HL Deb 26 January 1954 vol 185 cc444-73

3.52 p.m.

Debate on Second Reading resumed.


My Lords, I, in common with your Lordships, welcome this Bill, but there are a few doubts in my own mind as to its application to Scotland, and my own part of Scotland in particular. I congratulate the Government on having classed rabbits as pests, but how great a pest the rabbit is is a matter which varies from place to place. The amount of damage that can be done by rabbits, too, can vary considerably from condition to condition. Ninety per cent. of farmers are farming because that is their business and their livelihood; their aim and object is to earn as good a living as they can for themselves and their employees. Within these limits, rabbit damage can have a large or small application. In the case of Scotland, chiefly in my part of Scotland, the damage is to root crops grown for cattle, and also to grazing in the early bite period. If there is a plague of rabbits, obviously the losses are very great. If rabbits are controlled they are still a nuisance. But you do not often find Scottish farmers saying, "Right: no rabbits; we keep two more head of stock"—and a jolly good job, because the really trying problem is not the food but the housing. A man may kill off his rabbits, but he still has to have additional housing and to reorganise considerably his method of farming. He has to consider the subdivision of his farm. There are one or two aspects like that, which do not make altogether attractive the killing off of all rabbits. In Scotland, at any rate, it is not as attractive a proposition as I should like to see.

Then there is the other big point, the cost of killing rabbits. A number of noble Lords have talked of commercial rabbit killing. Whether they include in that the landlord or the farmer who kills off his rabbits and sells them and sets the income towards the cost of killing rabbits, I am not sure; but I must admit that I consider it a legitimate thing to do. It costs a lot of money to kill rabbits. The noble Lord spoke of 40 million rabbits a year. Well, my Lords, a rabbit is sold for not less than 2s. 6d. a time. That would mean £5 million, which is a large amount of money to be devoted to the killing of rabbits. I think it is legitimate that the people who have to find the £5 million should be encouraged, or at any rate should not be discouraged.

The insistence on rabbit clearance areas worries me a little. Much depends on how much the authorities insist on the necessity of killing the last rabbit, and upon how much they treat the problem on its reasonable merits. In my part of Scotland it is a very difficult matter. One might have an authority demanding a large quantity of expensive fencing to keep out a very few rabbits. It is not at all clear how these things are going to be done. I should say that "rabbit control area" would probably be a better term, and it would not frighten the people concerned quite so much. Moreover, there is no mention whatsoever, or intention, so far as I can see, of giving compensation for incurring this great expense. Killing rabbits is a very worthy object; but if people are obliged to go to this heavy expense it is surely just that this matter should be considered as one ranking for compensation. I am not trying to "crab" the Bill: I am all in favour of it; but I think that efficiency is the first requisite of a Bill if it is to work freely and well. Then there is the thorny question of rabbits in areas under the control of local authorities—nationalised industries and other people, who appear to be above all laws. I should like a definite assurance from the noble Lord, if possible, that these bodies will be swept into the provisions of this Bill. There, are such bodies as the National Trust, the National Coal Board and the Railway Executive (for railway embankments, like road verges, are infested with rabbits). I hope that they are not going to be left out, for that would be a great pity.

Part II of the Bill provides for the use of the humane trap. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will be in a position to assure us that an efficient humane trap will be provided—or, if they cannot do that, and feel justified in doing anything at all, that they will abolish all traps. To foist an inferior trap upon us because it is humane, and for no other reason, and to abolish inhumane traps, would be a poor solution. It would be a better policy altogether to abolish traps, if the Government are convinced that we can do without trapping. I personally am not convinced. It is important that any trap which is devised should be approximately the same weight and cost as a gin trap.

I cannot see why a fellow pest, the rat, should be excused or treated less humanely than the rabbit. Here, however, we have some facts and figures to go on, and there is an efficient alternative. Her Majesty's Government, I think, could abolish to-morrow gin traps for rats and mice and small pests of that sort. The introduction of the warfarine poisons for rodent control in the last two or three years has resulted in a spectacular reduction in the numbers of rats. Figures are always hard to go by, and hard to come by, but I can tell your Lordships, as you probably know, that the counties of Hampshire, Kent, Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire and Renfrewshire have been able to pay off a large number—in some cases all, in others a large proportion—of their rat-catching staff. You can bandy about figures of how many rats you have killed, and how many are left, but the fact that you pay off a trapper does mean that there are fewer rats left. That is more to the point than talking about how many millions of rats you have killed. The local authorities in Bristol, Folkestone and several of the London boroughs have done the same thing. If you can humanely—and A is humane—kill your rats with poison, why are they not entitled to as humane treatment as rabbits are? You have the answer there, but with rabbits you have not the answer; I wish you had.

The other point is that the life of a gin trap or a spring-operated trap is of the order of three to four years, possibly five. Surely, if we wish to control effectively the use of gin traps, the best thing to do is merely to prohibit the manufacture of any further gin traps. No legislation is needed for that—at least, it may be, but no other control is necessary. We do not want people minim; about in cars, with secretaries. They would not be called rabbit-catchers; they would be known as rabbit prevention officers, and they would have a car and a secretary and all the usual things. Why not just prohibit the manufacture of traps except those that are equally efficient and humane?

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Listowel and others who have emphasised the importance of the matter with which this Bill deals, but, in view of some of the speeches which have been made since, I can hardly follow him in saying that it is entirely uncontroversial. When we come to Part II of the Bill there is ample room for controversy. I should like first to refer back to the remarks made by the Minister who moved the Second Reading, with regard to the amount of damage done in this country by rabbits. He gave us a striking illustration by his comparison of the value of rabbit as food—the amount of food required to produce a helping of rabbit and what that food would have produced in other directions. But I would suggest to him that the Department might carry that type of illustration a little further and try to work out figures to give an idea of what the total damage amounts to.

I think I am right in saying that the survey to which he referred showed a loss of winter wheat of 1½ cwt. per acre. The Minister gave it as a percentage, but I think it is 1½ cwt. per acre. The pilot survey on spring wheat, made in Kent in 1950, indicated that the loss was of a similar nature, possibly a shade more. If we take that figure of 1½ cwt, of grain per acre and relate it to the total acreage under corn in this country to-day, we arrive at a staggering figure. I believe there is something like 6¾ million acres under corn. Allowing for the fact that other parts of the country may not suffer as heavily as those in the survey, if the loss is only 1 cwt. per acre the total loss of corn is something of the order of 330,000 tons, and that, I suppose, even at present-day prices, represents something in excess of £10 million. The loss might well be £15 million if we took the 1½ cwt. figure. When to that is added the loss on fodder crops and vegetable crops, and the loss of feeding-stuff for cattle and sheep, we may very well be dealing with a pest which is costing us something like £20 million a year, which I put as being something like 2 per cent. of the total value of our agricultural production. As the Ministry has set a target of increased agricultural production of 160 per cent. of pre-war, it is important that we should not be losing 2 per cent. of it as a result of the operations of the rabbit.

When we come to deal with efforts to effect a diminution of this pest, I think the answer to Part I of the Bill is just to what extent is the Minister going to use the powers which are conferred on him by this section? I think I am right in saying that at the present time the most tragic example of the loss due to rabbits is to be found in the case of the small farmer who himself has cleared his own land but sees his crops being eaten and his land reinfested because his neighbours have not been as good farmers as he is. I wonder whether the reports of the county pest control officers indicate whether there is any particular type or class of offender in this respect. I have heard many farmers say they are completely at the mercy of their neighbours who are concerned with their shooting rights and who will not effectively clear their land of rabbits because that clearance would disturb the game. I think this is an instance where we have to say bluntly that the national loss attributable to rabbits is of much greater importance than shooting rights; and if reports indicate that reinfestation comes because rabbits are not cleared from land where shooting rights are regarded as important, we shall expect the Ministers, with the powers conferred under this Bill, not to be too tender about those shooting rights.

Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I hope that we in this country shall not have a wide-spreading of myxomatosis, and I hope particularly that farmers will not sit back in the belief that the disease will spread and thereby save them the necessity of taking active steps. I find it very sad already to hear farmers who are suffering from reinfestation from their neighbours saying, in a despairing sort of way: "Well, I suppose all we can do is to hope that myxomatosis will clear out my neighbour's rabbits." That is rather a reflection on the state of affairs which exists to-day, and I hope that the Minister will use his powers under Part I of the Bill in a drastic way.

I am bound to say that I find Clause 8 of the Bill a deplorable clause, not only, and not even mainly, because it gives 1958 as the first date on which the abolition of the gin trap may come about—and it may, of course, be a much later date—but because the clause as it is drawn tends to give colour to the idea, which I believe to be fallacious, that trapping is an effective method of destroying rabbits. In my opinion, trapping is much more a method of preserving than of eliminating rabbits. I know that upon this issue the National Farmers' Union will be officially against me, but equally I know that thousands of farmers up and down the country share my view that trapping is not a means of destruction but a means of preservation. I should like to quote to your Lordships a few words from a practical Gloucestershire farmer who has been waging a ten-year battle to clear his farm of rabbits. He says: Trapping appears to make a striking clearance of rabbits. It also brings in a nice quick cheque."— sometimes, if I may interpolate, it is nice quick cash, rather than a cheque— But in fact, trapping does rabbits good. The diseases that decimate them when they are too thick on the ground are kept in check by trapping. In the Farmers Weekly of October 30, towards the end of a scientific article on myxomatosis, the writer refers to the two real sources of rabbit abundance. He says: So long as land is badly farmed (by allowing hedges and other cover to grow out of control), and so long as any form of maiming or killing traps, whether the live-taking toothed-gin which breaks the legs of all small animals trapped, or the 'humane' gin which usually causes instantaneous death, is used, and the stoats and weasels wiped out thereby, the rabbit will remain a perennial pest. This is proved by the fact that on land where hedges are clean and without holes, and where traps are forbidden as well as unnecessary, rabbits are no problem at all—always of course excepting on those farms which, though in a high state of good husbandry, border on rough land, railway embankments and other sources of re-infection. To my mind, those are two practical views indicating that trapping is not the effective weapon that it is supposed to be. As the noble Viscount, Lord Stonehaven, has said, just as we have found war farine to be the most effective weapon against rats, so I believe that gassing is much the most effective weapon against rabbits. I was glad to hear the reference to the subsidy for gassing material, but I would suggest to the Ministry that if they want to make an immediate and effective contribution to the destruction of rabbits, the immediate announcement of an even heavier subsidy on gassing materials in time for this season's drive to be undertaken would meet with a ready response. I believe it is mainly along the: lines of education in tie use of gas, the condemnation of the use of trapping, and the cheapening of the use of gas that an effective step will be made upon this job.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, it is obvious that this Bill is acceptable to noble Lords in all parts of the House. As the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading has pointed out, the rabbit has now reached the stage where its food value and fur value are far outweighed by its powers of destruction of agricultural products. Lord Stonehaven read the Bill a little differently from the way in which I read it. As I understand it, this Bill will place the occupier of any land in a clearance area under an obligation to eliminate the rabbits, regardless of whether the land is used for agriculture, for forestry or for any other purpose. There can be no doubt that this is a very necessary move; without it, the land within a clearance area belonging to occupiers other than agricultural occupiers might well become a harbouring ground for rabbits, with the consequential re-infestation of the agricultural lands once they have been cleared.

Although I welcome this Bill, I consider that there are some points which require serious consideration, most of which are in Part I. With your Lordships' permission, I should like to enumerate those. My first point relates to Clause 1 (4) which, as your Lordships will appreciate, empowers the Minister, on an application by a tenant, to authorise additional persons to carry firearms on his land for the purpose, of shooting rabbits—that is, over and above the two already permitted under the Ground Game Act, 1880. I believe that this clause is intended by the Minister to apply to a very limited number of cases, such as that of scrubland, to which the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading referred. It might also be argued that as the Minister has to satisfy himself that the owner has unreasonably withheld his consent, the owners' interests are adequately safeguarded. I respectfully submit that the proposals contained in this clause involve a wholly unnecessary interference with the landlord's discretion as to the management of his land. There are alternative, and less drastic, means available for securing the result everyone desires. All that is necessary, in the event of a landlord or sporting tenant failing to give his consent to the additional guns, is that the liability for the killing of rabbits on that particular piece of land should fall upon the landlord or the sporting tenant, whether or not his reasons for refusal are reasonable, but subject to the tenant's having tried all other available means of destroying the rabbits. Should the landlord or the sporting tenant then fail to take the necessary steps, the agricultural executive committee would be empowered to order the destruction of the rabbits and, if necessary, to exercise default powers.

My second point relates to the powers of entry under Clause 1 (6). I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that the county agricultural executive committees will give written notice, both to the owner and to the occupier, of an intention to enter on the land to survey it, prior to making a clearance order. Officials can and do enter on land without notice, provided that they have the occupier's consent. But surely this should be regarded as exceptional; as a general rule proper notice should be given, both as a matter of courtesy and in order to give those concerned the opportunity of being present when the survey is being made. The pressing needs of war time justified innumerable cases of entry without notice, but the war has been over for a considerable number of years, and it should be possible now to observe the ordinary rules of courtesy in such a matter.

My third point concerns Clause 1 (9). I hope that the Government will feel able to include the owners of forestry land as being representative interests to be consulted before an order is made. My last point is in regard to Clause 2 (1). I submit that unless this clause is administered with the utmost care an unreasonable financial burden will be imposed on the owner or occupier of land—for example, the Minister could require an owner to fence in land which might already have been cleared of rabbits. That, I gather, is partly the intention of this clause. The very wide powers conferred by this clause might result in expenditure being incurred in fencing out rabbits which was out of all proportion to the possible benefits. It is to be hoped that the Government will see their way to amending this clause to ensure that only reasonable and practicable steps are imposed on an owner or occupier to those ends. As I see it, under this clause, if rabbits should have been cleared from a wood of any size, whether it be five acres, fifty acres or even a hundred acres, the Minister could require the owner to fence the whole of that woodland to keep rabbits from getting back into it. These seem to me to be unnecessarily wide powers.

Finally, I should be gratified if the noble Lord, in his reply, could give me some clarification on two points. First, will these clearance orders be made on the initiation of the county agricultural executive committee and this joint committee of representatives, or by one or other, or by someone else altogether? Secondly, is it intended that the orders should be made in perpetuity, or will they have a limited life? Frankly, I do not like the idea of an order of any sort being made without there being in view some date for its termination.

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, being of the opinion that, as time goes on, this country must depend more and more for its nourishment on food produced within its borders, I am in favour of the total extermination of the rabbit. And when I say that, I am, I admit, saying that I do not think this Bill goes far enough. I think you must go for the complete extermination of the rabbit or the measures will be ineffective. I am aware that there are places, particularly in Scotland, where rabbits can be safely kept under certain precautions. But we are always faced with this situation: that the people whose rabbits are exterminated, and who do not want them to be exterminated, will put down new rabbits and say that they have come in "from next door." When my father cleared every rabbit out of some 11,000 acres of land, the farmers put back the rabbits and then tried to turn his keepers off, saying that they were their rabbits and not my father's. That is the kind of situation the Government will have to consider. In 1920, we calculated the damage caused by rabbits on old pasture—very fine, ancient pasture—and we came to the conclusion that it cost one-third of the rent. That did not represent the grass they ate, of which mention has been made in the debate to-day, but the grass and food which they contaminated, and which cattle afterwards would not eat.

But if the Government are to do what I want, and exterminate all the rabbits in this country, it must, I think, be done fairly. I am speaking only for Scotland. The rabbits in Scotland were forced upon the proprietors of land by the Central Government by Statute after Statute. You cannot ask the Muse of History the question "Why?" very often, and get an answer: and I cannot give your Lordships the reason for certain. I imagine, however, that it was this. In a country menaced every winter by starvation, the rabbit, the pigeon and the stockfish provided some chance of meat diet for the poor people in the country when the laird had his powdered beef which had been killed at Martinmas. That is the only reason I can suggest. The fact is that rabbits were introduced by the Government, Therefore, if you go for total extermination, you must be fair; you must compensate those people who to-day depend upon their rabbits, and have learned to depend upon them, for the losses which you are going to ask them to suffer. I think that that is a matter of common honesty, and I feel that it should be done. That is my criticism of the first Part of the Bill. While entirely in favour of it, I do not think that it goes far enough.

To turn for a moment to Part II, which deals with the gin trap, I have heard it said that with the gin trap it is impossible to exterminate rabbits. Nevertheless, with the gin trap my father exterminated rabbits on 11.000 acres—so much so that afterwards one never saw a rabbit in a day's shooting. That says something for the gin trap. I am perfectly prepared to admit that the gin trap is very cruel. I am not a judge of cruelty, and I cannot tell whether the gin trap is more cruel or less cruel than the snare. But anyone who has ever seen a snared rabbit will. I think, say that the snare is every bit as cruel as the gin trap, and less effective in getting rid of the rabbit population. Yet people who attack the gin trap never touch on the snare: they never say a word about it. I have tried to think of a reason for this. Perhaps it would be improper for me to say that it is due to the fact that the man who uses the gin trap is destroying large numbers, and probably trying to exterminate rabbits altogether, whereas the man who uses the snare is generally trying to poach a rabbit for his dinner. Whether that: be so or not, if you attack the gin trap I think you ought equally to attack the snare. I know that it is said that there are humane snares. It is fifty years since I set such a snare, but in the interval I have never once seen a humane snare.

There is a point with regard to all these measures of destruction which I think should be remembered, and that is that, following the periodic campaigns against rabbits in very large districts of the country, the rabbit has very much changed his habits. Nowadays, especially with these mile winters, great numbers of rabbits never go into holes at all: they live in rough woodland areas, and they are quite happy. One seldom sees them do anything more than make a slight scrape with their claws. How you are going to get rid of those rabbits if you limit the ways in which they can be attacked I do not know. Personally, I think the only way to destroy them in those places would be to use gin traps and snares as safely as you can. There is another thing we have to remember: with all this blown wood in Scotland to-day, the above-ground haunts of rabbits have been largely multiplied, and next year we shall certainly see a much larger population of rabbits which never go inside a hole.

One of the real difficulties in getting rid of rabbits is that we have not enough people who are thoroughly well acquainted with the habits and the nature of the rabbit. It is unfortunate that social changes have led to a diminution of such people, because in trying to exterminate rabbits from any area the most important thing is to have somebody thoroughly good at his work. Anybody acquainted with the country knows that there is a vast difference between one rabbit trapper and another. One man will clear every rabbit off the ground, while another man will always leave some for next year, not because he is unwilling but because he is unskilful. That is an important point. I conclude where I begin. I support this Bill, but I do not think it goes nearly far enough. I believe that the only way to deal with the rabbit is by total war. If we have total war against the rabbit, I am afraid that some cruelty must be wrapped up in it; but the sooner we get rid of the rabbits existing in this country, the less cruelty we shall have to inflict in doing so.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, coming late in the debate one is apt to tread on ground covered by other noble Lords. Certainly the reason why the rabbit population has never been reduced in this country has been emphasised and I do not think it can be emphasised too strongly—that is, because there never has been a general will to reduce it. While some people have wanted to exterminate rabbits, other people wanted to breed them. Tenant farmers having equal rights with the landlord under the Ground Game Act, 1880, it is to their interest to let the rabbits out to trappers who, in their own interests again, kill only a proportion of the rabbits in order that they may have a breeding stock for the following year. In addition, farmers look to rabbits to get a small increase in their own incomes on the farms. It is common knowledge that this is the reason why rabbits do not show a continual reduction. Therefore, if we want to kill off our rabbits, the first thing to do is to stop commercial trapping and then take proper measures to kill the rabbits.

There has been a good deal of discussion about what is the best method of killing rabbits. I am certainly in agreement with those noble Lords who look on trapping as being not the best method. The noble Lord, Lord Archibald, has welcomed the increased subsidy for the gassing of rabbits. I am credibly informed, and it is my own experience, that gassing is not a good way of killing rabbits. When rabbits are gassed, they stay in their burrows and the dead bodies only invite vermin to come and eat them, and the vermin multiply. Added to this, the gassed rabbit is not a very palatable article of food and would not be popular with the housewife.

I would ask Lord Carrington's Department to study the Caldra method of long-netting rabbits. Articles on this method of taking rabbits have recently been published in Country Life, The Field and, I think, the Farmers' Weekly. All rabbits must come out to feed at night. It does not matter whether they are in dense woods or in thick undergrowth, they have to come out on to neighbouring land at night to feed, and that is when they can be caught in large numbers by the long net. I believe that particulars of this method have been sent to every agricultural executive committee in the country, and while it is probably a little expensive, astonishing results have been obtained. I happen to be a neighbour of the instigator of this method and know him personally, and he has told me that he has had a haul of as many as 100 rabbits out of one field with one pull with the net at night. That is a pretty good haul of rabbits on a farm. This is probably the most humane way in existence to-day of catching rabbits. I had the idea that we could abolish the gin trap and make some sort of long net service available for farmers who are troubled by rabbits eating their spring wheat. This service could be supplied through the agricultural executive committees, who could have someone who would go out and net the rabbits off the fields. The whole operation could be done humanely in one night.

As we know, the gin trap is a peculiarly outmoded and barbarous means of killing rabbits. Yet in certain cases it may be necessary to use it to clear some of the areas which are to be defined under Clause 1 of the Bill. For that reason, I would not ask for the immediate abolition of the gin trap, much as I and other noble Lords would like to see it go. I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, whether he could fix a date, say a year ahead—it might have to be two years ahead, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, proposed in his Spring Traps Bill last year—on which it could be abolished, and perhaps in the meantime licences for clearing certain areas could be given to bona fide trappers who are killing the rabbits to get them off the land in order to save our crops and young trees; but the trap should not be tolerated any longer for commercial trapping. By this means, I think that we should begin to abolish progressively what everybody has wanted to see abolished for a long time. I think that would be making a compromise which would be fair to all sides.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, I think there is one thing upon which everyone will agree now—that is, that if there is to be anything like the extermination of rabbits, it will never be done except by some kind of central or national authority, working, it may be, through properly decentralised agencies. What other authority except the Ministry of Agriculture could possibly do it? Therefore, I admit at once that this Bill is not only desirable but essential. But I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, that it does not go nearly far enough, though possibly I do not agree with the direction in which he wants to go beyond this Bill. The noble Lord said—and I entirely agree—that nothing less than total war against rabbits is now essential.

I should like to ask one or two questions about this Bill. Can the noble Lord who is in charge of the Bill tell us in what way the powers conferred under Clause 1 are to be used? Other noble Lords have already asked whether these powers will be used, because, frankly, we are not particularly impressed with the degree to which the powers under the 1947 Act have been used in England, and those under the 1948 Act in Scotland. The record is not a very good one in the use to which those powers have been put. How will a rabbit clearance order be enforced? I can find nothing in the Bill about any penalty for non-enforcement, or anything about default powers; but it may be that they are hidden away in the 1947 Act, and that we must refer to that Act in order to find an answer. What will happen if the occupier fails to carry out an order? Will he be punished under Section 100 of the 1947 Act, or by some other means?

Then again, it is not always easy to find out who is the occupier of certain land. Who is the occupier of common land? There are a great number of rabbits on common land, and I cannot find anything in the Bill which provides an answer to that question. I hope that the Minister will do what the noble Viscount, Lord Stonehaven, asked him to do—namely, "chase up" all the Government Departments which are at fault in allowing rabbits to spread over their land. Other bodies have been mentioned to-day, but I would put at the top of the black list the War Office, who have a tremendous area of land nowadays. When I say, at home: "Why does not So-and-so clear the rabbits off his land?" quite often the answer is, "Well, look at the War Office, and the number of rabbits they have on their land." It must be admitted at once that in many cases War Office land is waste land and rather unproductive agriculturally. Nevertheless, that does not help towards a solution of the rabbit problem. I would urge the Ministry of Agriculture to see that all the other Ministries toe the line in this matter in the same way as individual owners will, rightly, be expected to do.

I should now like to say a word or two on the finance of this business. I note that under Clause 3 of the Bill the Treasury may consent to make a grant towards the expense of rabbit clearance. But equally, of course, they may not consent. That is a matter which I feel needs a little further thought. Where is the money to come from if the Treasury take an unfavourable view? I contend that this is a matter where the farmer or occupier deserves some kind of subsidy, at, any rate in some cases and in some places. After all, a great many aspects of farming are now subsidised, and I see no reason why rabbit clearance should not also be subsidised. In this connection, I would plead with the Minister to reduce the charges which he now makes for the work of the agricultural executive committees in clearing rabbits. In my county, if I go to the agricultural executive committee and ask for their help in clearing rabbits, as I have done, I am charged £12 a week for every man; and when I protest. I am told that the department has got to be made to pay, or, at any rate, to make both ends meet. We all know that the man himself does not get £12 a week; presumably the balance goes to meet overhead expenses. That will never do. I believe that if this problem is to be taken seriously, that sort of charge must be altered, and that farmers and occupiers cannot be expected to pay all the overheads of the Ministry of Agriculture in order to get rabbits cleared from their land. It is not at all encouraging to people to go to the Ministry and ask for their help if they are to be charged £12 a week for the work of every man.

Some words have already been said about sporting rights. I am not in the least against sporting or shooting rights, or the owners thereof. But let there he no mistake about this: that there is some conflict here between rabbit clearing and sporting rights. It is not a conflict that can never be resolved: on the contrary, I think that it may be over-estimated. But do not let us pretend that there is no conflict. If the owner of the sporting rights takes the proper and necessary steps to clear his land of rabbits, there will not be any trouble, because a rabbit clearance order will not be made in respect of that land. It is only if the sporting owner harbours too many rabbits on his land, which a few may do—and in France I believe they do it to a great extent—that there will be a clash of interests. I agree with the noble Lord opposite who says that if there is a clash of interests, then the case of rabbit clearance must be paramount, and in that respect the shooting rights must suffer. I would urge that shooting, which is an excellent way of killing rabbits, and much less inhumane than trapping, should not be discouraged.

I should like to ask this question: Why is it that, though it is legal in England for the owner of land to shoot rabbits at night, it is illegal in Scotland? I cannot understand how both of those positions are right. I would suggest that my noble Scottish friends should be released from the prohibition against the owner of land, or of sporting rights, being forbidden to shoot rabbits at night. We have just heard from a Scottish noble Lord that they come out at night to feed, and that shooting rabbits at night is one of the most effective ways of getting rid of them. I can understand why tenants might be prohibited, but I cannot understand why an owner should be prohibited from shooting rabbits on his own land at night.


It is very dangerous.


If it is dangerous in Scotland, then it is also dangerous in England. I do not think the Scottish marksmen are so inferior to the English as all that.

I must say a few words on the subject of rabbit farming. It has been said before, but it cannot be over-emphasised, that the present system of using traps is a proved failure. I am glad that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, is here, because we had some difference of opinion about this matter on the last debate. I say that the present system, quite manifestly, increases the population of rabbits. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said this afternoon that the rabbit population was getting the upper hand; but unlike his colleague. the noble Lord, Lord Archibald, he has not yet seen the light as to why it is getting the upper hand. I know perfectly well that the rabbit population is getting the upper hand. In my own county, where there are swarms of trappers, and have been for the last thirty years, the number of rabbits, according to statistics published, is going up, not every year, but regularly. Something like 1,750,000 rabbits are to-day exported by rail alone in a small county. The reason why the rabbit population is going up is because traps are being used in the present way for rabbit farming. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Archibald, in this matter. It will soon become clear that rabbit farming must be stopped.

One point that has not been mentioned this afternoon, I think, is this. One of the reasons why rabbit farming increases the number of rabbits is that it is not practised in the summer. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, that if traps were used in the way his father used them they would exterminate rabbits. But the whole point is that the commercial rabbit trapper is not as sensible as the noble Lord's father. He does not use his traps to exterminate rabbits. He knows perfectly well that if he did he would exterminate his livelihood. If a trap is sensibly used it could kill any number of rabbits. I say once again that the way in which the traps are now being used will not diminish the population of rabbits but will increase them.

Another point which I do not think has been much touched upon is this. An enormous amount could be done in this matter if more attention was paid to the filling up of rabbit holes, the clearance of scrub and the getting rid of rabbit warrens. If the ordinary tenant farmer were to fill up the holes on his land, I believe there would be a great improvement. Then I think several things should be forbidden. First of all, the sale of wild rabbits should be forbidden. Your Lordships may think at first sight that that is a little unnecessary, but I want to quote from an advertisement which appeared in the Carmarthen Journal in the middle of last April. This, I believe, would interest the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, if he were here. The advertisement said: Wanted, One dozen live wild rabbits for re-stocking; price and particulars.… Then follows the name and address of the farmer. That is what we are up against. There is a man—and it bears out what the noble Lord said—who is deliberately trying to re-stock his land with wild rabbits in order to keep up the rabbit population. If that is not what he is trying to do, I do not know what it can mean. I would draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, to it, because that is what the Ministry of Agriculture are up against. Somehow or other the keeping of rabbits must be made unremunerative.

Another illuminating thing is the way in which rabbits are at present being used in the West Country and in Wales as a means of helping the farmer's livelihood and enabling him to pay his rent. I have permission from the people concerned to read this, and if your Lordships will also give me permission I should like to read this extract from a letter from a land agent in the West Country to his principal in London. It says: One reason why the tenant was prepared to increase the rent very considerably was that he lets the rabbit catching for a considerable sum of money. I do not know the exact figure, but probably £30 or £40. This applies to the rabbits caught on the Warren.… He goes on to say: He is definitely going to say that if the rabbits are exterminated by means of gassing then he is not going to get his rent from the rabbit catcher, and will not be able to pay us as much rent. It is a strange way of looking at it. It is indeed a strange way of looking at the question, but we have to realise that it is looked at to-day in that way by hundreds of people in this country. Those are the people whom I accuse of rabbit farming.

I will go further and say that before we succeed in this total war of extinction against rabbits we shall have to prohibit not only the sale of wild rabbits but the sale of dead rabbits generally, because only by that means can you get rid of the incentive to keep rabbits. Incidentally, it might be mentioned that if there should be an outbreak of myxomatosis—with which I think the Government are dealing at present in entirely the correct way—it would have a strong effect on this question because, if I anticipate rightly, the people in the country would not buy rabbits for food. They may he quite, wrong in their fear, but they will nevertheless have a fear of rabbits for food and will not buy them. It will be interesting to see what effect that has upon the rabbit population. I believe effect may be just the opposite to what is forecast, and that there may be an improvement in the numbers rather than the reverse.

We must at any rate provide an incentive to people not to have rabbits. I would urge that landowners can help in this matter: they can prevent their tenants from selling the right to trap rabbits, and, in my opinion, they can tell their tenants that it is illegal to do so. Under the Ground Game Act, 1880, tenants are given certain rights to kill rabbits and to pay for killing rabbits, but they are given no right to sell rabbits or to sell the right to kill rabbits. Therefore I say that a landowner can stop his tenant from selling rabbits to trappers, and that if he did stop his tenant from doing so he would vastly improve the position.

I should like to say a few words with regard to Part II of the Bill. In the last debate on the subject in this House the noble Earl the Postmaster General said (OFFICIAL RFPORT, Vol. 174, col. 603): What really is the position arising out of this debate? Has not one thing become absolutely clear? Not a single speech in your Lordships' House to-day has been devoted to the question of whether or not the gin trap shall go. There has been an absolutely unanimous expression by all speakers of the view that the gin trap must and shall go. The only question raised in the discussion has been when it shall go. From that point where we left off last time, I should like to take up the position again to-day. I agree that this Bill does not go far enough. After all, all that is done in Clause 8 is to take power to do four years hence what could be done to-day. Is that really a great concession? I do not think it will meet the present public opinion on this matter, and I agree with those noble Lords who have said that before that date, rather than after, is the time when gin traps should be prohibited. Like the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I am one of those who say that no trap is necessary. I am firmly convinced that he is right when he said that it is not only a question of abolishing the gin trap. but that no trap at all is necessary.

Rabbit traps are the lazy man's way of catching rabbits. I have tested this and have never allowed a trap on land in my occupation. I mention that merely as some justification for making the statement I have just made. I would concede that the Imbra trap and the Sawyer trap (and here I would say that it is possible that the Sawyer trap is just as efficient as the Imbra) are not at present as efficient as the gin, although the difference between them is nothing like so great as is made out—not as efficient, that is, in catching rabbits, but they are much more efficient in killing rabbits than the gin trap ever was. As one noble Lord has already said, the trappers do not want to kill the rabbits too quickly, and that is why they prefer the gin, because the gins keep the rabbits alive and fresh for the market. That accounts largely for the prejudice against the Imbra and Sawyer traps which, although they are not perfect, do at least kill the rabbits when they catch them. I entirely agree with other noble Lords who have said that necessity is the mother of invention, and that if the gin were abolished to-day we should very soon have an efficient humane trap on the market. The commercial trapper, against whom I have no enmity whatever, is a perfectly respectable citizen. He does not want the gin trap abolished. He does not want a humane trap—and very few of these commercial trappers would have the courage to say that they did—because all he wants is a trap which catches rabbits and catches them alive; and we have to realise that fact. Therefore, I hope that Part II of this Bill will be amended in some way, as several noble Lords have asked this afternoon.

Finally, I would come back to the main question: however efficient a trap is put on the market, let us all remember that the agricultural problem will remain untouched; and that problem, as well as the problem of humanity, must be tackled at once. Even if a trap is 100 per cent. efficient, if it is used in the way in which it is now being used the rabbit population will not be diminished by one. Therefore, I come back to this point: that all that is in Part I of this Bill is necessary and is going to be necessary; and this is not going to be the last Bill on the subject of rabbit destruction before this enormous agricultural problem is solved.

5.2 p.m.


My Lords, I do not propose to occupy more than a few moments of your time with the consideration of one or two points with which I wish to deal. We on this side of the House welcome the Bill, and have no desire but to do everything we can in Committee to make it a better Bill. I have listened carefully to practically the whole of the debate this afternoon, and with most of the speakers I have at least some point of agreement. It seems to me that the Minister is going to have a difficult task in trying to match the suggestions together, but that is the kind of conciliatory task which he is quite capable of carrying out.

If I may mention a few specific points drawn from my own very small experience, I would say, first of all, that no one could consider that my noble friend Lord Archibald over-estimated the damage which is done by rabbits. He was, I thought, very mild in his estimate, and obviously did not wish to overstate his case. I am glad that he put his case as he did. I hope the Minister will pay some attention to the fact that much land which had never been cultivated before the war, but which was sometimes taken up and cultivated by the Ministry, or on their behalf, in odd parcels, is to-day either being released altogether or is being cultivated by new tenants who are up against all the other pieces of land which have not been under cultivation. Mention has been made of scrub and such things, and this is referred to in, I think, Clause 2. I sincerely hope that the Government will do something about the question of who is liable for the clearance of rabbits in such places. I can, perhaps, speak rather freely in this matter. There are some rented plots quite away from my homestead—a seaside place—which are full of cover for rabbits and, indeed, infested with rabbits. I think that last year I lost the best part of an acre of barley in a comparatively small field. I have no power to enter on that land or any right to do anything about this problem. I ought not to be asked to put up a fence against it if it: is going to be such a source of future trouble and concern. I think something ought to be done about that.

I want to stress the point made by my noble friends Lord Listowel and Lord Archibald about Part II of the Bill. I hope that some definite date can be fixed. I must say that Lord Archibald's argument concerning Clause 8 sounded very convincing to me. I am in agreement also with a point made in Lord Stonehaven's speech. I cannot see way the Ministry should not fix a very early date (I say this in spite of what Lord Merthyr said) for prohibiting the manufacture of gin traps. Let us get on with more rapid production, in quantity and efficiency, of the humane type of trap. The only other point I wish to make is in regard to certain powers taken by the Ministry. I hope that, where owners cannot be traced (and that does still happen: I do not know whether the Minister remembers our experiences in the early part of the war, where owners could not be traced), it may be possible to lay the duty on the local authority. With these few remarks I must say that we welcome this Bill. We want it to go a little further in the direction I have mentioned, and we shall be glad to support it.

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the way in which you have received this Bill. We shall be fortified by the speeches noble Lords have made to-day. But before I come to deal with the comments which have been made on the Bill, in particular those relating to the gin trap, I should like to try to answer some of the questions which have been put to me. First, the noble Earl, Lord Listowel—and I thank him and the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander, for blessing this Bill with the seal of the official Opposition—asked me whether we seriously intended to use the powers provided for under Clause 1. I can give the noble Earl that assurance wholeheartedly. We should not have bothered to introduce a Bill with those powers if we had no intention of using them. We most certainly shall use them. The noble Earl also asked me when the Committee at present inquiring into myxomatosis is going to report. I gave him the answer: "It will report in March." It will have to do so some time before the Spring, at any rate, because in the Spring there is much more insect life about and the insects act as vectors which spread the disease. Although I cannot give any definite date when the Report will be published—this Committee is a Standing Committee—I can say that the Government will announce their views on the subject.

Lord Stonehaven asked me whether Clause 1 of this Bill would apply to a. public authority. My answer is that it does; and I would say that the Transport Commission have been particularly helpful about the destruction of rabbits. They have carried out some interesting experiments which have been of very great use on the subject of rabbits in railway embankments. We are grateful to them for being so helpful. Lord St. Aldwyn queried the provision of the Bill which enables the Minister to allow the occupier of land to ask his friends to go out with him and shoot rabbits. As I said earlier, I do not think that shooting is the normal way in which rabbits will be killed. But I can say that, if the obligation is placed on the occupier, it is only fair that he should be given the means of carrying out that obligation. The noble Earl will see that the Minister can give consent only if the owner, in his turn, has unreasonably withheld his consent. But I think my right honourable friend the Minister has quite an open mind, and I am prepared to have conversations with the noble Earl before the next stage, and put forward an Amendment agreeable to both of us.

The noble Earl also asked me about Clause 1 (6), regarding powers of entry. This provision, of course, does not in any way widen the scope of powers of entry; it merely repeats Section 106 of the 1947 Act. As the noble Earl knows, the committee are obliged to give notice when they are about to visit a farmer.


To the occupier only, that is.


I thought that that was what the noble Earl meant.


I did say "the owner".


They are obliged to give notice to the occupier.

The noble Earl also asked me whether or not the owners of woods would be consulted before these clearance schemes were laid down. I think that will need a small Amendment to the Bill, which I shall be glad to move on the Committee stage, because I think it proper that that should be done. He rather questioned, too, whether or not it was necessary to go as far as he thinks we have done in Clause 2 (1), which might possibly require an owner to fence in a large area of land. As I also said in my opening remarks, that is not the intention of the clause. I think this is really a drafting point; it is difficult to think of words which would meet his point adequately. Here, again, however, if we can find words, we shall be only too happy to do what we can on Committee stage. As regards these clearance schemes, he asked me how long they would continue. They will go on for ever, so to speak, because the object is to clear the rabbits out for all time, and the more successful an occupier is in clearing out the rabbits, the less he will have to do in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, asked me the same question as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. Of course, these powers will be used—I can give that assurance. The penalties for failing to observe the directions are the same penalties as those to be found in Section 100 of the Agriculture Act, and they are applied under Clause 1 (7). The noble Lord also asked me why there was a difference between England and Scotland. The position at the moment is that night shooting of rabbits is forbidden in Scotland but allowed in England and Wales. We are not doing anything to alter that. The reason for that is that a different interpretation of the Ground Game Act of 1880 was given in the courts of Scotland from the interpretation made in the courts of England, and we do not intend to do anything about that.

The main debate has been about the gin trap. There are those who want to see an early end to the rabbit problem, and those whose main concern is to see the end of the gin trap, by which, as your Lordships know, millions of rabbits are destroyed every year. I hope I have made it plain, although I do not think that I convinced the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that the Government are by no means out of sympathy with those who want to abolish the pain and suffering which the gin trap causes. Indeed, if the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will recall the debate on the Bill which he initiated some two years ago, he will remember that I gave an assurance then. This is what I said (OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 174, Col. 569): When we are satisfied that we have an adequate, efficient and humane alternative to the gin trap, and when the state of the legislative programme permits, then the Government will consider introducing a Bill on the lines I have indicated. We have done rather more than I said on that occasion we would do, because, although we are not satisfied that at the moment we have an adequate, efficient, and humane alternative to the gin trap, we are introducing legislation on this subject.

I was not quite sure where the Labour Party stood on this matter. I thought that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, swerved a bit, and I thought that the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander, wobbled distinctly, because in the debate two years ago the noble Earl, Lord Listowel said—I hope that he will forgive me for quoting his words back at him: they appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 174, Col. 574: Large numbers of land owners, farmers and workers, all use these traps;"— that is, gin traps— there are over 3 million traps of this kind in use at present in the farms and cottages of our countryside. To deprive these people of these traps before we can provide them with an effective substitute would undoubtedly lead to an increase in the rabbit population and to a corresponding decrease in food production. He then went on a little later: I am satisfied with the assurance given by Lord Carrington that he and his colleagues will make an honest effort to introduce a Bill as soon as an equally effective trap has been found. I do hope that that assurance will satisfy the noble Lord, Lord Elton.… I very much hope that the noble Earl has not changed his mind in that short time.


I have not. I agree with the noble Lord opposite that that was the view I took at that time. I am not conscious that anything I have said this afternoon is inconsistent with that view. I do not think the noble Lord is suggesting that it is, but I should be prepared to defend my position if he suggested that I had said anything which conflicted with the view which I then expressed.


May I ask the noble Earl, did he not express regret that this Bill does not include an actual date for the abolition?


The question arises as to whether the Government are prepared to sacrifice the gin trap or the rabbit. May I hope that they will sacrifice the rabbit, because I want to see rabbits exterminated.


I am coming to that.


I did express regret. I did say that I thought that such a date could only be fixed when a satisfactory alternative trap was available in sufficient numbers, and so on, for the general public. My view about the alternative trap—I may be entirely wrong—is that there is a trap at the moment, at any rate in design, which is an effective substitute for the gin trap. I thought that that was what I said.


No, I am sorry that I misunderstood the noble Earl. At any rate, he has reassured me about his own feelings on the subject. He agrees with Her Majesty's Government and with me that, until such time as we have an effective substitute for the gin trap, it would he wrong to ban it. I hope he will convince the noble Viscount sitting next to him, because that is not what he said in his speech.


We meet in this House fur the purpose of exchanging views in an open debate, and as the debate goes on we hope we teach each other things. I started from the point where the Minister in charge of the Bill had said something, not specific, about the fact that one manufacturer considered that now we had something which was both economic and efficient. I do not want to twist the words of the Minister we will look at them in Hansard in the morning, and see how far we disagree. Then subsequently we learned something of the life of the gin trap. What is the expected life? We are debating two years after my noble friend made his first specific statement. Barring the use of tide gin trap does not matter at all; I am proposing the prohibition of its manufacture. Those in use will last for three or four years and no more, and therefore banning the gin trap would stimulate the production of the substitute.


I am grateful to the noble Viscount for his explanation of his point of view. I should not like it to be thought that I had said anything of the kind about a new trap being available now. I will read out what I did say I am able to tell your Lordships that ore 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 fees may stand a chance of wing so perfected as to compete with gin traps on level terms. I do not think that by any stretch of the imagination I could be taken as saying that we had found an effective alternative.


That is a fairly optimistic estimate.


We can all be optimistic until the result is arrived at. The point is that the Government, in their responsibility to the public, have to try to reconcile both these points of view—the killing of the rabbits and the abolition of the gin trap. This Bill may not meet with the full approval of extremists in either camp, but it should commend itself to the vast majority who, like the Government, want to see an end to the rabbits and the gin trap but realise that this objective must be approached in a realistic way, with due regard to the hard facts of country life and economy and the practical considerations involved. I have tried hard, in my earlier speech to your Lordships, to bring home not only to those who live in towns but to land owners and farmers as well, the extent of the damage caused by wild rabbits to crops and woodlands. The more effort we put into increasing our food production the greater the struggle against these pests becomes. We cannot go on indefinitely expending vast sums of money and energy on producing more and more crops for rabbits to eat.

With regard to the total amount of damage, the noble Lord. Lord Archibald, suggested that rabbits caused about £20 million worth of damage a year. I think he puts his estimate rather low. I should say that it is much more like £50 million a year—and I do not think that even that figure is an exaggeration of the damage done by rabbits, when it is realised that on wheat alone tests have established that the equal of the produce of 130,000 acres of over £5 million in value is destroyed by rabbits in one year. There is, quite rightly, an increasing clamour for this damage to be stopped, and the Government, who are responsible for food production, could not expose the country to the risk of increasing that loss by abolishing the gin trap before a suitable substitute was available; and still less by abolishing trapping altogether.

Those who advance these extreme measures (and I say that with the greatest respect) have not the responsibility that the Government carry. It has been claimed by several noble Lords today that trapping is not necessary to keep down rabbits—that other methods will do just as well. I am not so sure about that, but even if it were so, I do not think that that really is the point. The fact is that at the present time an enormous number of rabbits are killed with gin traps, and if we prohibited this method of killing them now, there would be no way of ensuring that rabbits would continue to be killed at the same rate by other methods. The Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals, to which I referred earlier this afternoon, went fully into this question and they did not recommend that trapping should be abolished. I do not know what really is the view of the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr. Does he think that trapping should be abolished, however effective and humane a destructive weapon it may be?


I would say that it should be abolished progressively, because, as I have said so often, the way in which it is now being used does not diminish, but increases, the number of rabbits. The emphasis is on the words "in the way in which it is now being used." If it were abolished progressively, and not all at once, I believe it could be done successfully.


With great respect, that is not the question I asked the noble Lord. I asked him whether he thought trapping should be abolished, and he said that he thought commercial trapping should be abolished.


As the noble Lord is on this question, perhaps I might ask him what is his attitude to the leaflet published by his own Department, containing an article by Dr. Smith, which says that trapping is the wrong method to use for getting rid of rabbits?


In certain circumstances, trapping may be the wrong method to use for getting rid of rabbits, but I think there are places where trapping is necessary in order to get rid of them. But that is not the point. All I am saying is that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, have suggested that we ought to stop commercial trapping—which I suppose means trapping animals for money. But a farmer who keeps down his rabbits by trapping is, I should have thought, perfectly entitled to the money he can get for them; and the professional trapper is merely doing the farmer's work for him. I dare say there are some people who deliberately leave some rabbits behind to make sure that there will be another crop next year. But it is extremely difficult to single out those people from anybody else. I hope that my noble friend behind me is not suggesting that there should be a Ministry inspector following every trapper around. We are told that what is wanted is the progressive abolition of the gin trap. We agree with that, and our proposals are designed to secure the progressive displacement of gin traps as others capable of taking their place become available. But as I said earlier on, in answer to a Question before this debate started, we do not seem yet to have found a trap that is the equivalent of the gin in catching efficiency, weight, price and other qualities. The Imbra trap, to which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred, is at present under tests with county agricultural executive committees, but I am afraid that results so far received are not conclusive, and I am not yet able to say whether this or any other trap would qualify for approval by the Minister.

This question of how we should decide whether or not a trap qualifies for approval is one to which we have been giving some thought, and we feel that there would be advantage in getting the traps tried out by farmers, landowners, game keepers and the like, so that we may have the views of those people who will be using them on the ground. We are arranging, through the representative organisations, for this to be done in the case of the Imbra and other traps, so that we can get representative views as to their merits. We think that, now that this Bill has been introduced, the tendency will be for more and more humane traps to be put on the market and, if they are humane and efficient, and otherwise acceptable, for them to be purchased to replace gins as they wear out. In that way there should be a progressive replacement of the gin. I should point out that it is not necessary for the Minister to set a date for the prohibition of the gin before he approves alternative traps to take its place. He can do that as soon as he is satisfied that suitable and acceptable alternatives are to be found.

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