly tempered steel, and so far as its mechanism goes the trap should be a success. But the real point is that if the gin trap were banned, then, for the first time, manufacturers would have some incentive to produce a substitute. As was said in a leader in the Field on October 6 last, It has often been said that though the gin is deplorable it has to be used because there is no efficient substitute. In so far as this is true, it is only because there has never had to be an alternative. I do not want to detain your Lordships unduly, and I will now say a few words about the Bill itself. The first clause deals with definitions. I have already mentioned the two essential definitions. The second clause appears in a different form from that which it appeared in the version of this Bill which was printed in July—I need not go into the difference here. The present Bill prohibits only the gin trap; that is, only the cruel trap. The effect of Clauses 2 and 3 together is to prohibit the gin trap and to apply the present Scottish law to England by enabling the Minister to permit trapping in the open with an approved or humane trap. Trapping in holes is, of course, already legal, so the effect of this measure will be to wipe out the gin trap, and to allow the humane trap, the approved trap, to be used either in the open or in the rabbit hole. I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to Clause 4. The penalties in Clause 4 were, I think mistakenly, copied from those in the Protection of Animals Act, 1911. Money has changed its value a good deal since then, and I think we should have taken them from the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Protection) (Scotland) Act, 1951. Your Lordships will note that in Clause 4 we prescribe a maximum fine of only £5 for a first offence. A great deal of money is made out of commercial trapping, and I see that the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Protection) Act prescribes a fine of £50 or imprisonment not exceeding three months. And whereas we prescribe for a second offence a fine not exceeding £25 or imprisonment not exceeding three months, the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Protection) Act prescribes a fine of £100 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months. But that is a matter which, if this Bill should reach the Committee stage, your Lordships would perhaps consider.

Finally, your Lordships will notice that the Bill gives two years' grace. If it becomes an Act it will not come into operation until 1954. That is intended primarily to give manufacturers time to produce a humane trap. I will not detain your Lordships by meeting the argument—I can, if necessary, deal with it on another occasion—as to what will happen to the trapper if this Bill is passed? The same question was asked when the employment of climbing boy chimney sweeps was prohibited at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the answer is very much the same.

I think that that is all I need say to commend this Bill to your Lordships. I believe that the Government are going to say—very politely, no doubt—that this Bill is premature, that time should be given for discussion, for consultation, for exploration of avenues. Well, my Lords. I am sorry if we have been impatient, but it is sixteen years since a Bill of this kind was last before your Lordships, and about four months since its first version was printed. And this great aggregate of cruelty and waste is a matter on which it is difficult not to be impatient. I have tried to show your Lordships that it is a matter of self-interest to abolish the gin trap in order to get rid of the rabbit plague, and also a matter of duty to abolish it in order to reduce this great total of suffering. We all know that even the most gifted among us are often unable to see where their interest lies—the whole course of politics is evidence of that. Yet very simple folk are able to see what their duty is, and I think that wisdom, both in politics and in life, lies in doing one's duty and trusting in Providence that it will prove to be to one's interest, too. I believe that there is little doubt where our duty lies in this matter. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill he now read 2ª.—(Lord Elton.)