HL Deb 23 June 1953 vol 182 cc1163-75

3.20 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a small but necessary Bill. It is the policy of the Government, as it is indeed of all Parties, to encourage the increase in production from our own soil, and in particular the production of meat. I hope that one of the results of this Bill, if it becomes law, will be to encourage producers in some areas to keep more livestock and produce more meat. The Bill should also go some way towards decreasing the amount of cruelty and suffering caused to livestock by dogs. There is no doubt that, directly and indirectly, the worrying of livestock, particularly sheep, by dogs causes considerable loss of meat each year.

I do not wish to give a great many figures, but in the year 1952 nearly 6,000 sheep were killed and over 5,000 injured by dogs in Great Britain. But serious as is the direct loss, the indirect loss is far greater. There are many areas where sheep could with advantage be kept, both from the point of view of meat production and as an improver of land, but where, owing to the dangers of attack and losses by dogs, farmers simply do not keep sheep. I know that in one instance a friend of mine on whose farm there had always been a flock of sheep recently gave it up after a series of attacks by dogs. I do not want to over-emphasise the point. Obviously the risk of loss through dogs is not the only reason why farmers do not keep sheep, but in many areas it has an important influence. This Bill, which makes the owner punishable if his dog worries livestock, is not intended to be an attack on those who own dogs. It insists merely that they take precautions so that their dogs do not commit crimes which cause serious loss to the owners of livestock, cause suffering to that livestock and loss to the country of much-needed meat. An uncontrolled dog, like a spoilt child, maybe a joy to its parents but to no one else.

As to the Bill itself, Clause 1 contains the "teeth." It makes the owner and the person in charge of the dog liable to a fine of up to £10 for a first offence, and £50 for each subsequent offence, if the dog worries sheep on agricultural land. Agricultural land is defined in Clause 3 and covers all the normal types of farm land. Worrying is defined as: (a) attacking livestock, or (b) chasing livestock in such a way as may reasonably be expected to cause injury or suffering to the livestock or, in the case of females, abortion, or loss of or diminution in their produce. Therefore, to be an offence under this Act the worrying must be serious and likely to cause damage, suffering and loss. Clause 1 (3)of the Bill permits the owner of land to use a dog to drive off trespassing cattle, so long as he does not cause the dog to attack the stock. Under subsection (4), the owner of a dog can escape liability if he can show that at the time of the offence the dog was in charge of a fit and proper person. Of course he has to prove this to the satisfaction of the court, and the owner is not the final judge of who is or who is not a fit person. Under subsection (5), the Minister has power to exclude from the operation of this Bill land which he considers to be mainly "mountain, hill, moor or down land." I hope that that power will be sparingly used, because I feel that people who keep stock on that rather poorer land possibly suffer losses less well than the person who keeps stock on the more fertile land.

Clause 2 deals with enforcement. It provides that prosecutions can be taken only by or with the consent of the police, by the occupier of land or by the owner of the livestock. This should prevent any frivolous prosecutions under this Act. Your Lordships will notice that this measure applies to England and Wales. In Scotland, I understand, a private individual cannot prosecute in this type of case. This clause also allows a policeman to seize a dog which he believes to have been worrying sheep, and if it is not claimed within seven days it can be dealt with in the ordinary way as a stray. Clause 3 defines agricultural land and also livestock, which includes all the normal farm animals.

I have tried briefly to tell your Lordships the reasons for the Bill and what it contains. I hope that if this Bill becomes law there will not be a large number of prosecutions. The success of the Bill will be if it encourages the thoughtless and careless owner to be more careful and, by so doing, reduces unnecessary loss of livestock. At the same time, I hope that it will encourage the farmer who is at present doubtful to keep more sheep and other livestock, which will be to the benefit of us all, and that some sheep may be spared a painful and useless death in order that they may, when the time comes, die humanely and usefully. This Bill had support from all sides during its passage through another place, where it was considerably amended, and in the end it was largely an agreed measure. If hope that your Lordships will accept it and give it a speedy passage, so that it can make its contribution to the crusade to grow more food in this country and also to the reduction of suffering. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Amherst of Hackney.)

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Amherst, for sponsoring this small but extremely important Bill in your Lordships' House, and for the clear and concise way in which he has stated the case for it. On behalf of us on these Benches I should like to welcome the Bill very warmly. Perhaps your Lordships will allow me to refer quite briefly to a little back history of this measure. I have no doubt that the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, could take the history of this matter a great deal further back than I can—indeed, possibly the problem disturbed the noble Earl, Lord Halifax, when he was with the Ministry of Agriculture.

This Bill deals with an abiding problem which has faced Ministers for a very long time. I recollect that, when I was at the Ministry of Agriculture in the late Government, my right honourable friend the then Minister, Mr. Tom Williams, was acutely worried by this grievous problem of damage done to livestock by sheep-worrying. He spent a good deal of time considering the possibility of legislation such as we have before us this afternoon to check the evil, but, of course, the difficulty about drafting a Government Bill was that it was really impracticable to do so without producing a measure which would be regarded as aimed at dog lovers, and therefore highly contentious. I imagine—though I do not know—that the present Government have found themselves in much the same difficulty. However, this practical difficulty has been overcome by public-spirited private Members in another place, and now from the Back-Benchers in this House; and, at long last, a Bill has been produced which all Parties can support and which, I believe, will influence public opinion far more than a Government Bill, because it is basically, as the noble Lord opposite pointed out, an agreed measure. I should like to thank all those in both Houses who have rendered a useful public service, which only they were in a position to give.

I think we all agree with the main arguments used by Lord Amherst in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. The worrying of livestock by dogs is a shocking form of cruelty to animals, and results also in a considerable wastage of food every year. Perhaps I may say a few words about the aspect of the loss of food production. I believe—and this belief is, I think, borne out by the experts—that one reason, though not the main or the sole reason, for the decline in our sheep population since the war, as compared with the increase in cattle, poultry and pigs, has been the direct or indirect effect of the worrying of sheep by dogs. The noble Lord gave us some figures of the number of sheep destroyed in one year. But no less serious than the annual loss of sheep, and, of course, of poultry— although fewer poultry are killed—has been the deterrent influence on sheep farmers of this danger of sheep worrying. Perhaps I may be allowed to quote a typical reaction on the part of sheep farmers, given in a letter which appeared in The Times recently from the editor of a local newspaper, the Kent and Sussex Courier. This is one sentence: In this part of West Kent and East Sussex, where the paper I represent has campaigned for years against killer dogs, we know of farmers who have quite definitely given up rearing owing to continued losses from sheep worrying. Your Lordships will remember the number of reports in recent months of cases of sheep worrying and I should like to quote one of these which relates to an incident in the South Downs. This is part of the report: Police cars caught two dogs, a Labrador and a terrior, leaving the scene of the killings. The sheep owner, Mr. Lewis Pile of Chalk Farm, Willingdon, said, 'the sight has so sickened me that I will never keep sheep here any more. In the thirteen years I have farmed this land I have lost over £1,000 worth of sheep, all killed by dogs.' This is an example of a farmer who has given up sheep farming. Probably this kind of result is even more important than the direct result of worrying, owing to the risk to which these farmers will be exposed. Indeed, I feel that one of the most serious consequences of these ravages is that farmers are beginning to feel that it is no longer safe for them to continue keeping sheep.

What I hope this Bill will do—it is a hope which I share entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Amherst—is to increase the sense of responsibility among people who own dogs. Most people are responsible, but some are not; and these people need some action to stimulate them to that sense of responsibility. By creating a new offence the Bill should bring home to the dog owners that public opinion in this country condemns irresponsibility in the control of dogs. It is thoroughly wrong because it leads both to shocking cruelty and to wastage of valuable food. Sheep worrying cannot be stopped by legislation, but only by people ceasing to allow their dogs to wander at large over land where sheep are kept. And we all hope that that will be the outcome of this Bill.

My only anxiety about the Bill is that it has been so whittled down, for the sake of securing agreement, that it may not be a sufficient deterrent to the irresponsible. For my part, I am sorry that the maximum fine first proposed in the Bill has been reduced from £20 to £10. I am sure that the heavier fine would have proved a more effective deterrent. I also regret the possible exemption in Clause 1 (5), of hills, moors and down land. As all who have to do with the hill and upland farms of England and Wales are aware, such land carries large numbers of sheep; and we hope that those numbers will steadily increase. I think it would be very unfortunate if the hill and upland farmers were deprived of the protection given to farmers in other parts of the country. I have no doubt that this subsection was included at the instance of the Ministry, and I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, to say what his Department had in mind in asking for this provision, to what parts of the country it is intended that the provision should apply, and whether the Government propose to make any orders under this section if and when the Bill becomes law. I do not want to embarrass the noble Lord, to whom I have not given notice of this question—but I am sure the information would be welcome to all of us. The fundamental thing is that we all want this Bill to pass into law as speedily as possible, and as an agreed measure in both Houses. No one, therefore, would wish to propose any Amendment which would delay the Bill or undermine the basis of an agreement that has already been reached during its passage through another place. For my part, I hope very keenly that your Lordships will pass this Bill substantially in its present form.

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I should like shortly to express my agreement with this Bill, the Second Reading of which has been so ably and clearly moved by the noble Lord, Lord Amherst. There is no doubt whatever that this particular plague of the countryside has been increasing quite considerably during the last few years, with resulting loss of sheep in those areas where sheep are still to be found. I am sorry to say that the numbers have decreased very seriously in recent years, with, of course, a consequent loss to our food supply. Incidentally, the trouble is aggravated by the fact that whereas in old days, particularly in areas like the Cotswold Hills, or the Chalk Downs, where sheep were largely kept intensively, with proper lambing pens and duly experienced shepherds, nowadays the keeping of sheep is done on a more extensive scale, with far less protection afforded to them and giving greater opportunities for dogs to do damage of this description. My only regret, in reading hastily through this Bill, is that it contains no provision—and I am not sure to what extent outside legislation deals with the matter—for shooting a dog found in the act of worrying sheep.

There is one other factor to which I would refer, and that is the iniquity, particularly in bad times, when people are reluctant to spend money on adequately feeding their pet dogs, of putting their dogs outside their homes to fend for themselves. I mention this particularly because it came very much under my notice when I was Governor-General of New Zealand, a country where sheep-breeding is carried on on a very much larger scale than it is in this country. During the period of the serious economic depression in the early 1930's, sheep worrying there became very serious indeed, particularly on the part of Alsatian dogs, which are kept to a preponderant extent in parts of that Dominion, and I had myself, perhaps irregularly, to take rather strong action, in order that these who turned their dogs out of doors to fend for themselves, because they purported not to be able to feed them, should be punished, in fact drastically punished, with an adequate penalty. I fear that that sort of process is beginning to occur in this country. I hope that an eagle eye will be kept upon it, and that anyone who treats his dogs in that way, instead of sending them to be humanely killed, as is now strongly advocated and carried out under the ægis of the Royal Society for the Prevention of. Cruelty to Animals, will be dealt with equally in this old country as they are now dealt with in certain countries overseas.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join in congratulating the noble Lord and those in another place on bringing in this Bill which I think is bound to do a certain amount of good, but I hope I shall not be accused of destroying the harmony of the proceedings if I point out, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, has, a gap, and, in my view, a very serious gap, in its provisions. I confess that I did not follow as I perhaps ought to have done the proceedings on the Bill in another place. The noble Lord may be able to explain the reason for the gap. The ancient recipe, before ever you started upon anything, was: "First catch your hare." I think the first thing you have to do is to catch the owner, apart from the dog, and I am sure noble Lords who are practical farmers will agree with me that only too often the culprit is a dog which, even if you catch it, does not bear a large label round its neck giving its name and its owner.

On large farms, especially on down land, it is not easy for the unfortunate shepherd to keep up with the dog that has been worrying sheep, in the hope of eventually tracing it home. Therefore I join with the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, in suggesting that we ought, if possible, unless it is going entirely to wreck the Bill, to insert some provision to make it possible for a dog caught or seen in the act of worrying sheep to be killed—infact, to be shot. That is the only real remedy available to the farmer. There may be some other remedy available under some other Act. If so, I apologise to your Lordships for raising this point. As a practical farmer, I should very much like to know to what extent, in future, if this Bill is passed, my shepherd, if he fails to find the owner, is entitled to shoot the dog.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, as one who once had the honour of being at the Ministry of Agriculture, I should like to join the chorus of those who welcome this Bill, but I do so with the same reservations that my noble friends who have already contributed have mentioned. The House and Parliament are no doubt generally and rightly reluctant to create new offences, but if a case is made out for the creation of a new offence, as I think most of us feel has been done in this instance, it is of evident importance and desirability that the necessary steps to be taken against that offence should be effectively achieved. As I heard my noble friend Lord Bledisloe draw attention to what he felt was a gap, as to who had a right to shoot the dog, and as the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, referred to it again, in my untutored mind, without knowing exactly what the law might be on the subject, I did not suppose that any farmer with whom I had acquaintance would hesitate long, if he happened to have a gun and to be within range; and, if he was on the wrong side of the law, I supposed that public opinion would soon get the law corrected in order to save him from any penalty to which he might be subject. But, if my noble friend can get that point cleared up in Committee without interfering with the basis, which I think is important, he will command my general support.

I am glad the noble Earl raised the point about Clause 1 (5). I hope the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, will be able to explain what to me, at all events, and I gathered also to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was slightly obscure—the necessity for that provision. For the rest, I am bound to say that I think this Bill is very carefully hedged about. I should have liked to see a Bill more drastically drawn; but in this, as in many other things, "beggars cannot be choosers." If I am told that this is the best I can get at this stage, I am quite willing to give it a trial, although I am bound to admit that I do not feel completely confident that it will achieve the purpose we all have at heart.

3.47 p.m.


My Lords, I want to support this Bill but also to criticise it in exactly the same way as it has already been criticised. The noble Lord, Lord Amherst, in introducing the Bill said he did not want to over-emphasise. I do not believe it is possible to over-emphasise the harm that is being done to-day by the worrying of sheep. I come from a natural sheep-growing district where twenty years ago there was not a farmer who did not run sheep. The other day I was talking to a local farmer who does still run sheep, and he said: "It is an absolute tragedy. When my father owned my farm, there was not one farm in this district that did not run sheep. To-day I have to go twelve miles before I can find another flock of sheep besides my own. That is entirely due to sheep-worrying by dogs." That is a serious situation, and I am bound to say I do not believe this Bill is strong enough to deal with it.

A point has been brought up about the shooting of dogs. I will tell your Lordships a remark that the same farmer made to me in the same conversation. I said: "Why are you still running sheep? How do you keep them protected from dogs?" He said: "My keeper has a gun, and so have I, and the dogs do not come." That was his answer and I believe it is the right answer. We ought to give the farmer the power and the right to give a gun to his shepherd, to keep a gun in his own hand and to use it when a dog is seen worrying his sheep. It is vitally important in our life to-day that we should run sheep on our farms, not only because of the meat but also because of the good the sheep do to the land. If we allow farmers to make the excuse that they cannot run sheep because of worrying by dogs, then we shall be making a very grave error. I hope that not only will this Bill go through, but that it will go through in a stronger form than as at present drafted.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I do not suppose that it will come as too much of a surprise to a number of your Lordships if I say at the outset that Her Majesty's Government welcome this Bill, and that they think my noble friend Lord Amherst, and the promoters of the Bill, should be congratulated for bringing it forward. My noble friend has rightly drawn attention to the seriousness of the problem which is caused by the worrying of livestock by dogs. It was because Her Majesty's Government were seriously concerned about this matter, and felt that some means should be found of reducing the number of such cases, that discussions took place last year between my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture and members of animal welfare organisations, together with representatives of the farmers and local authorities. The main ideas which emerged from these discussions were that power should be sought to require dogs to be kept under control on land where they might do damage to livestock, and also that there should be some changes in the arrangements for dog licensing so as to reduce the number of stray and unlicensed dogs in the countryside. However, it was not possible to find room for a Government Bill in the legislative programme this Session, and as this is a Private Member's Bill it cannot deal with changes in the licensing arrangements; but it does, I think, make a very useful contribution to solving the problem.

As my noble friend Lord Amherst has explained, the Bill itself is simple and to the point. It makes the worrying of livestock on agricultural land a criminal offence, and in this straightforward way I think the Bill ought to bring home to clog owners that they have a responsibility for seeing that their dogs do not harm livestock, and for keeping them under control when they are in a position to do damage. The Government have no desire to see harsh or unnecessary restrictions placed on dog owners or their dogs when only a minority do damage to livestock. It seems to me that this Bill strikes a very fair balance between the interests of the dog owner and the farmer. In particular, quite unlike some proposals for dealing with this problem, it does not penalise the owners of dogs which behave perfectly well or which never come into contact with livestock.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend Lord Halifax both asked me what was the purpose of subsection (5) of Clause 1. I am not, of course, responsible for this Bill, nor are Her Majesty's Government, but I can tell the noble Earl what I think is the purpose of subsection (5). Close to a number of big towns, there are open spaces, which are used primarily, for most of the year, for recreation, where people exercise their dogs and play football, and all the rest of it. Sometimes, for three weeks or so during the year, sheep or cattle are put to graze there, and it was felt that in such a small number of cases it might be rather a hardship on people who normally used that bit of land for exercising their dogs if they were required to keep the dogs under very tight control. This is a power which I am sure my right honourable friend will use sparingly, and only in very isolated instances, but that is the object of it.

Several other noble Lords have mentioned the question of the shooting of dogs. I do not want to trespass on my noble friend's Bill, but I think I am right in saying that at the present time there is nothing to prevent noble Lords from shooting dogs which are worrying sheep. The thing that usually stops them is the knowledge that they may be prosecuted by the owner of the dog. Of course, that deters a great number of people. I think I am right in saying, however—I am sure my noble and learned friend on the Woolsack will correct me if I am wrong—that if you can show that, at the time that you shot the dog, it was attacking sheep, and that that was the only means you had of ensuring that your livestock were not harmed, then the prosecution will not get very much further. Moreover, a Committee presided over by the Lord Chief Justice have issued a Report on The Law of Civil Liability for Damage Done by Animals (Command Paper 8746). They made a recommendation that the shooting of dogs should be made the subject of less strict provisions. At the moment Her Majesty's Government are studying this Report, and I think that is the reason why my noble friend and the promoters of this Bill have not put anything into this Bill about the shooting of dogs. In any event, I think it would be impossible to put anything in the Bill, because there is nothing in the Long Title about it—but I may be wrong there.

My Lords, I do not think—and I am sure my noble friend would not claim—that this Bill is going to solve completely the problem of livestock worrying. Certainly we must continue as we are doing at the present time, particularly in the direction of educating dog owners about the need for keeping their dogs under control when in the countryside. But I believe that this Bill will help to make dog owners more conscious of their responsibilities, and so make a valuable contribution towards solving the problem. I therefore commend it to your Lordships with the blessing of Her Majesty's Government.


My Lords, I am grateful to all your Lordships for the way that this Bill has been received. I cannot claim much of the credit for the Bill, although I have sponsored it in this House. As regards the few questions which have been asked, the one which was asked by several noble Lords about the shooting of dogs has, I am pleased to say, been answered already by the noble Lord, Lord Carrington. He gave exactly the answer. The only other point which has been emphasised by a number of your Lordships is that this Bill is not quite as strong as one would have liked it to be. But one has to sacrifice something to get agreement. That is all I need say, I think.

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