HL Deb 13 May 1954 vol 187 cc634-9

6.14 p.m.

THE EARL OF LISTOWEL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what action they propose to take on the Report of the Advisory Committee on Myxomatosis. The noble Earl said: My Lords, before I put my Question to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, perhaps your Lordships will allow me to say, as briefly as possible, exactly what information I am asking for and what I expect the Government should do in this matter of myxomatosis. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord and his Department on setting up a Standing Advisory Committee to consider and advise about methods of dealing with this disease. I am particularly glad that, amongst his many duties, the noble Lord has found time to accept the Chairmanship of this Committee. The value of their work is already shown by the recommendations in this, their first, Report. May I start by asking the noble Lord this question: If this is a Standing Committee, may we expect another Report fairly soon, perhaps by the end of the year? It would be particularly valuable to see what progress the disease had made during the summer and autumn months.

I ask the noble Lord another question. Can he say how many outbreaks of this disease have been recorded since last autumn, and whether these are now sufficiently numerous and widespread for the disease to be described as an epidemic likely to affect the whole country? The noble Lord's Committee, which reported in March, a couple of months ago, noted twelve outbreaks since last October, and these were located in Eastern and South-Eastern England. I have little doubt that the noble Lord will be able to tell us the disease has spread in the warm weather that we have had since then, and that outbreaks have now occurred in other parts of the country. If these are the facts, and if an epidemic of this killing disease has broken out in different parts of the country, surely we now have a unique opportunity, one which will never be repeated—because rabbits acquire immunity to the disease after a time of rapidly reducing the number of the rabbit population and so saving millions of pounds' worth of home-grown food.

We all agree that we have failed since the war to effect any appreciable reduction in the number of rabbits in this country. This failure has occurred in spite of our unprecedented efforts to keep down rabbits by the use of what I may call conventional weapons—trapping, gassing and so on. Providence has now placed in our hands a non-conventional weapon, in the shape of myxomatosis. The most important question I want to ask the noble Lord is whether he is entirely satisfied that this weapon will be used to the best possible advantage from the point of view of reducing the numbers of the rabbit population. I must admit that I am far from satisfied. We are failing in this respect to follow the example of Australia. Australia has made better use of this disease than any other country in the world. Four-fifths of the rabbits in two big States—New South Wales and Victoria—have been entirely destroyed as a result of the inroads of this disease, and this has had the effect, as the Report points out, of increasing by £50 million per annum the production from the land. If we could kill off four-fifths of the rabbits in this country, we should save a loss of about £30 million per annum in cereals and livestock.

The enormous number of rabbits destroyed in Australia was due to a policy of deliberately infecting rabbits with the disease. The Report mentions that seven liberations of the myxoma virus were made between May and November, 1950, in the Murray Valley. The Murray Valley is a large area in which there is much sheep farming and these liberations were made in the hope that the disease would spread—as in fact it did. I cannot understand why we should be squeamish about the use of this non-conventional weapon against rabbits when we are prepared to use much more devastating non-conventional weapons against our fellow-men. I am sure that if we had been at war now, or in serious danger, the Government would not have hesitated to spread the disease, and that if they had failed to do so they would have been severely censured by public opinion. I regret the decision of the Government, on the advice of the noble Lord's Committee, to leave the disease to take its natural course and I hope that the Minister will reconsider this decision—there is still time for reconsideration—in the light of the paramount need of the nation for more home-grown food.

May I ask the Government three more questions about what they propose to do to make the most important recommendations in this Report effective. The first is this: What steps are they proposing to take to make sure that farmers know what to do when an outbreak occurs on their land? As the Report points out, the essential thing is that any surviving rabbits should be killed off, otherwise the immune survivors will breed and multiply. But farmers do not read White Papers or even Ministerial statements, and I hope the noble Lord will be able to tell us that he is instructing the county committees, and the district committees, which are even more important than the county committees, and, of course, the Advisory Service, to provide every farmer with this vital information.

My second question is this. How do the Government propose to help farmers to clear their rabbits, after an outbreak of the disease has taken place, if they lack the means of doing this for themselves? The Report rightly recommends that assistance should be given to farmers if they want it. What form will that assistance take? Will there be a grant towards the cost of clearance? Will rabbit-catchers be made available to the county committees? Will the Government schedule areas in which outbreaks occur as rabbit clearance areas, when they have the power to do so under the Pests Bill, which is now under consideration in another place? I hope that the Government will do all this to help farmers if help is required. My last question—I do not want to take up too much time—is about the domestic rabbit. This is a flourishing industry, and domestic rabbit-keepers should be told how their animals can be protected against the disease. I should like to ask the Government what steps they are taking to make this information available to all the domestic rabbit keepers in the country. I believe that information about the availability of vaccine, about which nobody knows much at present (this is the first outbreak of myxomatosis that has ever taken place), would be particularly welcome. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name.

6.22 p.m.


My Lords, the Government have accepted the recommendations in the Report of the Advisory Committee on Myxomatosis. The Committee came to the conclusion that it would not be practicable to restrict the spread of myxomatosis and therefore recommended that attempts to do so should cease. They also thought that to assist the spread of the disease, or to introduce it into unaffected areas, would be undesirable on humane and other grounds. The noble Earl quarrels with that. Every piece of evidence, except one, which was given by the bodies which came to give evidence was against spreading the disease artificially, and we came to the conclusion on humane and other grounds that it was undesirable. The main recommendation of the Committee was therefore that the disease should be allowed to run its natural course among wild rabbits.

The Committee stressed that every effort should be made to kill off rabbits that survive the disease. As your Lordships will know, the time when it is most likely to spread is in warm weather, such as we are having now, when the insects which carry the virus are most active. The best time for killing off survivors is likely to occur in the autumn and winter, when the undergrowth has died down and the disease has abated. Discussions have taken place with representatives of landowners, farmers, farm-workers and of forestry and other interests, and instructions will shortly be sent to county agricultural executive committees on the planning of these follow-up operations. Other recommendations of the Committee which required action were that measures should be taken to prevent the importation of such live rabbits as the cottontail, and that special considerations should be given to the protection of the domestic rabbit. Orders are being prepared to give effect to the first of these recommendations. As regards the second, tame rabbit-keepers are being advised of the steps which they should take to protect their stock, and a leaflet is available. Arrangements have been made for the supply of vaccine through veterinary surgeons and chemists.


May I ask whether the leaflet will be sent to domestic rabbit-keepers? How are they to get hold of it? Will they be able to buy it in a shop, or will it be sent to them?


I am afraid that I cannot answer that point, but I will check up and let the noble Earl know. I have a copy of the leaflet here, but I am not sure how it will get to the domestic rabbit-keepers.

The noble Earl also asked me whether I would take this opportunity of reporting to your Lordships the present state of the disease. When my Committee reported less than two months ago there were twelve established centres of infection in East Sussex, Kent, Essex and East Suffolk. Since then, the number of outbreaks in these counties has doubled; and, in addition, isolated outbreaks have been confirmed in the Isle of Wight, and in the past few days in Gloucestershire, Radnorshire and Cornwall. The boundaries of the disease have spread steadily at the older centres of infection, some of which now cover many square miles. If last year's experience in France is any guide, we may expect, with the advent of warmer weather, that there will be a rapid spread of the disease to new areas and that we shall need to think in future of counties in which the disease is present, rather than of centres of infection.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.