HL Deb 23 November 1955 vol 194 cc773-818

3.59 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, we are having an interesting debate upon the Motion put down by my noble friend, Lord Listowel. In the course of a short speech he gave an admirable summary of the position as it exists to-day and what requires to be done. On the question of the actual saving, up to the present, to the country and, in particular, to the farming community, to which especial attention has been drawn, my noble friend was, I believe, correct in his approach. I was glad to note that, in their speeches, the noble Lords, Lord Hudson and Lord Dundee, agreed that this was not a matter which could be settled in a very short time. Harvest seasons of the kind we have just had are, in my experience, rare in our cycle of agricultural weather.

This summer, I should say, we have had a good deal of advantage in regard to the grass crop in the early part of the year, and the extra saving enabled us to stand up to the difficulty we had in August and September of using our silage which had been set aside for the winter months. There was, therefore, not so much loss as otherwise would have occurred. But in regard to the grain crops, except at the beginning, there was very little to go oh to determine what was or was not being saved. Experiences with grain crops in different parts of the country have been mixed. There have been many reports of increased yields, but that has not been so in every part of the country. Therefore, with the different cycles of weather to be taken into consideration, I think we shall need several seasons of research and analysis before we can get an adequate and accurate estimate of what the effect has been. As to the inquiries which have been held, and to which allusion has been made, by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, I have not had the privilege of reading the Reports which no doubt were issued as a result of those inquiries, so I cannot quite assess how the original estimate of £50 million 'was made out. I am intensely interested in this subject, and I hope that what has actually to be taken into account with regard to this vital year—the first full year of massive inroads into the rabbit population—will show greater success, than ever towards the attainment of our main objective.

I do not wish to make a speech of any length on this. Motion because of the adequate manner in which my noble friend Lord Listowel has opened the debate. I leave it to him to say whether or not he will be influenced by the somewhat enticing words of the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, with regard to the Amendment. If he is, then the noble Earl may move from his original attitude on this matter. I should say, speaking from my own Parliamentary experience, that on the whole I think it would be best to accept the original Motion and not the Amendment, especially since we are so united in the pursuit of the general objective that we have.

May I address a few words to the Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry about what ought to be done now? I think it is true, as the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, said, that there are still some farmers who are not completely persuaded of the need for attacking this constant menace to our food supplies. From the experience I have had of Essex, at any rate, I believe it is true to say that the majority of farmers there are alive to the need. I ought to have been attending a meeting of farmers this evening in the island where I live in Essex. That meeting has been called by the farmers themselves to deal with the problem which we are now discussing; they are anxious to see what they can do in the matter. I preferred, however, to be here in your Lordships' House to express a view on one particular problem and to ask the Ministry what they intend to do about it. I am strengthened in the suggestion which I am about to make by the words of the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, to the effect that, after all, the main responsibility calls for central action to see that the work is done.

In the particular place where I happen to be farming, an island about four miles by five miles—that is to say, twenty square miles in extent—there are twelve farmers. The island has passed through various stages of development in the last fifty years. Some places have been developed speedily, and some of them have been developed more slowly in the matter of the residential population. The consequence is that there are considerable plots right through the urban district in the island which were intended for building plots but which, under the county agricultural executive committee during the war and through the operations of farmers since, have been continued in cultivation. So there are these cultivated plots in what is really a semi-urban district. Alongside numbers of these plots there are small, medium-sized, and even large-sized, building plots which have never been brought into cultivation. They are completely overgrown with scrub, and they form the principal centres at the present time for the rabbits which remain undestroyed.

I find great joy in the fact that power is given to the Ministry, in general, to take action under the 1954 Act, and I feel that they ought either to undertake this work themselves—to go into places of this sort—or compel the urban district council to find the real owners of the land or, failing that, get these plots cleared themselves. The farmers are all working hard to eradicate rabbits on their land, but they have no authority to go into these other places of which I have spoken. I think that that is a matter which ought to be tackled. I can assure your Lordships that the experience which I have had over two or three years up to this year shows that there has been very much greater depredation upon the fields adjoining areas like those than on any other parts of the farms I know. Yet no one seems ever to have made an order against the urban owners themselves regarding the use of these plots; nor has any approach been made to the local authorities.

Apart from saying that, my Lords, all I would add is that I support the arguments of my noble friend Lord Listowel, which I think have been admirably stated. I also welcome very much the contribution made by the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson.


I thank the noble Viscount very much for what he has just said. In the particular area to which I was referring in my speech, the same difficulty as that to which he has referred arises, because of the impossibility of placing on the individual owner responsibility for carrying out rabbit extermination. He just cannot do it.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say a few words upon this subject because too, like the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, live on an island—in my case, the Isle of Wight. This rabbit disease came as a surprise. It was brought in near Osborne by two farmers at Barton Manor. It spread slowly to my part of the Isle of Wight, which is on the south side, and every rabbit died. There used to be countless thousands of rabbits on which I made a great deal of profit. In fact, they paid me for employing a keeper; they paid me for his clothes; and also for the dogs and for the biscuits which the dogs ate. There were masses of rabbits, but they all died in the most extraordinary way. Indeed, they were eliminated in places where it had been quite impossible to get rid of them before because of the proximity of places like Parkhurst Forest—places where no human power could have got rid of them.

We do not know exactly what it amounted to but the damage which the rabbits did has been put at various figures. I think that some of these figures show great exaggeration. I tried to put up my rents by 10 per cent. because my tenants used to claim that the rabbits did this damage. My tenants then tried to say that the rabbits did no damage at all. However, only two weeks ago I saw two rabbits where none had been. There is one shoot where I used to get as many as 600 rabbits in a day.


My Lords, is the noble Lord reducing his rents?


I am going to put them higher. Although I was in favour of rabbits at the start and against the horror of this disease—and, make no 'mistake, the place was crawling with horror while myxomatosis was killing off the rabbits—I now believe that once we have finished them, we should continue to keep them down.

The noble Viscount's Amendment brings up the real question. I believe that public money which is devoted to the general interest of agriculture should also be spent for this purpose. What is a rabbit but a pest, like the wood pigeon? We have pests officers to keep down and exterminate pests in the countryside, and Parliament, in its wisdom, has voted public money for the extermination of pests for the benefit of agriculture. I should like to give some actual figures, because I happen to be the proprietor of Purlieus, which is a gun shoot. Since the 1954 Act was passed, 11 million cartridges have been issued by the Ministry at 25s. per 100. If they had been bought from the shops, they would have cost 48s. per 100. That is a subsidy which the Government pay to exterminate pigeons and other pests. The Ministry of Agriculture add the, to my mind, somewhat curious figure that during this period 4 million pigeons were killed. I do not know of any member of your Lordships' House who can guarantee to get one pigeon per three cartridges—and, of course, the cartridges: were also being used on rabbits. However, this money was voted by Parliament for use against pests, of which the rabbit is one.

As has been said. there may be people who will seek to reintroduce rabbits, either because they like them or because they have some interest in them. But to-day I find, when my tenants or I shoot any rabbits, that we cannot sell them because, rightly or wrongly, rabbits are regarded as contaminated food they have no value in the market at all. That is a problem which we have to face. If we were to pass a law under which we could fine people for having rabbits on the land, it would be no good, especially from a Liberal point of view, because it is useless to impose on a man responsibility for something for which he really cannot be held responsible—namely, that one rabbit falls in love with another and they bring another rabbit into the world. That is what happens with all pests. This debate has served to show that there has been a clearance of rabbits in certain counties, certainly in the Isle of Wight up to about three months ago. One or two are appearing again, and every effort should be made by the Ministry to insist on landlords and farmers destroying this pest. As I say, at first I was on the other side, but now I believe that it would be a great mistake if we allowed rabbits to come back again in their millions. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will take due note of what is said in this debate, so that we shall not need to have it again.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, so far this afternoon there has been complete unanimity in desiring to see the last rabbit eradicated, if possible. I am not going to break that unanimity and certainly have no cause to do so. It will be interesting to see whether any speaker comes forward before the debate finishes with the view that there are reasons for preserving the rabbit. I say that because, as has been mentioned, there are still people in the country who, for some reason or another, say that they want some rabbits to be preserved: but am not one of them.

We are faced with the undisputed fact that myxomatosis, whether we like it or not, has produced a revolution in the rabbit situation. We are all agreed so far that now is -the time, if ever there was a time, to join together to reduce the rabbit population so far as we possibly can—I am not going to say "eradicate," because I think nothing but a miracle, and an expensive miracle, would achieve that I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, and those who have said that this can be done only by one central national authority; and who can that be but the Ministry? It is no good expecting a public-spirited occupier to eradicate all rabbits on his land if his surrounding neighbours, or even one of them, fail to do the same on theirs. Surely there must be some outside national authority to compel, if necessary, all alike to do this. I agree with the noble Viscount when he says that the Minister is the person who must act, and I would add, he must act if necessary by compulsion. Persuasion and education may be all very well and are to be encouraged and used so far as possible, but there always will be the one or two farmers who will be deaf to all persuasion and education and who will be reluctant to do anything at all unless they are compelled.

As we have heard this afternoon, the power is there. It has been there for eight years, or even longer; but has it been used as much as it should have been used? In the answer to the Question which I asked earlier this afternoon, we were told that there have been no convictions for failure to comply with orders under the 1947 Act. I was delighted to hear that steps have been taken, in cases of failure to act, to have the work done and charge the occupier with the cost. Well and good; but I hesitate to think that that has really been enough. I do not think that there have not been cases where there should have been something more drastic in the way of prosecution.

Now we are faced with the position that we have statutory clearance areas. Again, well and good. But why should not the whole country be a clearance area? I live in one of the notorious counties, which has been referred to by name this afternoon, which, before myxomatosis, had a greater rabbit population than almost any other. But I looked at the map the other day and I found that only one rural district in the whole county had so far been declared a clearance area. Why one, and not the others? If there are no rabbits to clear (which is not the case) what is the harm in making it a clearance area, nevertheless? Before myxomatosis, we had what I have always called rabbit farming. We may get it back again, and I feel that we ought to think about it. It must not return. How is it going to be prevented from returning? Who is going to prevent it? It can only be the Minister. To prevent it, I admit, is not easy; but the first thing to do, I submit, is to remove the profit motive from rabbit farming, whether it be from noble Lords in your Lordships' House or anybody else who indulges in rabbit farming. There must be no profit in it; that is the best way to stop it. Incidentally, I would mention, not for the first time here, that in my humble opinion it is illegal for a tenant under the Ground Game Act, 1880, to sell his rabbits to a trapper or to sell the right to take rabbits to a trapper. That, in my view, can be prevented by the landlord. I admit straight away that it is difficult for a landowner who wants to maintain friendly relations with his tenants to go to them and say: "You must not do this. I can stop you, because it is illegal." There again, surely it is the Minister, or his nominees, or his committees, who should step in to prevent this.

Speaking of the Ground Game Act, 1880. I should like to suggest to the noble Earl that he should look at this Act and see whether it should not be, at least, amended, if not repealed. In 1880 the situation was somewhat different from what it is now. In those days I apprehend that the production of food in this country was not so important as it now is; and in those days the sporting interests were more powerful and perhaps more important than they are now. We now have this situation, which has existed ever since 1880. We are told now that it is laudable to kill rabbits and a good idea to diminish the rabbit population. Yet under this Act a tenant farmer is allowed to employ only one person to shoot rabbits. If it is a good thing to shoot rabbits, why allow only one person on each holding to do it? That is an example to support my contention that the noble Earl might look at the Ground Game Act, 1880, to see whether we should not be better off if that Act were repealed.

I am reminded of a fact which we cannot avoid. There is no getting away from the fact that there is a conflict between sporting interests and agricultural interests—and therefore national interests—in this matter. I do not think it is any good our shutting our eyes to that fact, however keen on sport we may be ourselves. Your Lordships may have seen an article in the current number the Field which seeks to make out that the statistics published by the Minister of Agriculture are, to put it crudely, all nonsense, and that the improvement which is alleged to have taken place to crops in this country by the eradication of rabbits is grossly exaggerated, and so forth. I looked up the writer of that article in a book of reference and I found that he is a prominent and well-known sporting writer. That brought home to me at once the conflict which does exist (I regret to say it, but it does) between sporting interests and farming interests. So far as I can see, there can be little, if any, compromise in this conflict.

As I have said before in your Lordships' House, I have occasion periodically to sit in a magistrates' court and fine people for trespassing in pursuit of coneys. The whole proceeding brings to my mind an atmosphere of complete unreality. I ask myself: Why is this a crime? Trespassing itself is not a crime; killing rabbits, we are told, is not merely not a crime but a laudable thing to do; but the two things put together, trespassing and killing rabbits, is a criminal offence. Again, there is a reason for that. The reason is, I suppose, that years and years ago if a man went trespassing in pursuit of rabbits and fired his gun at a rabbit there might be a pheasant sitting in the line of fire—of course, entirely by accident. That is why it is still a crime to do what most people would regard as a public-spirited action.

I was glad to note that the noble Earl in his opening speech mentioned cruelty in connection with the subject of rabbits. Before myxomatosis arrived, I do not hesitate to say that the enormous extent of rabbit trapping in this country constituted a greater single cause of cruelty to animals than any other one factor in our public life. The dimensions of it were enormous. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and I have had little battles here before now as to whether rabbit farming and commercial trapping were necesary, or not. I have always said that they were not, and the noble Earl has disagreed. I do not think we need pursue the matter further to-day as to which of us is right, but we can console ourselves with this fact: that myxomatosis has arrived. While myxomatosis is a thoroughly unpleasant disease—and I think it can be truly said that it causes a great deal of suffering, and we all regret it—we can all agree that since it has arrived the amount of cruelty to animals caused by trapping rabbits has greatly diminished; and myxomatosis has prevented (and "prevented is exactly the word, because it means "going before") more cruelty to animals than anything else that has occurred within memory. That is a fact on which I think the noble Earl and I will agree, and I rejoice in it. But it leads us to this: do not let us have both myxomatosis and rabbit farming and trapping. That is what we all want to avoid, because we all agree that myxomatosis is a thoroughly unpleasant thing.

I should like to make one or two suggestions to the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, which might help in doing what we all want to do; and for my part I can see no great merit in discussing whether we should pass this Amendment or not; we all want to do the same thing. I should like to suggest that selling live wild rabbits should be made an offence. I would go further, with the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and make it an offence to transport live wild rabbits from any one place to another. I seriously suggest that Her Majesty's Government do what the noble Earl recommended. I should like them also to consider doing something much more drastic: that is, whether it should not be made an offence to sell without a licence dead rabbits. Now I must not go too far. To make it an offence to sell a dead rabbit, and no more, would be going too far; but I think some system might be introduced of licensing the right kind of people to sell dead rabbits, and thus prevent the wrong kind of people from doing so. As I have said before, if we want to stop the expansion of rabbits, we have to remove the profit motive from them.

Again, from time to time we are told that rabbits must be preserved in order to keep the meat supplies in the country. I believe that to be a complete fallacy. It is perfectly true, of course, that if we have no rabbits we shall have no rabbit meat, but I ck not think your Lordships need it to be suggested that if we have no rabbit meat we shall have far more mutton and beef to compensate for its absence. So I think there is nothing whatever in that paint, although it is still being made from time to time in newspapers.

Finally, I would make one point which has not, I think, been mentioned before this afternoon, and that is what is going to be clone about common land. The Ground Game Act does not apply to common land—that is, a commoner, I believe, does not come under the Act at all. Again, I would invite Her Majesty's Government to look at this matter. I know I shall be told, "Do not mention commons now, because a Royal Commission is going to consider them." But that will hardly do, because one cannot really think of this subject of rabbits without thinking of commons. It is no good cleaning up rabbits on everybody's private field if they are left in unlimited supplies on commons. There are vast areas of commons in this country, and in most of them nothing whatever is being done to decrease the rabbit population.

In that connection, what will Her Majesty's Government do with the Government Departments who own land? Time and time again I am told by farmers, "Why do you come and 'chase' us for having rabbits on our farms, when the War Department, the Air Ministry, the Admiralty and various others have vast acres of land and do nothing at all about it?" That is no doubt an exaggeration, but that is what they say. Surely, if anybody ought to set an example in this matter it is the various Departments of Her Majesty's Government. They ought to be the first to do this and not the last, and then we should not have farmers saying, "Why should I be compelled to do something which the Government itself will not do?" I would ask Her Majesty's Government to look into that matter of commons. May I say, in conclusion, that I entirely agree with this Motion and hope that the noble Earl will have success in his efforts.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, I do not intend to break the unanimity with which this Motion has been received. I am sure that every one of your Lordships is in favour of exterminating the last possible rabbit. I will not touch upon the enormous benefits which would accrue, because that has already been dealt with this afternoon. But so far we have heard only about the benefits of increased production through the reduction of the rabbit; we have not yet heard about the benefit of all the money which will be saved, particularly in forestry, by its final extermination.

Before that moment is reached, we still have a formidable problem. As all your Lordships have said, there are rabbits in small pockets in ones and twos everywhere throughout the country. The other thing we must not forget is that the benefits from the reduction in the rabbit population have not been universal. Some parts have benefited much more than others.

I live in Norfolk, a large county which is now, I am glad to say, a rabbit clearance area. The farmers on the light lands have received enormous benefit from the reduction in the rabbit population, and the increase in crops on those lands has been quite astounding; and not only the increase in crops produced, but the increase in the grass and the cattle that have been carried. But there are also the farmers on the much better and heavier land which has never had a large rabbit population. While on the light land the scheduling of the clearance area was received with enthusiasm, on these other lands there is inclined to be much more indifference and apathy. The reduction in the rabbit population has not made any great difference to those lands, and I feel that one of our first tasks is on the lines of propaganda. The problem is a vast one, and it can be solved only by co-operation, so far as it is possible to obtain it, between the three partners in the agricultural industry—the farmers, the farm workers and the landowners. They must work, together with the agricultural executive committees, to the common end, the extermination of the rabbit. I feel that there is no other way.

In Norfolk alone, there are one million acres to deal with, and it would be quite impossible to deal with them solely by Government action. In using propaganda we have first to defeat the insidious propaganda which has been mentioned already to-day by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, that the presence of a limited number of rabbits is a good thing. There are quite a number of people who would like to feel that that propaganda was right. There are various instincts—the sporting, financial and, perhaps, the culinary instincts—which have to be overcome. We have to convince everybody that the elimination of the rabbit is the only sensible course to take and is in the interests of everybody. It will be to the benefit of the farmer, because of increased production, and of the farm worker, because, although he may lose the odd rabbit which he used to get, he will benefit by the increased prosperity of farming and will be able to afford the beef or the lamb that has grazed on the grass which formerly would have been eaten by the rabbit.


May I interrupt the noble Lord for a moment? I agree that it would be much better if everyone would co-operate, but supposing a large and important landowner not only refuses to co-operate but even leads an active propaganda against it. What is to be done with him?


I was just coming TO that point.


I am sorry.


To the landowner, too, the advantages, both in forestry and in his share from the increased prosperity of the estate as a whole, are obvious. The three possible methods of propaganda are, first of all, through organisations such as the N.F.U., the C.L.A., the N.U.A.W.; secondly, through the agricultural executive committees and, more particularly, their district committees, which can do a great deal in the propaganda line. They are scattered throughout the county and are in close contact with the farmers of the district, and their active co-operation will make a tremendous difference. The third line of propaganda is the Press, both national and, more particularly, local, as well as the farming papers. All those means must be used in getting over the propaganda with the object of making it plain to all that the man who has a few rabbits on his land is as welcome as the man who comes to a party suffering from a heavy dose of influenza.


I am sorry to insist, but my point really cuts at the root of the whole question.




How is it proposed to deal with the landowner who will not co-operate, who is actually conducting a campaign against a particular area being made a clearance area? Suppose that, even though everything is applied against him—both the executive committees and the farmers say that they want it done—he still says he will not have it done. He, as owner, has power. How, then, is he to be dealt with?


Surely, whatever is done in the way of propaganda, there are bound to be some people who will be unwilling and others who will be unable to carry out their obligations.


Yes, but what is to be done with them?


One hopes that as a result of the propaganda the number of those people will be reduced to a minimum. If there are enormous numbers of them the problem will be almost insuperable, but if they are reduced to a comparatively small number, then surely the Minister has his powers under the Pests Act to order those people. After all, they will automatically be included in the area unless their representations are so sufficiently strong that the order is not confirmed by the Minister. But once that order has been confirmed by the Minister, if these owners do not carry out their obligations within a reasonable time the local committees, through their pest department, can step in, do the job and charge up the costs.


Yes. In other words, the noble Lord agrees with the position taken up by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr: that in the end there must be compulsory powers.


I do not for one moment dispute that the compulsory powers are there and must be there, and will probably have to be used. My point is that, unless you get the maximum amount of voluntary co-operation, it will be impossible to do it by compulsory powers.


I agree.


The problem would be too vast. Moreover, there are the people who may be unable to act, owing to the fact that they have large areas of scrub or particularly difficult land, Therefore, perhaps the Minister might look at the question whether even the grants already in existence for the clearance of scrub land might not be in some cases insufficient. After all, we are now dealing not with the economics of clearing a small bit of land but with the eradication of a source of infection of the neighbourhood. There is one other difficulty: most of the people who were employed as warreners in the past have now found jobs elsewhere—driving lorries and so on. There is nothing at the moment to entice them to come back and deal with these few remaining rabbits. Where people cannot find the staff to do it, they will have to call on the help of the pest department of the agricultural executive committees.

There is one other thing which I think might help—we have had it mentioned—and that is the extension of the cheap cartridge scheme, which applies to pigeons and other harmful birds, to rabbits. I do not say that no cartridge which has been bought for a pigeon has ever been let off at a rabbit—that would obviously be impossible—but no cartridges are provided for that purpose. There are places, particularly on heavy land—where the rabbits lie rough as top rabbits, and shooting them is the only way in which they can be eradicated. As the campaign progresses, the Government may find a number of cases where extra help will have to be given to individuals to clear out those last remaining rabbits. The increase that we have already had and can expect in production would amply justify this expenditure. The mainstay of the campaign should be the voluntary effort; that must be encouraged in every possible way. Of course, we must keep compulsion, using it where it is necessary, where the voluntary effort fails. Where the county cannot be cleared at reasonable expense, then the Ministry should be prepared to step in and either do the job or assist the local people to do it.

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, I speak as fundamentally a townsman, but my excuse for taking part in this debate is that, although I am not a farmer, I consider that this subject is one primarily of economics and not of agriculture. The points I had wished to speak on have already been adequately dealt with by your Lordships, but there are two points which, nevertheless, I should like to underline. Both of these have already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr. One of them is with regard to land which should be cleared of rabbits but which is not farm land. Until Lord Merthyr spoke, we had heard only of farmers who did not do their duty and about semi-urban land. That was mentioned by my noble friend, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough. I will not touch on the matter Lord Merthyr has already mentioned—namely, the large tracts of land owned by Ministries or by large landowners and which are more or less commons or moors; but I would refer to small pockets. It has been reported to me in the last fortnight that some rabbits have suddenly appeared in the extensive grounds or garden of my own home in Wales. It is rough ground, very stony and overgrown with brambles, and it is difficult to deal with. Nevertheless, it will be dealt with. I have taken the first steps to have the land cleared in order to get rid of these rabbits. This property is closely surrounded by farmland, and it is obvious that the rabbits in my grounds will certainly infect and reduce the agricultural yield of the land around. I think there must be large pockets similar to this elsewhere.

The noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, is, if I interpret him rightly, worried about compulsory powers. I think that everybody who has spoken to-day is most anxious that this pest, the rabbit, should, if possible, be eradicated once and for all. This is going to cost a great deal of money, and I am certain that unless there are compulsory powers and unless the Ministry, if need be, do the work, the eradication will not eventuate. I am much discouraged by the use of compulsory powers in agriculture up to the present. Noble Lords will know better than I that a great deal of bad and inefficient farming is being carried on. There exist compulsory powers to turn out inefficient farmers. Often, unfortunately, they are elderly farmers who are occupying land which could be much better and more profitably farmed by young men coming out of agricultural colleges, whose occupation of the land would be most beneficial to the nation. The compulsory powers are not being used to the full. I can well understand why agricultural committees are reluctant to turn these people out and to put other people in. But I still need a great deal of convincing that compulsory powers will be used energetically, unless your Lordships' House and another place insist on and are emphatic about the energetic use of those powers. I hope your Lordships' House will make abundantly clear to the Ministry, that we are in earnest about this matter—if we are in earnest about it.

There is one other point I wish to raise. It is perhaps a small matter, and to some of your Lordships it may sound frivolous, but from time to time I have heard it said that we must not get rid of all the rabbits because by exterminating them we should be encouraging foxes to raid chickens. That has been most seriously urged. My answer to that is that surely we should get rid of the foxes, if need be. Not so long ago it was considered almost sacrilege to shoot foxes. Opinions have changed somewhat since then, and I would advocate the shooting of foxes if need be. I know that I shall stand condemned by huntsmen, who assure me that foxes love being chased. I am sure these people must be right because they seem so earnest in their protestations. Nevertheless, I am quite prepared to reduce the fun that foxes have in being chased, by killing them outright if need be. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will support to the full my noble friend who initiated this debate, and will see to it that, within a short space of time, steps are taken. I admit, quite frankly, that I am convinced that those steps will be difficult to devise and to implement nevertheless, I consider it essential that those steps should be taken to eradicate this pest.

4.56 p.m.


My Lords, at this stage of the debate and with such unanimity, there is little that has been left unsaid on the subject of the rabbit pest and its disappearance owing to myxomatosis. I think that all those who live in the countryside, and have the real benefit of the countryside at heart, are agreed that the disappearance of the rabbit is of great benefit in every way to the countryside. It is true, as has been said, that there are a certain number of people who take rather the contrary view, either for sentimental reasons or for sporting reasons; and there is even the rural housewife, who regrets the absence of the occasional rabbit which found its way into the pot, whether legitimately or otherwise, and no longer does so. But even those people are, in a way, glad to see the countryside clear of rabbits and the crops growing freely.

There are certain side issues which arise owing to the lack of rabbits. The noble Lord who has just sat down mentioned foxes. There are other predatory creatures—for instance, the buzzard, although I believe in the case of both buzzards and foxes the shortage of food is having an effect on their breeding powers. To my knowledge, it is certainly having an effect on buzzards. It may well be that the Minister will have to give some thought to the provisions of the Protection of Birds Act in regard to that protected bird, the buzzard, if it tries to keep itself alive by less laudable means than killing the nonexistent rabbit. There is one other factor which I think needs watching; that is, the growth of certain noxious weeds. I think particularly of ragwort, which has grown very freely this year, mainly because the rabbits were not there to keep it down.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, mentioned that he would leave out forestry. I am going to be bold enough, just for few moments, to put forestry into the debate. There is no doubt that rabbits are a great enemy of forestry, but so far the clearance of rabbits has not shown the same advantages to forestry that it has done to the crops grown annually on the farms. A great many owners of woodlands arc still a little doubtful whether they dare plant without rabbit netting. I am not certain that they are not wise, because if measures to keep the rabbits down to their present numbers were not successful, that might mean, in two or three years' time, a lot of harm being done to young treees. As we all know, that harm can be extensive even with a few rabbits.

Another point mentioned in the debate is the advantage of natural regeneration when seedlings are not eaten off by rabbits. Undoubtedly that is so, but I should warn those who may count on that as a means of rehabilitating their woodlands that it has its dangers. Though it may seem a cheap way of growing trees, nature is not always discriminating, and certain trees will regenerate regardless of whether or not the soil is suitable. I have in mind, particularly, birch, of which we do not need much; ash, which seeds faster and sycamore. The last two make fairly exacting demands on the soil if they are to grow into good timber. In natural regeneration, maintenance is rather more difficult. A higher degree of horticultural knowledge is needed for the rehabilitation of woodlands by natural regeneration than in clearing and planting.

We know that a very high proportion of the rabbits have disappeared, killed by myxomatosis. We have heard in this debate that pockets of them still exist. We see from our newspapers that they are returning, apparently in appreciable numbers, in the south eastern districts of this country where myxomatosis first began. On my own estate there are signs that rabbits arc beginning to come back, though not in quantity. I was talking to my rabbit-catcher at the end of last week and he told me that he had killed fewer than thirty in the last three months—and that on an estate where, at times, he used to kill as many as twenty or thirty a day. The figures are, however, slowly rising. My figure was five in September, ten in October and twelve up to November 22. An interesting factor, upon which my noble friend Lord St. Aldwyn may like to comment, is that my rabbit-keeper told me he found that nearly all the rabbits he killed had recovered from myxomatosis. That was clear from the bald circle round the eyes and baldness around the nose, a sure indication that an animal has had myxomatosis. I do not know whether or not one may draw from that fact the inference that the virus is losing its strength. There must be some rabbits which do not get such a vigorous infection, of course, while some may be more resistant to it.

There has been a considerable amount of discussion this afternoon on measures to maintain the position and to kill the last rabbit. I am not sufficient of an optimist to think that we shall ever kill the last rabbit. The noble Lord who has just spoken mentioned various kinds of areas in which rabbits are unlikely to be so easily killed. I have in mind particularly small properties, say from two acres to four acres, with some little amenity, woodland and rough grass fields, the owner of which is not interested in the presence or otherwise of rabbits, and who, indeed, may find that his children are interested in rabbits being there. I suggest to my noble friend Lord St. Aldwyn that some attention should be paid to that problem while the Govern- ment are tackling the problem of the larger farms and the larger landowners.

The Ministry have certain powers to deal with this problem, including the power to compel and, in certain cases, to go in and kill rabbits and charge the owner with the cost. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hudson that, as an ultimate sanction, compulsion is absolutely essential. There will always be someone who stands out, and such people must be dealt with; for, as the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said, even one man who stands out may cause a whole area to be infected. I believe there was some experience of that in New Zealand where they had voluntary clearance areas. The operation broke down completely because there were always one or two farmers who would not join in; and, in consequence, those areas remained infested with rabbits. I agree, therefore, that we must have this ultimate power of compulsion.

On the other hand, I beg the Minister to do everything he can, by way of propaganda, to bring together right-thinking landowners, farmers and farm workers, and to get them to take every possible step to ensure the destruction of rabbits. I mention farm workers because I believe that they are a very important element. I know how disappointing my own men have found it in the past when they have had to do two or three turns round a field at harvest time with practically nothing coming into the machine—fields which they have gone to the trouble of ploughing and sowing. When they come to reap the land, there is nothing to reap until they get well out into the field. They find it a very indifferent kind of amusement. I do therefore beg that we may get that spirit going in the countryside, for it will mean not only that those who are willing to kill their own rabbits will do so, but also that they will be willing to look over the hedge and to tell somebody in authority if their neighbour is not killing his rabbits. Alternatively—and possibly more effectively—they may tell the neighbours themselves, and be pretty rude to them.

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, I wish briefly to support the Motion proposed by my noble friend, Lord Listowel. Early last year I was in New Zealand and had a first-hand opportunity of studying the results of myxomatosis upon rabbits and the effects on the farmlands of that Dominion. My previous visit was twenty years ago. In the meantime, rabbits have been almost eliminated and I was astonished at the great change which has taken place since then in the greenness of the countryside. I well remember that twenty years ago I had occasion to travel through the Province of Otago. There I saw hill land which looked like sand hills or desert, with no grass or vegetation of any kind. Last year I motored through the same country and those same hills were green with grass, while on every hand I saw sheep and cattle grazing. The change was almost unbelievable. It looked a different country. The same can be said of other Provinces in New Zealand and of many parts of Australia. All this has come about through the elimination of rabbits as a result of myxomatosis.

The large increase in the agricultural production of New Zealand and Australia, with its favourable effects on the economy of these two great Dominions, is well known; but that is not the whole story. It is not at all certain that myxomatosis will permanently clear New Zealand or any other country of this pest. Myxomatosis by itself is not enough, and New Zealand, very wisely, under Government direction and control has established a national organisation to ensure that this plague of rabbits does not return. The method used in New Zealand consists of setting lip under Government authority and control local rabbit committees or rabbit clubs. In every parish there is one of these committees or clubs, and the people in New Zealand are taking this matter very seriously. Reference has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, to the profit motive. It is an offence in Now Zealand to deal in rabbit meat any more. There used to be a large and valuable export trade in frozen rabbits from New Zealand. That has now stopped; the export of rabbits is prohibited.

If the Ministry agree with the views which have been expressed in your Lordships' House to-day, I am sure they will take steps to see that the Minister is armed with additional powers in order to give effect to those views. In New Zealand the local rabbit committees have worked very much on the lines of our agricultural committees in this country. Here, if a farmer does not farm his land in accordance with the standards of the good husbandry of his neighbourhood he is dealt with; he gets into trouble with the committee. In New Zealand, if a farmer or landowner does not comply with the law regarding the elimination of rabbits and keeping rabbits down in his own district, he is treated as a bad farmer and is dealt with under the rules and laws of that country.

The system which has been adopted in New Zealand works, and I recommend that we should adopt a similar policy here. We should, I suggest, set up under statutory authority, county or parish rabbit committees. Our county agricultural committees should be enabled to increase the staffs of their pest control departments and the necessary provision should be made to see that the work of the parish committees is supervised and that any farmer or landowner who neglects to keep his land free of rabbits should be dealt with as a bad farmer. I am sure that all farmers in this House will agree about the gravity of the ravages of the rabbits and the losses sustained as a result. We have now a great opportunity of getting rid of this plague. I hope that with the authority of the Government and with the support and co-operation of farmers and landowners a joint effort will be made to make a success of this campaign.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, a good deal has been said upon the economics of this question of rabbits. The ground has been well covered and I do not wish to weary your Lordships with any dissertation on the grave importance of getting rid of these animals. I should like to make one passing observation on a matter which is no doubt within the knowledge of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I happened to notice yesterday that in the Report of the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals there was a statement to the effect that it is wrong to try to control rabbits in the interests of agriculture and at the same time to allow their commercial exploitation for profit, as that is bound to lead to the maintenance of a large population of rabbits and so to the continuation of a great deal of suffering in the process of controlling them. That seems to me very apposite to what has been said in the debate to-day.

I do not know what is going to happen with regard to the present rabbit clearance areas. I feel very strongly that something definite and positive must be done from central sources by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It is no good, in my view—though several noble Lords, judging by what they have said, seem to be in favour of it—leaving this to propaganda, persuasion, local committees and so on. One has seen, over a long period, various people in the country spending a great deal of time and money on keeping their rabbits down—I have been trying to do it myself—and then finding that rabbits are all the time coming in from the land of their neighbours. I think that is a common experience, and I do not believe it is fair to the people who have been trying to keep rabbits down to rely merely on propaganda, persuasion and good wishes to make those who have not been trying mend their ways. We should take the opportunity of enforcing what is in fact the law as laid down in the Agriculture Act, 1947.

It is possible for the Government to take action to destroy rabbits. I should like to hear the noble Earl who is to reply for the Government say that that is going to be the Government's policy—that they are going to go ahead and do it. But it is not going to be so easy to do this, as one realises when one thinks of the enormous areas of the country, and the large areas of land which are very difficult to deal with. Scrub land, hill land, cliff areas, and indeed all sorts of land in inaccessible places, have been mentioned to-day. It must be realised that it is extremely difficult to clear such places. One had hoped that the disease would do it, but I believe that it has failed to do so. An odd thing is—and I have not heard any explanation of this—that in certain areas where the rabbits apparently entirely disappeared for two, three or four months, one or two are gradually reappearing. Where have they been all this time? I do not know. I should very much like to have a naturalist's explanation of what has happened. In some areas, and this applies particularly to one area that I know, the vast majority of rabbits have really disappeared only quite recently. So the disease seems to vary enormously from one part of the country to another.

It seems to me that the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, was right in bringing in the financial side of this matter. It is clear that to keep rabbits down to the point where they now are, let alone to exterminate them, cannot be done without a great deal of expenditure. I see it as a responsibility of the Government, through the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. But from my point of view it is impossible to go so far as the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, and say that all the work must be done by the Government direct. There are not enough people available for the Government to employ to do it. They must, I think, make use of the organisations of the people who are trying to keep their rabbits down. I would suggest that there might be some sort of arrangement whereby those who keep their rabbits down could get some grant towards it, whereas in the case of those who do not attempt to do it the process might work the other way. In other words, there should be some inducement for people to do what they ought to do and some penalty imposed on those who do not do it. Possibly, some of your Lordships may think that sounds rather drastic.

The last rabbit is the expensive one to catch. When there are lots of rabbits on the ground it is easy to catch them. They used to be quite a substantial source of profit. But when one comes down to the last few rabbits, then one finds that men can spend a great deal of time and not manage to catch any at all. That is when it becomes an expensive matter. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, in what he said about the Ground Game Act. I believe that the practice of rabbit farming "letting rabbits" as it is called where I come from—is the reason for the large spread of the rabbit population which occurred until this disease came along. It seems to me a most pernicious practice and I feel that the law should be modified in some way to prevent it. Suggestions have been made, and if they turn out to be practicable I think their adoption should be seriously considered. It is certainly hardly practical to talk about the abolition of rabbits unless at the same time something is done to stop people from farming them. However hard we tried we should never get rid of them all. We should therefore, in my opinion, follow the advice of such speakers as Lord Merthyr in order to make it less profitable and attractive for people to get the rabbits back again. He quoted cases of land owned by Service Departments where rabbits are not destroyed. I have heard of that, too, where I come from. Another example is railway embankments. If the Transport Commission are given a direction to destroy rabbits and fail to do so, they cannot be taken to court and fined under Section 100 of the 1947 Act, because it is not much good fining a public body, and there is no individual concerned. Perhaps that is a small point, but it is one of the many things which have to be covered in some way and which show the complexity of the problem. I hope that we can get a definite and quick policy. The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, also referred to commons. We cannot wait for the Report of the Royal Commission, because if we do, the rabbit population will have spread enormously and it will be too late. This is the opportunity. Apparently there are powers in legislation to do it, and I hope the Government will tell us that they have decided to take this task on and get on with it. It will cost a good deal of money and will have to go on for years, but it must go on so long as any rabbits are left in the country. Even a pet rabbit can get out of its cage. I remember that when I was a boy there were many black rabbits running about the fields: we kept tame ones and they had got out and crossed with wild ones. So long as tame rabbits are kept, they may get out of somewhere, become wild and start this trouble all over again. I believe that the cost of exterminating rabbits will be less than the losses caused by rabbits to agriculture and forestry. I think the results justify spending a good deal of money and effort in getting this good work done.

5.23 p.m.


My Lords, I am wholeheartedly in support of the policy of reducing the number of rabbits to the lowest possible level. I do not believe that it will ever be possible to eliminate the last rabbit. The problem is not so much to eradicate them as to keep them down to the lowest pos- sible level. The question of cruelty to rabbits has been covered from both the angle of trapping and the angle of myxomatosis. One reason which kept myxomatosis in the public mind was that it was distressing for the general public on holiday in the summer to see these diseased and frightful-looking rabbits. From the point of view of creating good public relations between the town and the country, rabbits must be kept down to prevent a recurrence of the disease, which must be endemic among those rabbits who have survived. I know that they have survived in great numbers in many parts of the country. I own a large farm of 3,000 acres and over the past fortnight I have seen some twenty to thirty rabbits during the daytime, and my farm staff have seen more than that number in the headlights while driving through the farm at night-time. Rabbit catchers are at work again. If one finds twenty to thirty rabbits on 3,000 acres, there must be a numerous breeding stock in the country as a whole.

I should like to revert to the question of the commons, which has been touched upon by several noble Lords. The commons were notoriously heavily infested with rabbits. This was because, first, they are naturally rocky or sandy or covered with gorse or bracken and are a perfect environment for rabbits; and secondly, it was nobody's responsibility to catch rabbits on commons. Rabbit catching on commons was vested in the lord of the manor. Probably the greatest rabbit farmers in the country were the lords of the manor. The commoners who grazed their sheep on the commons had no chance whatever, for if they went after rabbits, as commoners, they were in the position of poachers. The lords of the manor caught the rabbits because they had no returns from the commons, only the profits to be found in selling rabbits, and they had no benefit from the improvement of the commons. The only benefit they might receive was from the trees classed as timber trees, but these are to be found on only a few commons and are normally the natural regeneration from the days before there were rabbits. In the North Country this summer the sheep off the commons have never looked better, and any farmer will tell you that this is not only because there has been more grazing for sheep, but also because the disappearance of the rabbit has kept down infestations of liver fluke, which is the sheep grazer's bugbear on wet and undrained commons. In sheep, the liver fluke, and all the damage it does to the sheep, can be controlled by the use of modern drugs, but farmers cannot go round catching rabbits and dosing them with modern drugs. As my noble friend Lord Ridley has just said, we should not wait for the recommendations of the Royal Commission for something to be done about this matter. If we wait for the recommendations and then for something to be done about them, it will be too late. Given six months, the rabbits will become again an immense reservoir.

Whilst I entirely support the idea of keeping rabbits down to the lowest possible level, I should like to point out something more of the difficulties in doing so. In the past British Railways were possibly the worst offenders in harbouring rabbits in their embankments. On their properties one reads notices that trespassers or people found on railway property will be fined a sum of £5, making it impossible for farmers on neighbouring land to catch rabbits on railway embankments. I have talked to a few railwaymen while passing near railways where I have seen them setting traps. It seems to be the deliberate policy to leave rabbits on railway property as perquisites for the gangers repairing the railway lines. The railwaymen are used to this and would be most unfriendly towards anyone who trapped on railway land, even if they had a permit. There are also quarries, sandpits, mine dumps, and semi-urban land where nobody has any particular interest in keeping down rabbits.

Numbers of people are already starting to establish rabbit warrens in the hope that they will not get myxomatosis in their warrens and that they will make a profit out of keeping rabbits. Already I believe the price for rabbits from these warrens is 8s. a couple, for healthy rabbits sold to the butchers in certain parts of the country. So far as I can see, neither under the Pests Act nor under the Agriculture Act is there any way of preventing people from establishing rabbit warrens. I do not think that in itself the establishment of rabbit warrens for profit is a very bad thing, but I feel that inevitably sooner or later rabbits will escape. I have even heard of a man breeding and feeding rabbits in a barn to keep them clear of myxomatosis, in the hope that when people get their rabbit warrens established he will be able to sell them breeding couples at £5 apiece. I do not think there is any way to prevent the reappearance of the old-fashioned rabbit warren without some form of new law.

Finally, may I return to the question of woods—and after what we have heard this point is going to be controversial. One noble Lord said that he hoped that afforestation would be cheaper, since growers would not need to fence their new woods against rabbits—although he did warn against the dangers of not fencing, in case the rabbit population came back. In my view, it should be compulsory for new plantations, both private and those of the Forestry Commission, to be netted against rabbits. After they become five years old, these trees, for the next ten or fifteen years of their lives, until they reach the stage when they are brashed, become an impenetrable jungle, due to the bottom undergrowth; and on a 200, 300 or 1,000 acres plantation nobody can get in to get these rabbits. I mention these points in regard to railway embankments, forests, woods and commons, because they all make the task of catching rabbits extremely difficult. I do not see how it can be done, except by an increase in agricultural executive committee staffs. In our county of Westmorland they are in the process of making the whole county a rabbit clearance area. I imagine that there are 100,000 acres of commons in the whole county of 500,000 acres. The agricultural executive committee pest officer has a staff of two. I wish him luck in the task which he has of clearing the commons of rabbits, particularly when he has, in addition, the supervising of the efforts of private occupiers to destroy their rabbits. Whatever is done to reduce the rabbit population, the agricultural executive committees must have vastly increased staffs.

5.33 p.m.


My Lords, at this rather late stage in the debate I do not wish to detain your Lordships for long, and I will try as best I can to add something new to the many things that have already been said. The first thing that I feel is worth putting on record is that I believe it can be substantiated that rabbits first came to England through being imported by the Bishop of Winchester in 1135. Since then they appear to have had many friends: we may have caught them, shot them and eaten them; but, nevertheless, we have undoubtedly had a remarkable fellow-feeling for the rabbits. It was rather typical, I think, that when myxomatosis arrived here we as a country tried to contain the disease. However, events proved much too large for that.

I would emphasise what has already been mentioned: that the present attitude of many countrymen is still very much in alliance with the rabbit, and to let the rabbit go. Of course, it is something that we have to get over, because the fate of the rabbit is quite terrible anyway. Nobody really knows what will be the outcome of myxomatosis. Nobody really knows how swiftly or effectively it will return to pockets of rabbits left in areas that have already been swept once by the disease. I have read the two articles, published in September in the Journal of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science, on the subjects of resistance to the disease by rabbits and the virulence of myxomatosis itself. It appears that the rabbit will probably be able to build up a genetic resistance to this disease, but it is considered that it will he a slow process. How slow is again uncertain. There is also a possibility that the virulence of the disease may decrease, and that these two factors, working together, will enable the rabbit population to build up again, despite myxomatosis.

On the other hand, there is a considerable amount of opinion that the virulence of the disease is unlikely to be reduced as greatly as some people believe. I think that, so far, in England there is little sign of a reduction in its virulence, though it does appear that, in the long run, we shall lose control through myxomatosis. This is the reason for the "mopping-up" process, and I can assure your Lordships that I wish it the greatest possible success, because I believe it is the best and kindest thing to do. Otherwise, I feel that we shall again be faced with a growing rabbit population, which nobody will eat. We shall not be able to sell the skins, because substitutes will have been found, and it may be impossible ever to get rabbits down again as they are to-day; also, there will be fewer predators.

Nobody knows just how bad the position would be if we did nothing, and I have no doubt that the Myxomatosis Committee would be in a far better position to know than I. However, I feel that if this "mopping-up" process fails we might well be driven to considering the somewhat unpalatable expedient of introducing a more virulent type of myxomatosis by deliberate vaccination in order to secure a better kill. This, of course, is something one would hesitate to do on humanitarian grounds, if the rabbits could be caught by hand; but if they are not, and if they are going to be left to become subject to a less virulent form of the disease, then probably artificial vaccination might be justifiable. I agree with all noble Lords who have said that in any case we shall probably not get the last rabbit. The institution of the present rabbit clearance areas is undoubtedly a good move, but I think that every possible inducement must be given—financial inducement, as well as encouragement to voluntary effort—and I heartily endorse the views of those people who have said that, above all, increased direct action by the authorities would seem to be by far the best method.

I should mention scrub grants. I feel that possibly there would be advantage in handing out more money where the clearing of scrub had a bearing upon this problem. Also, something could be done to reduce the agricultural executive committee charges which. I believe, are something like 10s., or more, for the assistance of an expert pest destruction officer. I think some reduction there would be of great assistance. This is going to be an expensive business, and in the not so well ordered woods in the part of the world I come from in the south, I can well see that it would be impossible to carry out this operation at all effectively for less than £1 an acre, which is a considerable item. I feel there may be considerable hardship among smallholders. I was particularly interested to hear at the beginning of the debate of the somewhat discontented attitude of the unfortunate smallholder who had the agricultural committee to clear his rabbits once and had been told to do it again. I feel that in all probability we shall all find that we have to clear again and yet again, As regards the commons, believe I am right in saying that the agricultural committees already have power to carry out the work which will be paid for by the Ministry. I may be wrong about this, but if it is correct I would express the hope that they will go ahead as soon as possible and as thoroughly as possible. I hope they will do everything possible by way of inducement, in view of the heavy cost of compulsory effort, bearing in mind that the rabbit takes no notice of such things as our financial credit difficulties and so forth.

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that I may be excused for intervening for a short time. In listening to this debate, I could not help being reminded at times of the celebrated American humorist who was discussing with a naval commander in chief during the war the problem of the submarine. He suggested that the proper way of dealing with the submarine was to heat up the sea so as to make life impossible under the water. When the admiral said, "How do you heat the sea?", he replied, "That is a technical problem which it is your job to solve. I am only concerned with the broad, strategical conceptions."

I suppose it is possible, in the words of the Amendment put forward by such an authority as my noble friend Lord Hudson, and in the slightly different words of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, to eradicate the rabbit. I go about a great deal on my farm and in my woods, and for weeks and months I do not see a rabbit at all; yet when there was snow last winter there were the unmistakable tracks of the rabbit. I am sure that if I advertised for some contractor to clear my estate of rabbits I should get many responses and, no doubt, considerable accounts rendered, but I should have the gravest doubt that the rabbits on my property had been eradicated. Therefore I hope that if my noble friend is going to press this Amendment he will alter the wording to such an extent as to make it possible for us to support it. In doing so, he would make response to the large body of opinion which has expressed views similar to mine. I hope and think it would be right to try to take all measures possible, including compulsion, to reduce rabbits to the minimum.

5.46 p.m


My Lords, at long last I have been brought to my feet by the wish to do something about the rabbit. In addressing your Lordships for the first time, I ask for the usual indulgence. We have heard many interesting speeches. I think there is only one way in which we can deal with these rabbits and exterminate them once and for all. Already on my own place I have caught thirty rabbits. I know a neighbour who will not try to catch his rabbits, and the only way to deal with him is by drastic legislation. I do not believe that propaganda will do it. There should be healthy fines and, maybe, gaol; and if some of your Lordships land in gaol it is your own fault. There are two points I want to raise. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, in a speech in this House, said that rabbits cost us £50 million and that we got only £3 million back. I call that bad business, and surely it is one good reason why both the Motion and the Amendment should meet with our approval.

Now I come to the point I really want to make. Two noble Lords have mentioned cruelty to rabbits. Is it not a fact that the only way in which a rabbit can meet a decent death is to come up against a first-class shot?—and we all know that first-class shots are very rare. How else can the wretched rabbit die? Third-class shots get him in the hind part; and what happens to him then? He goes home and takes a long time to die. Ferrets are also used, and nobody ever thinks of the wretched ferret. Your Lordships know that some are muzzled, and that is cruel. The other way of killing the rabbit is by the gin trap. I thought the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, was rather optimistic: he thought that the gin trap would disappear; but as long as we have rabbits we must have the gin trap—at any rate, probably for the next ten years. First of all, we must get something to take its place. Do not let us delude ourselves that the gin trap is not here for a long time. Another method of killing is by gassing. That can kill some rabbits very quickly, but others get into the burrows, huddled up, and they suffocate, which is a cruel thing. We have treated the rabbit in a bad way for years and years; and if only the Government will now eradicate all rabbits, which I believe can be done, it will be a relief to our conscience. Up to date, I think our treatment of the rabbit has been very much on our conscience.

I hope that the noble Lords who moved this Motion and the Amendment will not be depressed or discouraged; but if they are I hope they will stick to it until they obtain satisfaction from the Government. I trust the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, who is to reply will give us hope that the Government are going to "set about" the rabbit and exterminate it, once and for all.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, my first and most pleasant duty is to congratulate the noble Marquess, Lord Cholmondeley, on his maiden speech. As he said, we have waited some time to hear him, but now that we have heard him, I hope we may continue to do so on many occasions in the months and years to come. The last debate on rabbits in your Lordships' House was at the end of last year, and I am sure we are all most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for giving us this timely opportunity of reviewing the position. As he said, the Myxomatosis Advisory Committee pointed out in their Report last January that this winter of 1955–56 would be an extremely critical one. That Committee warned us that, unless the drive against surviving rabbits was intensified, they might well build up their numbers again year by year, and that we should then be saddled with an endemic disease without any compensating advantage. I am glad to be able to tell your Lordships about our plans for dealing with this situation during these crucial months.

This debate has shown that there is no doubt in the minds of your Lordships about the importance of this matter. If I may say so, I have seldom listened to a debate in your Lordships' House which was so much of one heart. From all sides of the House the approach was almost identical. I find it most reassuring. We, the Government, are far from claiming a monopoly of knowledge, experience or even ideas on this matter. I have listened most attentively to the helpful suggestions that have been put forward during the Bourse of the debate. Although I am afraid I may not be able to deal with all the suggestions, I can assure your Lordships that we shall consider them most carefully.

I should like, first of all, to outline the situation as it is to-day. By the end of 1954, myxomatosis had spread over most of Wales and the southern half of England. It has continued to spread this year in the northern parts of England but at a slower pace than the spread in the south in 1954. The mortality rate has been very high indeed, particularly where the rabbit infestation was heavy. Here and there, a few pockets of healthy rabbits have appeared which seem to have been by-passed by the disease or were in isolated spots, such as in the Isle of Ely, where there were few rabbits to pass on the disease. We are now getting reports from many parts of the country of the re-emergence of the odd rabbit.

It would be strange indeed if this unique situation did not leave its mark on the countryside. The rabbit has played an important part in the natural scene, both as a grazing animal and as food for predators. Many people have feared that the disappearance of the rabbit might have adverse effects on the countryside. Of course, it is not possible at this early stage to assess the long-term results, but I can tell your Lordships what we have observed so far. It has often been suggested, for example, that foxes deprived of rabbit meat might turn to lambs, domestic poultry and game birds. There have been rather mere complaints than usual this year of attacks on poultry by foxes in some areas, but taking the country as a whole we have no evidence of an appreciable increase in attacks by foxes on farm stock. Nevertheless, it is only right that farmers and poultry-keepers should be on their guard. Your Lordships may be interested to know that the examination of the stomachs of a number of foxes from Kent during the first half of this year suggested that in this area foxes are eating more rats, voles and vegetable matter than previously.

We have been trying to collect information about badgers, stoats and weasels but, apart from the fact that stoats seem to be climbing trees more than usual and have been seen in squirrel dreys, there is nothing of particular interest that I can tell the House this evening. A rather curious effect of the absence of rabbits has been observed in the south of England and in Wales, and has been mentioned by some noble Lords this afternoon: that is, the effect that it is having on buzzards, which are not laying eggs in the areas where they cannot get rabbits. Where they can, their reproduction is perfectly normal.

The Nature Conservancy are studying botanical changes. Observations to-day show that grasses are higher, the sward denser, and that there is a greater range of herbage species, especially of the more palatable grasses and clovers, which were formerly grazed by rabbits. This year there has been quite a remarkable show of wild flowers, not only the common species such as cowslip and rock rose but also of the less common orchids which have appeared in profusion in places where they were not previously noticed. The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, mentioned the problems of ragwort. The appearance of ragwort is generally associated with the disturbance of soil by rabbits, and I think that in the long run we can expect to have less of this troublesome weed. It is undoubtedly true that this year there was a great deal of it about, but it flowers only for two years. Many plants that have been common in areas of intense rabbit infestation owed their abundance to their unpalatability. Things like stinging nettles, elders, thistles, hemlock and chickweed, for example, often thrived only because rabbits ate the edible plants which would otherwise have competed with them. If the rabbits are kept down in future, there will be fewer of these weeds and more edible plants.

Some noble Lords have referred to the striking improvements in crops and pastures that have occurred this year as a result of the absence of the rabbit. This must, of course, have been most marked in districts which previously were heavily infested by rabbits, but there must be comparatively few areas, particularly in the South, where some improvements have not been apparent. The Ministry have collected a number of examples of these improvements and I think your Lordships may like to hear about some of these. On a 30-acre field in Bedford, which had previously been infested with rabbits, the average annual yield of hay was about 1,600 bales. This year the yield in the same field was more than doubled, the number of bales being only just short of 4,000. In some fields adjoining woodlands the yields of cereals have been half as much again.

A farmer in Cheshire has said that his yield of oats this year has been 26 cwt. per acre against 10 cwt. previously, and his yields of hay have increased in the same proportion. A particularly striking example comes from Durham where last year a crop of winter wheat was entirely eaten off by rabbits. This was followed with spring sown barley which yielded the miserable crop of 6 cwt. per acre. This year on the same land the yield rose to 22 cwt. per acre of mixed oats and barley—in other words, four times as much. As your Lordships know, some areas in Wales were literally given over to rabbits, and the farmer was often forced to look on rabbits as a source of income. Some of these farmers were apprehensive of the effects of myxomatosis, but because of the greatly improved crops that they have had this year, I think you will now find very few Welsh farmers who want to see a rabbit again. In many parts of Wales it is firmly believed that if they had had rabbits this year as well as the drought they would have had insufficient feed for their store cattle. They would have had to sell a great many of these store cattle and the trade would have slumped badly. We have also secured some striking photographs showing fields in which crops were literally ruined by rabbits in the past, and these same fields after myxomatosis had taken a heavy toll. Some of your Lordships may have seen the photographs exhibited in the Prince's Chamber.

Not unnaturally, there has been a growing interest in what all that this means in terms of production and money. We therefore asked our county officers to give us what information they could on the basis of observation about the quantity of these increases. As my right honourable friend the Minister said in another place, the returns we received suggest that the increase in cereal production over the country as a whole due to the freedom from rabbits is not far short of 2 cwt. an acre. It is admittedly a high figure, but it has to be remembered that it takes into account not only the absence of rabbit damage on land from which high yields of cereals have previously been obtained, but also the produce grown for the first time on rough land that had previously been entirely abandoned to rabbits. It also takes account of a considerable total area comprising headlands and other parts of the fields which used to be grazed bare by rabbits, and which are now producing crops. One of the most striking features has been that the farmer who has hitherto been content to have a few rabbits about his farm and thought they were doing no harm has been astonished at the marked improvement in growth now that the rabbits have gone.

At a recent Press Conference my right honourable friend the Minister, in reply to a question, said that the gain in cereal production this year which might be ascribed to the absence of rabbits was worth probably something between £10 million and £15 million. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, drew attention to that figure. That was for cereals only, and it was based on personal observations by our technical officers in every county. It is the best estimate that we have been able to make so far, but we are making some further inquiries to see whether any additional, useful information has become available on completion of the harvest. Our figure is nothing more sinister than an honest attempt to express in terms of £ s. d. the effect of all the factors, some of which I have mentioned, resulting from the absence of rabbits. We are not suggesting that all farms have benefited to the same extent. On many from which high yields have been obtained in the past the increase will obviously not have been so much. On the other hand, there are many instances of increases in production of up to, and in some cases over, 50 per cent. The increase in grass must have been very considerable but it would be even more difficult to put a value on it. I thought that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, in a way rather chided us for not putting a figure on it, but to get a figure which was of any value would, I think, be extremely difficult.


May I just say—because I do riot think I made myself plain—that, on the contrary, I thought the Minister was wise not to hazard a figure for grass.


I apologise.


Would the Minister be good enough to say whether the figures that he has given cover Scotland as well as Southern Britain?


My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has no jurisdiction north of the Border.


I realise that.


I thought your Lordships might be interested in one or two examples of what individual farmers have told us about their own farms. In one farm in Lancashire where formerly the farmer was able to carry twenty-five heifers and twenty sheep, this year the land has been able to carry fifty-three heifers in addition to the sheep. In Devonshire, one farmer in the past has always had to buy milk to complete his round; and in spite of the drought this summer he has been able to produce sufficient, without any increase in the number of his stock, because his animals were getting more and better feed. In Dorset, on one 3,000 acre farm the farmer has succeeded in increasing the stock-carrying capacity by 100 head of cattle and 300 sheep. Other crops have also benefited. In some districts farmers have been able for first time to grow more susceptible and valuable crops, such as carrots, without the expense of rabbit-proof fencing. There have been other gains, too, such as the absence of rabbit damage to hedges and ditches. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and my noble friend Lord Radnor, both referred to forestry. I think it most important that we should not forget that the rabbit has always been an enemy of the forester, destroying his young trees and preventing natural regeneration in the woodlands. As my noble friend Lord Radnor said, in some parts it has been possible to do a little planting without the use of fences. Obviously, as he said, that is a matter which needs watching most carefully.

My Lords, as I see it, the only cure for the rabbit menace that we have in this country is to endeavour to wipe out the rabbit altogether. That is precisely why Parliament passed the Pests Act last Session, making it an offence for an occupier in a clearance area to harbour any rabbits on his land. Several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Dundee and the noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, raised the question about making it illegal to traffic in rabbits and to reintroduce rabbits into areas which had been cleared. We have these matters very much in mind and I am glad to hear your Lordships' views upon them. This problem must obviously be considered at some length, but I can assure your Lordships that ever, before this debate we had it very much in mind, and I hope that something may be done.

I will now examine a little more closely what is involved in this task of ridding the country of rabbits. For some years it has been the policy of all Governments in this country to ensure that the number of rabbits should be reduced as much as possible, by concerted action over wide areas. That, after all, is the only sound basis for effective action against pests of this kind. We sought to do this first by establishing voluntary clearance areas. The response was encouraging, but it was soon obvious that a clearer definition of responsibilities was needed to make the schemes really effective and that legislation was required. The necessary provisions were included in the Pests Act. While we were preparing for clearance operations in selected areas, myxomatosis arrived and effected this initial clearance for us; so that we have been projected, by myxomatosis, into the second phase of rabbit clearance, that of "mopping up" rabbits that were missed during the initial stages and consolidating the position for the future.

The condition with which we are now faced is that myxomatosis has taken a heavy toll of rabbits over about four-fifths of the country, but that there are numbers of wild rabbits, scattered throughout the country, which have survived or escaped the disease. As one noble Lord said, it is possible to travel for miles without seeing a rabbit; in other places they are turning up in ones and twos and in small groups. I am told that, so far, very few of these odd rabbits have gone underground and that, no matter how diligently we searched for them, there would be a good chance of missing them. Many, of course, fall victims to predators. Then there are those isolated pockets of rabbits which have escaped or survived the disease, and, obviously, unless they are eliminated they will breed and spread; and if a mild form of the disease develops in areas other than the one in Nottinghamshire, referred to by a noble Lord, those rabbits will obviously help to spread such disease. I am advised that rabbits which have had this milder form are immune to the more virulent strain which is present in this country.

The noble Earls, Lord Dundee and Lord Listowel, asked about the actual clearance areas. At the moment 40 per cent. of England and Wales is covered by rabbit clearance areas. There are sixty-eight rabbit clearance orders in force in fifty-one counties, of which twenty-three cover the whole county. A further 13 per cent. of the country is in course of designation as clearance areas—that is to say, notices of proposal have been issued. This 13 per cent. is made up of seventeen areas in fifteen different counties, of which nine proposals are for the whole county. In addition, clearance areas covering a further 16 per cent. of the country are contemplated. Thus a total of about 70 percent. of England and Wales has been designated, or is being considered for designation, as rabbit clearance areas. The remaining 30 per cent, of the country is not yet ready for designation.

The aim must obviously be to cover the whole of the country in an orderly manner and with the full support of farmers, occupiers and land owners. The Pests Act places responsibility for destroying rabbits fairly and squarely on the occupier in rabbit clearance areas. The noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, has made various suggestions for helping to deal with this problem. Acting on the assumption that we now have a unique opportunity to destroy the last rabbit, or at least to get very near to doing so—and we shall be able to destroy even those last few if we make sufficient effort—the noble Viscount suggested that Her Majesty's Government should be prepared to spend a large sum of money to destroy rabbits wherever they may appear. I entirely agree that this is a unique opportunity, and that we should be justified in spending large sums of public money if that would achieve the aim. I go further and say that Her Majesty's Government will not shrink from bold and expensive measures which may finally prove necessary. The noble Viscount suggested, among other things, that the Government should help the occupier of the land financially by a grant, and that in certain cases (and many other noble Lords also said this) we should go in and do the work for the occupier at Government expense. In many ways I have a great deal of sympathy with that suggestion, but the trouble is knowing where and how to draw the line.

Obviously, once we have said that in certain circumstances the Government will come in and destroy the rabbits, and that it will cost the occupier nothing, we draw a distinct line. We may say that we will take that action on cliffs, on particularly inaccessible mountains and similar places; but very soon everybody will be claiming that he has a cliff which is full of rabbits or a rabbit-infested mountain which is very near to him. It is just possible that we might be able to do something along those lines in these highly difficult problem areas, but that will need considerable thought—more thought than we have yet given to the problem. To go beyond that would, I feel, be extremely difficult; and to draw the line would be almost impossible. One would get the position where every farmer would be saying, "My neighbour, so and so, is getting his rabbits exterminated for nothing, therefore I am not going to do anything about it. I shall wait till the Government men come in and do the work for me." Clearly that is the last position into which we want to get.


May I ask whether it could be extended to Crown lands? In the Isle of Wight we have Parkhurst Forest which covers a very large extent, and there is no one there to catch rabbits. That is one of the places where there are still numbers of rabbits, and it is Crown land.


I think that Crown land is really in the same position at the moment as other land, in that if the occupiers are incapable of doing the work then the agricultural executive committee can go in and do it and send in the bill afterwards, or they can get people in to do it for them and send in the bill. Clearly, however, it would not be possible to do too much of that because there are not available sufficient numbers of the agricultural executive committees' staff or outside people. Obviously, that kind of action must be confined very much more to the exceptional cases.

I should like to go back just for a moment to the general position as I see it. The work of mass destruction which has already been done over the greater part of the country, and which is still being carried on, is being done by the virus and the flea, and it is done very much more efficiently by those tiny and numberless creatures than it could have been done by man. But for the "mopping up" campaign we must use the same method of numbers, and as they will be numbers of men those numbers must inevitably be limited. Nevertheless, they must be as numerous as possible, and spread over the ground so that they are waiting to destroy any rabbit that may appear. I am convinced that this job cannot be better done than by the farmer and the farm workers they are on the job; they know the lie of the land; they know their farms; they know where the rabbit is likely to be. If they see a rabbit get up and go, they are the people who arc most likely to know where he is going to and where they can go after him to deal with him. That really is why we feel that these methods are the most suitable under present conditions.

The designation of rabbit clearance areas under the Pests, Act, which places on the occupier of the land responsibility for destroying rabbits left by myxomatosis, is, I am glad to say, being received with almost universal approval by the farming community as a whole. The Government, of course, have their part to play. Financial help is available towards the cost of the more extensive operations such as scrub clearance. My noble friend Lord Amherst of Hackney asked whether we could not increase that grant. I cannot say at the moment, but I will certainly look into the matter. There are also grants for bull-dozing warrens (though some noble Lords do not think that that is very much use) and for erecting rabbit-proof fencing. The price of gassing powder is subsidised to encourage the use of this humane and effective method of destroying rabbits. County pest departments will be willing to hire out gassing machines—large ones to farmers where they can be used advantageously for gassing bigger burrows, and the advice of the departments is always available to those who need it. In exceptional cases, where the farmer is unable to deal with the rabbits himself, committees will consider doing the work for him on a repayment basis. But, as I have already said, obviously we cannot extend that service too far, for the reason that we have not the personnel to carry it out. The Ministry's scientists are studying new problems as they are being thrown up by the disease and by the disappearance of rabbits. Their findings will be published as they become available.

The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, asked what was being done by agricultural executive committees and the county branches of the National Farmers' Union to encourage farmers to try to eliminate the last rabbit. I can assure him that very considerable work is being done, not only by the county committees of the Union but by all local branches of the County Landowners Association and also by the workers' unions. They have had some very enthusiastic meetings and we are extremely pleased with the results so far. The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, also asked what time is given to an occupier in a rabbit clearance area to do something about his rabbits once it is found that he has rabbits on his land. Generally, the procedure is that first of all, when rabbits are found, the occupier's attention is drawn to the fact. If he is clearly not doing anything about it, in a short time he gets a warning letter. If that letter is not heeded, and the occupier is obviously not going to do anything about it, then three or four weeks later the committee go in and do the work. I hope that the noble Earl will agree that that is about as short a time as we can possibly make it, and should give the owner reasonable opportunity to do the work himself.

The noble Lord, Lord Merthyr, was worried about commons, and he asked who was to destroy rabbits on them. I can assure him that the agricultural executive committees have the power to proceed on to common lands and to deal with the rabbits there. That was announced some time ago, and the work is now in full operation, or should be, in all counties.


May I ask the noble Earl at whose expense that work is done?


It is done at the public expense. The noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, raised the question about what action is taken against an occupier who flatly refuses to do anything about the rabbits. The first thing is that the committee go in and deal with the rabbits, and, of course, send him the bill. If he should be a particularly difficult candidate, no doubt he would refuse to pay the bill, in which case we should take him to court. I do not think there is any need to do more at the moment. In very bad cases it is possible that we might act under Section 100(1) of the 1947 Act.

I was most interested in the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Macpherson of Drumochter, concerning what he saw in New Zealand, and I envy him that sojourn out there. The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, pointed out that the majority of old rabbits which had been caught appeared to have had myxomatosis. That is more or less what the Advisory Committee expected, and Weybridge have confirmed that in the large number of rabbits that have been sent to them the old ones have recovered and appear perfectly healthy, except for the marks on them; but, of course, we must remember that they are a minute percentage of the original rabbit population.

As I said earlier, I have great sympathy with much that the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, has said and I am sorry that on the point on which we disagree, on the actual amount of work to be done by the Government, we cannot get together. I think the noble Viscount will appreciate that there are enough Government bodies in existence and I imagine he would be the last person to try to increase the number of Government staff to deal with this problem on a central basis. It is vital to make the fullest use of the people on the spot, who are the farmer and the occupier. We have had a most interesting debate, which has been well worth while from my point of view, I have learned a great deal which will be of use to my Department.

6.32 p.m.


My Lords, I think I can claim that although my original intention was out of order, noble Lords on all sides have done what I want—namely, pressed the Government to take active steps, whatever the cost may be, to help to carry out the task which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, originally proposed. I do not believe that the situation is as difficult as my noble friend made out, but we shall see what the result is; and if this pest spreads and the remaining rabbits are not eliminated, we shall have another opportunity of raising the question. I am grateful for what my noble friend said, and grateful to the noble Lords who have supported me, both actually and nominally. I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.


My Lords, I rise to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Hudson, for his partnership in starting this stimulating debate and all those noble Lords who have taken part in it. We rarely have sixteen noble Lords—I counted thirteen on the list and three others came in—in one debate, and still more rarely do we find that the views of all those speakers are similar. I think there are two essential things that your Lordships want the Government and the public to be aware of: one is the urgency of the need for reducing the remaining rabbits during the winter months, and the other is the need for further action by the Government to assist in this work. I am sure that the latter matter will receive the consideration of the Minister. The former, I have no doubt, will give encouragement to all who hear of it out- side your Lordships' House. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.