HL Deb 12 December 1957 vol 206 cc1091-142

3.27 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I rise to move the Second Reading of a Bill, which I have introduced in your Lordships' House, to amend the Pests Act, 1954, particularly in relation to the spreading of myxomatosis among rabbits. The second clause provides that the sale of wild rabbits, skins and carcases be now prohibited in the shops. It is a two-clause Bill and has those effective provisions.

The first provision, dealing with the spread of myxomatosis was not in the Pests Act as introduced in another place by the Minister of Agriculture, but was inserted by pressure from Members of another place. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that if the Ministry had felt strongly on this matter, they would have inserted this provision in the original draft of the Bill. Before I go any further, may I say that I am aware that this Bill causes a certain amount of dismay in many well-intentioned quarters, where it is thought to be very cruel and not the sort of Bill to be on the British Statute Book. Let me say that I deeply respect the feelings of those who take that view: but may I also say that I was brought up in the country and I have what I believe to be the normal feelings towards wild animals? Frankly, I regard the rabbit as an unmitigated pest upon the backs of agriculture and forestry, and it should be treated in the same way as all the kindly people who feel badly about the rabbit would not hesitate to treat the rat. There are those who do not hesitate to put down the most deadly and excruciatingly painful poisons to kill the rat, but who protest at this measure to try to keep down the rabbit. I hope that that is the sort of proportion we shall be able to keep in mind in considering this question.

I hope in a comparatively short time to make my case for the extinction of the rabbit. I would say that it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government to exterminate the rabbit. If the word "clearance" is a kinder word, let us use that word. Unless they mean that, the rabbit clearance orders that are being made at this moment, and are being put into force so far as is possible, really mean nothing at all. It means that either you exterminate the rabbit, or you are prepared to go to a great expense and considerable effort and not succeed in your object.

When myxomatosis came into this country in 1953, it is reliably estimated that no fewer than 40 million rabbits died; that is, 40 million rabbits living on the grass, the crops and the young trees of this country, into which so much time and money had been put. In other words, it was estimated that 99.5 per cent. died, and only .5 per cent. survived. They probably did 30 per cent. worth of the damage that is done to our crops. Looking my own barn, I am certain that productivity has increased by no less than 30 per cent. since the rabbits have gone. I watched them carefully when myxomatosis was rampant and my impression is that, though it looks horrible—indeed, it is horrible—the rabbits did not suffer very much, although no one can prove that that is so. They ate all the time; they fed almost up to the time of death and, although I have not seen it myself, I have had it credibly reported to me that rabbits were seen to be mating while in the stages of myxomatosis. I do not want to encourage the belief that they were not suffering—they had a sense of atrophy—but there are other sufferings which I believe to be far worse than the so-called sufferings of myxomatosis. As I have said. I do not think the suffering was very great, although it looked unpleasant.

In talking of cost, let me take the instance of forestry. In this House, in 1953, it was estimated by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, that the annual cost to the Forestry Commission of protecting 750,000 acres of State forests against rabbits was £500,000. It was further conjectured that the yearly cost of protecting privately-owned woodlands might amount to another £1,500,000.


Or more.


Or more, as the noble Duke on my left says. Putting it rather mildly, it seems silly that the taxpayer should be asked to spend all this money to have one-third of it eaten by rabbits. The cost to the Forestry Commission, of fencing, as I understand it, I may well amount to £400 a mile. In 1954 the Forestry Commission planted a peak figure of some 70,000 acres of woodland to further the project and the Government intention of having 5 million acres of land under forestry by the end of this century. There are two million acres already planted, and the other three million are slowly going ahead by the afforestation of bare land. To spend all this money, time and trouble, to see 30 per cent. of it eaten up by the rabbit seems to me, to say the least of it, unnecessary. I am myself doing a little replanting, and my present cost is £23 per acre, without having to fence against rabbits. But if the rabbit returns, I imagine that it will go up by at least another £10 an acre.

Turning to agriculture, I would say that everybody who has an eye for country must have seen in the last two or three years how the grass grows and how the crops go right up to the headlands. There are no rabbit runs. In the first year one used to see grass growing in the runs, but in the second year the runs had been completely eliminated. You may now see any amount of natural regeneration of oak, beech, ash trees and so on; and, above all, when you walk about land that was infested by rabbits, you no longer get that horrible "stink" of the rabbit poisoning the land. I would add one other figure. It is estimated that five rabbits eat the amount of grass consumed by one sheep.

I think it is generally agreed that the rabbit is on the way back. When I introduced a smaller Bill last summer, which came to an end with the end of the Session, it dealt merely with myxomatosis. On the whole, I would say that the Press reluctantly supported it. Even the Manchester Guardian said that they thought that, on the whole, my Bill should be supported. The agricultural article in The Times of July 22 began with these words: In five years' time we shall have as many rabbits in the country as we had before myxomatosis came in 1953 unless we can take mere effective measures to stop them from coming back and multiplying on farms and in woodlands. The Field, on the other hand, said that if I was successful in my Bill we should see millions of rabbits dying of the disease. If those figures are true, they imply the utter failure of all measures yet taken to stop the rabbits from coming back. If there are tens of thousands now, there will be tens of millions in a year or two. I know that one breeding pair of rabbits can have 300 to 400 descendants in twelve months, and that is the speed at which this pest will multiply.

If Her Majesty's Government are really in earnest in their intention to eliminate the rabbit—as I am sure they are—they will have to make (perhaps they are going to agree with me, but I rather doubt it) a strong case for refusing the weapon that I wish to put in their hands to enable them to do the one thing that really did exterminate the rabbit. And if you exterminate the rabbit then there will be no rabbits to suffer. There are those who feel that there is room for much more vigorous action on behalf of owners of land to stop the return of rabbits, and that this is only one more measure that should be used, in conjunction with those other measures which, presumably, are supported by those who do not like the use of myxomatosis but who, so long as they agree that the rabbit should be killed at all, must presumably support the gassing, trapping, shooting, netting and ferreting, and the other methods used. Why the Government should object to the one really effective method, I really do not know. I go so far as to say that it is better to have a few myxomatosis rabbits now than millions of rabbits in five years' time. I do not know whether your Lordships are aware that myxomatosis is, in fact, still prevalent in twenty counties at this moment. So what I am endeavouring to introduce is nothing new, and is not something which has not happened before. That is the case I make for the reintroduction of myxomatosis so far as agriculture and forestry are concerned.

I should now like to turn to the second provision, which is to prohibit the sale of wild carcases and skins in the shops. I know that the case can be made against it that it is difficult to distinguish between the flesh of a tame rabbit and the flesh of a wild rabbit once it is skinned; and that there is an importation of wild rabbits from Australia which is part of our Commonwealth trade. That interests me very much, because myxomatosis is rampant in Australia. It appears that in this country at the moment no one will buy a British wild rabbit in a shop for fear of the disease. But they are quite ready, apparently, to buy an Australian rabbit. New Zealand last year—the Act comes into force this year—did this very thing. The law in New Zealand actually prohibits the sale in shops of skins and carcases. If they can do it, why cannot we? If it is argued that there is too much of a loophole, well, let us try. If it be against the law that the home-grown and caught rabbit shall be in the shops, well, it is against the law. If it is difficult to enforce, then maybe we shall have to repeal it, but I shall want a very strong case to be made out as to why we cannot do it.

Commercial trapping in this country was responsible for the plague of rabbits, the 40 million which have died in the past five years. I can speak only for the part of the world I know the best. Before I go any further, may I just interpolate this? It is said that this Bill is against the poor man's interests; that he will not be able to have his rabbit, and that it will put up the price of hats in the shops because there is not any rabbit fur. "Will" is the word used—that is, in the future. But for three years there have not been any rabbits in the shops, and for three years there has been no home-grown fur for hats. I cannot see why, suddenly, because I introduce this Bill, it will make any alteration in the price of hats or hit the poor man's dinner. He cannot have had any rabbits because, as I have just said, no-one will eat them at the moment, and no-one has eaten them for three year. No doubt it would be difficult to stop if they were in full force at the moment.

Now as to commercial trapping. Considerable evidence has appeared in the public Press that the trappers are bringing rabbits back on purpose. Commercial trapping has led to this plague of rabbits, which is all very well for the trade, but that is not farming, and it is not forestry. I do not know whether your Lordships realise that before myxomatosis, owing to commercial rabbit trapping in West Wales in the counties of Carmarthen, Pembroke and Cardigan, no less than 6,000 tons of rabbit carcases were despatched by rail, rising to 8,000 tons from 1948 onwards—tons, mind you, my Lords. What that did to the land is something that had to be seen to be believed. I will go further, and say that if you looked at the 6,000 tons or 8,000 tons of rabbits despatched in crates for the London or provincial markets you would find that every one of them had a broken leg or mangled flesh, because of the gins in which they had been caught. And if any of your Lordships had gone through that country on a winter's night and heard 500 rabbits in the gin traps, squeaking with the torture of the gin, it is a thing you never want to hear again.

I want to point out, too, what commercial trapping does to land. This is going back a little, and I entirely accept the fact that the gin is supposed to become illegal next June or July. I shall have a word to say about that in a moment. One farm was commercially trapped for the first time in 1916, and the first night they caught 250 rabbits, 12 foxes, 30 to 40 weasels and stoats, and sundry cats and dogs. In the years that followed, because of commercial trapping never fewer than 3,000 rabbits were caught on that farm, and the number was up to 5,000 on occasion. It was possible to ride over that farm without opening a gate or jumping a bank (which are the hedges of that country) because the rabbits pulled the whole lot down. So far as the other aspect is concerned—an aspect quite interesting to the field sports side—it was found that the trap eliminated wild pheasants, and the partridge. One pack of hounds killed only 3½ brace of foxes in the whole season, and not one of those foxes had four sound legs. Farm cottage cats and dogs were reduced to very small numbers. Often a sheep dog was to be seen limping on three legs through having been in the gins. The worst case of all was a Shire colt, lying down with a gin trap on its lip, unable to get up. That is what happens to the land when commercial trapping takes place. It has now reverted to proper forms because the rabbit at the moment is not in any great number, although it is coming back.

Now the gin is to become illegal this summer, and I should be grateful if the noble Earl who is to reply could give us some information on the humane traps that have been recommended to take its place. Through the courtesy of the Ministry, last September I was given a demonstration of three traps which had been recommended and which are supposed to, and no doubt will, kill the rabbit rather than catch it by its leg or any part of its body that may happen to strike the trap. I am interested to know at what price these traps can be put upon the market, because the Advisory Committee made a very pregnant remark in their Report, which said that the new trap must be acceptable to the user. The gin, while cruel, is very effective. It is an all-way trap—that is to say, if an animal goes on to the trap from any direction the trap will spring and catch it. In the humane trap, the animal has to go straight on to it in order for it to be effective—the animal must not step on it sideways.

There is also a recommendation in the Report which disturbs me a little, and that is that one of the traps will be suitable for setting in the open on open runs. The law, which was always more honoured in the breach than in the observance, except during the war, was that the gin should be set in the hole and not out in the open which, of course, it was, otherwise the little story that I have related could not have happened. The recommendation for one of these humane traps is that it could be set in the open to catch stoats, weasels and rats. It is said that there should be an artificial tunnel. That is not quite enough. The artificial tunnel must be very delicate and slender, so that anything stepping on it will be caught; and once again you would catch all the things of the countryside—dogs, cats and so on—if a trap is allowed to be set in the open.

While I have tried to make the case against the rabbit as strongly as I possibly can, and I believe Her Majesty's Government are genuine in their desire to see the rabbit eliminated, I hope that—although I think it is a vain hope—they will see their way to support this Bill as it is, if there is any form of amendment that I could make in the sense of agreeing that the Minister of Agriculture should be empowered to use myxomatosis where a plague of rabbits was apparent, or something of that sort, I should gladly amend the Bill in that respect. But, in the meantime, I am certain that if we do nothing now, in five years time the countryside will once again be overrun with rabbits. Once again myxomatosis will appear, and we shall have the horrible sights that we had four or five years ago. I want to prevent that, Myxomatosis is only one of the means used to keep down and to eliminate the rabbit, and by that means I think we shall bring great benefit to the finances and food production of this country. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Dynevor.)

3.51 p.m.


My, Lords, I thought it might be helpful to the House if at this stage I were to make a statement of the Government's attitude towards this Bill. It is unfortunately true, as the noble Lord has stressed, that wild rabbits are increasing in many parts of the country, and I think this Bill is a sincere attempt on his behalf to assist occupiers in their efforts to see that wild rabbits do not again become the menace they were throughout the country before myxomatosis. I am sure the majority of your Lordships would sympathise with that view. The situation to-day, broadly, is that the rabbit population in the country as a whole is gradually increasing. Despite this, there have been comparatively few reports of rabbit damage. There has been some resurgence of myxomatosis, and at the end of October the disease was present, not in twenty counties, as the noble Lord said, but, in fact, in thirty-one counties in England and Wales, as well as being scattered over a great deal of Scotland. In many counties the outbreaks have been small and localised and have died out fairly quickly. In eight English counties and in three Scottish counties strains of a lower virulence have been found side by side with the fully virulent strain.

We have been considering a number of proposals which have been put to us for further action against rabbits, and we have also been studying methods adopted by other countries. At present our Principal Scientific Officer who is responsible for research into myxomatosis and other aspects of the rabbit problem is visiting Australia and New Zealand in order to get first-hand knowledge of what is happening in those countries. I should like to assure the House that the Government fully realise the importance of the rabbit problem and are very conscious of the need to do all they can to help occupiers to keep their land clear of these pests. To help us in this task the Minister and the Secretary of State have decided to set up as soon as possible an Advisory Council on Rabbit Clearance to keep the problem in all its aspects under constant review. Before I turn to the Bill itself, I should like to assure the noble Lord that what he claimed about the English rabbit not being eaten in this country is, frankly, not quite correct. English rabbits are being exposed for sale in a large number of butchers' shops, and they are fetching good prices; as much as 7s. 6d. a couple was the last price I had quoted to me.

My Lords, I turn to the Bill itself. Clause 1, as the noble Lord has said, seeks to remove the ban on spreading myxomatosis imposed by Section 12 of the Pests Act, 1954. Perhaps it would be useful if I reminded the House of the circumstances in which this clause was inserted in the Bill in another place. The clause was tabled by honourable Members on both sides of the House. The Myxomatosis Advisory Committee had been consulted about the clause, and their advice was that no attempt should be made to assist the spread of the disease or to introduce it into unaffected areas of the country, but that, in view of the course the disease had taken and might be expected to take in the future, no good purpose would be achieved at that time by making it an offence for any person to take steps to spread the disease.

My right honourable friend, in accepting the clause, said that the advice of the Advisory Committee seemed to be sensible from the administrative point of view. He explained that it was a very simple matter to move a diseased wild rabbit from one place to another, and to put it down amongst uninfected rabbits, and that he believed, in general, that legislation which was unlikely to be effectively enforceable was bad legislation. Nevertheless, he said—and I quote [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons Vol. 532, col. 1315]: so that there shall be no doubt whatever about our attitude to this practice, and to meet the sincerely held views of many honourable members who … are reflecting the views of a wide section of public opinion he recommended the House to accept the clause. Your Lordships will remember that after much debate that clause was also accepted in this House.

I have taken the opportunity of asking the Myxomatosis Advisory Committee, of which I am chairman, whether in present circumstances they would wish to alter their previous advice. They are still very much of the same opinion. Nothing has happened during the last three years to change their view that indiscriminate and sporadic spreading of myxomatosis, in the manner described in Section 12 of the Pests Act, is most undesirable and should be strongly discouraged. They know, as many of your Lordships know, that myxomatosis is still killing a high percentage of rabbits in isolated pockets where the disease is rife. But the Committee, after considering the advice of a number of eminent scientists who have been making a study of this subject, warn us that scientific tests show that the weaker strain of myxomatosis is gaining ground, and will probably continue to do so. Indeed, the result of blood tests taken from random samples of rabbits in England and Wales show that already over 30 per cent. of the rabbits sent in are immune from myxomatosis, and those rabbits have presumably recovered from an attenuated strain of the disease.

This process might well be accelerated if occupiers were to be given a free hand to spread the disease, because they might well, unwittingly, be spreading the weaker strain. The weaker virus kills far fewer of the rabbits it affects than does the virulent strain, and, in addition, it leaves the survivors immune from the virulent strain. Indiscriminate spreading of the disease, therefore, would only increase the danger of reaching a position where the weaker virus had become more or less universal, and the disease was not only ineffective in controlling the numbers of rabbits but was persisting in the rabbit population and possibly causing suffering. Moreover, as in this country the disease is spread from rabbit to rabbit almost exclusively by the rabbit flea it will spread rapidly only where there is a fairly large rabbit population On a practical consideration alone, therefore, it would seem to be most unwise to encourage the artificial spreading of myxomatosis, or indeed to lend support to the suggestion that occupiers should in any way diminish their efforts to destroy rabbits by accepted methods, in accordance with their obligations under the Pests Act.

I felt that at the end of his speech the noble Lord, Lord Dynevor, gave the impression that if his Bill were to be passed, Her Majesty's Government could themselves, in certain circumstances, spread myxomatosis. I should like to make clear to the House just what the noble Lord's Bill would do. By repealing Section 12 of the Pests Act it would allow the movement from one place to another of a rabbit which was already infected with myxomatosis. It would not by any means allow the deliberate infection of a healthy rabbit with myxomatosis. That is prevented by Section 1 of the Protection of Animals Act, 1911; and if at any time there was to be any question of what might be called the "scientific spreading" of the disease, that would mean an alteration to the Act of 1911. Her Majesty's Government see no reason for changing the views which they expressed when Section 12 of the Pests Act was accepted, some three years ago, and therefore they cannot support the first of the two clauses in this Bill

I will turn now for a few moments to the second clause. That would impose a ban on the sale or export of wild rabbit meat or skins. In recent years many people have suggested that it would do much to discourage the practice of allowing a few rabbits to remain on the land if the wild rabbit were deprived of its money value. We have received representations from a number of sources that we should legislate along these lines. Undoubtedly, to those who are concerned about the return of the rabbit, such a step seems to be both logical and desirable; but we must not forget that there are other interests whose views have to be taken into account. There are many people who like to eat rabbit meat, and many more who like to feed rabbit meat to their pets; and it might not seem quite so logical to them that consumer choice should be limited and that—especially if wild rabbits are to be killed—the meat obtained from them should be wasted.

Then again, the hat trade needs skins to keep the trade going. They see the logic of our policy of rabbit destruction, but they also would no doubt find it difficult to understand why they should not make use of such skins if they became available. In addition to the carcases and skins of rabbits we are destroying in our own country, our present supplies include supplies of rabbit meat from Australia, amounting to something like £1½ million a year. As I understand it, this Bill would not only cut off that trade but might also interfere with the importation of skins from Australia for the fur felt trade. Your Lordships will appreciate therefore that to pass this clause would have far-reaching effects and would affect a number of interests. It is true that in New Zealand a Bill was passed last year prohibiting the sale of rabbit meat or skins; but that Act was a supplementary measure to existing legislation which set up Rabbit Boards having compulsory powers to levy rates and to take other action to secure the destruction of rabbits within their districts.

A further difficulty would also arise if, as I assume is intended by this Bill, the sale of domestic rabbit meat continued to be allowed. Although it is relatively easy to distinguish between typical wild rabbit meat and domestic rabbit meat, it would be a much more difficult matter to establish before a court of law that wild rabbit meat offered for sale as young domestic rabbit was, in fact, wild rabbit meat. In order that the ban on the sale of wild rabbit meat could be effectively administered some form of regulation of the trade might well have to be introduced, and that would probably involve the licensing of domestic rabbit keepers who sell meat and fur.

Finally, there is the difficulty (of which noble Lords will be only too well aware, because it arose quite recently in discussions on the Rabbits Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Merthyr) of making clear both to those who are engaged in this business and to the courts when a rabbit is a "wild rabbit." Unless a satisfactory definition can be found, it is not clear whether the description, relates to the condition under which the rabbit has lived or to the particular type of rabbit which is not normally kept in captivity. I think that what I have said will show that this clause to prohibit the sale of wild rabbit meat and skins is full of difficulties. Unless ways can be found of surmounting some of these difficulties, it might not be easy to justify the disturbance of so many other interests.

For these reasons Her Majesty's Government feel that this is a matter which needs a great deal more consideration and, if necessary, consultation with the interests concerned before we could decide whether it would be either justifiable or practicable. We should like to have the opportunity of going rather further into the question than we have yet been able to go. At this stage I am afraid that we do not feel able to support this clause. I sincerely hope that what I have said will not discourage my noble friend Lord Dynevor and noble Lords who may sympathise with him in their support of the campaign to get rid of the rabbit. The interest which they have taken and will be taking in this aspect of Government policy is encouraging, but I am afraid that, for the reasons which I have mentioned, I must ask your Lordships not to support this Bill.

4.8 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry that my noble friend Lord St. Aldwyn is not in a position to take up a more co-operative attitude in regard to this Bill. But since there is no Government Whip on the subject to-day I do not imagine that Her Majesty's Government would regard it as an unmitigated disaster if your Lordships should decide to give the Bill a Second Reading; and I certainly intend to vote for the Second Reading, if my noble friend Lord Dynevor gives us the opportunity of doing so.

The Bill has two clauses which are not at all dependent on each other. It is quite possible to consider them separately, and if any of your Lordships should take the view that one clause is a good clause but that the other is doubtful, then I would suggest to your Lordships that the most reasonable course would be vote for the Second Reading of the Bill and then to deal on the Committee stage with any difficulties that may arise. The first clause repeals Section 12 of the Pests Act, and I feel under a particular obligation to support my noble friend Lord Dynevor in proposing the repeal of this section, because it may have been partly due to my own inexperience that it ever reached the Statute Book. It was introduced at the very end of the Session in another place, without the slightest warning. We had only a day in which to discuss it here, without much notice of what was going to happen.

I put down an Amendment disagreeing with Clause 12. My noble friend has referred to the full discussion which took place, after which we decided to allow it to go through; and I think I am justified, in saying that, after that full discussion, your Lordship's would probably have rejected the clause by a large majority. But my noble friend Lord Salisbury, who was then Leader of the House, appealed to me not to divide, on the ground that it might be undesirable to take the risk of provoking conflict with the other place. Because it was my maiden speech, and I had very little experience of this House, I am sorry to say that I was foolish enough to take what the Leader of the House said a little too seriously. I do not mean to suggest that he was insincere in putting forward that argument, but it was a very unreasonable argument to put forward. My noble friend Lord St. Aldwyn has just reminded us of what happened, of the almost incredible reasons given for accepting the Amendment, and lie has quoted the words of the Minister in another place stating, in so many words, that the Government were accepting a thoroughly bad Amendment to satisfy thoroughly ignorant people. At that time, I asked a large number of my friends in the other place what their views were about it, and they all said they did not know, and that they had not been told what was happening.

Section 12 was not part of the original Bill but resulted from an Amendment rut down by a private Member in another place; and on the very last day of the Bill the Minister of Agriculture suddenly, for the reason which my noble friend has repeated, came forward and said the Government would accept this Amendment. Few people knew that it would be accepted. And then the Leader of your Lordships' House had the effrontery to ask your Lordships not to vote against it, for fear of a conflict with another place! Even now, I find it difficult to understand why the Government took this course, and I find it even more difficult to describe their behaviour in language which is both expressive and Parliamentary. I think perhaps it could be described, in George Orwell's 1984 version of the English language, as "Double plus ungood". That is a phrase which I think could be used with perfect proprietary by any civil servant.

My Lords, before this happened I had served for more than a year, I think, as a member of the Government's Advisory Committee on Myxomatosis, to which my noble friend has referred, and whose advice, together with the advice of every knowledgeable farmer, "vet.", and scientist in the country, was so unreasonably flouted by the Minister. I resigned from the Committee when this happened; so did the National Farmers' Union members. I remember writing to the Chief Whip and telling him that I thought the Government's action was more foolish than the action of any other modern Government, not even excluding that of Dr. Mossadeq, who, when confronted with any difficulty, used to put on his pyjamas, retire to bed and burst into tears.

While I was a member of the Advisory Committee on Myxomatosis, like all my other colleagues on the Committee, I took the greatest trouble to look into the humanitarian side of this question. I am not myself a scientist, but I was assured, not only by the scientific members of the Committee but also by the leading veterinary authorities, both in England and in Scotland, that this disease had a narcotic effect on the animal which rendered it insensible to suffering. I took the trouble to test that statement by experiments. I have often stood and watched rabbits in the last stages of this disease feeding on the grass. They do not know you are there, and they nibble and munch the grass in a perfectly normal way, which one would not believe possible for an animal suffering great pain. Although their heads and eyes are distorted by the disease, their bodies are plump and well-nourished. When one of these diseased rabbits is picked up and put down again, all it does it to hop forward for a few paces and then begin again to eat grass as it had been doing before.

The reason I did this was not to prolong the life of these unfortunate creatures, but because I wanted to find out whether or not they were suffering pain. It does seem to me that the behaviour of the animal in these circumstances is conclusive evidence that it cannot be suffering pain, because if its nervous system were in a normally sensitive condition, then the effect of the action of picking it up and putting it down again would be to alarm it, so that it would try to run away. Instead of that, it simply moves forward a few yards and goes on feeding. I took particular trouble to make sure of these things, because there were so many stories, when we began our investigation, about rabbits squealing with pain when afflicted with this disease. So far as we could find out, those stories were completely unfounded rubbish. Of course I do not know the extent to which a dumb creature is capable of experiencing even slight discomfort, but I am very sure that the pain endured as a result of myxomatosis is immeasurably less than the discomfort or pain caused by even the most humane kind of modern rabbit trap.

My Lords, the case on humanitarian grounds is, to me, very clear; but the case on practical grounds is, I think, very much stronger. What always happens if you leave myxomatosis to run its course (and it has happened in other countries) is that the disease spreads like wildfire through a great many areas, but it leaves unaffected certain pockets of ground where the rabbits do not get it at all. After the disease has passed by, these rabbits breed and spread out again, and then the disease returns once more. You do not get rid of the disease but make sure it will go on for ever. As was said by Professor Andrews, of the National Medical Research Council, The maximum degree of suffering would be caused if the disease were allowed to go on round and round like a travelling circus. That is exactly what I predicted three years ago would happen; and it is happening now. Many unaffected pockets have been left behind; the rabbits are increasing and spreading to other places, and now the disease is coming back again. So if nothing is clone we shall be afflicted for ever with the continuance of an agricultural pest, and also with the spectacle of this revolting animal disease.

It is well known, I think, that although our civil servants in this country are the most conscientious and upright people in the world, the officials of the Agricultural Ministries are always willing to condone, and even to encourage, breaches of the law in this respect. I am myself a justice-of the peace, and hope that I have proper regard for the law; but I do not think that any justice of the peace in an agricultural district would ever dream of setting the law in motion against any person who might be suspected of contravening this entirely unreasonable and indefensible Statute. And the fact that that should be so is a very bad thing in itself, because it is the kind of thing which is apt to bring the law into contempt. Indeed, the Government have often given it as an excuse for asking us not to worry about this law that myxomatosis will be spread anyhow. I do not think that it is either very courageous or very creditable on the part of the Government first of all to pass a law which they admit is foolish, in order to satisfy ignorant people, and then to hope that their own law will be frustrated by people who can break it with impunity.

But sporadic, uncontrolled breaches of the law, of course are not enough. What is needed is a controlled use of this disease by a proper authority, with the object of exterminating rabbits entirely; and if that can be done there will then be neither rabbits nor disease. As things are now, it seems as though we are to be permanently afflicted with both. I feel bound to say, I hope with all moderation, to my noble friend Lord St. Aldwyn, that I feel that, in the statement which he has just made, he gave a rather long succession of unconvincing excuses for doing nothing. But since it was perhaps due to my own inexperience that your Lordships were deprived of the opportunity of preventing this very foolish law from reaching the Statute Book, I would ask your Lordships now to treat this law in exactly the same way as any of your Lordships would treat a poor diseased rabbit which you found in a field—knock it on the head and put an end to its life.

I must conclude with a brief word on Clause 2 of this Bill. I should like to say that if I were not in favour of Clause 2 I should still vote for the Second Reading of this Bill for the sake of Clause 1, and should attempt to deal with Clause 2 in Committee. But I am in favour of the principle of Clause 2, for this reason. I think it is very unfair that the Act of 1954 should impose what may be an extremely onerous financial burden on the farmer, the occupier of land, who is responsible for exterminating rabbits and at the same time allow the continuance of a vested interest in the preservation of pests for commercial profit, because that is what we have now. Under the Pests Act, a farmer, if he does not exterminate rabbits, can be compelled to do so; and if he will not do so the agricultural executive committee can do it and charge him with the cost, which is often very heavy.

If the farmer has a farm where it is easy to exterminate rabbits he ought, of course, to do so. It has been estimated that the absence of rabbits may increase the output of his farm by the equivalent of 35s. an acre, and he ought not to object to spending 5s. or 10s. an acre to ensure that the rabbits are exterminated and will never come back. Some farmers, however, have land where it is extremely difficult to exterminate rabbits and where the expense of doing so may even be greater than the whole value of the farm. It is enormously expensive completely to exterminate rabbits on some types of ground. but it may have to be done, not only for the sake of the farmer but for the sake of the neighbours. If it is done either by the farmer or by the agricultural executive committee they may well have to employ a professional trapper to do the trapping. The professional trapper, being human, may be inclined to leave two or three couples of healthy rabbits behind him, and these will breed so as to give him another profitable job in a year or two's time.

I do not think you will ever succeed in getting rid of these pests until you have entirely taken the profit motive out of rabbits. There may be a few technical difficulties about this clause, but I should not have thought that it was a very difficult thing for any inspector who is worth his salt to distinguish between a wild and a tame rabbit in a shop. And is it unreasonable to ask a shopkeeper where he is getting his rabbits or fur from? After all, the shopkeepers of this country are not in a conspiracy to break the law.

Even if they should regard the law with as much contempt and derision as many of us regard Section 12 of the Pests Act, the very fact that it existed would be a considerable check and deterrent on the rabbit trade.

With regard to the food value of rabbits, it has been estimated that fifteen rabbits eat as much grass as one bullock. That means that a farmer with a farm which used to have 1,500 rabbits on it can now have an additional 100 head of cattle. Many farmers have, in fact, been amazed by the improvement in their grazing since rabbits disappeared. Many of them have great difficulty in buying enough stock to eat their grass. If the Ministry of Agriculture are really serious in their desire to increase the supply and quality of livestock in this country, I think the Government must be a little more encouraging than my noble friend has been about this question of exterminating rabbits. Although the Government may not be able to support the Second Reading of this Bill, I cannot really believe that, if your Lordships were to give it a Second Reading, the Ministry of Agriculture would seriously wish to obstruct its later stages.

4.26 p.m.


My Lords, I feel most honoured to-day to have this opportunity, my first and perhaps my last, to express to you my views upon the Bill before the House. I propose to concentrate my remarks on Clause 1 of the Bill which, as your Lordships know, seeks to legalise the spreading of myxomatosis, and to explain as soberly as possible the reasons why I consider this clause to be wholly unacceptable. It seems to me that there are three main points which must be considered: first, the effects of existing legislation: secondly, the problems of control; thirdly, the prevailing sense of public opinion.

On the first point, during the debate in your Lordships' House on the Pests Act, 1954, much emphasis was laid upon the proposal to make it a criminal offence to spread myxomatosis, and the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, made a most forceful speech upon this subject. The noble Earl referred then [OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 189, col. 1765] to a hypothetical farmer who might find himself continually subjected to spying by snooping busybodies who are doing their best, to collect enough evidence to bring a prosecution against him. I have been unable to discover that there has been one single prosecution upon this point, and this, in itself, is perhaps sufficient answer to the fears of the noble Earl. Further, I would add that the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, made it very clear, when replying in the same debate, that the Government's reasons for prohibition of deliberate spreading of this disease were, first, to show the Government's recognition of public demand; secondly, to make plain the Government's attitude on the deliberate spreading of this disease; and thirdly, to enforce legislation to act as a deterrent. If, then, time is the best judge on these matters of hot dispute, surely time has shown the wisdom of the Government's decision.

To consider next the problem of control of the rabbit population, I am sure that everyone wishes the rabbit population to be kept under control but few people wish the species to disappear altogether. But even if it were felt that rabbits should be exterminated, I am forced to the conclusion that, whatever the method, or combination of methods, that may be used, the wild rabbit will never become totally extinct in this country. No one has been able to take an accurate census of the rabbit population since myxomatosis took its effect, but there have been many reports to show that, despite mopping-up operations, the number is increasing. Indeed, it would be strange if this were not so, for the notoriously prolific reproductive powers of this otherwise defenceless creature are a most powerful weapon against extinction. Would it not be possible to tolerate a limited revival of the rabbit population? I feel that the rabbit, under control, could be regarded not as a pest but simply as a wild animal, no more destructive or expensive than any other.

Thirdly, and perhaps most important, I feel that we must consider the prevailing sense of public opinion. In 1954, when this matter was debated, public opinion was unanimous and forceful, and it was entirely upon humanitarian grounds that the deliberate spreading of myxomatosis was condemned. Much has been said already on the suffering of the diseased rabbit and I need not dwell on this; nor need I offer a description of the disease, which already must be familiar to your Lordships. But I would ask your Lordships to consider that should a stronger form of virus be introduced who can be sure that it will not spread to other animals? Can we accept the assurances that the scientists may give us? For the fallibility of scientists in Cumberland as well as in Florida must have been noted by us all. May I end by reminding your Lordships that public opinion was so strong in 1954 that it became a necessity for the Government to introduce this legislation in the form of a last-minute Amendment to the Pests Bill. I am convinced that if public opinion were sought in this matter at the present time, we should find that it had not changed.

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, it is my great pleasure, in following the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, to congratulate him upon an excellent maiden speech. The making of a maiden speech, either in your Lordships' House or in another place, is a great ordeal to pass through. I am glad indeed to welcome the noble Earl as a young Member of your Lordships' House and as one who is much interested in agriculture and the land. As I have followed the same profession for many years, I would express my appreciation of what he has said and hope that he will speak many more times in your Lordships' House on agriculture and kindred matters.

This is not in any way a Party or political discussion. We can each make up our own mind and exercise our own judgment on whether this small but important Bill should go through or be thrown out. There is much that the noble Earl, Lord Dynevor, said with which I agree, but I think that he treated your Lordships to information of long since. My own view is that the information we can now obtain as regards myxomatosis would show that it is not nearly so prevalent as some are inclined to think. Of course I can speak only about my own area. I know nothing about the districts mentioned by the noble Earls, Lord Dynevor and Lord Dundee. In my own area, the rabbit population was wiped out a few years ago and is not, by a long way, so prevalent now as it was then. In my own case I have a wood which used to be absolutely full of rabbits. They were all killed off by myxomatosis and now there are very few rabbits about at all. Only during the last few days, with the assistance of the agricultural executive committee, we have been able to catch the few rabbits which we found. I think that if other farmers and landowners throughout the country would take the same course, there would be no need, either at this point or at any future point, to talk about the spreading of myxomatosis.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, thought that the noble Earl. Lord St. Aldwyn, speaking on behalf of the Government, had not given the House much information. I was hoping that we should have heard from the noble Earl particulars of how the Pests Act has been operated and of the effective steps that have been taken in regard to rabbit clearance areas and in regard to individual owners and tenants. But whatever the position may be with the Government in regard to the Pests Act at the moment, I think that we should give that Act a fair and reasonable trial. The major portion of the Act has been operating for some three years and a further portion of the Act comes into operation next year, and I think it is short notice to seek now to amend a section in the Act, especially one which is of vital importance to its operation The powers given to the Minister under the Act are extensive, and if the Government are using these powers, as I hope they are, I think that the rabbit scourge can be wiped out in the course of a few years. None of us wants rabbits and we all realise the tremendous inroads they make in our crops and in our pockets. Whatever can be done to wipe them out should be done, but I am not at all in favour of the definite spread of myxomatosis.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, told us that in his view the rabbit did not suffer. That may be the view held by some folk, but it is not my view. I have seen rabbits dying on the land, with their heads and eyes and hindquarters swollen, and I cannot conceive that any animals in that state are not suffering. I would not be a party in any way to the spreading of myxomatosis, although I desire that the rabbit should be kept down. I have described means of doing so—for instance, by the use of gas, and not necessarily by the use of traps, which may be cruel. It may be that, according to custom, this Bill will receive a Second Reading to-day, but I hope that it will never appear on the Statute Book.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, first I should like to add my congratulations to those of the noble Lord opposite to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, on his very capable and most informative maiden speech. He spoke on a well-informed basis on this problem that we have to tackle, and, even if I am not in agreement with him, I hope that, none the less, he may speak on similar subjects again in the future. I remember the debate two years ago on the subject of rabbits, on the Motion of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, when he drew attention to the importance for agriculture of the immediate destruction of the surviving rabbit population. Reading through that debate, as I did yesterday, I saw that every single noble Lord who spoke then emphasised and urged the importance of using the opportunity afforded by the myxomatosis plague, which was then just dying down after its eighteen months of full operation, to eradicate the rabbit. Looking at it now, after two years, I think it is interesting to note that in those days there was a real hope in people's minds that rabbits could be eradicated, and a great number believed that the rabbit could be eradicated once and for all. In that debate a few of us said we should not be too optimistic; that there would always be rabbits with us. And that has been the result.

What has happened during the last two years since myxomatosis disappeared and since the operation of the Pests Act, 1954? The extermination drive has not been successful; myxomatosis is still with us in thirty-one counties, we hear: and the rabbit population is slowly increasing again. I can speak only from my personal experience in my own county, as other noble Lords have spoken. In my county of Westmorland, I would say, without exaggeration, that a fair estimate of the situation at the moment is that we have probably fifty rabbits in an area where there were 1,000 before myxomatosis and where there would be two or three after myxomatosis; we have twelve or fifteen times as many rabbits as we had two and a half years ago. That is not enough to have an observable effect on grass or crops, but it is enough to be a nuisance to forestry, and most of us in my part of the world have started netting our woods again. Fifty where there were 1,000 is still a considerable number, when I think all connected with agriculture would prefer to see none at all.

After the Pests Act came into force and myxomatosis had died down, the clearance campaign, to my mind was never successful. Speaking for my part of the world again, I would say that the Ministry staffs were never reinforced. The pests officers worked long hours, and it was not through their fault that rabbits were left. I would emphasise that the Ministry staff worked well and did their best, and if they failed it was not for want of trying. There was plenty of propaganda and exhortation, all of which was listened to and was effective, so far as it went. But the point is that farmers, by and large—and this must be accepted—are too busy, and always will be, doing their normal day's work, to do other than make intermittent sorties against any rabbits that they may have. I was inspecting a 200-acre farm quite recently and, while walking round, I saw two or three rabbits. I sent down one of my rabbit catchers, and he, and everybody else, including the farmer, were greatly surprised when he caught 120-odd rabbits on that 200-acre farm. I quote that incident to show that neither the farmer nor anyone else believed there were more than three or four rabbits on the farm, and consequently, nobody bothered to make a prodigious effort to clear them away. As I have said before, only by perpetual vigilance and regular routine efforts will the control of rabbits ever be achieved.

Myxomatosis is still about, and as soon as a small concentration of rabbits builds up in any particular location the disease appears. How it appears, I do not know. We have a small county with possibly the disease working in one or two dozen particular centres, and I imagine that it could quite easily spread by natural means. In my opinion, whether the spread of the disease is legalised or not, there will be periodic local concentrations of rabbits which will become fertile for the spread of the disease, and then there will be a local reduction. To my mind, it is far better to legalise the spread, so that it can be universal every three or four years, than to allow it to occur intermittently and haphazardly as is happening at the present time. However, in my opinion it is immaterial whether or not Clause 1 of the Bill is put into effect, because the disease is alive and will continue to take its toll and spread by natural means. The only material point is whether it is better to spread the disease regularly every three or four years, or to carry on as we are at the moment. I imagine that over the course of time the disease will get weak and possibly the rabbit population will become immune. Therefore, you will see in the course of time a picture of periodical increases and decreases, but a low average slowly rising through the years. I do not think in the next few years we shall see any of the concentrations of rabbits as we had them in years gone by, but perhaps in five or ten years' time, if we carry on in the same way as we are now, they may come.

With regard to the second point of the Bill, I think that would be most useful to reinforce the effects of myxomatosis by making it an uneconomic proposition for an occupier to have rabbits at all. It is difficult, as we know, to persuade all countrymen that rabbits are such a great pest when, as now, rabbits are readily on sale again and are fetching a price of 6s, and 7s, a couple. I think my own staff are pestered by five or six people every week asking, "Will you sell us some rabbits?" That is going on again. Last week I sold thirty couples, but that is incidental. They are rabbits normally caught, and not gassed. We all know the old familiar pattern: the winter killing of rabbits, and their being left alone in the summer, partly because nobody has the time to catch them and partly because they are inedible in the summer in any case. That seems to be coming back again. There are people setting up in business as rabbit-catchers, catching rabbits in the winter, and I have noticed it particularly this winter. Last summer very little was done about the rabbits, at all.

I believe this part of the Bill would be a great help if it removed entirely the, financial benefit from having any rabbits on one's land. The gin trap is cruel and ineffective, and I am not advocating that. It kills only one rabbit in a burrow, and inflicts immense cruelty, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dynevor. But it always leaves a working population of rabbits after it is used. The introduction of a humane trap is, to my mind, immaterial. I do not think it will be effective. The only effective method of destroying rabbits is by gassing, and probably by ferreting. None the less, we can hardly disagree with myxomatosis when these various cruel methods are tolerated. So with the second clause of the Bill coming into law, rabbit destruction will be acceptable to all interests, and gassing and ferreting will probably be the methods used, apart from myxomatosis.

I was interested to hear what the noble Earl who spoke for Her Majesty's Government said with regard to the setting up of an advisory council—the Rabbit Clearance Advisory Council, I think were his words. I feel that there is a case for organisation and planning with reference to the control and pooling of all resources in the destruction of rabbits. It is important, particularly in areas of small farms, waste land and commons, where there is no effective control. In New Zealand, as the noble Lord mentioned, rabbit boards have been set up—on what basis, I do not know—and the sale of flesh and skin has been forbidden. When this new council comes into being, perhaps it might investigate the whole conception and possibility of setting up rabbit boards to reinforce control and organise existing facilities for destroying the rabbits and for handling myxomatosis. There are in some parts of the country local fox destruction clubs which might be a pattern in the way they work. The local inhabitants band themselves together and kill what foxes they can in their district. They make a subscription to the club, and the individual who kills a fox is given so much a head by the club to which he belongs and an equal amount from the Ministry. I do not think it would be advisable to have headage payment again for rabbits, because we should have the same old problem of the interest in maintaining them. But, at any rate, the rabbit destruction board, on a voluntary basis, under Ministry aegis, might help, though I myself think that it would be effective only if it were on a compulsory basis and all occupiers of land were involved therein.

There is another idea which I have thought about in this particular line, and that is whether the district councils could not take under their wing the task of destroying rabbits in the same way as in some councils they have the task of destroying rats and other pests. They could combine rabbit destruction services with pest services where they operate them. They could finance the operation through the ordinary rates, plus any grant they may get from the Ministry. It would, in effect, impose a small agricultural rate again. District councils at present probably would not have the details of the occupiers of all land, but they could be furnished with that from the Ministry.

With regard to the supervision of the rabbit destruction service operated by district councils, I think it would be fairly easy to arrange things, because many members of rural district councils are often farmer members. Then, again, district councils have housing under their wing and consequently could arrange for the houses of the necessary staff. There are many problems involved in the destruction of rabbits. I hope that the spread of myxomatosis will be legalised again, and that rabbit boards can be set up to take it under their wing. If those rabbit boards were set up, all other methods of destroying rabbits would be very much reinforced, particularly if the prohibition of the sale of rabbit skins and carcases came into force.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to oppose this Bill. Whatever practical advantages may be gained from it, I would ask your Lordships to reject it in no uncertain manner. I welcome the attitude of Her Majesty's Government on both clauses of the Bill. Even on the utilitarian level, the advantages of this Bill appear more than doubtful, but I do not wish to argue on that aspect of the matter. A great deal of human effort is expended to combat disease, and great sacrifices are made in the crusade against disease. Nothing could be more repugnant than the idea of deliberately spreading disease as an instrument of policy. Misfortune is quite different from design. There are some actions which, surely, we should recognise as wrong and therefore not permissible. I suggest that this is one of them. It offends against one of the best human qualities expressed in the fight against avoidable suffering. It offends against nature, which sets up its own resistance for survival. I hope that we shall take this issue to a Division and put an end to this disturbing measure. If not, one day we may find the same principle invoked to destroy what may be termed, "human nuisances".

4.59 p.m.


There are a large number of speakers to-day, and a good deal of what I had to say has been said already, perhaps better than I could have said it. I should like to confine my remarks to the humanitarian side, which has just been touched upon by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, almost for the first time this evening. As I have said before in this House, we English are not a nation of animal lovers; we are a nation of sentimentalists in that respect. A recent instance is the howl of execration which arose in this country when the Russians sent up a dog to die in outer space, while thousands of dogs here undergo painful experiments without anæsthetics every year. Nobody objects to the 'Russian experiment more than I do, but one must have some sense of proportion in these matters. … cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother's eye". So a sense of proportion is necessary when discussing the subject of our debate to-day. There are those who, while upholding the sanctity of the one life, would maintain that a wasps' nest should not be destroyed and that greenfly should not be sprayed. But where would those people be prepared to draw the line? Would they refrain from destroying bacteria by disinfectant, or would they confer immunity on lice?

At our present state of evolution it would be idle to maintain that pests should not be destroyed. By some definitions it might be maintained that man is the greatest of all pests, but perhaps we might define a pest as a living organism which threatens the health or the food supply of mankind without contributing any counter-balancing material or aesthetic value. I suppose that by this definition a rabbit must be regarded as a pest and eliminated accordingly. This elimination, however, should be carried out without any unnecessary suffering. Death must be as quick and as painless as possible. Long-netting and cyanide poisoning are generally accepted as humane methods. I had an interesting talk to-day with a lady who has a large estate in Yorkshire. She told me that on her estate they are using a new development of the Sawyer trap, and they are very satisfied with it; and so are the people on the estate who are operating these traps. So that is a rather hopeful sign.

I think that the deliberate spreading of myxomatosis is a horrible practice. That is a personal opinion, and one which may be open to argument, but my own recollection is that when the matter was last discussed by your Lordships the House was—I will not say unanimously, but at any rate quite strongly, against the idea of spreading disease. Since that time what has happened? Has black become white? Has wrong become right? No. The ethical values have not changed. The change of outlook is based on financial expediency. It will cost more money to exterminate rabbits by comparatively humane methods, so we are now asked to countenance this deliberate spreading of the horrible disease, myxomatosis.

As we have been told this evening, rabbits have already developed a considerable degree of resistance to the infection. What I am afraid of is that the next step will be the production by the scientists of a much more terrible variety of the disease. I have been told—I do not know with what truth—that they have another form of disease "up their sleeves" waiting for the rabbits when they have become tolerant of the present infection. What I am so afraid of is that this deliberate spreading of disease will eventually "back-fire" on ourselves. With the covering of the countryside with infected puss from these suffering animals, especially if a new form, a more virulent form of disease, is devised, it may well start off a new disease which is capable of attacking humanity; and then, of course, the result would be to sacrifice a fresh hecatomb of animals in an effort to devise a cure. Or it might be that the results of the action which we are asked to condone to-day would become manifest in an intensification of the evils which already beset humanity.

My Lords, I will not say any more tonight, except just a word on the second clause of the Bill, to which I, for one, see no possible objection. If you are going to exterminate rabbits, surely it is a sensible precaution to take the money interest out of their preservation. We have been told, I suppose, in every debate that has taken place in this House, that one of the great difficulties about clearing rabbits is that the professional trappers take good care to leave a breeding stock behind, so that their services may be required again; but if they were unable to sell the carcases or the skins of the rabbits, the money motive would have been removed, and the task of clearing the country of rabbits would be by that degree facilitated. I personally shall vote against this Bill if it comes to a Division. if only on humanitarian grounds.

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, I am deeply aware of the honour and privilege accorded to me in being permitted to speak to your Lordships for the first time. I wish to lend my support to this Bill, because I have been concerned for a large number of years with the problem of clearing rabbits. I have been impressed by the attitude on this matter which I have met among farmers and other occupiers of land. Prior to the advent of myxomatosis, in about 1954, I always found that the onus of clearing land of rabbits was laid upon myself, acting on behalf of landlords. But in 1954 I started to get letters from farmers informing me that there were rabbits on the land they occupied and asking me, as the agent of the landlords, to remove them. I took this change of attitude as a very welcome sign, and in every case I did all that I could to accede to their wish.

Farmers have repeatedly told me that they never realised how much damage was done by rabbits until they had got rid of them. Having seen the difference, they never want them back again. Only last month, on the estate that I am privileged to manage, a tenant farmer "fell out" with the local pests officer after that officer had stated that there were no rabbits on the farmer's land and that he had no need for concern. The farmer said that there was one rabbit. He was not satisfied, and he thought that it ought to be removed. Perhaps that may be going to extremes, but it is certainly a very welcome attitude.

I should just like to mention an experience in South Ayrshire in 1947 and its subsequent results. In that year the rabbit population there suffered from a disease which, from its outward appearance, was thought to be very similar to myxomatosis; but according to all the information we could get, from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and other bodies, this was not so, as the disease was not in the country at that time. That disease virtually wiped out the rabbit population there, and I can give your Lordships some figures. The number of rabbits trapped in 1948 by the estate staff of six men, over an area of approximately 12,000 acres, was 541. These figures rose, until in 1952 the same six men trapped over the area 10,226 rabbits. The number did not decrease until 1955, as myxomatosis took a long time to reach us in the county. In 1955, the figure of rabbits trapped over the area was back to 580.

We feel that if we are not allowed to have the weapon of myxomatosis we shall go back within another three or four years to the enormously high figure that we had in 1952; and I must say quite frankly that we do not wish that to happen, for it was terrible. Perhaps I might be permitted to make one short remark on the second clause of the Bill, restricting sales of carcases. Personally, I welcome this provision, as I feel that it removes a slight temptation to people, especially those concerned with sporting activities. In the past, when there were rabbits in quantity such people could pay for their keepering out of the rabbits. Now, if they want to enjoy their sport they have to pay for it out of their pocket, and there is always that temptation to think that one can let the rabbit population rise just enough to meet the bill. From my own personal experience I feel that one should never do that, and it would be satisfactory to have the means of removing the temptation.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, it is my pleasant task, for the first time since I have been a Member of your Lordships' House, to congratulate a noble Lord, the noble Marquess who has just sat down, on a very able maiden speech. My own maiden speech is not so far distant that I cannot remember the tremors which arose in my breast. Judging by the way in which the noble Marquess made his speech, he suffered no such tremors, and I hope that we shall hear him again.

With regard to this Bill, I have found myself suffering from a severe attack of what might be called schizophrenia: I strongly support one half of it, but I am equally strongly—if not more so—against the other half. I will deal with the clauses as they come. Clause 1 proposes to make legal the spreading of myxomatosis. A great deal has been said about that matter this evening, and I do not think I need go too deeply into it': but it is certainly a subject which cannot be decided upon without very careful thought. It is now some years since this disease first appeared, and we have had time to look back and to consider the matter from a slightly more detached point of view. But I, for one, on thinking it over, find that my views have not altered: I feel that it would be absolutely wrong in every sense to reintroduce this disease. But having said that, I must attempt to give some justification for my attitude.

Nobody who lives in the depths of the country can look upon rabbits as anything but a pest. I suffer from no sentimental feelings about the "dear little creatures, with their white bobbing tails;" nor do I suffer any feeling of nostalgia as I walk across a field which before was absolutely covered with rabbits and now is completely free of them. I realise that they are a pest, and that we must get rid of them by some means. I confess that I was rather surprised to hear the noble Earl. Lord St. Aldwyn, who represents the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in our House, support the rabbit trade on the grounds of the economic situation of such an interest as the hat trade. Personally, I should have thought that agriculture was a good deal more important than the hat trade. If not, then it is time we changed our fashion.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord 'has slightly misunderstood me. All I said was that there were various considerations which had to be taken into account when considering this matter, and that that was one of them.


My Lords, I quite understand that these things have to be taken into account. But I do not feel that any of them is more important than the fact that the farmer suffered tremendously from the rabbit population; and as has been said by another noble Lord, the farmer discovered just how much harm he had suffered only after the rabbits had disappeared. It is no joyful thing to spend an entire year preparing one's garden for the next year's crop and then see the whole thing completely destroyed within a couple of nights by I rabbits; so that there is no doubt that they must be got rid of by some means. But—and it is a very big "but"—that does not justify the use of methods which are absolutely wrong and contrary to moral principles. I consider that the introduction of myxomatosis would be just that, and I will try to explain why.

A great deal of doubt has been cast upon the question of whether rabbits suffer very greatly during myxomatosis. It is a long-drawn-out period, and I agree that outwardly there do not seem to be a great many signs of suffering. The rabbit, as has been pointed out, goes on eating. But even if we can say that we have no proof that it does suffer, I do not think it is any the less true to say that we have no proof that it does not; therefore I suppose we must fall back on conjecture. I cannot help feeling that the rabbit, even if it does not suffer from actual physical pain, does suffer from fear—fear of the unknown, which is, of course, always the most terrible of all fears—and a feeling of extreme discomfort and inability to run away from what it feels is attacking it.

I know a farmer—he lives in the same village as I do—who is a typical country type and would not suffer from any sentimental feelings at all. He is a keen hunter and shooter. He said that in his opinion myxomatosis was absolutely inhumane, and he quoted an experience when he was walking down a hill and saw two rabbits in an advanced stage of this disease. As he approached them—they were blind, of course, by that time, and, so far as we know, they may also have been deaf, but I suppose they felt the vibration on the ground of his approach—they did not do what the rabbit in the ordinary state would do, run away from him; they ran towards him, and as they struck his boot they gave a little squeal of what may have been fear or of what may have been pain—who can tell? But it is quite obvious that the rabbit was suffering from distress, if not from actual pain.

I am going to look at the matter from another attitude—it may be regarded by some noble Lords as being a little unrealistic, possibly a little "airy-fairy"; but I feel that it is absolutely true: I mean the position of man, whom we regard as being the highest creature on this planet, at any rate, in relation to animals. I feel that we have a respon- sibility for the protection of animals—unless, of course, they happen to be pests, in which case it is our duty, in my view, to see to it that they are exterminated as painlessly and as quickly as possible. We have suffered as a nation from other human enemies—human pests one might say—during two world wars. We had enemies whom it would have been greatly to our advantage to exterminate by such means as germ warfare, or some other such processes. Yet we have never sunk to the point of abandoning our moral principles for our own interests, as other nations have done. And I feel that, though it is in a less important area, we should take the same attitude with regard to the lower species who are in our hands.

As I have said before, rabbits must be got rid of, but there are many other methods than myxomatosis. These humane traps that we have continually experimented with are developing rapidly and are, I think, becoming more and more successful. Gassing is another method which could be used quite successfully, and it is quite painless. I very much hope that with the abolition of the gin trap will also come very soon the abolition of an even more cruel weapon, and that is the wire snare. That is why I strongly support Clause 2 of the Bill. I feel that any sale of a rabbit, either alive or dead, is going to be to the advantage of our old friend the trapper, who likes to put a few shillings in his pocket—or perhaps a little more nowadays—for the sale of rabbit meat and rabbit fur. Reference has been made to the "poor man's dinner". As one of that rapidly diminishing class, I may say that I should be perfectly willing to do without a rabbit for my dinner. So far as the hat trade, the fur trade and that sort of thing, is concerned, I have already spoken of them.

There is no doubt that it is the trapper who leaves a small nucleus (as the noble Lord, Lord Dowding, I believe, said) of rabbits which will breed, of course, extremely rapidly and which may (though it may not be desired) spread to neighbouring farms. I do not think the extreme rapidity with which rabbits breed is fully recognised. Taking two pairs of rabbits, within three weeks they will have probably produced ten young rabbits, making a total of fourteen; and in six weeks, not only will they have bred again, but the ten young ones will have bred. So that within six weeks there will be a total of forty-nine from just two pairs of rabbits. If that sort of thing is allowed to go on, no wonder rabbits spread to neighbouring farms. So I support this second clause of the Bill, and I believe that it should include both live and dead rabbits, whether tame or wild. And in my view, where a sale of a rabbit is established, both the buyer and the seller should be forced to pay the fine.

5.28 p.m.


My Lords, I also should like to join in congratulating the noble Marquess on the maiden speech which he made, and which I think contributed greatly to the debate that we are having this afternoon.

The Bill that we are discussing is rather like the proverbial curate's egg, because most people seem to find parts of it excellent; but there seems to be little agreement as to which those parts are. I personally am going to disagree wholly with the noble Lord who has just spoken. I find exactly the opposite parts excellent to those which he does. I shall be very glad indeed if this Bill becomes law and if we can see the repeal of Section 12 of the 1954 Act, but I have great doubts as to whether it is practicable to put yet another what I might call pettifogging Statute upon the Statute Book and to try to curb the sale of particular forms of meat.

Before I go on, however, there is one rather distressing aspect of our debate which I should like to clear up, and that is this From what was said by the last speakers. it would seem that those who are not in favour of Part I of the Bill, for the repeal of Section 12 of the 1954 Act, are amongst the angels and are the humanitarians, while those of us who are for the repeal of this section are, by inference perhaps, non-humanitarians. I do not think that that is just or even right. One of my strongest reasons for welcoming myxomatosis when it came was the end which it put to suffering. Personally, when I come to die, if I should have a choice of dying by influenza or being crucified, I know which I should choose. Anyone who has lived for a long time in the country, as I have, and has seen rabbits and other animals coming out of gin-traps, and who has also seen the swollen heads of rabbits which have been caught in run- ning-noose wire snares, knows that rabbit catching is not a pretty business.

One of the points about myxomatosis is that it removes the rabbit. The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare people have said that there is really no way of being kind to the rabbit except by not having the rabbit. The astonishing thing is that after years and years of trying to get rid of rabbits, this disease came in—no human agency so far as is known produced it—and rabbits began to go. And what was the first thing the Ministry of Agriculture did? They tried to stop the disease spreading. It was a most extraordinary, Gilbertian situation that came about.

The other reason for which I want to see the repeal of Section 12 is a matter of principle. I think that there is too much legislation of this sort on the Statute Book. Surely what we, on this side, are trying to do very largely is to remove small statutory restrictions from the subject. It is for that reason that I find myself in so much difficulty with regard to the second part of the Bill. Anyone who heard the exposure by the noble Earl, Lord Dundee—I can hardly call it less than an exposure—of how' Section 12 came upon the Statute Book, round the corner, as it were, must surely have been convinced by his argument that it should conic off. It is bad in principle to have that kind of unenforceable legislation, which was, I believe, brought in from sentimental prejudice of the worst kind. I believe that the section is unenforceable and, what is more, I believe—though T am no lawyer—that it is not even very good law.

Section 12 reads: A person shall be guilty of an offence if he knowingly uses or permits the use of a rabbit infected with myxomatosis to spread the disease among uninfected rabbits and shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding twenty pounds or, if he has been previously convicted of such an offence, a fine not exceeding fifty pounds: The rabbit, of course, does not give the disease to the other animals. It is not conveyed from animal to animal. It is a parasite on the rabbit that carries the infection. We do not know what would happen if I were to catch a ilea on one of these infected rabbits and put it in a matchbox and take it away with me. Perhaps noble Lords who are, lawyers will tell MC if that would be committing an offence. I suggest that that would be bad law and, therefore, should be taken off the Statute Book.

When we turn to the second part of the Bill, which is to make it an offence to traffic in rabbit meat and rabbit skins. I am less happy, for the reasons which I have given. I do not like making this a statutory offence unless it is absolutely necessary. But, after listening to the arguments in this debate and after consultation with the noble Lord who is in charge of the Bill, I shall vote for the Second Reading if there is a Division, because Lord Dynevor tells me that he would be willing to consider arguments on the second clause of the Bill at the Committee stage. With that, my Lords. I hope that if it does come to a Division, we shall support the Bill.

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, it was with great pleasure that I heard my noble friend Lord St. Aldwyn advise your Lordships not to accept this Bill, because I regard it as wholly detestable. In consideration of the length of this debate and the number of noble Lords who still wish to speak, I am going to confine my remarks entirely to the first portion of the Bill, and I shall approach it from two directions: first, the practical, and secondly, the ethical.

On the practical side, the position is by no means as favourable as Lord Dynevor tried to make out. So far as the saving of fencing round young plantations is concerned, even if the rabbit were wholly to disappear (and in this connection let me say that the rabbit is not going to disappear. myxomatosis or no myxomatosis) it is to be remembered that the rabbit is not the only pest from which young woods have to suffer. There is the hare which, animal for animal, does far more damage than the rabbit in woodlands, as he does in agriculture. This is because, whereas a rabbit eats because he is hungry and if he starts on a turnip in a field probably goes straight through that turnip and then goes home, a hare nibbles one turnip and then wonders if the next looks a little more appetizing, and proceeds to nibble his way down a whole row of turnips, thereby rendering far more of them susceptible to the attacks of frost and rain. Also, the hare has the highly objectionable habit—particularly in the case of larch trees—of going along and nibbling the trees about a foot above the ground, without bothering to eat them at all.

There is also the roe deer and the greatest pest of all—already alluded to by Lord Dowding—and that is man. If one studies the statistics of the acreages of the Forestry Commission's plantations that have been destroyed by fire through human carelessness or ill-intent, it will be realised that man has done far more damage to our woods than has the rabbit. Anyone with young plantations alongside a main road who does not fence them securely against man is asking for trouble and will probably get it.

Then we had trotted out the old story of what has happened in the past in a couple of obscure Welsh counties. Accounts of these conditions have been repeated ad nauseam, and they bear absolutely no relation to conditions, so far as I know, in any other part of the country—certainly not in Scotland. If 3,000 rabbits per annum were caught regularly upon a farm, the answer is that the farmer was not farming agriculture; he was farming, rabbits because he chose to do it. It was not the fault of the rabbit that he was tolerated to such an extent; it was the fault of the farmer. Then there was the farmer mentioned by the noble Marquess, Lord Ailsa, to whom and to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. I should like to tender my congratulations on two excellent maiden speeches. Lord Ailsa spoke of a farmer running to the factor and saying, "I have seen a rabbit on my land; please remove it." That also indicates one of the main causes of the prolificacy of rabbits: the fact that a great many farmers will take very few steps themselves to deal with the rabbit, but expect their landlord to do so.

Then I believe Lord Dynevor trotted out the ancient argument, long since broken down, that trapping actually encourages the breeding of the rabbits. The answer is a very simple one: it is not the trapping that does that, but the fact that the trapper for his own ends (which are, of course, to keep up the supply of rabbits) releases a considerable number of the undamaged or less damaged female rabbits. It must be remembered that even with that admittedly horrible instrument the gin trap, a considerable number of the victims are left comparatively undamaged. The result of the practice I have mentioned is that the statistics relating to the rabbits trapped and sent to market show a considerable preponderance of males, simply because a fair proportion of females have been released. Therefore, from a practical point of view, I do not think that myxomatosis is ever going to wipe out rabbits in this country. Nor do I think that the economic result is going to be anything like so satisfactory as has been imagined.

It is, however, from the ethical angle that I should like to attack the Bill most strongly. Several speakers have mentioned the question of whether rabbits suffer or not. I entirely agree with the noble Lords, Lord Wise and Lord Somers, that if they do not suffer pain in the last stages of the disease, they do suffer considerable discomfort. No one has mentioned this afternoon the days before the rabbits get into that last stage. I wonder how many of your Lordships have examined a rabbit in the last stage of myxomatosis. When, if not having a gun handy, one has been obliged to finish off a rabbit by hitting it on the head, and the head has disintegrated into a mass of pus and decaying bone; when one finds a rabbit with its head in this condition, with sores in various parts of the body and its genital organs swollen, can it be imagined that the rabbit is not in some discomfort, to put it at its lowest, or that it was not suffering great pain during the preceding two or three days before the merciful oblivion of nature reduces it to a mere automaton, capable only of carrying out the first dictate of nature—to go on living—in a mechanical fashion? On a number of occasions I have seen rabbits which had not yet got to the stage where they could be approached and finished off with a stick, rubbing their faces on the ground and pawing their heads in a way which, to me at least, indicated not discomfort, but actual pain.

I do not consider that such pain is justifiably inflicted on any animal. The brute creation is at the disposal of man, and all too often man inflicts upon it a great deal of cruelty. Some of that cruelty could be avoided; probably some, alas! could not. But surely we ought to try to avoid deliberately spreading a disease which, at the best, is revolting and foul, which at the worst must cause a great deal of suffering, and which may lead eventually to the breaking out of an epidemic from which humans will suffer, as the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, suggested. In fact, in three different areas in Scotland there have been three cases of men who had to handle diseased rabbits and who developed something which greatly resembled a light attack of myxomatosis, given all the necessary differences that would apply to humans. But it is not because of the dangers, but because of the unnecessary suffering that I am against this Bill. I am convinced that if your Lordships take the advice of the noble Earl. Lord St. Aldwyn, and reject it, then, to misquote my noble friend Lord Dundee, We shall be doing a triple, if not a tenfold, "unbad".

5.44 p.m.


My Lords, I am in favour of the object of this Bill but I do not like the amendment proposed therein to eliminate rabbits. Myxomatosis is net 100 per cent. effective and rabbits can, and do, become immune, as has already been pointed out, though their progeny do not succeed to that immunity. If myxomatosis is spread: constantly, there will always be old rabbits who are immune and are able to go on breeding. regardless of the epidemics that may occur. Furthermore, they will be immune to the more virulent strains as well. In time, the offspring will succeed to some of their immunity through constant contact with the disease. If, however, the disease is given a good rest and used only at distant intervals, say every four years, perhaps the effect of an epidemic will be far greater and of more overall value, for during that period the immunity of rabbits will have been reduced, even though the number of rabbits may have increased.

I should like to support what the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, said about hares and roe deer. There is no doubt that they cause as much damage as rabbits, and whether there are rabbits or not it will not be possible to do away with the wiring of plantations. I should like to ask the Government whether, whatever the fate of this Bill, they will give full publicity to the point brought out about the biological disadvantages of the spread of this disease, because I am sure that many people who spread it at the moment would cease to do so if they realised that in many cases they were simply spreading immunity.

With regard to the prohibition of sales. I believe this to be inspired by the fear that the rabbit-catcher always wants to leave his breeding stock for fear of losing his trade. But with myxomatosis available, I believe that this fear has very little ground, for anyone who has not been efficiently looked after by the rabbit-catcher can sooner or later have his case rectified by an outbreak of the disease. But the rabbit-catcher's stock can be killed effectively only if it has not been constantly in contact with the disease and become immune. I understand that myxomatosis does not go to the hilltops in Scotland. The reason is that the rabbits come down to the lowlands and catch the disease but do not go back to the hilltops to spread it. So I feel that the sale of rabbits should be allowed and not made illegal, because it should be possible to offset the cost of clearing rabbits from the hills by their sale. Furthermore, many people, including farmers, prefer to trap or shoot their rabbits rather than to have them entirely exterminated by myxomatosis. This also enables cheap rabbit meat to be available to the public.

I believe that rabbits in reasonable numbers are not harmful and that, indeed, they provide a necessary link in the cycle of nature. On the other hand, if at any time the rabbit population in an area becomes too big, there will always be recourse to this disease, perhaps at the instigation of the local officers of the Ministry. I would support any Amendment to ensure that the disease is spread only at planned intervals and that the ability to sell is retained.

5.49 p.m.


My Lords, if I had been able to compare the length of the list of speakers to-day with the length of the list yesterday of noble Lords who wished to speak on civil aviation, I think I should have preferred to transfer my name. It is certainly indicative of the composition of your Lordships' House. I should have preferred to speak on the Britannia rather than on the rabbit. But while I should like the Britannia to rule the air, I do not wish that the rabbit should rule the land. It is for that reason that I venture to detain your Lordships a moment longer in support of the Bill in- troduced by the noble Lord, Lord Dynevor.

As the owner of a farm which comprises a narrow strip of land, with extensive plantations and woodland on either side of it. I know what the cost of rewiring the farm will be. It will cost at least £500, at a time when agricultural wages have again gone up. As the owner of the adjacent woodland, I know what will be the cost of fencing the woodlands as well. Indeed, the cost of fencing the woodlands will fall into three categories, and in each category there will be a considerable loss. There will be the loss brought about through the destruction of plantations already planted, which will probably amount to something in the region of £55 per acre and in our case at least 62 acres have been planted over the last three years. Therefore (although I hope it will not), the damage could attain a maximum figure of £3,410; in any case, the loss may be considerable. Secondly, there are those plantations which have survived the attack of the rabbit. There, rabbit-proof fencing will have to be provided, at a cost of an average of £26 per acre. Thirdly, all new plantations will have to be provided with rabbit-proof fencing, on the basis of a planting programme of £25 per acre per annum; and in our case the cost is likely to amount to another £650 per annum.

Those are losses which will run into thousands of pounds on a relatively small estate. What will be the losses throughout the country? The noble Lord, Lord Dynevor, has indicated what they are likely to be, and they may well run into millions of pounds. In these days, farmers and woodsmen simply cannot afford to allow the rabbit to return; and since myxomatosis seems to be the only way in which the rabbit can be effectively and almost totally eliminated, it is asking too much of human nature to suppose that the disease will not be allowed to spread. Therefore Section 12 of the Act of 1954 seems quite impossible to enforce. I have heard from many parts of the country that the disease is spreading, but since rabbits are not so numerous as they were, the disease naturally spreads more slowly, and I think in some cases there may be only temporary periods of immunity.

There are noble and learned Lords in your Lordships' House more qualified and capable than I to give an opinion on a law which cannot be enforced. I know that public opinion in this matter may be strong, but my understanding is that an unenforceable law is no good as a law; that it would be better for it to be repealed than that it should, as has already been said, be held in contempt. It is, I believe, the custom of the courts not to make an order when the law is one which cannot be enforced. This applies. Say, in the case of a bankrupt, where a court does not order the man back to work because the court cannot be certain that the man does, in fact, want to work. Another analogy might be drawn from the end of food rationing. When it became impossible to enforce rationing, it had to be abandoned. This is not a case of the larger landowner attempting wickedly to persecute and eliminate these miserable little diseased rabbits. Small farmers and small woodland owners are suffering, and will suffer probably more than the large landowners, especially if their land is adjacent to public land or waste land, or even the land of the Forestry Commission, where, of course, the hand of man has not helped to spread the disease. It is the small owner of whom we should think particularly this evening.

As to the suffering which it is believed the rabbit undergoes while it is affected, I think the letter which has been mentioned, from Mr. Wentworth Day in the Daily Telegraph, grossly misrepresents the issue. I can only assume that it must have been written with the tongue in the cheek, in order to taunt some of your Lordships for having supported this Bill. The hundreds of rabbits I have seen (and like the noble Lord who spoke last, I have inspected them carefully, and I have seen them at various stages in the disease) always seem to me to be happily feeding until their last hours. Friends have told me that they are even able to perform acts of which perhaps a "Wolfenden Committee" on rabbits might not approve. At any rate, I am quite certain that gin-traps and other methods cause greater suffering. I hope that further research will be made into the disease. I will not go into that aspect in greater detail, as the hour is getting late, but I am glad to see from the Report of the Advisory Committee that there is no evidence whatever—and on this, I think, the Committee were unanimous— that the disease could spread to other animals or to human beings.

I think the Ministry of Agriculture believe that in this country rabbits can be kept down by the normal methods of gassing. shooting and trapping, so the fact that official policy in Australia is to spread the disease under Government control does not apply in this country. I recognise that conditions in the two countries are very different and that normal methods in this country certainly would not be effective in Australia. However, the problem is that, since myxomatosis arrived in this country, surviving rabbits are largely living above ground (and I think this is a point that no other noble Lord has made) and are accordingly more difficult to kill by what has been the most effective normal method; that is to say, by gas.

I was glad to learn that in New Zealand a system has been evolved of creating rabbit boards, and that joining them is to be made compulsory. I think that that is a most interesting proposition, and it is one which I hope Her Majesty's Government will follow up closely. I feel certain that if such boards were formed in England a great deal more could be done. We find one landowner who keeps down the rabbit quite effectively, but his neighbour "could not care less"; or he derives his living as a trapper. That is a situation which should not be allowed to exist, and I hope that the New Zealand system may be introduced into this country. I would have gone into conditions in France, but as they are not entirely comparable, I think it better to keep off that point.

In view of the relative inadequacy of the other methods of destruction, I am ready to support the first clause of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Dynevor, I need hardly add that I also support Clause 2, because it seems to me that it is an obvious corollary. The last thing any of your Lordships would wish to do is to encourage any form of cruelty. If there were any other more effective method of eliminating this pest, I should not be speaking as I am; but none has yet been devised, and I do not believe that cruelty, as such, is involved. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, has quoted expert opinion that the effect is narcotic, and I would say that the animal is more drugged and intoxicated than distressed. Hence I urge that this law, since it cannot be enforced and which does not exist in any other country faced with this problem, should be repealed.

6.0 p.m.


My Lords, as might be expected at this hour of the evening, most of what I intended to say has already been said, and I shall not detain your Lordships for long. I should like to say, however, that I am in the fullest agreement with the purposes of this Bill. I farm on light and hilly land, with many small woods, and in an area where there are many commons, now mainly scrub. And under those conditions I believe that it is impossible to keep down rabbits by the ordinary means—as, indeed, in spite of all our efforts, we found before the arrival of myxomatosis. We suffered very seriously from their deprivations as a result. I am convinced that if the rabbit is to be exterminated—and I think it must be—then the aid of myxomatosis must be called in. Any criticisms I make of the Bill are solely due to my fear that it may not entirely succeed in its purpose.

On Clause 1, the legalisation of the deliberate spreading of myxomatosis, there are two points I should like to make. The first is that, as has been mentioned, there are now these weaker attenuated strains of myxomatosis about. At a very early stage there was a case in Nottinghamshire where the greatest efforts were made, enclosing the area and destroying all the rabbits in it, to prevent that weaker strain from spreading. Particularly now, when myxomatosis is reappearing in several parts of the country, I understand that there are varying strains with varying efficiencies, as it were, of the disease in the different areas where it breaks out. I feel that there is a danger that the indiscriminate spread of these weaker strains might do more harm than good in the purpose we are trying to achieve. That would apply in any event, whether it was done legally under Clause 1, or illegally as at present. Therefore, I should like to see permission to spread myxomatosis deliberately confined to the officials of the Ministry who are concerned with pest destruction. They would no doubt ensure that only the most lethal strains were used, and that those strains were used at the best times and in the best places to achieve a result. Per- haps it may be possible to make an alteration in that sense at a later stage.

From another point of view, it has also occurred to me that it is a pity, in a way, that Clause 1 should have been included at all. I have a fear that it may jeopardise the chances of the Bill's passing at all, if not here, then in another place. I should greatly regret the loss of Clause 2, which I look upon as being much more important. If I may elaborate on that, it seems to me that the friends of the rabbit may be divided into three classes. First, there is the sporting class, the people who think it nice to have a few rabbits about the place and to have a little shooting and ferreting, and, above all, regard it as a convenient way of teaching their sons to handle a gun. If I had not convinced myself that it is impossible to have only a few rabbits about the place, I should be inclined to be among that group myself. Then there is the commercial class. Among these I include those farmers who are so dazzled by the tangible handful of notes offered to them by the rabbit-catcher that they are blinded to the much greater intangible loss which they suffer throughout the year. I include also all those concerned with dealing in rabbits, right through to the manufacturer of felt hats.

The third class is what I would call the sentimentalist—and I say this with no disrespect to the genuine humanitarians whose views we have heard to-day. But it is my view that this very large and, I think, influential class of person may have no contact at all with the real problem of the rabbits. They are in a state of mind where they like the rabbit because when they go to the country on picnics they like to see the little things hopping about in the pretty way they do. I think that in this respect Miss Beatrix Potter has something to answer for. In the minds of some of these people the rabbit is still identified perhaps with Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, whom they learned to love at their mother's knee, and those of us who dislike the rabbit are the personification of the odious Mr. MacGregor who was so beastly to poor Peter.

Be that as it may, it appears to me that if Clause 1 were out of the Bill, and it were limited to Clause 2, then the commercial section would still oppose the Bill, because it is clearly against what they conceive to be their interests. The sporting interests, of course, would have no great reason to oppose it, because "the boys" could still go out and shoot a rabbit or two for the pot; and from the point of view of the organised shoots already, for several years now, they have gone on apparently quite happily, without any appreciable contribution from the sale of rabbits. The third class, whom I call the "sentimentalists". would have no reason to oppose the Bill at all, and in these conditions the question would be reduced to the simple and, passionless one of whether or not the rabbit is an economic asset to the country. On the other hand, if the Bill goes forward and Clause 1 remains a part of it, it will arouse the feelings of the sentimentalist class to full pitch t and there is, I think, a real danger that even if Clause 1 were amended in the way I have suggested, the Bill might be thrown out altogether. As I have said, entirely agree with the object of the Bill, and I shall support it. But I urge the noble Lord, Lord Dynevor, to consider whether, at the next stage, it might not be better, if not to omit entirely then at any rate to modify Clause 1, in order to give a better chance of success to Clause 2.

6.6 p.m.


My Lords, as a country farmer and woodsman, though not, I hope, a "backwoodsman", I oppose this Bill root and branch in the name of common sense and common humanity. I am the chairman of the local rabbit board in Northamptonshire. I get reports from all over the county every week. I read them carefully, and I know where clearance is taking place, where infestations are taking place, where myxomatosis is breaking out and where new infestations are occurring. I am absolutely convinced that, with the co-operation of landowners, the shooting tenants and all farmers—though some, I regret to say, do not co-operate; they have been taught not to look after themselves, but to run to somebody else to do the job for them—we have the rabbits absolutely under control. I do not see any reason why this state of affairs should not continue for the time being. I am speaking, of course, only for my own county.

There is one thing with which I wish to deal very strongly, and that is these fallacious theories about rabbits not feeling pain. Like many other noble Lords, I have studied carefully this question of pain. Only the other day I met a rabbit crouched in the road. I went up to it, and it did not move. I was coming downwind, and apparently it did not smell me. I picked it up, and the moment I put my hand upon it it kicked, screamed and struggled. Its neck was so swollen that I could not grasp it in order to break the neck, so I had to dash its head on the ground. Out came a spurt of what my noble friend called "puss and beastliness". That was one case. Do you mean to tell me that a rabbit with his genital organs swollen does not feel pain, and that the rabbit I picked up did not feel pain when I touched it and it screamed and kicked?

We come to the point about "happily feeding." I have watched several rabbits feeding. The point was that they were starving. First they would pick up a leaf, reject it, and then pick up a stone or a bit of mud and reject them. If they got a bit of green stuff they ate it. So they moved on, and apparently they were feeding. Noble Lords who have this theory that rabbits do not feel pain and feed happily are absolutely wrong. These rabbits are not only suffering from what is a form of syphilis, but are starving slowly to death. Therefore, I hope that all noble Lords will oppose this Bill root and branch.

6.10 p.m.


My Lords, the debate has run now for a considerable time, and I should like to begin by thanking all the noble Lords who have taken part in the discussion, which I believe to have been a very valuable one. Mr. Gladstone, when asked what he thought was the best speech he had ever made in his life, said: It is always the one I make in the carriage leaving the House. I felt when I sat down and listened to other noble Lords that there were many points I perhaps could have made myself, and did not, and I have to thank them for making them for me.

I was once Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister in another place about thirty years ago, and the Minister of Agriculture of the day came into my room after I had made what I thought was an admirable suggestion for the benefit of agriculture. I cannot remember what it was now. He produced a great many arguments against it. I remember saying to him, "I wish your Department could find one argument in favour". The noble Earl who spoke for the Government certainly put the point of view of Her Majesty's Government, but I was left a little shocked by what he said in one or two cases, because he implied that there might be enough rabbits left to supply the fur trade. I do not want to misrepresent him in any way, but he did interrupt a noble Lord just now and say that the fur trade was one of those aspects which would have to be considered. I do not know what becomes of the Government rabbit clearance scheme. If it does not mean it will clear the rabbits up, I wonder what it does mean.

The noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, referred to a "couple of obscure Welsh counties". That may, or may not, be a description which we should recognise for ourselves. I believe, although I am not very conversant with it, that the rabbit plague in Western Argyll and the Hebrides had to be seen to be believed, and I do not think Wales was in any way behind Scotland in that respect.

My Lords, one respects very deeply the humanitarian aspect of this problem, and I do not think any of us deny that myxomatosis in its last stages can look and be a very horrible disease. But the point I have tried to make in my speech is that if we accept the view that there are to be no rabbits, we should be allowed to use this method, by which there will be

no, or hardly any, rabbits to suffer from it. All the arguments have gone to show that rabbits are rapidly increasing, and even the Field newspaper can say tens of millions are going to die from this disease if my Bill becomes law. I am trying to prevent that from happening and trying to stop large numbers of rabbits from suffering disease or trapping. Whether you are going to be able to enforce the abolition of the gin trap I do not know. I hope we shall support anything that will abolish suffering in that direction, but it is going to be very hard to enforce it. I do not think—I hope I did not miss it—the noble Earl gave us any information on the supply of the humane trap which will be available to occupiers of land, but perhaps he had not got that information with him.

If I were to listen to the different arguments produced by noble Lords some like one clause and some like another—and were to agree with both sides, there would be no Bill at all; I should have to withdraw both clauses. I should like to suggest that your Lordships give this Bill a Second Reading and that we may deal in Committee with any modification of the power of spreading myxomatosis. We may then have further consideration of the prohibition of sale of wild rabbits and skins in the shops. I venture to think the discussion to-day has been of great value, and I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Whether the Bill shall be now read 2a?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 15; Not-Contents, 40.

Ailsa, M. Waldegrave, E. Congleton, L.
Yarborough, E. Dynevor, L. [Teller.]
Bessborough, E. Gisborough, L.
Buckinghamshire, E. Hereford, V. Hamilton of Dalzell, L.
Dundee. E. [Teller.] Hastings, L.
Lonsdale, E. Blackford, L. Saltoun, L.
Kilmuir, V. (L. Chancellor.) Kinnoull, E. Long, V.
Lucan, E. Stansgate, V.
Hailsham, V. (L. President.) Malmesbury, E. Stonehaven, V.
Lansdowne, M. Mansfield, E
Onslow, E. [Teller.] Amherst of Hackney, L,
Bathurst, E. Perth, E. Chesham, L.
Ferrers, E. St. Aldwyn, E. Conesford, L.
Fortescue. E. [Teller.] Selkirk, E. Dorchester, L.
Gosford, E. Dovercourt, L.
Home, E. Goschen, V. Dowding, L.
Grantchester, L. Merrivale, L. Terrington, L.
Hawke, L. Mills, L. Teynham, L.
Hurcomb, L. Quibell, L. Winster, L.
McCorquodale of Newton, L. St. Oswald, L. Wolverton, L.
Mancroft, L. Somers, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.

House adjourned at twenty-four minutes past six o'clock.