HL Deb 31 October 1966 vol 277 cc428-56

2.38 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Hurcomb.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The EARL OF LTSTOWEL in the Chair.]

Clause 1:

Extension of protection for eggs of wild birds


  1. (1) The power of the Secretary of State under section 2 of the Protection of Birds Act 1954 (in this Act referred to as "the principal Act") to prescribe common wild birds whose eggs may be taken or destroyed without contravening section 1 of that Act shall cease; and, accordingly, in subsection (4)(a) of the said section 2 the words from "or of any other common wild bird" to the end are hereby repealed.
  2. (2) The prohibition imposed by section 6(1) of the principal Act on a person's selling, offering for sale or having in his possession for sale, and by section 7(1) of that Act on the importation of, the eggs of a lapwing, save as may be authorised by a licence granted under section 10 of that Act, shall, instead of being limited to the period in any year after 14th April have effect throughout the year; and accordingly in that Act section 6(1)(iii), in section 7(1)(c) the words "on or after the fifteenth day of April in any year" and section 9(4)(c) and (d) are hereby repealed.
  3. (3) In subsection (2) of this section any reference to sale shall be construed as including a reference to barter and exchange.

TILE EARL OF CRANBROOK moved to leave out subsection (1). The noble Earl said: When the principal Act of 1954 was passed, the promoters knew country people, they knew country ways, and they knew that it was socially desirable to make provision to allow country pursuits. They therefore provided that, so far as adults were concerned, virtually all the game birds were excluded from the provisions of the Act; that provision was made for wildfowling, for hawking, the capture of hawks, and the killing of birds by hawks. The promoters also provided that special provision should be made to cover the habit which is sanctified by time, that of country boys indulging in bird's-nesting.

Only a dozen years have passed since the inception of that Act, and those of us who live in the country, and know the country, know that country people have not changed at all. Grown-ups of all classes still go shooting; hawking still goes on in a small way; and country children of all classes still continue to make collections of wild flowers, shells, the skulls of animals and of birds' eggs. In that way they learn natural history. Of course, in so doing, they have hurt neither the wild flowers, the animals, the snails nor the birds. The noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, on the Second Reading of this Bill, admitted quite freely that scientifically there was no need for this subsection which I am asking your Lordships to delete. He knows, and all of us who live in the country know, that bird's-nesting by small boys has never done any harm to birds and has never caused any variations in the bird population.

On the other hand, the effect on the children themselves has been wholly salutary. For many years I ran a boys' club in the country which was primarily concerned with natural history. As most of your Lordships can appreciate from their own youth, I found that the collecting instinct which little boys have to collect these various things was the first thing which turned them to the study of nature around them. I can well remember the pride I used to take as some of those boys grew up and earned their first wages, and how quite a number of them who had been ardent egg collectors in their youth spent the first money they saved, not on motor-bikes and the like, but on buying themselves a pair of field glasses to look at the birds around them. I caught a teenager on a lonely part of my land this Spring. When I asked him what he was doing he said, "I am bird's-nesting, but I am not taking eggs as I used to do. I am now making a list of the nests I find". In point of fact, he had a remarkably interesting collection of records covering a couple of years of various species of birds' nests, some of which I had never noticed, up and down one of my farms.

If there is no scientific justification for this subsection, the promoters have to seek around and try to find another one, which I must confess I myself have failed to do. Certainly no cruelty is involved, because we all know—I should perhaps say that we are all as certain as one can be about any natural phenomenon—that birds do not feel towards their eggs any sort of sentiments such as a human being feels towards its child. The bird does not recognise the cuckoo's egg; it does not worry if its offspring are taken out of the nest by the cuckoo.

On Second Reading the noble Lord suggested that small boys might not notice the difference between a skylark's egg and a woodlark's egg, and indeed that is possible, but by and large I have always found that those children who go bird's-nesting take remarkable care to learn what they are about and take only eggs of birds they reckon they ought to take. Incidentally, after all, the amount of depredation by small boys is in any case so small that if there was an occasional slip up it would not make a ha'porth of difference. Another reason that has been given to me is that "mods" and "rockers" go out from industrial towns and tear down nests and throw them on the ground. That is illegal under the existing law. The Secretary of State cannot allow people to destroy nests. He can only put on a list birds whose eggs may be taken. A practice of that kind can be prevented by the existing law.

In short, the only thing I can find that makes anybody want to support this clause is the sort of instinctive feeling which a number of people have that bird's-nesting per se is wrong and therefore should be discouraged, whether or not it is justified scientifically or whether or not the discouragement is justified logically. If this clause is passed the conscientious village policeman hearing that a small boy has taken a blackbird's egg is going to have to interview him in the presence of his parent, probably the father, who went down the self-same lane collecting eggs from the self-same bushes thirty or forty years ago; and when that father goes to the village pub that night and starts talking about it the whole village is going to laugh at the policeman, because the whole climate of opinion in country districts is in favour of allowing small boys to continue to collect eggs in the way they have done.

I have no doubt that some of your Lordships sit, or have sat, on juvenile courts. What are we going to do when a small boy is brought before us—and I am glad to say not one has ever been brought before me, although the practice of bird's-nesting obtains pretty widely in my own county—for taking the eggs of common birds. We should talk to him with our tongue in our cheeks, and he knows that our tongue is in our cheeks because he knows the whole climate of opinion in the countryside is on his side. It seems to me a clause of this nature can do nothing but bring the law into disrepute. Your Lordships are being asked to pass a law which is based on really nothing but sentiment and nothing but emotion, and I cannot but believe that a law based on those grounds and directed intentionally against children must be a bad law. I hope your Lordships will support this Amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 5, leave out subsection (1).—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

2.48 p.m.


I should like to support my noble friend in this Amendment, because, as far as I see it, this Amendment is really necessary to restore the flexibility of the principal Act, the Protection of Birds Act 1954. This flexibility is extremely necessary for the very good reason that the population of birds is controlled by the supply of food, and should we have a series of very mild winters it is quite likely, in fact it has happened several times, that certain common wild species will become so numerous as to become a pest. If this Amendment is accepted, of course the Secretary of State can then use his power to prescribe that the eggs of those common wild species that have increased in mild winters can be taken.

I consider it important that we pass this Amendment particularly for the protection of fruit farmers, because anyone at all conversant with fruit farming will know that you can get an absolute plague of certain birds, such as bullfinches. One can of course trap them in cages, but that is surely far more cruel than allowing the eggs to be taken and therefore stopping any undue increase in the species, for when these birds are taken in cages they are put to death.

My noble friend mentioned the fact that some people object to this Amendment; that they say that if the eggs of certain common wild birds are allowed to be taken then small boys will be quite unable to distinguish the eggs of these common birds from the eggs of more rare birds. But under Schedule 2 to the principal Act it is not an offence to take the eggs of certain birds which are listed as permanent pests. But if bird's-nesters—for instance, small boys—cannot tell the difference between the eggs of a common wild bird, which the Secretary of State has said may be taken, perhaps temporarily, from those of a rare bird, why is it assumed that the same small boys will be able to tell the difference between the eggs of a common pest under Schedule 2 and those of a rare bird? It is not logical.

It is also said that it will be impossible for the police to differentiate between the eggs of a common wild bird and of a rare bird. Under Schedule 2, they are already asked to differentiate between the eggs of common pests and rare birds. I think one may say that what applies to the police applies equally to small boys. Again, under Clause 3, the person who has to prosecute (I presume it will be the police) has to distinguish whether or not the wild bird which is being disturbed comes within the First Schedule to the original Act. So I think it is complete nonsense for people to make the excuse that one cannot take the eggs of certain common wild birds because of the danger of bird's-nesters or police being unable to differentiate.

I also think, as my noble friend behind me has said, that it is a bad principle to make a law which runs contrary to what people in the country have done for generations, and which it will be very difficult to enforce. Small boys will always go bird's-nesting. It is really quite a harmless pursuit. It has never affected the bird population. It is the severe winters, and, to a certain extent, chemical farming, that affect the bird population. We also have the point that if we do not have this Amendment we shall be turning hundreds of small boys into petty criminals.

To conclude, the Secretary of State is expertly advised: he has available to him all the expert advice. Surely he is competent to judge whether a common wild bird has, after a series of mild winters, become a pest. I think it is completely wrong to take the power from the Secretary of State. Therefore, I support this Amendment on the basis of common sense and the principle that it is bad to make a law which is completely unenforceable.


I rise to support the Amendment moved by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook. I think that most noble Lords will agree that there are few people in this country with a wider knowledge of the subject than the noble Earl, and those of us who know of his interest realise only too well that he would not be moving an Amendment of this nature in your Lordships' House if he felt that it would do harm to the birds themselves. Many of us know of his interest in the field of the protection of birds. The noble Earl quite rightly pointed out that the existing Act, that of 1954, does give adequate protection to birds, and there is a sufficient legal obligation there in the event of people abusing the conditions of that Act.

It seems to me that there is something to be said for encouraging young people nowadays to take, and maintain, an interest in nature. For some young people in our country districts to-day there is little to do other than, perhaps, observe nature, and this is something we ought to encourage. There is no likelihood of any real harm being done. I think I should like to take up the point made both by the mover and the seconder of this Amendment, that it would be a little facetious and in some respects quite harmful, should this Amendment be defeated, to have to bring youngsters before a juvenile court charged with an offence of this kind. I would only repeat, with the greatest respect, that I think the 1954 Act provides all the protection that is necessary, and I hope that your Lordships will support the Amendment.

2.58 p.m.


I agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken that it is desirable to encourage young people to take an interest in the wild life by which they are surrounded. I also think that if that is to be done the only way to do it in regard to this country, or the flora and fauna of the world, is to try to persuade them to respect it. To say that the best way of educating young people nowadays is to encourage them to go and collect birds' eggs seems to me the reverse of the whole trend of modern thought in regard to education and the preservation of Nature.

In order to get rid of it, I should like in passing to mention one point which I have found a constant irritant when I have been abroad. Many of your Lordships may have protested to your French or Italian friends against their practice of murdering in thousands every small migratory bird which passes through their country in the spring or in the autumn. I have been met with the retort, as your Lordships probably have, "Well, at any rate, though we shoot them and eat them, we do not encourage our children to take their eggs." But that is only by the way.

Of course I agree with the noble Earl, and the other noble Lords who have spoken, that we want to intensify the interest of children in the wild life that surrounds them. But surely, in the last twenty or thirty years since I was a boy, and even since the noble Earl was a boy, there has been an immense change in the whole approach to these matters. The broadcasting programmes, the literature, the arrangement of our museums, lectures of all sorts, local societies, county naturalists trusts—there is an enormous apparatus for educating the young and encouraging them to take an interest in wild life, without saying, "You must go and collect specimens". The noble Earl lives in a remote and charming part of Suffolk, where no doubt little harm is done by the practices to which he refers, but the surroundings of the big industrial towns are very different. Anyone who knows the Midlands knows very well that the practice of raiding the hedgerows and so on in the spring—not by "mods" and "rockers" but by ordinary people—is carried to excess.

My defence of the clause, however, is on broader grounds. I hope that your Lordships will adhere to the view which you took eighteen months ago, after full discussion, and try to make the law more intelligible and more enforceable. Experience of the last ten years since the passing of the 1964 Act has shown that teachers up and down the country find it quite impossible to persuade children to protect birds and other parts of nature if they have to say, for example, "You may take a skylark's egg, but not a wood-lark's egg". The child does not understand that. He can quite see he may look at these things, may take pleasure in them and let them alone, but to say that he may interfere with one and not another is not intelligible to a child. That is the experience of a large number of teachers in our schools throughout the country who have tried to inculcate the respect for wild life which we all desire to see. As for turning small boys into criminals, that surely can be left to the good sense of the police and, if necessary, the magistrates.

This Order was revoked three years ago, and no dire consequences have followed to young people, nor has there been any enlargement of the criminal population in this respect. I cannot conceive any Home Secretary would ever be so ill-advised as to restore it. If he were to do so, think of the difficulty he would face in selecting the birds which he would put into the Order—the robin, our national bird; the skylark; the song thrush; the blackbird; the wren; the chaffinch; the linnet: all birds which our literature and poetry have singled out for special praise—on the list to be robbed. I may be accused of being sentimental, but this does not make sense. Not only is it impossible to ask young people not to take this egg while saying that they may quite lawfully take another but, if it came to a question of prosecution, the police would be unable to distinguish. They would not know whether an egg was that of a hedge-sparrow or a redstart. If we want to get young people generally to respect the law, to respect wild life, and to make it possible, in cases of real malicious or mischievous behaviour, to enforce the law, then I feel that this subsection is a very real advance. I hope that the noble Earl will not press his Amendment to a Division, but if he does I hope your Lordships will adhere to the view which you took fifteen months ago and will retain the subsection in the Bill.


May I ask the noble Lord whether it is not correct that, under Schedule 2 to the principal Act, which gives a list of birds classified as permanent pests—such as wood pigeons, certain gulls, starlings and others—anybody is allowed to take their eggs? Therefore, how are people who take the eggs of these birds to distinguish between such eggs and those of rarer birds?


Most of those birds are large birds whose eggs are easily distinguished. They are cliff-building or tree-building birds. They do not fall into the class of the small birds which we normally find in our countryside. It may be that there is a weakness here. It is not an offence to destroy those birds themselves, provided that it is done by an authorised person. That restriction was imposed in order to prevent people wandering on other people's land or on common land, and then alleging that they were out to destroy a pest. It may, as I say, be a defect in the present law which we might look into. I do not think that one wants to encourage children to say they can go wherever they like and then argue that they are destroying the egg of a "black-listed" bird.

3.8 p.m.


Might I be allowed to set out the position of Her Majesty's Government? This matter was fully debated on June 17 last year when the noble Viscount moved his Amendment to the same effect. Most of the points made in that discussion have been made again to-day. I explained on that occasion that Her Majesty's Government would welcome a clear expression of the opinion of Parliament on the basic issue of policy. That issue is this: does Parliament want the present bird's-nesting provisions retained, with the clear intention that the Secretary of State should use the powers provided and by order establish a new list of common birds whose eggs would be denied protection: or is Parliament satisfied that these provisions can be repealed without exposing young people to the mischief of the criminal law?

Many of the arguments we have heard to-day have gone fairly wide of this basic issue, though they have all been relevant in one way or another. I do not want to offer any assessment of those arguments or take sides, one way or the other. I should, however, like to mention two points on the matter of prosecuting young children. The first is that the age of criminal responsibility was raised from eight to ten in 1963, and there remains a Common Law presumption that a child of between ten and fourteen years of age has no malicious intent to commit a criminal offence unless the contrary is shown. It is true that this presumption weakens when the child's years near fourteen. The second point is that the number of children under fourteen convicted of offences against eggs or nests in the three years 1963 to 1965 amounted to 20. I have no details of the circumstances of their offences. Your Lordships may wish to take these points into account in considering what effect the repeal of the bird's-nesting provisions would have on the protection of birds and the protection of children.


There is a deeper aspect to this question which I do not think has been fully touched one: it concerns the very rare eggs and the lengths to which people go to obtain them. I understand that some years ago a pair of Bewick's swans nested in a certain place in the British Isles (I will not give the place away, in case there are any collectors of rare bird eggs present), and a gentleman who was a known collector and dealer in rare bird's eggs arrived. He took the precaution of dressing in clerical garb, as he thought that might deceive the local ornithologists. He even spoke about the evils of bird's-egg collecting in a sermon in the local chapel. The local ornithologists, however, were rather suspicious of him and they took watch. They found him swimming back from the island where these Bewick's swans were nesting, with a cardboard box slung round his neck. They took two eggs out and put them back in the nest and packed him off home. But when the birds hatched they turned out to be mute swans. He had substituted the eggs.


As my profession has now been brought into this debate, I feel justified in saying a brief word. I know that in some difficult matters it has been found helpful to distinguish between sin and crime. I am not myself prepared to say that bird's- nesting is either a sin or a crime, but I am prepared to say that I think it is a better way of observing nature and taking an interest in nature to respect what is there, rather than just to violate it for one's own pleasure or even for some semi-scientific interest.

However, the crux of the matter is whether we want to increase the area of possible criminal action in relation to very young people. We know that, in any case, we cannot do anything with them until they are ten, and I expect the area of greatest risk in this matter is just over the age of ten. I should have thought it was really a matter of judgment whether or not something of this kind was better dealt with by the criminal law or by education. I should hope that there would be steady progress towards respect for all forms of life, even if that meant in the end the cessation of a time-honoured custom. But I do not think we are going to help very much by making this a matter of criminal offence.


I want to say only this. I remember very clearly bird's-nesting when I was quite a small boy, and the rules that were laid down for me to observe were that I was only to take an egg from a nest in which there were already three eggs, and that I was to take only one egg. I remember that I was never to do anything which would stop a bird from laying, and we observed that rule religiously. I also remember that we were able to distinguish between the eggs. I could not do it now, but we were very learned about the eggs of different birds. We were much harder to deceive then, and we would not take a wrong egg; that is, if if were "out of bounds", as it were. I think the whole answer lies in education. If you give children the rules they will observe them and observe them religiously. I am entirely with the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook.


I do not doubt that my noble friend Lord Saltoun observed very strictly the laws which were laid down for him, but, unfortunately, that does not apply to children of every type to-day. Also, of course, egg collectors are not satisfied unless they get a complete clutch. Therefore, as one who like my noble friend Lord Hurcomb is in grave danger of being classed as a sentimentalist, I think it is far better to educate children to respect nature by observing it rather than by wishing to destroy it. There are plenty of people who collect eggs but really could not tell the difference between one bird and another. If they would spend their time learning something like that, without collecting the eggs, they might then know a good deal more about nature. I cannot think that this passion for destroying everything one sees is a very good practice in which to encourage children.


I must confess that the only objections I heard against my Amendment were those of sentiment, in addition to the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, that it does not matter very much whether we pass this clause, because the police will not enforce it. I cannot think of two points that are worse reasons for making a new offence.


I do not want to interrupt the noble Earl, but of course that is not what I said. I said that the law in its present state is both unintelligible and unenforceable. But if the Amendment is rejected it can very well be left to the police to take action in cases of malicious or mischievous damage, and just say to the boy, "Don't do this again. You ought not to do these things."

May I in just one moment say this in reply to the right reverend Prelate? Although I know nothing about this Bewick's swan episode, it is quite true that in the past some of our most ruthless egg collectors have been parsons in the Church of England. However, I did not aim this Bill at that cloth on that account. But I would say again that teachers all over the country have said they find it impossible to get into a child's head why he should be able to take one egg but not another. A child can quite understand your saying, "Get to know them and leave them alone", but not if you draw these distinctions.

No teacher of experience who is consulted about this will accept the view that the law ought to be left as it is.


A child can still take one egg and not another, under Schedule 2 which deals with listed pests.


They must be pretty poor teachers. I have had quite considerable experience in working with children in this matter and it is quite easy to explain to them what they should do and what they should not do. What is really worrying is the figure, which the noble Lord gave just now, of 20 prosecutions over the past three years, when we know that hundreds and probably thousands of children have continued to bird's-nest throughout that time. What is the use of passing a law like that which fails to be observed and when the police very sensibly take no action? It is really ridiculous, and I hope your Lordships will support my Amendment. I shall have to go to a Division if the noble Lord will not accept it.


Before the Committee goes into a Division, may I say just one word? The noble Earl has just said that the only objections to his Amendment are those of sentiment. May I say that it is a regrettable tendency on the part of those who are only happy when they are destroying life to class any who object to this attitude as sentimentalists. I must say that I rather take exception to that. It does not throw a great deal of credit on the noble Earl who said it.


I certainly did not want to be rude to the noble Lord, and if he feels that I have been I unhesitatingly withdraw.

3.20 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 42; Not-Contents, 37.

Ampthill, L. Cranbrook, E. [Teller.] Faringdon, L.
Auckland, L. Crook, L. Fleck, L.
Brentford, V. Derwent, L. Foley, L.
Burton, L. Effingham, E. Forster of Harraby, L.
Chesham, L. Emmet of Amberley, Bs. Fortescue, E.
Chorley, L. Falkland, V. Goschen, V.
Grenfell, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V. [Teller.] St. Aldwyn, E.
Grimston of Westbury, L. Salisbury, M.
Harlech, L. Moyle, L. Saltoun, L.
Horsbrugh, Bs. Oakshott, L. Shannon, E.
Ilford, L. Popplewell, L. Strange of Knokin, Bs.
Ironside, L. Portal of Hungerford, V. Thurlow, L.
Leicester, Bp. Redmayne, L. Vivian, L.
Long, V. Russell of Liverpool, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Mar and Kellie, E.
Addison, V. Greenway, L. Ogmore, L.
Ailwyn. L. Hall, V. Rowley, L.
Airedale, L. Henderson, L. St. Davids, V.
Amulree, L. Howard of Glossop, L. Sinha, L.
Asquith of Yarnbury, Bs. Hurcomb, L. [Teller.] Somers, L. [Teller.]
Blyton, L. Iddesleigh, E. Strabolgi, L.
Brockway, L. Latham, L. Strang, L.
Burden, L. Lindgren, L. Strange, L.
Burton of Coventry, Bs. Listowel, E. Summerskill, Bs.
Citrine, L. Mills, V. Taylor of Mansfield, L.
Clwyd, L. Milverton, L. Twining, L.
Conesford, L. Molson, L. Wise, L.
Douglas of Barloch, L.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly.

3.28 p.m.

THE EARL OF CRANBROOK moved to leave out subsection (2). The noble Earl said: Here, again, I am pleading for the continuation of what is normal country practice. On many farms the right to collect and sell plovers' eggs has been for many years a perquisite of the shepherd or the ploughman. It seems to me curious that while the Act allows the collection and sale of the eggs of ducks and geese—and, indeed, the collection and sale of the whole of the produce of ducks and geese—throughout the whole year, it should be considered wrong to sell the eggs of plovers, which we are allowed to eat, before the 14th of April, when we know that for the last dozen years or so at least plovers' eggs have been collected and sold and there has been absolutely no diminution in the number of plovers in this country.

It has been suggested that this subsection is necessary in order that we may fall into line with the laws of other countries and prevent the importation of eggs from other countries where their sale is forbidden. I should have thought that Section 7(2)(b) of the principal Act covered that; but, if it does not, I think it entirely reasonable that there should be an amendment to that section in order to allow the Secretary of State to forbid the importation and the sale of imported eggs if such sale in the country of origin is contrary to their laws. That would obviously be sensible and desirable; but I can see no reason why we should not allow people to continue to sell plovers' eggs in this country when we know that it does no harm to the plovers and does bring in a little extra cash to the farm worker who collects them. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 12, leave out subsection (2).—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)


I should like very briefly to support my noble friend in this Amendment. As people are now allowed to take plovers' eggs up to April 15, it seems pointless not to allow the eggs to be sold. We have in the past had several long discussions in this House on whether it is detrimental to take plovers' eggs before April 15. The House came to the conclusion that it was not detrimental and that, in fact, it could be beneficial. Therefore, I cannot see the object in preventing the sale. If you prohibit the sale of the eggs while at the same time allowing them to be taken, you are going to get a great number of "under-the-counter" sales and the law is going to be brought into disrespect. The plover is fully safeguarded by the powers already held by the Secretary of State who can bring in an order to protect them completely if it is found necessary to do so. Therefore I support the Amendment wholeheartedly. One of my chief reasons is that I do not want to see the law brought into disrespect—as it would have been had the Committee not accepted the last Amendment.


In the noble Viscount's opening remarks he said it was beneficial to take a plover's eggs. I did not quite understand this. May I ask the noble Viscount to say whom this is beneficial, except possibly to those who make a profit?


It is beneficial to the plover population. I do not want to bore the Committee with a long dissertation on the plover, but the reason is that the plover lays early, and, owing to mechanised farming, if the plover nests on arable land in early April the odds are that the clutch will be destroyed and certainly the young birds will be. The same applies to open moorland or grassland because the first hatch is always laid in very early spring when there may be very little insect life and the weather is bad so that the young birds usually die. If you take the first clutch you are really doing no harm at all. The plover will then lay again after April 15 (at which time you cannot take the eggs) when there is plenty of insect life about, when all the crops are sown and when no mechanised farming is going on so that the whole clutch will survive. I hope I have explained sufficiently to the noble Lady.


I am afraid you have not explained why it is beneficial.


It is quite simple. When a bird has hatched a nest it is not so likely to lay again. If the bird lays too early and does not hatch its eggs it will form a nest and lay again later under more propitious weather conditions. We have found this to be the case in the past.

3.34 p.m.


A great deal of time was spent on this subject fifteen months ago. I have never myself regarded this House as the proper place for a disquisition on the breeding biology of the lapwing, but if we are to embark on that subject I find it quite impossible, as an evolutionist, to believe that a species has hit on the wrong time to nest in the course of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. Of course, the ideal time for the plover to nest, in normal circumstances and in normal years, is very early spring, for the reason the noble Viscount has just given; if it nests at that time, in the middle of April or early May, there is abundance of insect life. Those who have investigated this subject have found in many parts of this country that if they do not get the young birds out till late in May the grass is too long, and there can be periods of drought and breeding success is less.

But that was not the issue which determined your Lordships' decision fifteen months ago. It was then pointed out—and with that I agree—that owing to changes in agriculture, to which the bird of course has not been able to adapt itself, a great many nests in the early part of April would be destroyed in the course of agricultural cultivation. For that reason your Lordships agreed that it would be reasonable to leave it to the owner or occupier of the land to take the eggs, but to prohibit their sale. Because if there is a market there will be exploitation and the plover's egg will be searched for in many parts of the country and in many areas where it would otherwise be perfectly safe. That was a compromise for which I was indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, who said: The sense of the Committee quite clearly is that we want the law to stay as it is as regards taking the egg of the plover—not for sale, but taking it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Vol. 267, col. 243; 17/6/65.] I think he then suggested that an Amendment should be put down on those lines, and this I did. I hope the Committee is not going to go back on a decision that was taken after great consideration fifteen months ago. On this particular point, where the taking of the egg is covered, it is only the commercial exploitation of this bird (which is wholly beneficial to agriculture) that is prohibited.


I should like to ask the noble Lord perhaps to think about it again between now and the later stages, because, as to commercial exploitation taking place, it has been taking place in this country from the beginning of time. The law does not forbid it at the moment. I do not think there is any great commercial exploitation and the plover has increased enormously in numbers since the Act of, I think, 1925, when shooting was first forbidden.

I do not feel at all strongly about this. I think it would be sensible if the noble Lord were to accept it because in some parts of the country, although not in my part, it is a very definite "perk" of some of the agricultural workers which I should be sorry to see them lose. But I do not feel strongly about this because it does not happen in my own county.


I hope the noble Earl will not press this Amendment. I do not know what numbers of eggs his agricultural labourers take, but perhaps they could hand them over to the noble Earl, for a consideration, which would solve the problem.


Just to return to the point made by the noble Baroness. I do not know whether it would ease her doubts (I am neutral on the subject) if I suggested that this was compulsory abortion for the good of the mother, whether rightly or wrongly, and the plovers should not be denied rights which the noble Baroness would probably grant to human mothers. I may be wrong about that.

On Question, Amendment negatived.

3.41 p.m.

THE EARL OF CRANBROOK moved to leave out subsection (3). The noble Earl said: I apologise for detaining your Lordships for such a long time and I will be as brief as I can, as I feel that the noble Lord in charge of the Bill is disposed to accept this Amendment and I am glad that, for once, I find myself in agreement with him. This Amendment is not, like the last two Amendments, on behalf of country people, as apart from town dwellers. In towns the keeping of birds in aviaries has for long been a widespread hobby, particularly, if I may use an old-fashioned phrase, among the working people. In many cases it is their only contact with nature.

The 1954 Act said nothing about this side of the protection of birds, for the very good reason that at that time the average man who kept birds did little more than keep one of the seed-eaters—a linnet or a goldfinch—in a cage; and the art, for it really is an art, of creating conditions under which birds can breed in captivity had scarcely begun to be understood by the average amateur aviculturist. Latterly, these people have succeeded in making a real break-through. Creating conditions under which birds can breed is profoundly satisfying to the individual concerned; he realises that he has conditions which are highly suitable to his charges. One hopes that it is also highly satisfying for the birds—although I do not think we need go into the breeding cycle of the birds in cages, any more than we need digress further into the breeding habits of plovers.

Many zoos look upon this, let us say, successful establishment of breeding units as the yardstick of their success. Your Lordships may have read of the recent visit of the panda, Chi-Chi, to Russia where she repulsed her Muscovite lover consistently for about eight or nine months, presumably because not even with help from the British and the Russians was it possible to create exactly the right conditions for them to be sufficiently happy to mate. That has been done with birds, but inevitably the people who succeeded in making this breakthrough were few. Equally inevitably, the number of birds for whom they succeeded in creating these conditions were few.

The result has been that, with the passage of time, these breeding strains have become inbred and can be replenished, as the law stands at the moment, only by making illegal purchases or by making illegal captures. For some time I have been Chairman of a Committee which advises the Secretary of State on the importation of rare animals and one thing which has become abundantly clear is that probably the only way to secure the continued existence of some animals is by getting breeding units in captivity from which they can later on be sent back to the wilds as for instance was Pére David's Deer in China which became completely extinct in its own country. It was maintained in captivity in this country and subsequently sent back to China for reintroduction. Another thing which is clear to me is that one of the best ways of stopping the considerable amount of suffering inevitably involved in the crating of birds and animals is by getting a large number of species to breed in captivity as do, let us say, canaries and budgerigars, which are virtually domestic birds although they are descended from wild birds. On the animal side one gets the same thing with the hamster. Once you get these quasi-domestic breed strains they may be sold and passed from hand to hand with no greater suffering than is inflicted on a hen when it is sold to a buyer. My Amendment would allow the establishment of that sort of breeding strain. I believe it to be desirable on scientific grounds and on the grounds of humanity as well and I hope that the noble Lord will accept the Amendment and that it will commend itself to your Lordships.


The Amendment is at page 1, line 22, to leave out subsection (3).

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 22, leave out subsection (3).—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)


I am sorry; I have been speaking to the Amendment after that. I am sure that your Lordships would not wish me to inflict that speech upon you again. If I may I will withdraw this Amendment, and perhaps you will take what I have just said as referring to Amendment No. 5, which I shall move at the appropriate moment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Whether Clause 1, as amended, shall stand part of the Bill?


I had not realised until we started just how apt it was that a clergyman should be dealing with this Bill. I hope I shall not be credited with too much guile. When we came to the Second Reading of the Bill we forbore to say very much because the Government was rather hard-pressed with other business, but there are one or two points which I should like to make at this stage. The birds are undoubtedly very lucky in having the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, as the champion of their liberties, but what has happened in the last fifteen months under this Government has made us aware of the importance of safeguarding our liberties too, as citizens, and there is now an unwillingness to compound any more offences, which I think is perhaps a desirable trend. It would be interesting if the noble Lord who is to deal with this matter for the Government could tell us at some stage exactly how many convictions there have been under the whole of the Act in the past few years. We have heard about the juvenile offences, but information about the others would help us to get things into perspective.

Another point is that so far the debate has emphasised the importance of hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb—we have already heard a little—about the steps that the councils, societies and associations interested in this matter are taking to enlighten the public and educate the young. If we could hear at some stage a little more about that I think it would be easier for us to judge the value and the necessity of the legislation which is being proposed. Legislation itself is not enough. Education and enlightenment is not enough. We must have both in the right balance.

I should like to ask whether we could hear a little more from the Government Front Bench about the difficulty or otherwise that the local police will have in enforcing the law and the Bench will have in punishing those convicted of crimes under this legislation. We do not get these wild birds, the rarer wild birds, the roseate terns and honey buzzards nesting near the Metropolis, where there are expert policemen and barristers to advise about how this legislation should be applied. This is legislation which, if it is to be enforced, will be enforced in the more rural parts of the kingdom.

It would be helpful if we were to hear from the Government Front Bench in exactly what form this legislation is going to come into the hands of the local police, because the result of passing this Bill which is before us now will be that hardly any single paragraph of this Bill or of the 1954 Act will be intelligible on its own. A good deal of explanation will need to be done before it is at all clear how it applies. It would be helpful to know in what form the local police are going to have this legislation before them in order to enforce it, and also what the prospects of consolidation are after we have completed this Bill to-day.


My information on the question of convictions is that they number from 180 to 200 each year for all offences created by the Act. The trend has not varied from year to year since 1954. As regards the other questions which the noble Lord has raised, perhaps he will allow me to answer them on Report stage, if it is convenient. I do not have the required information on the question of consolidation.


I do not know whether I am in order in ranging over these wide topics on Clause 1 of the Bill, which is very limited, but I would suggest to the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite that he should become a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and have a look at its literature and, if he has any children, he should get them to join its branch for young people. A great effort is made in educating young people. The teachers in schools throughout the country are very helpful and many of them are keen on this subject. I regret the decision which your Lordships have just come to, which, as I said, has made their task impossible.

As regards the police in those parts of the country where vigorous action against these maniac egg collectors is taken, the chief constables are great allies of the protectionists and do everything they can to carry out the law. If this Bill passes, as I hope it will, without dispute in respect of giving some powers of search, this will be a great help to the chief constables of such counties, particularly in Scotland. I hope that I have not transcended the limits of order, but I have tried to give some reply.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 2 to 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Special protection in severe weather]:

3.53 p.m.


This clause makes use of the expression "in consequence of severe weather conditions". I submit that the word "conditions" adds nothing to the words that have gone before. What it really means is "in consequence of severe weather". There is one disadvantage of putting into an Act of Parliament a word which has no meaning. It is that lawyers tend to strive to give some meaning to every word in an Act of Parliament because they say that Parliament in its wisdom would not have included that word in the Act if the word had no meaning. So, in this case, lawyers will strive to give some meaning to the word "conditions". If I am right that here "conditions" really means nothing, in my submission it would be better to leave it out, so that lawyers shall not strain to give the word some meaning which Parliament never intended it to have. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 4, line 8, leave out ("conditions").—(Lord Airedale.)


May one lawyer support the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, in this Amendment? I do not think that, if the Amendment is not carried, that will cause any exceptional difficulties either to lawyers or to the courts. Nevertheless, I think that the Amendment is a good one and that it has good authority. Nobody has written more splendidly against jargon than the late Arthur Quiller-Couch and, if I may, I would quote an example which is very much in point. I remember an essay of his in which he takes half a dozen sentences and translates them into English. In speaking to young people, I have often used his examples and asked my audience for a quick English translation. One of the examples was "despite the adverse weather conditions", which is translated, "bad as the weather has been". Another one I remember was "he was conveyed to his place of residence in an intoxicated condition"—"he was carried home drunk".


As I have said before, it is up to birds to preen their plumage carefully, and if this were a mere matter of English I should be delighted to accept the Amendment which has just been moved, but I think that there is more in it than that. There is a real difference in meaning between the two expressions. It is the conditions—the freezing of inland waters and estuaries and whether snow or ice is lying about—which are created by severe weather that make the special protection provided for in this clause necessary.

Wildfowlers themselves have spent many months in trying to find alternative, clearer expressions and they have accepted this. The noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, who could not be here to-day because he is engaged on your Lordship's business in Scotland, authorised me to say that he very much hopes that your Lordships will not seek to alter this wording. But, of course, he realises that what wildfowlers may have agreed or even find intelligible to themselves in no way need influence what your Lordships think appropriate. But I also am going to fall back on authority, as authority has been quoted against me. Some years ago, a book called The Complete Plain Words was written by Sir Ernest Gowers, who was an old friend of mine and no doubt a friend of many other noble Lords. It happens that in that book he dealt with this particular expression, which had been challenged in a letter from Mr. John Buxton in The Times in which he asked the question, "How long are we to suffer from weather conditions?" What exactly is the objection? asked Sir Ernest. It cannot be the objection of a grammarian to using the word 'weather' adjectivally. It is a common and useful English idiom to make nouns serve this purpose and few words can claim a better right to be so employed than weather. The objection, then, must be to the use of two words where one would do. A sound objection, if it can he sustained. But can it here? If I may quote briefly to your Lordships what Sir Ernest Gowers said, it was this. 'Weather conditions' imports a larger idea than weather' does, at least in time of snow and frost. It embraces the conditions created by yesterday's weather and the likelihood of to-morrow's weather changing them. I am not given to sheltering myself behind authority, but when I find such good authority so wholly with me, I cannot forbear quoting it. I hope that the noble Lord will not press this Amendment.


I am sure that Sir Ernest Gowers would wholeheartedly have approved of the expression which the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, used early in his speech—the expression, "in conditions created by severe weather". I wish that that expression had been the one chosen to be put into this clause. However, I do not think this is a matter upon which more Parliamentary time should be spent, and I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 agreed to.

Clause 7:

Additional matters for which licences may be granted

7.—(1) A licence may be granted under section 10 of the principal Act—

THE EARL OF CRANBROOK moved to add to subsection (1): () for the purpose of aviculture, to take within any area specified in the licence by any means so specified, or to import, any number so specified of wild birds of any description so specified.

The noble Earl said: I find myself in some difficulty in having gone off into flight too early, and being out of Order for a long time. I hope that the Editor of Debates may find some solution to the grave mistake that I made. I beg to move the Amendment which stands in my name.

Amendment moved— Page 5, line 4, at end insert the said subsection.—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)


I do not propose to resist this Amendment. I am in sympathy with many of the points that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, made in his speech. However, I must make some reservations. In the first place, I cannot commit the societies with which I am connected, who are nervous about the use of such a vague expression. "Aviculture" is normally defined as "bird rearing and bird fancying". Those who wish to maintain a breeding population of birds under favourable conditions, and perhaps to improve them, are no doubt entitled to some help. The existing law may be too rigid. If someone wants to keep a population of birds in captivity for scientific or education purposes, he may already do so. Many people take the view that that is wide enough, and that there is a real risk, if the vaguer or more general word is used, that anyone who wants to keep a few finches caged up in his back garden will be at liberty to do so. Though I agree with the noble Earl that in many of these cases the caged birds are treated with humanity and kindness, I think it is far too easy for people who like keeping birds in cages to go on to think that birds like being kept in cages. Personally, I believe that on this question William Blake is just as likely to be right as the bird fanciers.

I suggest that, if he cannot do so this afternoon, the noble Lord representing the Home Office might consider this matter. He might ask his Advisory Committee to lay down the rules within which they will be prepared to recommend licences. This may be a practical way of controlling what may be legitimate requirements, while not going to the length of saying that anyone who wants to keep a wild bird in a cage for pleasure, or esthetic satisfaction, or whatever it may be called, is to be free to do so. Subject to those reservations, and on the understanding, which I think the noble Earl accepts, that I cannot commit my successor as President to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who may take a different line in another place, I will not resist the Amendment this afternoon.


Perhaps I may say a few words on these Amendments, which presumably are being taken together. As regards their merits, Her Majesty's Government take a neutral attitude. It is for your Lordships to decide whether and to what extent aviculture is an activity for which it should be legal under the Act to take birds under licence.

I want briefly to refer to one or two of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb. He questioned, I think, whether my right honourable friend the Secretary of State could administer licensing in the form proposed. I think I can reassure him on this matter. The Secretary of State's power of licensing under Section 10 enables him to attach such conditions to licences as he thinks fit. Furthermore, he exercises his licensing function in consultation with the Advisory Committee. Accordingly it would be a simple matter to introduce administrative safeguards to ensure that before any licence were granted the Advisory Committee and the Secretary of State should be satisfied that the applicant would keep the bird under suitable conditions with suitable facilities; that he had whatever expertise and knowledge were required for aviculture, and that the birds he wished to take were not rare. In addition, each licence could require the holder to report from time to time on the condition of his bird and could prohibit him from handing or selling it to another. All these safeguards would be possible under the Secretary of State's powers.

In that connection the noble Lord urged that Schedule I birds should be excluded from the scope of the licensing. That, of course, could be secured administratively without further amendment. The noble Lord expressed his misgivings about the width of the term "aviculture" and suggested that it should be narrowly interpreted. I am not myself altogether clear what aspects of aviculture he would like to eliminate from the reckoning where licences might be sought. It seems to me that it is the purposes for which aviculture is undertaken rather than the nature of aviculture with which he is concerned.

A difficulty here is that the Act already empowers the Secretary of State to license the taking of birds for educational and scientific purposes. Any additional power, therefore, must be understood to be for other purposes. As I understand it, aviculturists claim that their keeping of birds is a hobby or a sport which is justified for its pleasure and æsthetic value and is no more likely to cause suffering than other activities involving birds which the law allows. The basic issue, therefore, to be decided is whether it is right to take wild birds for keeping in captivity. So far as licensing would be concerned, the Secretary of State would be guided by advice from his Advisory Committee and would naturally wish to be satisfied about the bona fides of each applicant and the provision that would be made for the birds he wished to take.

To sum up, therefore, there is no technical reason why these Amendments should be rejected. If, however, in the light of the noble Lord's remarks, the noble Earl would wish to explore the possiblity of some alternative form of words in place of "aviculture", I should be very glad to offer any assistance.

I was not quite clear what the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, meant by what he said towards the end of his speech. I hope he does not wish to bring the Home Office into more evidence than it is at the present time. He mentioned the question of taking the advice of the Advisory Committee. This is what they said on this particular subject: We have not been able to satisfy ourselves that aviary stock requires an occasional admixture of wild blood. On the assumption that this is not scientifically unjustifiable, we see no objection in principle to amendment of the Act to allow genuine aviculturists to take birds under licence for the purposes of aviculture whether this is scientific or not. I hope that this will, to some extent, satisfy the noble Lord.


I shall be happy to look into this matter further, and I welcome the advice of the Home Office. However, I should be sorry to see the Schedule 1 birds exempt. As I said just now, it is important that we should try to set up breeding units of rare birds as well as common birds, purely for the sake of conservation. This is the sort of work where the amateur bird-fancier often does better than the professional man in a zoo, and the like. I am not an ornithologist myself, but I am interested in mammals. It is certainly true that the amateur, who can give more careful attention to his charges than a professional keeper, can often get much better scientific results, and learn far more than does the professional, whether at a university or in a zoo. I shall be very sorry indeed to see amateur bird-keepers precluded from doing the same thing as I have known done by amateur keepers of animals. But I shall certainly be delighted to have the advice of the Home Office between now and the later stages of this Bill.


This is a consequential Amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 5, line 8, leave out ("or (c)") and insert ("(c) or (d)").—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)


This is another consequential Amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment moved—

Page 5, line 13, at end insert— ("() In subsection (5) of section 10 of the principal Act (licences in respect of importation to Northern Ireland) the reference to subsection (2)(a) of that section shall include a reference to subsection (2)(a) of this section.")—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

Clause 7, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 8, 9 and 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Short title, construction, extent and commencement]:


This is a further consequential Amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 6, line 9, after ("Act") insert ("section 7 so far as it relates to the importation of birds").—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

Clause 11, as amended, agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported, with Amendments.