§ 2.41 p.m.
§ Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.
§ LORD CARRINGTON
My Lords, although this Bill has the general title, "Pests Bill," it deals mainly with wild rabbits. Its aim is to make their destruction more effective and more humane, and it gives effect to Government decisions on some of the recommendations in the Report of the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals which was published in June, 1951. I expect that in the discussions on this Bill we shall refer frequently to that Report, and I should like to take this opportunity of saying how grateful we are to the Committee for their help and guidance. They dealt with a difficult and controversial subject and your Lordships will agree that the Report which they produced is excellent.
Most people are agreed that the rabbit is a pest. This is a fact that is repeated 415 very often—but with varying degrees of conviction. People who are not directly concerned with the production of food are sometimes inclined to think that the farmer is unnecessarily hard on the rabbit, so I think on this occasion it might be worth while mentioning again some of the reasons why the rabbit is condemned as a pest. It causes considerable damage to grass, herbage, green shoots, spring corn, roots and other crops, and it fouls and damages pastureland so as to reduce its stock-carrying capacity.
It is difficult to put a figure to this damage, but some striking results have been obtained from local trials. In 1950 a survey of rabbit damage in Kent showed that, if a plot of spring wheat was unfenced, its yield was reduced by 20 per cent. A wider survey of damage to winter wheat showed an average loss of yield of over 6 per cent. It is more difficult to assess the damage which rabbits do to grassland, but losses of over 25 per cent. of yield have been recorded in heavily infested areas. The damage to grassland is not so apparent because it does not arise when rabbits feed on the summer flush, when there is plenty of herbage for all, but in the spring, when the rabbits graze the early bite which is now so badly needed for cattle and sheep, and, of course, in the autumn and onwards when the herbage is thinning out.
In forestry, too, a great deal of damage is done throughout the rotation of the crop. Rabbits destroy much of the natural seedling growth in woodlands and so make it impossible to establish a new crop without the expense of raising trees in special nurseries. Rabbits also prevent the restocking, either naturally or artificially, of gaps in woodlands caused by windthrow or of small clearings. One of the reasons for lack of new growth by natural generation is damage caused by rabbits. In young plantations small trees may be killed outright by the stem being bitten through or by much of the bark being nibbled off. Where the trees survive they are usually deformed by having two of more leaders so that they lose in quality. Older trees are not altogether safe; the rabbits at certain times gnaw the bark at the base, which exposes the tree to disease and causes defects in the timber. Rabbits not only burrow among the roots of trees, endangering the stability of the crop; they 416 also destroy the hedges and hedge banks which give the plantations natural protection against stock. Apart from the serious loss in productivity and quality, the cost of protection against this kind of destruction is considerable. It entails erecting and maintaining miles of rabbit proof fencing the annual cost of which is in the region of £500,000 for State-owned plantations, and for privately-owned woodlands it might well amount to £1,500,000 or more.
Of course, there is a credit side, but it is far less than the losses caused by rabbits. Some people like rabbit to eat, but I am sure that not many realise that if it is an English wild rabbit, each helping, assuming a helping to be six ounces, has taken as much fodder to produce as seven lamb chops or 2½ Ib. of rump steak. Added to this, it is worth remembering that experts on nutrition believe that rabbit meat has only about half the food value of ordinary meat. The Select Committee on Agriculture in 1937 endorsed the view that the rabbit had seldom been killed which, when sold, did not owe somebody several shillings as a result of its activities. The Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals to which I have already referred considered that the economic interests of the country would best be served by the total elimination of the rabbit, if that were possible.
I think I ought to say something about myxomatosis and how it affects this Bill. The House will remember that the disease first appeared in this country last October, when infected rabbits were found on an estate of some 200 acres near Edenbridge in Kent. The Ministry did what was possible to prevent the disease from spreading before we had time to consider its implications, but there are now nine recorded outbreaks of infection in the south-eastern counties, stretching from Southwold in Suffolk to Lewes in Sussex. There are many different opinions about the part myxomatosis might play in getting rid of rabbits in this country, but I do not think it would be appropriate for me to go into them on the Second Reading of this Bill. Your Lordships will know that a Committee is considering this question and we hope to be able to report before very long. What is very much to the point is to ensure that, in areas where myxomatosis does kill off the rabbits, steps are taken to dispose of 417 survivors and to prevent other rabbits from moving in. That is important, because the surviving rabbits would soon multiply again and also because it is from these survivors that an immune strain of rabbits might develop. The control measures provided in this Bill, therefore, assume an added significance now that myxomatosis has appeared in this country. We shall want strong mopping-up operations by gassing and trapping to follow in the wake of outbreaks of the disease.
My Lords, as far as the details of the Bill are concerned, you will see that it is divided into two parts. Part I deals mainly with the destruction and control of rabbits and Part II deals with the use of spring traps. The first clause deals with rabbit clearance areas. No matter how many laws we pass, we are list going to get very far with the rabbit problem without combined efforts from all sections of the agricultural community. There are over 350 voluntary clearance schemes in operation, ranging up to 10,000 acres and mote in area, and covering about 1.500,000 acres in all. Unfortunately, efforts to organise voluntary schemes of this sort in Scotland have not met with any success.
Although we are now taking powers in Clause 1 of the Bill to make rabbit destruction compulsory in clearance areas, we have tried to preserve as far as possible the voluntary character of these area schemes. The areas to be schedules for clearance will be drawn up in consultation with the local interests; then when an area has been selected interested persons in the area will have an opportunity of objecting to the inclusion of their land, if for any good reason they think it should not be included. The obligations on occupiers within the scheduled area have statutory force and that will be to the advantage of the majority of willing participants, because they will know clearly what is required of them and that the job is being shouldered fairly by all.
The duty of the occupier to destroy rabbits on his land will be a continuing one and will not be discharged simply by clearing the rabbits once. Within a clearance area any occupier may take whatever action is necessary to destroy rabbits by trapping, gassing, snaring, netting or other such means. It should seldom be essential to shoot the rabbits 418 and we do not think that shooting would be the normal method of destruction. But, in dealing with rabbits that harbour in scrub and overgrown woodland, the only effective method may be to get the rabbits out of the scrub and shoot them as they come out. Provision has therefore been made for this.
The duty of destroying rabbits is, as I have said, being placed on the occupier and he must therefore be given the means of doing what is required of him. An occupier's right to kill rabbits may be restricted by his tenancy agreement, or he may have disposed of his rights. If in this case he needs to bring more people on to the land to shoot rabbits than are permitted to him under the Ground Game Act (that is, if he needs more guns than his own and one other person) he must apply for the consent of the landowner, or whoever has the rabbiting rights. If the consent were unreasonably withheld the occupier could ask the Minister or the Secretary of State for his consent. This provision follows fairly closely a similar provision which is in force in Scotland under the Agriculture (Scotland) Act of 1948.
Clause 2 enables the Minister and the Secretary of State to require the removal of scrub or other cover for rabbits and to require the erection of rabbit-proof fencing where it is not practicable to destroy the rabbits. To ensure that the reasonableness of each case is carefully considered, requirements of this kind must be given in an individual notice specifying what has to be done. Of course, no reasonable Minister would require a farmer to put up a lot of fencing to keep out other people's rabbits. The sort of case we have in mind is one where a large area has been cleared of rabbits except for, say, a small area of scrub in the middle which could not be cleared without a great deal of expense. Then, obviously, the thing to do would be to fence off the scrub. The present grant of half the cost of clearing rabbit-infested scrub in clearance areas will be continued and in approved cases extended to cover removal of earth banks and the erection of rabbit-proof fencing. To encourage farmers generally to adopt the most rapid, effective and humane means of destroying rabbits, without regard to financial return, we propose to continue the subsidy on gassing powder 419 under which a 7 lb. tin costs no more than 15s. The remaining clauses in Part I deal mainly with finance and procedure.
Part II of the Bill deals with trapping. The Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals condemned the gin trap and considered that its sale and use in this country ought to be banned within a short period of time. There is also a great deal of public feeling against the gin. Her Majesty's Government are in complete sympathy with this, and we are now seeking the power in Clause 8 to enable the sale and use of inhumane traps to be abolished in England and Wales. The Secretary of State for Scotland already has this power. Time must, of course, be allowed for effective substitutes to be provided and for gamekeepers, farmers, trappers, and others whose business it is to get rid of rabbits to adapt themselves to the new traps. Traps have already been designed to catch and kill rabbits without causing unnecessary suffering, and some of these have been tested on a fairly extensive scale, but I am afraid we cannot yet say with certainty whether, in general use, they would provide a complete answer to the trapping problem. It would not be in the interests either of rabbit destruction or of humanity, as the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals recognised in their Report, to bring about a state of affairs that resulted in there being more rabbits to be destroyed than would otherwise be the case.
It is estimated that there are some 3,000,000 gin traps in use in this country and a period of four years in which to prepare for their displacement has been allowed. The Minister may prohibit the use of any spring trap of which he has not approved as from a date fixed by him, but not earlier than July, 1958. I think there is little doubt that the effect of this Bill will be to stimulate the development and improvement of humane traps, because those who are interested in them either experimentally or commercially will know that the time when the gin can be banned will depend very largely on their efforts. I am able to tell you that one of the most experienced manufacturers of gin traps in this country has, for several years, been engaged in the development of a completely new design for a humane trap which he feels may 420 stand a chance of being so perfected as to compete with gin traps on level terms as regards usage, efficiency and price. The Agricultural Departments are taking a keen interest in this and other designs that are in process of development.
Clause 9 deals with open trapping. On this the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals considered there was some misapprehension. There seemed to be a tendency to associate open trapping with cruelty because it was customary to think about it in terms of gin traps. The open trapping of rabbits with gin traps would, of course, involve suffering, although the Committee considered that the argument that a rabbit caught in the open suffered more than one caught in a hole was open to dispute. The argument would, in any case, disappear if the trap used were of an approved humane type that killed the rabbit outright. The Committee went very fully into this question of open trapping and a special investigation was carried out by one of its members. They came to the conclusion that there were areas where it was quite impossible to control the numbers of rabbits without setting traps in the open and where, because of the ban on open trapping, there had been an appreciable increase in the number of rabbits. They considered, therefore, that it would be in the national interest that the Agricultural Ministers should be given power to authorise the use of spring traps in the open in appropriate circumstances. We have accordingly provided in Clause 9 that, in England and Wales, trapping of rabbits and hares in the open may be authorised by regulation or by licence.
Broadly similar provisions to those in Clauses 8 and 9 are applied to Scotland by Clause 10. The Scottish Act of 1948 gives the Secretary of State power to prohibit the use of the gin trap for catching rabbits or hares whenever he is satisfied that enough "approved" or humane traps are available. Clause 10 follows the general lines of the existing statutory provisions, but these are amended and widened so as to leave the Secretary of State free at any time to ban the gin trap for all purposes, subject, of course, to his being satisfied that enough approved traps are available. There is one slight difference between England and Wales and Scotland in the matter of open trapping, in that the Secretary 421 of State is satisfied that the limited demand and need for open trapping in Scotland can adequately be met by individual licences. So he does not seek the power which we consider necessary in England and Wales to make regulations authorising open trapping generally.
It will be seen that we have concentrated our attention in the Bill almost exclusively on rabbits. We have done this because we feel we have the means of securing an enormous reduction in the rabbit population. I only wish we could say the same about harmful birds such as the pigeon. The provisions of the Bill have been worked out in consultation with the interests concerned and in the light of the recommendations of the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals; and we have acted upon the best advice available to us. I hope your Lordships will agree that the Bill should provide a useful and humane contribution towards the solution of the rabbit problem. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Carrington.)
§ 3.0 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
My Lords, I think the House will agree that this Bill is quite uncontroversial, though not for that reason unimportant, and no doubt that is one of the reasons why the Government thought fit to introduce it in your Lordships' House and not in another place. I am sure that we all agree that we ought to do much more than is being done at the present time to safeguard our home-grown foodstuffs from tine depredations of the rabbit, and that a much greater effort should be made by all concerned, first to reduce the numbers of, and ultimately to wipe out, the most formidable of our pests. What is very disturbing about the present situation is, first, the damage still done by rabbits despite all the efforts that have been made to reduce their numbers. I am glad that the noble Lord opposite dwelt at some length on these facts, because I think that they are not generally known to the public; if they were known a greater effort would be made to get rid of the rabbits. There is no need for me to re-emphasise the facts about the damage done by rabbits; that has already been mentioned. But it is a startling fact (this was not mentioned by the noble 422 Lord, although I am sure he will agree) that if we were to try to estimate in terms of pounds, shillings and pence the damage done annually to corn crops and growing grass, it would run into millions of pounds. Obviously, we cannot give even an approximate figure, but it is safe to say that the total damage done certainly runs into millions of pounds every year.
The other disturbing feature about our loss of food as a result of the depredations of rabbits (a feature to which I think the noble Lord did not refer), is that in many respects it would appear that in this campaign of man versus rabbit the rabbit is getting the upper hand. For instance, in a number of areas in the country it has been accurately estimated—so far as any estimates of the kind can be made—that the number of rabbits has actually increased in the last few years. This is a very sobering fact indeed, for it means that the persistent efforts that have been made by most farmers, by agricultural executive committees and by successive Governments (I remember the tremendous efforts which were made during the time that I was associated with the Ministry of Agriculture) have failed to achieve their principal object: we have not succeeded in wiping, out rabbits, Far from it. It is doubtful even whether we have managed to stabilise the rabbit population. It is certainly on the increase in some parts of the country.
This is where I think we all agree wholeheartedly with the provisions of the Bill. It is quite obvious that more must be put into this anti-pest campaign. We need fresh reserves of good will and authority; we need an even greater determination on the part of farmers, landowners and occupiers of land to do their bit by getting rid of their own rabbits. I am sure that at the present time the great majority are doing their best to keep their own rabbits down; but there are scattered farms and estates in different parts of the country where this duty has been neglected. Of course, rabbits spread very rapidly indeed from these rabbit-infested areas, however small they may be, and the work of a number of good farmers who have practically eliminated rabbits from their own farms can be completely ruined by one man, working quite a small piece of land, who does not take any trouble about his rabbits.
423 It is not sufficient to have the good will and co-operation of the majority on our side; if large areas of the country are to be permanently cleared of rabbits, we must have everyone on our side. That is where the provisions of the Bill about designation of clearance areas appear to be valuable. Unless we can get these large blocks cleared, and everyone within those blocks doing his bit, we shall not be able to eliminate the pest. If, of course, it were generally felt that to give your neighbours rabbits was as unneighbourly as to give them chicken pox or measles, then the problem would be easily solved. Unfortunately, although no doubt some people do feel that way, there are others who do not: and they also have to be catered for. That is why there is a need for more authority, as well as more persuasion. We should all prefer this task of clearing rabbits to be undertaken without compulsion. But, of course, while we must go on trying to get as much agreement as possible from those concerned, there is no doubt that the Government should have all the powers that may be required for effective action in cases where co-operation is not otherwise obtainable.
I am glad to see that in Clauses 1 and 2, the Government are asking for powers—which I regard as essential—beyond those given under the 1947 Act, to use compulsion where necessary in the clearance of rabbits. The only anxiety which I feel bound to express at this stage is that, when they are obtained, these powers may not be boldly used. There is nothing to oblige the Minister to use the powers for which he is asking even if Parliament agrees to give them to him. I am doubtful whether there are more than a few cases in which, under the provisions of the 1947 Act, farmers have been compelled to clear their rabbits, even when a very strong case of neglect can be made against them. It is a matter of psychology of Governments that they are reluctant to attract the unpopularity of coercive measures; that applies to Governments of every sort or kind.
I should like the noble Lord, if he will, in his final remarks, to assure us that the Government seriously intend to use these powers, if they are given by Parliament, as well as existing powers, whenever they are satisfied that their use is justified by 424 the circumstances in any part of the country. Part I of the Bill will be entirely useless if people begin to think that myxomatosis can be a substitute for rabbit control. That would be an extremely dangerous misconception, because it would mean an immediate relaxation of voluntary effort and would be the strongest possible argument against control by public authority. For that reason, I am sure that the more information the public have about the nature and the effects of this disease, and the sooner this information is generally available, the more surely any misunderstandings of this kind will be removed.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, referred to the Committee that has been appointed to inquire into this disease. I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he can say how soon their Report will be ready, and whether, when the Report appears, he or his colleague will be willing to state, at the earliest practical moment after they have had time to make up their minds about it, the Government's policy in relation to this disease. The noble Lord said the Committee's Report will appear before very long. May I ask the noble Lord what he means by "before very long"? Does he mean within the next few months, or before the end of the year? That is a very important matter, from the point of view both of the spread of the disease and of the interest that farmers take in its character and effects. I shall be very much obliged if he will clarify that rather ambiguous statement when he replies. Or perhaps he would prefer to do it now?
§ THE EARL OF LISTOWEL
That is very pleasing to hear. I am grateful to the noble Lord. Evidently there is a sense of urgency in the work of the Committee. One other question about the Report that I should like the noble Lord to answer is this. Will the Report be generally available? Or will it be a private document, available only for information and advice for Ministers? I hope that it will be published, because I think that the need for information about this disease is very general.
May I pass now to Part II of the Bill, which deals with the prohibition of the gin trap and the substitution for it of a 425 humane spring trap approved by the Minister? I think everyone will agree with the purpose which the Government seek to achieve with this Part of the Bill. Indeed, your Lordships will remember a number of occasions in this House when noble Lords on both sides have tinged the Government to implement, by legislation, the two important recommendations in the Scott-Henderson Committee's Report—the Report of the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals. As we on this side take no less interest in the Report, the Committee having been appointed by my colleagues when they were in office, may I say how glad I was to hear the noble Lord say that the Government have accepted the recommendations of the Report. We, of course, wish to be associated with them in our attitude to the Committee's recommendations.
Your Lordships will remember that probably the two most important recommendations made by the Committee were, first, that the sale and use of the gin trap should be banned by law in this country; and, secondly, that it should be illegal to use any spring trap that has not been approved by the Minister. We welcome the intention, which is obvious from the Bill, to substitute, in the fullness of time, a humane trap for the gin trap, which the Scott-Henderson Committee wish to make illegal. At the same time, I must express my own disappointment—for although it has been partly removed by what the noble Lord has said, it has not been entirely removed—at the particular proposals in Part II of the Bill. I think the House is entitled to expect from the Government a full statement of their reasons for what appears to be a somewhat half-hearted attempt to face the issue of the gin trap. I think we should like to know why such a long time as four years is required before any date can be fixed for the prohibition of the gin trap, and why, in spite of this long delay, no date beyond the four-year period has been fixed in the Bill for the prohibition of the trap.
The provisions of the Bill are not by any means entirely in line with the recommendations of the Scott-Henderson Committee's Report. The Committee said that the gin trap should be banned "within a short period of time." They reported in 1951. Now, three years later, this Bill 426 has been introduced, and under Clause 8 the Minister cannot prohibit the use or sale of the gin trap before the summer of 1958—four and a half years from the present time. And even then, four and a half years hence, the Minister will not be tinier any statutory obligation to do so, or even to do so at a later date: it will still be a matter for his own discretion. Whatever happens, it is clear that there will be a further long period of delay before the earliest date can be fixed on which the trap can be made illegal. And there is no guarantee that, even after this long delay, the Minister may not find reasons for further delay before these traps are banned. These proposals will leave manufacturers and farmers in a stale of uncertainty about the future of the gin trap. Farmers will not be encouraged to replace gin traps by humane traps when purchasing fresh supplies of these articles; nor will manufacturers be encouraged to plan production in order to provide sufficient numbers of traps of humane design to fill the place of the gin traps as they become worn-out or useless and have to be replaced.
These were remarks which came into my mind when I was preparing what I proposed to say this afternoon. They have been to some extent countered by what the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, has said. But I should be very grateful if, when he comes to make his final speech, he would be good enough to amplify what he has already said. Particularly, I should like him to answer this question: Is it the present intention of the Government to fix a date for the prohibition of the gin trap as soon as possible after the period of four and a half years has elapsed? I think there can be no question as to the need for an adequate supply of efficient alternative traps when the gin trap becomes illegal. In view of the very large number of gin traps that are at present being used, the provision of a sufficiently large number of alternative traps that are equally efficient, at approximately the same cost, is an essential condition for the prohibition of the gin trap. I do not think the prohibition should be delayed a day longer than is necessary for the requisite preparation to be made for the use of an alternative humane trap.
I was pleased to hear the noble Lord say that a new design of trap was under consideration. Does that mean an improvement on the Imbra, which I 427 believe is the latest type? I have seen the Imbra trap, and I am told that it is quite efficient compared with the gin trap, though not quite so cheap. I should like the noble Lord to say whether the trap of which he speaks will be an improvement on the Imbra trap; and, if so, in what respects. Will it be in respect of cost or efficiency, or in some other factor? However, I do think it is important to fix a date, as I have suggested—and for this reason. It is hard to see how the necessary preparations for the switch-over from one type of trap to another can be made by all those concerned—farmers, trappers, manufacturers, retailers, and so on—unless they are confronted by an absolutely certain date, after which the use and sale of the gin trap will become illegal. If they have that date clearly before them, they will have to adapt their practice to the changed conditions.
I should like the Government to consider whether they would be willing to amend the Bill so as to make it more certain that the gin trap will not be used after a sufficient period of time has elapsed for the alternative trap to be generally available. We shall listen with very great care to what the noble Lord has to say in reply to the debate, and to the contributions which will be made by other noble Lords who, in time past, have shown that they have special knowledge of this matter, and who will no doubt do so again to-day. Then, in the light of the information which will be available by the time the debate has concluded, we shall decide whether we think the Bill ought to be amended in order to make this provision in relation to the gin trap more effective than it is in the Bill as it now stands.
§ 3.20 p.m.
§ LORD AMULREE
My Lords, I assure your Lordships that we shall be pleased to give a welcome to any measure proposed to control the breeding of rabbits in this country. As has already been stated, the value of rabbits for food is greatly counterbalanced by the damage they do to crops and food production. From my own recollection of where I lived in Scotland, I know that the people there did not eat rabbits at all, because they held, quite properly, that they could he counted as vermin and were not of great value as food. That has been con- 428 firmed by what the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said in moving the Second Reading of this Bill. We have no reason to be sorry that steps have been taken to control the breeding of rabbits in this country.
There is one point in the Bill about which I am not entirely clear: whether the trapping to be allowed is to be commercial trapping, because that has never proved to be quite satisfactory. Where the owners of rabbits make a certain amount of gain trappers are careful or manage it so that there is never complete extermination in any part of the country. I think more encouragement should be given to the clearance of the breeding grounds from time to time, and more work should be done in netting rabbits, which I think has proved successful in those parts of the country where it is being carried out now. I should like to support what both noble Lords have said about myxomatosis. I certainly do not think that that should be encouraged as a means of dealing with the rabbit pest, because I think it would result in a relaxation of any efforts that are now being made. Moreover it might not prove satisfactory, because it is certain that in time some strain of rabbit would be produced which would be immune to the disease. Therefore, we should not rely on that as a means of exterminating this pest.
I should like to say a word about Part II of the Bill. I am very disappointed to learn that there is no possibility of the banning of the gin trap until 1958 at the earliest. It was about four years ago when I first mentioned the gin trap in your Lordships' House, when talking about the Agriculture (Scotland) Bill. Then we had an encouraging reply. We were told that work was being done on an alternative trap. We had expected that by now the gin trap would be abolished by law. It seems rather sad that we have to wait for another four and a half years before that is possible, and there is no guarantee that at the end of that four and a half years something will be done to abolish it. So long as people are allowed to employ the gin trap, there will be no great encouragement for anyone to try to invent a different kind of trap. If, however, they knew that by a certain date the gin trap would be banned. They would be stimulated to endeavour to find some means of coping with the problem. This 429 is a point which will probably be raised on Committee stage and I do not want to detain your Lordships in regard to it any further. I should like to say on behalf of noble Lords who sit on the Liberal Benches that we welcome the Bill in its present form and are pleased to give it a Second Reading.
§ 3.24 p.m.
§ LORD ELTON
My Lords, while welcoming the Bill and, incidentally, congratulating the Government on (I think for the first time) publicly classifying the rabbit as a pest, f am afraid I must confine my remarks to what I regard as the most important clause of the Bill, Clause 8, which deals with spring traps; or, to be more precise, which alas! fails to deal with spring traps. I am speaking as a Back Bencher who rather more than two years ago, in November, 1951, moved in your Lordships' House the Second Reading of a Private Member's Bill, the Spring Traps Bill, which was designed to end the scandal of the gin trap by January 1, 1954: and I am bound lo say that the present Bill seems to me to reflect little credit on either the head or the heart of the present advisers of Her Majesty.
May I remind your Lordships briefly of two or three of the salient landmarks in the long, sad, and in some ways almost incredible story of the gin trap? Perhaps, in parenthesis, since we shall be talking a great deal about the gin trap, I ought to say that the gin trap is the "ugly sister," so to speak, of the spring trap family: it is a spring trap, armed with teeth and jaws, which mutilates, without killing, millions of rabbits; and not rabbits only, but also dogs, cats, birds, ranging from golden eagles to blue tits, and other creatures, in tens of thousands every year. Not to go further back into this sad story than 1935, in that year the noble Viscount. Lord Tredegar, introduced a Private Member's Bill which would have abolished the gin, and which was defeated by only four votes. By 1951 the Government had set up the Scott-Henderson Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals, which has been mentioned so often already this afternoon. The Scott-Henderson Committee used words which cannot be quoted too often. They said that the gin trap isa diabolical instrument which causes an incalculable amount of suffering. Its sale and 430 use in this country ought to be prohibited by law within a short period of time.That was in 1951. In November, 1951, with your Lordships' permission, I introduced a Private Member's Bill, designed to abolish the gin trap by January 1, 1954. At that time the noble Lords who spoke on behalf of the Government said, in effect, that whilst entertaining every sympathy with the objects of the Bill, they could not agree to the abolition of the gin unless and until some humane substitute had been proved to be 100 per cent. effective. The noble Earl, Lord De La Warr, who wound up, was, however, quite hopeful. He said (OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 174, Col. 603):We very much hope that the gin trap can he abolished by that date"—"that date" being January 1, 1954, approximately three weeks ago to-day. And thus partially reassured, your Lordships defeated my Bill by a comfortable margin.
Two years have elapsed since then, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has just reminded the House, and during those two years, I am thankful to say, opinion in the country has been becoming increasing sensitive. My noble friend Lord Merthyr and I were both among the speakers at a great meeting convened by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham and designed to launch a campaign against the gin trap. All the mayors of the neighbouring boroughs were there, and several Members of Parliament. As a result of that meeting, a campaign was launched which has resulted in collecting already over 300,000 signatures to a petition against the gin trap. Unfortunately, I understand, the wording of the petition was irregular in some way, and it is doubtful whether it can be presented to another place. Nevertheless, it is significant evidence of a long overdue stirring of public opinion. Indeed, it has always been my experience that one has only to explain the nature of the gin trap to a British audience to arouse widespread horror and indignation.
This autumn, those of us who were interested in the original Private Member's Bill had prepared another, designed if possible to placate those noble Lords who were doubtful about the first Bill. This time, instead of saying that the gin must be abolished by such-and-such a dale, we were going to propose that the 431 Minister should have power to abolish the gin when he pleased, but that he should also have power to license, by way of exception, the use of the gin, after its abolition—in no case for commercial trapping, but for genuine rabbit clearance schemes—if and when it appeared to him that none of the now plentiful alternatives to the trap would prove effective. That might have commanded a considerable degree of support among your Lordships, for I believe that the clause permitting licensing might have brought over some noble Lords who were doubtful about our original Bill. Then, however—and I must not say "therefore"—just as we were looking for a date for the First Reading of our Bill, the Government announced the Bill which is now before your Lordships, the principal result of which—I think it would be fair so say the principal object—must be that nothing whatever can be done about the gin trap for four and a half years, and that after that, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, has cogently pointed out, the Minister still remains entirely free to do nothing whatever.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, in introducing the measure, referred several times to the fact that the Government were implementing the recommendations of the Scott-Henderson Committee. I took up my pencil and looked out for ways in which they were, in fact, in this Bill implementing those recommendations, and I noted that there was to be a subsidy on gas powder. But I cannot see how you are implementing the recommendations of a Committee which said that you ought to ban a diabolical instrument within a short period of time, by announcing three years later that you are going to do nothing whatever for four and a half years, and that you will then still be free to continue to take no action at all. I am bound to say that this Bill is not worthy of the long humanitarian history of this country. What is more, it is not even common sense. For we are all agreed that the gin trap is a source of abominable cruelty. We all know, or ought to know, that every night in the winter more than 200,000 creatures of different kinds are lying alive and mutilated in these instruments. It was common ground among those of your Lordships who opposed my Bill that you deplored this cruelty, just as much as did 432 those who supported the Bill. But noble Lords used the the only possible argument against the Bill, which was that the trap was needed for genuine rabbit-clearance schemes, and until some effective humane substitute can be devised we have to carry on using the gin trap. That is a respectable argument, so far as it goes.
Let me point out, in parenthesis, that you must distinguish between the genuine rabbit-clearance scheme and the commercial trapper who was mentioned just now by the noble Lord, Lord Amulree. The commercial trapper will never, if he can prevent it, allow you to abolish the gin trap. The commercial trapper needs the gin trap, because it keeps the victim alive in the trap until he can visit it and find the animal fresh for the market. But the commercial trapper is a parasite on agriculture. The commercial trapper no more wants to destroy rabbits than the butcher wants to destroy sheep, for they are his livelihood. As has been shown by the use of Lincoln indexes, the commercial trapper kills off about one-third of the rabbits on a typical estate, and leaves the rest to breed for the following year. I believe it was the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, who said it was disappointing that the rabbit population seems to be stationary, in spite of all the efforts of rabbit-clearance schemes. The answer to that is largely the commercial trapper, who kills off one-third, leaving the rest to breed, unobstructed by competition, and thereby does much to maintain a flourishing rabbit population.
However, your Lordships are not interested in commercial trapping but in clearance schemes. And I now want to put a further argument before you. Sometimes, when you are going to speak from my point of view on a Bill of this kind, people say that you should not talk about humane traps, because you will only get the whole argument clogged up with irrelevant controversy. But I think we must get this matter cleared up if we can. I want to put before your Lordships an argument seldom heard, but which I think is extremely cogent. I believe that this non possumus attitude—that we must wait until the humane trap has proved its efficiency 100 per cent.—is largely unjustifiable. I think there are three replies to the man who says that we must wait for the humane trap, and that cumulatively they are decisive. First, 433 many of us who support this Bill say that there is virtually no type of ground on which you cannot effectively destroy rabbits without the use of any trap, either humane or gin. I cannot go into the technical arguments now, even if I were qualified to do so; I can only refer your Lordships to two publications, both authoritative and one of them official. The unofficial one is the University Federation of Animal Welfare's pamphlet. Instructions for Dealing with Rabbits, which summarises the technique appropriate for many different kinds of ground, and very moderately sums up its general conclusions in this sentence:What can safely be said is that neither traps nor snares can succeed unless they are set in a hole or run, and that if a hole or a run can be found, then various other methods become available.But I need not refer to unofficial publications, authoritative though I believe this particular publication to be, for in Volume 60 of the Ministry of Agriculture's own Journal, published last year, on page 39, there is an article by Dr. F. D. Smith on "Farming Against Rabbits," which commences with this sentence:I began my campaign against rabbits in the wrong way. I trapped them.Later in the article he sums up his conclusions by saying:Trapping"—your Lordships will notice he does not say "Gin trapping"—has no useful place in a scheme for rabbit clearance.So useful, apparently, did the Ministry of Agriculture think that article to be that they have republished it in leaflet form for wide circulation. We therefore say that to an extent—and to a considerable extent, I should have thought—we have the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture behind us when we say that you can work an effective rabbit-clearance scheme without the use of a trap, whether it be a gin trap or a humane trap. Of course, that argument has no meaning to the commercial trapper, but I think your Lordships are probably with me in excluding the commercial trapper from consideration.
As I have just said, in order that those of your Lordships who are still doubtful might, if possible, be converted, in the Bill which we were hoping to introduce 434 we had provided first, that there should be a fixed dale for the abolition of the girt trap, and then that the Minister should have power to license the use of the gin trap, even after its abolition, in circumstances in which he judged that none of the alternatives would be effective. But the clause was drawn in such a way that it would not permit the use of the gin trap for commercial trapping or by commercial trappers. That, surely, would have been the right course; and I believe it might have received support from many of your Lordships.
Finally, there is the third and, in some ways, the most interesting answer to the man who says that you must wait for the humane trap. I firmly believe that we shall never get a humane trap until we have set a date for the abolition of the gin trap. May I remind your Lordships—perhaps not remind all of you, because many of you are already aware—that the history of this attempt to devise a humane trap is at least fifty years old. I have here a quotation from an Annual Report of the Comptroller of Patents in. 1905. On page 11 this sentence occurs:A noteworthy growth occurred in vermin traps, accentuated no doubt by the offer of a prize for the most humane rabbit trap.That was in 1905, all but fifty years ago. It is a matter of common observation in the history of technological discovery that the need provokes the answer. Professor Burkitt, summarising the history of inventions, actually used these words:Once something is definitely wanted, again and again it has been produced in an extremely short time.He goes on to add that, conversely, if it is not really wanted it is not invented. The Field newspaper not long ago made precisely that same acute remark about the gin trap. It wrote:It has often been said that although 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.Of course, we have lately seen that process—the urgent need rapidly evoking the answer—conspicuously at work in our own history in war time, where repeatedly the need for art invention elicited it within a few months, or weeks. I have little doubt that if the Minister would have the courage to fix a date for the abolition of this abominable instrument, we should 435 have the humane trap perfected probably within a few months. That is throwing to the winds for the moment my own basic argument that even the humane trap is not absolutely essential.
We who support earlier abolition say that there is no case in logic or in morals for the Bill as drawn at present, and that the reasonable course would be to amend this Bill in Committee: first, by substituting the words "not later than July, 1948" for "not earlier than July, 1948"; and, secondly, by adding a clause which would permit the Minister to licence exceptions after the abolition, when and where he judged necessary. Something like that policy—but only like in the sense that a ghost is like a living man—can be dimly discerned behind the rather cumbrous verbiage of Clause 10, which deals with Scotland. I am told that in fact trapping goes merrily on in Scotland—commercial trapping and all—because a general licence for trapping, including commercial trapping, has been issued by the Ministry. I will therefore end by suggesting to your Lordships that the alternative which I have tried to sketch would be a reasonable one, and that I hope your Lordships will pass this Bill this afternoon with the mental reservation that you will support Amendments on some such lines in the Committee stage.