HL Deb 29 July 1954 vol 189 cc410-7

7.26 p.m.

LORD SEMPILL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, having regard to the recent importation from England into north-east Scotland of rabbit carcases infected with myxomatosis, they will take immediate steps to arrest the practice that causes untold suffering and to prevent by local action the spread of the disease in Scotland. The noble Lord said: My Lords, may I apologise to your Lordships for the fact that last week I failed to observe the traditions of your Lordships' House by making some remarks in regard to my Starred Question. I started to make a speech and was reminded by the noble Marquess the Leader of your Lordships' House, with that charm and consideration that ever has our admiration, that I was out of order, and that I had better put down an Unstarred Question on what the noble Marquess said was "this very important subject." I also owe an apology to my noble friend Lord Saltoun who told me afterwards that he was protesting at my failure to follow the traditions of this House and had cried out "Order, order!" but that I paid no attention. I had to tell my noble friend that I had not heard his remarks. It was certainly the first time in your Lordships' House—and surely the first time for centuries—that a Forbes has not heard a Fraser—and he the Chief of that great Clan.

As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, stated last week, the Myxomatosis Advisory Committee was to meet this week. My noble friend was good enough to tell me that after this meeting, and after hearing his reply to-day, I should feel more happy. I sincerely hope so. I should like to congratulate the Committee over which the noble Lord presides on the firm stand they have taken against the deliberate spreading of this frightful disease. This stand, as is made clear in the Report, is taken first on humanitarian grounds and secondly on legal and practical grounds. According to the Committee there is some doubt as to the position in law of a person who transports a diseased rabbit from one place to another, but no doubt at all that a person who deliberately takes a rabbit and inoculates it with the virus would be committing one or both of the offences of: doing an act causing unnecessary suffering to an animal and administering a poison to an animal without reasonable cause or excuse, contrary to the Protection of Animals Act (Scotland), 1912. The Committee also point out that under civil law a person who deliberately spreads such a disease on his own land may be held liable for damage caused to a neighbour as a result of the disease spreading to his land or to his stock of domestic rabbits. As a result the Committee, to whom all congratulations are due, recommend categorically: that no attempt should be made to assist the spread of myxomatosis, or to introduce it into unaffected areas of the country.

In this month a Mr. Milne, of Balrownie, Durris, Kincardineshire, introduced diseased rabbit carcases obtained in England with a view to spreading the scourge amongst his own rabbits. I would assume that Mr. Milne had no idea at all of the horror he was importing. He may even have felt that death would he nearly as instantaneous as it would be where rabbits are gassed. Otherwise, I cannot believe that anyone would deliberately spread this dreadful scourge that causes some ten days of frightful suffering. So horrible is that, that Mr. Foster, of Holyhead, a senior inspector of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and in charge of one of the mercy patrols in England, of which there are a growing number, says: I have never been so terribly sickened and disgusted, and I am still haunted by the sight of these creatures. Without any shadow of doubt they suffer intense agony and misery for at least ten days. These are the remarks of a senior inspector of a Society used to dealing with dreadful conditions of cruelty in animals.

As your Lordships will have heard, the equivalent Society in Scotland, on hearing what had been done in Kincardineshire, immediately arranged for a mercy patrol to be sent from Aberdeen to find and gas all the unfortunate sufferers. The Scottish Society engaged on this humanitarian work had first to obtain the permission of the owner before gassing the tortured rabbits. As your Lordships will know, where someone who, through negligence, traps a rabbit in a gin-trap, the use of which we are all so glad to know is shortly to be forbidden, is reported to the Society, the result is immediate police action and a fine—and quite rightly, too. But in the case of rabbits infected by myxomatosis, permission has to be asked; and in some cases permission has been asked of certain owners of land and refused. Your Lordships may judge of the feelings of people when I say that a large placard bearing the words "Down with Milne" was recently displayed—and this despite the fact that Mr. Milne welcomed Scottish R.S.P.C.A. officials on his land with gas equipment.

Urban dwellers often think that gamekeepers—ghillies—are callous to the sufferings of animals. This is not so. They are revolted, as are all right-thinking people, at the long tortures produced by myxomatosis, and they deplore its spreading by man. With your Lordships' permission I should like to read a few words from a Report made recently by the factor at Crathes in Aberdeenshire, Mr. Russell Birnie. He said: I have seen it at Durris. It is a ghastly thing. I cannot understand how anyone could import such a horror. I should also like to quote the words of the head ghillie or gamekeeper, Mr. Robert Maclaren, of Craigievar. He said: I have discussed this disease with all around and a large majority deplore what this man at Durris has done. This disease is many, many times more cruel than the gin trap, as the rabbits are tortured to death for several weeks. These are the opinions of people who are experienced in these matters.

My Lords, this is no occasion, and not the hour, for a long speech, telling not only of the misdemeanours of rabbits but of the uses they serve by what they eat and by what they give, since we are all agreed that the rabbit population must be reduced until the rabbit is in balance with his predators and food supplies. This can be achieved as your Lordships have emphasised before, mainly by the use of the gun and the net. The fearsome gin trap will soon be out and replaced by the humane trap. In all this, the rabbits who have to die pro bono publico must not, by the hand of man, be tortured to death by being infested with myxomatosis. That great pioneer aircraft designer, who is well known by name to your Lordships, Sir Richard Fairey, one of the most active and far-sighted squires of to-day, writes: I support your attitude about myxomatosis and am really shocked at the callousness of so many people who, one would think, would be more civilised than to want to spread this obscenity deliberately throughout the country.

In my own part of Scotland, the North-East, the Ministry of Agriculture's wishes that the Carrington Committee's recommendations should be observed are being widely flouted. The rule of law is giving place to a condition of unease, of growing uncertainty, of the immediate and ultimate future of the many persons employed in what I will call shortly, "the rabbit industry," the United Kingdom total income of which, as your Lordships have heard before, is some £15 million per annum. Diseased rabbit carcases are fetching high prices. Live rabbits are being infected with the virus by drawing infected cotton threads through them, after which they are again let loose. The sale of rabbits is being seriously affected, and therefore the urge to reduce their numbers is being greatly minimised. More important than all, immense suffering on a growing scale brings horror into the lives of people of all ages as they see these ghastly, swollen, tortured rabbits crawling in the open until merciful death overtakes them. In closing my remarks, I implore the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, to take this matter immediately in hand, and to make known, through the Press and over the air, the view of Her Majesty's Government and that of the Carrington Committee, so that this macabre act may be stopped.

7.36 p.m.


My Lords, I hope it will be possible for the noble Lord who is going to reply to this Question to give a satisfactory and helpful reply to the noble Lord, Lord Sempill, who has raised this matter with so much earnestness. For many years I have been a town dweller, but I was born and bred in the country and I have some idea of what all this means. When listening to the desperate anxiety of some people to reduce the rabbit population, I have reflected that they might have helped to keep their rabbits down to proper numbers by giving more freedom to the poacher, who in country districts is not looked upon as a person with a bad reputation. As a matter of fact, the poacher, not only of rabbits but of fish, is looked upon as a public benefactor in some country areas of Scotland, and when he finds himself landed in gaol for his depredations he has the sympathy of the whole community, and not only of those who might benefit from his activities.

I approach this question principally from the point of view of the humanitarian interests that are involved, and will content myself, because the case has been put so well by the noble Lord, Lord Sempill, with reading one or two extracts from a letter which appears in The Field under this day's date. The Field is a magazine which I am sure is well known to your Lordships. This is a letter signed by C. A. Nunn, of Whitnal, Broad Hinton, Swindon. I will not read the whole letter, because it is too long, but here are some extracts: Recently I had my first opportunity to visit a farm on which rabbits are infected. I am a rabbit-catcher myself and in being so have always considered myself hardened to the suffering and death of the rabbit, but I have never seen anything so revolting and disgusting as this disease. All around the fields the rabbits sat in different stages of the disease. Their eyes had gone—this I am told occurs on the fifth day—and they appeared to be deaf. If approached quietly they could be picked up, but if approached ordinarily they attempted to get away. It appeared that they could sense the approach of anything by vibrations. There are two other short paragraphs I should like to quote. They say: The sooner effective action is taken to check the spread of the disease by the shortsighted individual the better. The control of the rabbit is a simple enough operation if it is done properly and at the right time of year, and it need not be an expense to the landowner or the country. Carried out properly it can be an asset to both. From time to time various figures are published by the agricultural industry to show the damage done to agriculture by the rabbit. Among these are figures presented to the Advisory Committee on Myxomatosis which quoted £15 million for cereals and £21 million for grassland, but the Advisory Committee states there is no reliable basis for these calculations. It is true that man has dominion over the lower animals, but he should exercise that dominion in a proper way. If he does not, and if he attempts to override the ordinary processes of nature, it is likely that he will find himself creating some other difficulty that he has not foreseen. Nature has a wonderful way of maintaining the balance of things. If I cared, I could give instances of that, not in respect of rabbits, but in respect of forestry. But we are dealing with this particular matter now, and I earnestly hope that we may have a sympathetic and helpful reply from the noble Lord.

7.43 p.m.


My Lords, very diffidently I make a contribution at this late hour. I fully agree with all the powerful arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Sempill, but I do not think he has covered all the points. I would point out that there are certain almost inevitable repercussions which must occur if this disease is introduced on a large scale in England. As your Lordships are aware, our local carnivorous animal fauna are very limited in number, but I consider them very precious. These are the fox, the badger, the polecat, the marten, the stoat, the otter, the wildcat, and even the weasel. I regard all those animals as precious, and they are the principal animals which live upon rabbits. To those can be added the stray cat and the stray dog. Imagine all these animals suddenly deprived of their food. They must eat. Those who can will migrate, but the others will naturally turn to our poultry, and in the cases of foxes and badgers, to lambs. In self-defence the farmers, gamekeepers and poultry keepers will react forcibly, and we shall see every sort of horror in the way of gas, poison traps and gins. You will not be able to stop them. Gins will reappear everywhere, not underground, as they are at present, by law, but set in the open, because the farmers and poultry keepers must protect themselves. We shall also find poison put down indiscriminately. Therefore, we run the risk that not only shall we practically lose our wild carnivorous fauna, but also a number of our humble friends, such as cats, dogs, sporting dogs, shepherd dogs and so on. On those grounds, I hope my noble friend will take some steps to stop this horrbile disease from being spread.

7.45 p.m.


My Lords, at their meeting on Monday last, July 26, the Advisory Committee on Myxomatosis considered this question of the deliberate spreading of myxomatosis. When the Advisory Committee recommended in their Report in March that no attempt should be made to assist the spread of myxomatosis or to introduce it into uninfected areas of the country, they did not know what course the disease would take, and their recommendations were based largely, though not entirely, on humanitarian considerations. Since the Committee's Report the disease has spread from the initial outbreaks in Kent, East Sussex, Essex and East Suffolk to 25 other counties in England and 10 in Wales, and to Kincardineshire in Scotland.

Up to the present, infection seems to have been carried from rabbit to rabbit almost exclusively by fleas. In Australia and, it is thought, in France as well, mosquitoes have been the main vectors of the disease. When the weather is warm and humid mosquitoes are about in large numbers but they do not yet appear to be biting rabbits nor can we be sure to what extent they will do so. If and when the mosquitoes do turn their attention to rabbits it is likely that the disease will reach epidemic proportions and spread faster than we have seen at present in this country. One thing of which we can be reasonably sure is that so long as there are wild rabbits in Great Britain we will have this disease with us.

There seems little doubt that the spread of the disease has been assisted and accelerated by human agency, but it does not necessarily follow that its ultimate course has been materially altered or that the disease would not by natural process have reached sooner or later the areas that are now affected. In view of the present indefinite phase in the development of the disease in this country, the Advisory Committee did not feel able, at their meeting on Monday, to express any definite opinion as to its probable future course or the significance of human agency in its spread. The Committee, in present circumstances, adhere to the view expressed in their report that the Government should take no action deliberately to spread the disease; nor do they approve of its deliberate spread by private individuals. The matter will be kept under review and the Committee will meet again in the autumn to consider it further in the light of developments. In the meantime, however, they do not recommend any legislative action in regard to the spreading of the disease by private individuals.

With regard to the second part of my noble friend's question, there is no way in which the local spread of the disease can be arrested. Attempts were made to control the initial outbreaks of myxomatosis in Kent and East Sussex last autumn, but it became clear that no containing action the Ministry might take could effectively influence the course of the disease, and the Committee reached the conclusion that such attempts would serve no practical purpose.