HL Deb 24 May 1968 vol 292 cc887-926

11.5 a.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. For many years there has been considerable controversy about seals and I think it is clear that some form of legislation is necessary. Your Lordships will notice that the Title of this Bill is the Conservation of Seals Bill, as opposed to the Protection of Seals Act 1932, which it repeals. The difference in the form of title is because, for the first time, this Bill brings into our animal welfare legislation the modern concept of conservation by management as opposed to the old-fashioned one of preservation by just leaving alone.

There are two species of seals living down our coasts: the common seal and the grey seal, both more or less equally numerous, neither of whom is migratory in so far as they neither leave our coasts nor come to our coasts at any special season of the year, and virtually the whole population lives around our coasts throughout the year, feeding on fish. That, of course, is the rub, because as fish-eaters they come into competition with professional fishermen, not so much because of the amount of fish they eat as because of the amount of damage they do to gear—to fixed nets for salmon, to driftnets for herrings, to trammels and the like. That damage can be very considerable if there is a considerable population of seals attacking them. In the past, seals have been controlled to a certain extent by professional and commercial sealing, because wherever there are seals they are hunted for their oil, for their meat and for their skins; and in Scotland seal hunting has always been part of the way of life of the people who live on the coasts, formerly for subsistence but latterly for commercial reasons.

Unlike common seals, which can swim within a few hours of their birth, the grey seals breed in colonies and the young do not swim for about three or four weeks after they are born. In the past commercial sealers concentrated largely on the more vulnerable grey seals, with the result that by the turn of this century they had become extremely rare, and legislation was introduced to protect them during their breeding season, since when they have increased very considerably in numbers. May I give your Lordships an example from one colony, and that perhaps the most famous? On the Fame Islands, in 1934, just after the last Grey Seals Protection Act was passed, about 100 pups were born. In 1956 the number had risen to 750, and nine years later, in 1965, it had more than doubled to about 1,550. In fact, the population seems to have doubled each seven or eight years, and there are now about 5,000 seals of all ages, perhaps 6,000, on those islands.

It is small wonder that fishermen complain—not only fishermen in the immediate vicinity of that colony but fishermen a good distance away, because marked seals from the Fames have been captured in fishermen's nets away up the East Coast of Scotland; and a recently discovered colony of grey seals in my own part of the world was no doubt an overflow from the Fame Islands, a colony sent out due to population pressure.

While the protected grey seals were increasing in numbers, the number of common seals seemed to remain relatively stable, perhaps increasing slightly. Seal hunting was not a very profitable way of living, but it seemed to be sufficiently profitable to keep the common seals in reasonable numbers. In recent years, however, the price of seal skins has gone up so much that in some places common seals have been unduly heavily exploited and are becoming rare. It is I certainly true that in the Wash the take of common seals doubled in the middle years of this decade, and it is now possible that there are fewer than there were. In Shetland it is probable that the population of common seals has been reduced by something between one half and 75 per cent. due to over-shooting during the past ten years or so.

In short, my Lords, while protection alone has caused in some places such an increase in seals as to inflict serious damage on fisheries, in other places lack of protection has caused, or seems likely to cause, such a fall in the population of seals as to do potentially serious damage to the sealing industry itself. Quite apart from the commercial implications, seals are attractive creatures, and none of us would want to see them unnecessarily reduced in numbers, whether naturalists who like to do research into them, or the ordinary tripper who pays 6d. to go round the island to look at them during his holiday.

These conflicting interests can, I think, be resolved by securing and maintaining such a population of seals as will not cause serious damage to our fisheries. Your Lordships will note that I say "maintaining". If the population is allowed to grow too much the fisheries will suffer, and the natural increase, therefore, has to be culled. That, I think, is best done by properly supervised commercial sealing, which indeed needs the regular and sustained annual yield that only a constant population would produce. It would mean, too, that the killing would be done by men whose profession it is and whose livelihood depends on killing cleanly, quickly and expeditiously. On the other hand, if the cull is too heavy, we should unnecessarily reduce the number of attractive animals. Also, our international reputation would suffer, because we have by far the greatest number of grey seals of anywhere in the world. It is thought that about 75 per cent. of the total world population of grey seals is found around our coasts. That, as I have said, demands an active policy of conservation and management, which, of course, is only putting into scientific jargon the policy which any sheep farmer follows. He tries to keep the maximum number of sheep he can without forcing them, through lack of keep, to jump the walls into his neighbour's oats. He culls and sells his surplus every year; he tries to maintain a more or less stable population and, if he is lucky, a stable income. This is obviously more difficult with wild animals than with tame ones, domestic ones, and particularly animals which live on in accessible parts of our coast.

When the last Grey Seals Protection Act was passed it would have been ridiculous, I think, to suggest anything else, although there was a loophole in that Act to allow the Minister to permit killing if the numbers increased too greatly. But we did not know enough about the habits and population dynamics of seals then to be able to suggest anything like what is suggested in this Bill. Over the past twenty years or so seals have been much studied both by amateur and professional zoologists, and I think that we have now sufficient faces to advise the Minister how to control the seal population effectively.

My Lords, to deal now with the Bill itself, Clause 1 prohibits the killing of any seal, save under licence, other than injured seals killed to put them on of their misery or those killed in the act of damaging nets, as is now done round fixed nets for salmon, and would continue to be allowed under the Bill. Clause 2 sets out the objectives which should guide the Minister when granting licences, objectives which I think should secure that the seal population is kept at a reasonable level consistent with doing no serious damage to fisheries; and this should be read in conjunction with Clause 5, which sets out the Minister's obligations.

Of course, in places where there is no commercial fishing the seal population can be very much larger than in places where there is fishing, although, as I have said, if you get an over-large population in any one area, sheer population pressure will drive it to spread to areas where harm can be done. Clause 3, therefore, allows the Minister to specify the number, age and species of seal which may be killed and the area in which that can be done. It also provides that the Minister must specify the weapon to be used. I had thought to specify in the Bill the weapons which could be used, as is done in the Deer Bill, because at the moment seals can he shot—save grey seals during their breeding season—at any time, any place and with any weapon; and there is abundant evidence that a great deal of unnecessary suffering is caused.

But now the conditions under which seals are killed will vary enormously, according to the age of the seals whose killing the Minister licenses and the place where he allows it to be done. A weapon unsuitable in some circumstances may be the most suitable in others. The essence of this provision is to secure that the most humane weapon is used, and that if seals have to be killed they are killed quickly and humanely. It seems best, therefore, to leave it to the Minister to specify the weapons and not to lay it down in the Bill.

The only method which is expressly forbidden in the Bill is the use of poison, under Clause 4, which is designed to prevent the use of strychnine, a poison which causes an agonising death, but which now can be legally used. Poisoned fish can he put into the nets in Scotland, but not in England. And I am ashamed to say, in parentheses, that strychnine can still be used throughout the whole of Great Britain to kill moles; and, like moles under ground, the seal which takes the poisoned bait from the net dies a horrible death, out of sight and out of mind. I am quite certain that if the people who put that poisoned fish in the net could see the seal die they would never use strychnine again. If this Bill had but one clause, and that Clause 4, I think it would be well worth passing.

Clause 6 provides that the Natural Environment Research Council should continue with their scientific research into seal populations which has made the introduction of this Bill reasonable and possible: research which will enable the Minister to carry out effectively the duties placed on him by this Bill; while Clause 5 and Clause 3 provide that the Minister shall, on his side, see that the Council have all the information he can provide to help them to carry out that duty.

This Bill, as I have said, is intended to provide the scientific management of one of our natural resources. It is intended to meet the sometimes conflicting views of fishermen, the seal hunters and the nature lover, and is the result of much consultation with interested parties and of co-operation between the Council for Nature and the Fauna Society—those being two of the more important conservation societies. It has, moreover, the support of the University Federation for Animal Welfare, one of the more important of the animal welfare societies. I hope, my Lords, that it may also have your support. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

11.22 a.m.


My Lords, I start off my remarks by a request and apology to the House. My request and apology is that your Lordships will excuse me from remaining for the rest of the debate because, owing to the change of date of the Second Reading, it clashes with the memorial service to a most distinguished servant of the Crown who was a great personal friend of mine, which I naturally wish to attend.

If I criticise this Bill, it is not because I do not condemn cruelty to all animals and it is not because I do not share the feelings on the cruelty caused by needless killing; nor do I hesitate to condemn the rumoured cruel killings in the Wash area of the common seal. And it is not because I oppose steps to preserve seals, particularly the grey seal. But it is because any Bill aiming at becoming law should be based on fact and not emotion, and any Bill should be precise and fair in its provisions and its effects on the commercial interests involved.

The first fact to take into account in judging this Bill is, as the noble Earl who moved the Second Reading said, that it is not a Bill aimed at preserving an ever-diminishing, dying species. It deals with an increasing seal population around our shores. In 1914, when the first protection Bill was passed, the grey seal population round our coast was estimated at about 500. To-day it is estimated at about 20,000, of which 80 per cent. are based for feeding and breeding in Scottish waters. The population of the common seal is probably about the same figure.

As I see it, the danger in this Bill as drafted is that it could be used to allow the seal population to get out of control, to the detriment of the salmon and white fish, as is almost the case in Scotland to-day. There is no doubt that the ravages of the seal are serious in Scotland in three ways. First, the net fishermen in the South of Scotland and the East Coast of Scotland find that 10 per cent. of the salmon caught have seal bite marks and are quite unmarketable. Secondly, salmon are killed, eaten and mutilated inside and outside the nets. Thirdly, there is damage to the nets and equipment.

Dr. Bennet, of the Marine Research Laboratory, Scottish Home Department, has estimated that seals eat something more than 80,000 fish a year around our shores, and in money terms there is a loss of about £100,000 in loss of food, and probably another £50,000 in damage to nets—very considerable figures. Now this Bill aims to give further protection to grey seals and to extend the protection to the common seal. I would ask that we have a care that in trying to do this we do not inflict damage on an already hard-pressed but important industry, particularly in Scotland: salmon netting, as well as salmon caught by rod and line. As I said, the Bill as drafted fails to take into account a factor peculiar to Scotland: that is, the use of coastal fixed nets. Nowhere else in Britain, except for the Tweed area, is that particular method of catching salmon practised. These net stations are unfortunately the favourite hunting grounds for seals. Because of this the netting stations keep rifles to drive away, and if necessary to kill, persistent offenders. These are something more than Committee points.

Under Clause 1(1)(a) as drafted, any netsman without a licence is liable to prosecution, as also is the owner of the boat under Clause 1(2), if he kills a seal. It is quite true that the offender could excuse himself under Clause 1(ii)(B), but under the Bill he has to wait until his property is actually damaged or the seal is actually causing damage before he can obtain the protection of that clause. That means that when he sees a seal approaching his nets he must do nothing: under the Bill as at present drafted, he has to wait until the seal, as it were, has the net in its mouth before he is entitled to take any protectionary action for his equipment. Surely it is wrong to put someone under the threat of prosecution in such circumstances. As I have already said, seals arouse emotions when debated, and here is a danger of unjust and unnecessary prosecutions against those who are trying to protect their living and their property.

It could be argued that the net operator or the boat owner could continue by getting a licence from the Minister under Clause 2(1)(c)(ii), but the purpose of that subsection is to allow the culling over a wide area when it is scientifically proved that a physical deterioration of stocks has occurred. There are three objections to this. First, it is difficult to prove loss due to any one cause. The Bill says, "serious loss caused by seals to fishing": the wretched salmon has to contend with Greenland netting; it has to contend with driftnetting, inside and outside territorial waters—it is having a terrifically rough ride and any nature-lover motivated by emotion, rather than by practical considerations, should say, "Prove to me that the damage to, fisheries is being caused by seals and not by one of these other factors".

Secondly, the word used in the Bill is "fisheries". That is a very loose word and could be held not to include gear such as coastal nets. The Bill will need looking at from that point of view. Thirdly, the word "serious" (in reference to damage to nets and gear), is capable of many interpretations. A loss of £5 is serious to one man, but not to another; a loss of £100 may mean ruin to one man, but a large company might not consider it serious. Another clinger in the Bill is its vague wording. For instance in Clause 2(1)(c) reference is made to "a surplus of seals". On that there might be varying views, ranging from one to the infinite, and who is to determine whether a "surplus" exists? Is it to be the naturalists, or the fishermen, or the Minister? Is it to an overall surplus or a local surplus? These points must be looked at before we allow this Bill to become law.

Then it seems to me there is a conflict in Clause 3 between subsections (6) and (7). Subsection (6) says: The Minister shall not without the consent of the Council grant a licence to kill or take seals … in an area of … which in the opinion of the Council is of special interest. These words means that the Council is in fact supreme in stating the particular area for which licences should be allowed. But then we come to subsection (7), which says: … except in relation to the prevention of serious damage to fisheries the Minister shall consult with the Council. Who is paramount? Is it the Council or is it the Minister? As it stands, the Bill leaves that open to doubt.

My Lords, I have just sketched some of the vague and undefined provisions in the Bill, and I submit that there are two courses open to your Lordships today. The first is to deny the Bill a Second Reading, and the second is to ask the promoters to approach these problems of the shortcomings of the Bill as drafted in a co-operative spirit. Various Amendments are possible. There could be the exclusion of owners and operators of river and coastal netting stations in the South Scotland and Tweed areas. Other Amendments will be required to meet the points I have dealt with in my remarks.

I submit that in this debate, we should not only discuss the very understandable wish to conserve the seal population, but recognise that we have also a further twofold responsibility. First, we have responsibility for the preservation of the fiercely oppressed salmon species, which, unlike seals, are decreasing in numbers. Secondly, we have a responsibility for the livelihood of many individuals who gain their living by means of commercial fishing. They do it sometimes in a small way, sometimes in a big way; but they are part of an important British industry, and I submit that this House has a duty to guard their interests as well as those of the seal.

11.35 a.m.


My Lords, I want to say only a few words in general support of this Bill. I have listened with great interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, has said, and I am sure that many of the points he has raised should be taken care of in Committee, which I trust will happen. Taking the Bill in general, in my view it is a good thing that the present measure should include the protection of both the grey seal and the common seal. Also it fulfils a certain useful purpose, because if there is one industry which is being damaged by seals and at the same time another industry which benefits from their presence in the area—an example of which is the people who want to kill seals for their coats—then obviously there must be some form of licensing which will conserve, as the noble Earl has said, yet not preserve too much. The fact that there will be some sort of system of licensing must imply that the killing of these animals must be done in as humane a way as possible, and I believe that that can best be secured by having some form of control over the killing in the way suggested by this Bill. Among other bodies which agree with these sentiments are the R.S.P.C.A., with whom I have had some talks. Although they have not been involved in the Bill they support the principles behind it.

There are two points with which I should like the noble Earl to deal when he replies. One is the method of killing, because one has seen a certain amount of criticism of the use of the -22 rifle. Apparently it is quite sufficient for young seals, but with adult seals it can wound and not kill. My second point is that we must be sure that the carcases of the seals are disposed of in a way which is satisfactory in regard to the amenities and other aspects involved. There was an interesting report from the University Federation for Animal Welfare which showed that they had judged the work of two syndicates who were killing the seals. Syndicate "A", had some means of mincing up the carcases of the seals so that they could be put overboard where they were rapidly consumed by seagulls and thus did not cause any trouble—indeed they gave a certain amount of pleasure to the seagulls. The method employed by Syndicate "B" was not so satisfactory because it led to the seal carcases being washed up on the shores where a certain amount of offensive material was left behind.

I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading because it can be amended, if necessary, in Committee, and in my opinion it would make a useful addition to the conservation and preservation work which is being done so well in this country.

11.38 a.m.


My Lords, my noble Friend Lord Perth, as First Commissioner of Crown Estate, had hoped to be here this morning in order to take part in this debate, but as, unfortunately, he is unable to be present he has asked me to speak on his behalf and on behalf of my fellow Commissioners. My reason for speaking is, as your Lordships know, that the Crown owns most of the foreshore and seabed, including the Wash, where the common seal, in particular, is to be found. For that reason the Commissioners of Crown Estate have always been extremely anxious that the killing of seals should be properly controlled, especially taking into account all the various interests of which we have already heard—not only the interests of those who go round the harbours with holidaymakers who like to look at the seals, not only in the interests of humanity and the avoidance of unnecessary cruelty, but also in the interests of those of whom the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, has reminded us.

Because of the Crown's ownership of so much of the area where this killing takes place, we have tried to find ways whereby we could license the killing of seals in order to give effect to the proper control of their killing, but unfortunately all the legal advice we have been able to obtain assures us that as things stand to-day there is no action that we can take in the matter. The reason for this appears to be that all citizens have a right of navigation over Crown foreshores and sea-beds, and we have no powers whatsoever to control in any way the killing of seals in the course of such navigation. Since this is so, and since the Commissioners, in spite of their ownership, are powerless to do anything in this matter, we welcome the general principles set out in the Bill and hope very much that it will be possible to do something on these lines with as much speed as possible, whether it is done by the Bill itself or by some specific action on the part of Her Majesty's Government.

I must say that I have rather more confidence than I might have had that Governmental action may be forthcoming since my noble friend the Leader of the House is to reply to this debate. Had he been replying to it in his earlier capacity as Lord Privy Seal, doubtless he would have been more friendly disposed, but even as Paymaster General he still cannot get rid of his past association of his distinguished exploring career, where I believe he had intimate knowledge of seals, not only from looking at them and enjoying them but even from living on them and keeping warm with their skins. Whether it comes from the Government or whether it comes from this Bill, I can assure your Lordships that the Commissioners of Crown Estate are most anxious to see that this indiscriminate situation as it exists to-day is brought to an end.

11.44 a.m.


My Lords, I can say that to all intents and purposes I have been brought up with seals, because the, common seal breeds all round my es1 ate in the Hebrides and the grey seal breeds a few miles off on the Treshnish Islands. So I have a good deal of practical experience of seals. I personally welcome this Bill. The existing legislation has failed, I would say, in three respects: first of all, licences have been granted to people with very little experience of how to kill seals; secondly, there has been very little control over the number of seals killed by licence holders; and, thirdly, the worst omission of all in the existing legislation, which this present Bill corrects, the common seal hid no protection.

The "common seal" is a great misnomer, because in fact he is a rare seal. The noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, gave certain figures as to the number of seal. It is quite correct that the grey seal has greatly increased during the last twenty to thirty years. The noble Lord mentioned a figure of 20,000, but ray information is that if you count Ireland it is more like 36,000, which is about 75 per cent. of the world grey seal population. But the noble Lord went on to say that the common seal was equally numerous. In actual fact, with due respect to the noble Lord, he was quite wrong, be cause the information is that the numbers of the common seal are probably not more than 2,000. If you take the colony in the Shetlands, which once had a very big colony of common seal, since 1956 the population has decreased by 67 per cent. I would say that the common seal is in real danger of extinction.

To-day everybody owns a car, and in my opinion far too many people own a small calibre rifle. I do not want to berate tourists, because I am all for having tourists in my part of the world. I have seen people, I presume tourists, drive along in a car; they see a seal in the water—this is quite incredible, but I have seen it—and they shoot at it with a small rifle. It is completely pointless, because if you hit the seal—and you have to hit it in the head to kill it—it sinks straight away; you cannot possibly get it. The chances are that they wound it. The whole procedure is distasteful and extremely cruel. If this Bill does nothing else but prevent that happening it will have done a very good thing.

May I give your Lordships some of my experience regarding seals and salmon. I have salmon fishing, and I also net salmon at the mouth of a river. With regard to the common seal, it is true that he eats salmon, but I believe he is rather abused in this. I have occasionally shot common seal for experimental purposes. With any of the seals I have opened I have not found salmon in them; I have chiefly found things like eels, shell fish and white fish. It is true enough that they take salmon, and that they will even sometimes come up a river into a loch during the spawning of the salmon. But I have a theory that the brown seal on the whole takes only the weaker salmon. He is probably doing some good. It is true that you find salmon with seal marks on them, which means that they have escaped the seal. These are the strongest salmon. The grey seal is a little more voracious as regards the salmon. It is true that if a seal gets into a net he can do a great deal of damage. I agree that when a fisherman sees a seal approaching his net he ought to be able to shoot it, but of course it is very difficult to define how near the seal should be to the net, and if you did define it it would be very hard to carry it out in law.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfour, spoke a great deal about the decrease in salmon. Of course he is right. But the chief cause of that great decrease is the greed of man. The noble Lord spoke about Greenland netting. This is something I deplore. Hundreds or maybe a thousand tons of salmon are taken in the winter by Greenland netting. The amount of salmon taken by seals around our shores compared to Greenland netting is just a fraction of 1 per cent. It is really of little consequence.

I turn now to Clause 3, which lays down that the Minister shall order how seals are to be killed. Of course, the method of killing is not put down in the Bill. I would support my noble friend Lord Cranbrook in saying that strychnine is a very cruel method. It is a devilish method, and it should never be allowed. That comes under Clause 4. If this Bill becomes law it will be a great thing if strychnine is abolished. I should like to say a few words also about the methods of killing. Because the seal is a large animal he is easy to wound. The usual method of culling seals is to club the cubs. That is a horrible business. It is a surprise to me that one can get people to do this job. The brown seal has a soft skull and is easily killed with a blow from a heavy stick or implement, but the grey seal cub has a much thicker skull, and when he is clubbed I should prefer it to be with some special club, heavily weighted with lead, or with some form of implement which can do the job properly, because I have known instances where it has not been done properly and, as I say, it is cruel.

With regard to firearms, I personally have always thought that if you are going to kill seal cubs you should shoot them through the head with a 22 rifle. I suppose that is more expensive, so it is not done, but I would personally say that it is more humane than clubbing. If you are shooting adult seals, you ought not to use any rifle with a calibre of less than 240. When this Bill becomes law, if it does, the authority issuing licences to persons to kill seals should have the power to see that the person to whom the licence is issued proves that he has a fair standard of markmanship. He ought also to prove that he understands the correct point of aim to shoot an adult seal. Apart from the case where a seal is approaching a fisherman's net, I do not think anyone should be allowed to shoot seals from a boat, because if there is any ripple on the sea, and there usually is, it is extremely difficult to be accurate with a rifle. A number of seals are wounded in this way.

There is not a great deal more that I want to say, but there is one other important point which is not in the Bill. I think one ought not to be allowed to disturb seals during their breeding season. Nowadays you can club and shoot young seals during the breeding season. A great number of the seals have not yet bred and are still pregnant. They are driven away and a number of pups are stillborn. That, too, is cruel. Regarding the brown seal, I think that no one should be allowed to disturb a seal colony before mid-July. The grey seal, of course, has her pup at the end of November and in December. I think no grey seal colony should be disturbed before January. I hope that that will come to pass.

I would end by giving a welcome to this Bill. It is unfortunate that by having this Bill we shall have more restriction and have to issue more licences, but we cannot help that, I am afraid, because, as I say, we have an increasing population; everybody has a car, and far too many people have rifles. In my opinion, if the brown or common seal is to be saved from eventual extinction we must have this Bill.

11.58 a.m.


My Lords, in speaking briefly in support of this Bill and, if I may, congratulating the noble Earl upon its introduction, I am sure I can say that I should have had the ecclesiastical help of the Bishop of Lincoln, had he been able to be here, and I think it would not be improper for me to say that he would have supported in principle what I shall try to say. I have not had the opportunity of growing up among seals, as has the noble Viscount. In fact, my only close physical proximity to a seal has been, when bathing in Fistral Bay, Newquay, to have a seal's head popping up some few yards away. My chief recollection of the occasion is how remarkably like a fellow Methodist minister it was.

I should like to begin by adverting (I apologise if I say this in his absence) to what the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, had to say about the preferability of discussing this matter on a basis of fact, rather than giving way, as I think he implied, to emotion. I do not regard emotion as the poor relation to fact. Indeed, when it is married to principle I think it is pre-eminently important. But if you begin with the assertion that you are going to proceed upon fact, then you must be most careful afterwards in what facts you adduce, and make sure that they are in substance facts and not suppositions.

The only fact that was offered in relationship to the enormous damage done, the figure of £150,000 which the noble Lord quoted, is in strict contrast to the figure quoted by the Scottish Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, who state that the total amount of damage is much more likely to be £67,000. I think this is an indication of the way in which a Bill like this has to proceed, not upon asserted and assessed facts as precise as we should desire, but on certain principles which can be descried despite the paucity of those facts.

I would support the Bill on two principles. The first is the need, as the noble Earl clearly pointed out, for the conservation of the seal; and the second is that legislation is peremptorily needed to protect the seal from the barbarisms of some of the methods by which it is now being hunted and killed. I can speak with the support of an association of which I am President, the League Against Cruel Sports, and if I refer more particularly to some of these barbarous habits which have been adverted, to by the noble Viscount as well, it is because this is perhaps the more important element in my own thinking about this particular matter. There is no doubt that, particularly in the case of the common seal, it has become a sport—perhaps not very widespread, but nevertheless a sport—and a thoroughly reprehensible one, to seek to kill these common seals for which there is no legal protection. It is unquestionably true that there is need for legislation in this field, and since the legislation, in my judgment, points exactly in the right directions on these two matters, I cordially welcome it.

I should like, with your Lordships' patience, to refer now to some of the contents of the Bill which seem to me to need either revision, or amendment, or explication, and I offer these comments in the hope that such result or results may be achieved. I believe that it would be necessary under Clause 2(1), which permits the grant of a licence to any person for scientific or educational purposes to kill or take within an area specified in the licence by any means so specified any number off seals so specified to require that the specific purposes for which they are to be taken should be included in the licence. Otherwise, I think there is grave danger that broad terms like "scientific or educational purposes" may include ecological and behaviourist patterns of experiment which might be deleterious to the general purpose of the Bill. However, this is a matter upon which I shall be very glad to receive what information is forthcoming.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? I did not quite understand what particular scientific usage or purpose might be objectionable. The noble Lord used the word "ecological".


My Lords, without trespassing too far into the field of vivisection or even quoting the Act of, I think, 1867, for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. I believe there are totally improper methods of claiming scientific reason for what, after all, would be cruelty imposed upon these particular creatures, and I should like to see the authority and specific reason for which these educational or scientific purposes were adduced as reasons for killing seals.

Under Clause 2(1)(c) it is obvious that the maintenance of healthy breeding stock is desirable. I am not sure about the prevention of serious damage. It is an imprecise statement, and I took the point that the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, made about this, particularly when here is a matter upon which reference is not required to the Natural Environment Research Council—but the Minister himself can make that assessment.

It is upon Clause 3 that I am most concerned. I do not believe that you can find a classical golden mean below which there are not enough seals and above which there is a surplus, and it would seem that there is nothing added to the strength of this particular clause; if you guarantee (1) and (2) it seems to me that you will have made (3) redundant. However, these are smallish matters compared with the imperative need, as I see it, to have prescribed and set down in the licence itself what are the particular methods which would be permitted under particular circumstances for the killing and taking of seals. That is, of course, under Clause (3).

It is when we come to Clause (5) that I face a problem which may be due entirely to my naïveté, but for the first time we are invited to consider the arrangement for the inspection of commercial sealing. In fact, under Clause 2 there is no provision for commercial sealing. So far as I understand it, the only reasons for which seals can be taken under Clause (2) would be for those specified in paragraphs (a), (b) and (c). And unless there is provision for commercial sealing, then it will obviously be illegal for any other method to be used whereby seals should be taken. If this is so, then this is a grave defect in the Bill. If it is not so, then I would be very glad to apologise for my intrusion on a legal matter in which I am not very well versed. Furthermore, if indeed commercial sealing is to be allowed then I would suggest that the penalty of £50 and £20 will be in many cases quite derisory, and would have to be vastly increased if they were to be a true deterrent.

Finally, it seems to me that the protection which was offered to the grey seal in the breeding season having been taken away by the repeal of the Grey Seals Protection Act 1932, there is no replacement. I am not satisfied at this stage that there is need for any taking or shooting of seals in the breeding season, except in very exceptional circumstances, and I should want to know a little more about that. With those brief comments on the details of the Bill, I welcome it. I welcome it because we have so miserably failed up to now to behave decently to one another as human beings, and it may be that almost pis aller we might now concentrate more effectively on behaving more decently to animals in which case we might learn a little from them as to the better behaviour between ourselves. This is a modest Bill, and I think it will need revision and improvement, but it is a measure which I, for one, believe ought to be supported.

12.7 p.m.


My Lords, I am speaking for the seals, and we feel very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for introducing this Bill. Obviously, one of the first things it is going to do is to reduce the amount of target practice against us by irresponsible boys with .22s in cars. But we feel that the serious part of the Bill comes in Clauses 5 and 6. We read it this way. You have teams of zoologists who are going to estimate the colonies of seals throughout the British Isles, and they are going to give a figure to which those colonies can be reduced. And we notice in the last clause of this Bill that the laws protecting the grey seal are going to be repealed; therefore, grey seals are going to come into this category. That means that they are going to give a figure of how many seals can be culled. Now against the zoologists and this figure are Her Majesty's Government and the fishing industry.

I do not know whether you realise, my Lords—I expect you do: you are very clever people—that the Atlantic salmon industry turns over more than £200 million a year. It is big business. Her Majesty's Government are faced with keeping every available supply of sea food, as the Americans call it, that they can. The demand, as you know, is increasing, and supply is diminishing. There is also an export trade of salmon to Paris, which is a very good export trade and is growing. Therefore, there is an enormous number of people who require the seal to be practically exterminated, against nothing very much; and I trust that when the Bill goes further some clause will be put in to safeguard the lowest ebb to which the seal population can be reduced.

But, my Lords, speaking as a seal, I must say that we appear to be far more colourful a predator of salmon than we really are. We pop up and we pop down, and everybody sees us. We go on the sandbacks for some dry purposes, and we go down for divers reasons. We are not the greatest predator; we are hardly a predator at all. I do not want to be long—I probably shall be, but I do not want to be—but I should like to say exactly what the Atlantic salmon is up against in predators, so that you can understand where the poor old seal comes in. After the female salmon goes to the red and deposits her eggs, then it is "over to you"—"you" being the predators. The eels smell the eggs, come creeping up and gollop up the lot. They are also the prey of kingfishers and also of quite small trout. Small boys get them with worms, and the bigger trout feed on them. When they silver and go down to the sea as smelts there is a collection of sea birds sitting on the bank, watching out for a "run", and becoming bloated with them. The bigger trout prey on them all the way down, and in rivers the pike, too, prey or them.

After a period, when the salmon go to their feeding grounds, they swim across the Atlantic Ridge and get to the Davis Straits, and in the last three years they have met a formidable reception. Last year the trawlers were taking up over 314 metric tons of salmon. This year the position will be much worse. There are many more trawlers joining in the "gold rush". They will use the Japanese net, which is lethal—it is a "take-all" net. It is thought that they can almost exterminate the salmon altogether.

When the salmon start to come back to their breeding grounds they have an equally wonderful reception from us. The whole East Coast line is covered with stake-nets, and the West Coast with bag-nets, splash-nets and every device one can think of to catch them. Then when they go up the estuaries they lave a formidable race to run. The seine net is now operated from automatically-driven boats. It is paid out and drawn in by a mechanically-driven winch, and it sweeps the estuary, bringing the salmon into the bag. There is one station after another like this. This process goes on night and day during the period when it is allowed.

Then the salmon comes up against the next predator—the angler. There he is, muffled up to the cold, with his rods slung over his back, his spinners behind him. And the further the salmon goes up the river, the more crafty and skilled the angler becomes. He is armed with a lethal form of rod and reel, the bait is put right across a large river, and the whole process is much quicker than it would otherwise be. Then there in the river is the gillie, with his polarised glasses, his net and his gaff, and out the salmon come. Finally, the salmon gets up to the more old-fashioned type of angler, standing with his split green-heart rods, and his "blue charms".

I should declare an interest in that I am a predator. I have noticed that a great number of people have not declared interests in this debate. I am a predator, but in a mild way, because I have in the spring season spent my time sitting on a bank watching a hatch of "blue olives" or "March browns", with all the feelings of a seal. I have had the reels running, and one does not know whether to tickle them or scoop them out. I have felt the joy a seal must feel when it catches a salmon.


My Lords, is the noble Lord now speaking as a seal?


The noble Lord has put my fur up a bit, but I am speaking as a seal in his understanding of other predators. I thank the noble Lord for the interruption. Then one gets the poachers, the illegal people who fish for salmon; and one gets one of the most deadly things in the river, the cyne gas, which can clean out a river for several miles. And you get the net fishers. Then you get the most skilful poacher of all, the man who cuts a patch out of an inner-tube of a tractor tyre and puts a noose on it; he walks up to the salmon in the water, tickles it, and slips the noose over it. He breaks its neck, puts it under his coat and walks off with it. To give him his due, he is the finest craftsman of the lot.

I am afraid that in all this list of illegal predators, Her Majesty's Government may be a predator themselves, and an illegal one. I believe that the Lincoln Edition of Magna Carta is the finest copy available. It states categorically that kiddles must not be set on the Thames and Medway. I know that Lot's Road Power Station grid has caught quite a number of salmon. I do not know whether that power station grid counts as a kiddle, but if it does, and Her Majesty's Government are aiding and abetting the breaking of one of our oldest laws, they are in a nice "kiddle of fish".

I take the part of the seal, and I trust that we shall remember the biggest predator of the lot. I refer to the new bacteriological disease which causes ulcers on fish at sea, so that when they swing up the river they are attacked by a fungus. The figures in regard to this disease are not published, but they must be enormous. I shall not be able to be present during other stages of this Bill, but I trust that the part of the seal will be remembered.

The destruction of salmon caused by seals is an insignificant contribution in the total picture. I doubt very much the noble Lord's figure of 80,000 salmon a year. I should have thought that if all the nets in the British Isles were taken off for a quarter-of-an-hour, that would account for all the salmon killed by seals. There are strong objections to marks on salmon sometimes caused by seals, but people tend to forget about the ordinary angler, with his rusty gaff who jabs it in anywhere, so that the place goes rotten and has to be cut out. Fishermen complain bitterly about the mess the seals make of their nets. But what about the mess their nets make of the seals? I trust that some provision will be included to protect not only the common seal, which is becoming extinct, but the grey seal which to-day is coming back from complete extinction. My Lords, I would rather sacrifice all the smoked salmon in the Savoy than see the seal become extinct.

12.19 p.m.


My Lords, if the noble Lord. Lord Balfour of Inchrye, were still in his place, I should exonerate myself from the charge of being unduly emotional by saying that if it had not been for the change in your Lordships' programme, I myself would have been fishing this morning—not for salmon, but trout. I should have watched a heron or a kingfisher going up the stream sharing my sport, and I should not have felt any emotion at all against those fellow-predators.

I do not feel that the issues in this Bill as it is drafted need have any effect on one's emotions. But undoubtedly a certain amount of emotion may come into the matter, and for my own part I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Soper, that it is nothing to be ashamed of. After all, if one thinks of the Farne Islands, it was St. Cuthbert who first displayed some emotion about protecting wild life. It is not a bad thing that the extension of the moral law has gone on through all these centuries. Our population is now much more alert to the need for protecting and treating humanely our wild life, especially our largest remaining mammals, which are extremely attractive animals. I can also imagine—and I believe that as the Bill gets through its further stages in this House and certainly in another place, we shall hear a lot more of this argument—that there is a certain amount of quite legitimate emotion on the part of people who ask: "Why should baby seals be clubbed to death in order that some woman may gratify her vanity by wearing the skin, or that somebody may earn a few pounds in the process?" But that, again, is not the issue which arises on this Bill.

The Bill very realistically acknowledges that the seal population may need some control in the interest of fisheries, and I think that is really the only interest than one need consider, if the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, had still been here, I should have suggested he might contribute a few facts by telling us what, in fact, in spite of the depredations of the seals at the mouth of the Tweed—and they are admitted—has been the number of salmon running up the River Tweed and taken on the rod, and what have been the profits of the companies engaged in netting them. There are a few facts of that sort which might be very relevant if we are going to talk facts. But I should find it very difficult—and I know something about what happened in the past—to be convinced that, scientifically, the depredations of the seals have had any effect upon the salmon population of the North Sea. Also, I should want a great deal more convincing that the existing and diminishing numbers of the common seal are having any effect at all upon the herring population of the North Sea. It is admitted by naturalists that the seal populations need watching and they may, and in the case of the grey seal probably do, need some culling. That, I suggest, is really the only economic factor which it is necessary to take into account.

I, with a great many other people, feel very grateful to the noble Earl for having introduced this Bill which I think has been very carefully drafted. There are undoubtedly a number of points which will have to be debated and looked at closely in Committee—and some were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye. I entirely disagree with the noble Lord that it is unreasonable to say that leave of the Natural Environment Research Council should he required before the Minister of Agriculture allows people to slaughter seals on some island or group of rocks which has been specifically set aside as a nature reserve for scientific reasons. It seems to me that that is a very proper and indeed essential requirement. But when this Bill has been so carefully prepared, I am sure that your Lordships—and the tone of the debate this morning proves it—will be very ready not only to give it a Second Reading, but to help it Further along.

As the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, said, if we are thinking about the grey seal in particular, it represents a very high percentage indeed of the world population of that very interesting species which was saved from possible extinction only a few years ago by the action which our own Government took. Other countries, not only in Europe but elsewhere, look very closely at what this country does in elaborating a policy of conservation of wild life, and I am sure that they will take a very great interest in the progress of this Bill. When it is drafted, as I suggest it is, on humane, sensible and indeed scientific lines, it deserves every support.

12.25 p.m.


My Lords, as President of the Fauna Preservation Society, on which we have the honour of having the noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, as Vice-President, as well as Sir Solly Zuckerman, Sir Landsborough Thomson and other famous scientists, I feel that the occasion of this debate should not pass without my thanking the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for the tremendous trouble he has taken in helping the Council for Nature and ourselves in preparing this Bill. This Bill is a non-Party matter which I hope will pass through this House rather quickly, and also through another place.

There is only one point which I should like to make. Nobody so far has quoted the article in The Times of May 22, and with permission I should like to take two minutes of your Lordships' time to read it. It said: Seal cull charges.—Allegations of cruelty have been made to Mr. Hughes, Minister of Agriculture, by observers from the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, who have been witnessing the Great Yarmouth seal cull. With fewer than 10 of the Ministry's total of 75 seals killed in five days, and with only sixteen days to go … the cull has proved a failure, the Federation's scientific director, Major Walter Scott, said. Major Scott is on our Fauna Preservation Society and is, I think, one of the greatest authorities on this matter in this country. The article went on: He has sent a telegram to Mr. Hughes asking him to call it off. The Federation have cast doubt on the official 'kill' claims. They said yesterday that on May 18th a 90 lb. immature grey seal was wounded and escaped to sea. It was retrieved by a hunter and a Ministry official. Only after repeated bludgeoning did it succumb', the statement added. 'We are convinced that the 0.22 weapons and ammunition are neither effective nor humane against adult seals, particularly grey seals'"— which is the big point that I want to make— …Major Scott said. A Ministry statement that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had approved the methods used was hotly denied by the R.S.P.C.A., who said: Our veterinary surgeons are extremely unhappy about the cull. We do not accept the methods as humane'. It is therefore with very great pleasure that I speak in favour of the Bill.

12.27 p.m.


My Lords, this is indeed a somewhat difficult subject, because, as we have heard today, it is full of emotion and sentimentality. Furthermore, in the public mind there is confusion of the seal with the sealion, which we picture happily barking in the circus ring or balancing a ball on its nose. Only last week, when I turned on the car radio, I heard a programme allegedly on seals, and barking in the background, when required, was a sealion and not a seal.

Seals are delightful and attractive creatures, and there is no doubt about your Lordships' views on seals as a whole. But where does one draw the line. I wonder, between the economic requirements of man and the pleasure which we derive from these animals. Almost without exception, control by Government or quasi-Government bodies has been a failure, and quite often harmful to the particular species which they were hoping to look after. I am sure that most of your Lordships have complained at some time or other about various restrictions, and consequently I am rather loath to impose any further restrictions on the community at large.

As regards the expressions of my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye, about the fishermen, I feel very strongly that if at all possible we should impose no further restrictions in this respect upon them.

The noble Lord, Lord Soper mentioned £150,000 as being quoted by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye. In fact, I think my noble friend said£100,000, which would be nearer the figure around the coast, and it is certainly not £7,000 as the noble Lord suggested.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, had two figures, one for the damage caused to the nets, which I think was £100,000, and the other for damage caused to the fishing industry which was £50.000, adding up in my calculation to £150,000. Also, I did not say £7,000; I said £67,000.


My Lords, I have here an official Government research document which was prepared between 1959 and 1963. It was done by the Marine Laboratory, in Aberdeen, and the Freshwater Fishery Laboratory, at Pitlochry, Considerable trouble was taken to get out statistics, and I think they should be fairly accurate. The compilers of the report admit the difficulty in getting detailed figures, but they have all along tried to take what they consider to be a conservative figure. They did most of their study down the East Coast of Scotland and on the Northumberland Coast of England. The findings were that almost all salmon fishing stations with fixed nets in this particular area suffered some damage to their nets every year during the inquiry. Some suffered severe damage to their tackle, sometimes in excess of 30 per cent. In the case of the East Coast stations, the conservatively estimated loss of fish to fishermen using fixed nets was about 20 per cent. The conservative estimate of the combined net damage and fish lost to these salmon fishermen is approximately £50,000 a year. That is on this section of the coast alone. These figures, I repeat, come from the official Government report.

The noble Lord, Lord Hurcomb, asked for further details about the Tweed. My noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye did not anticipate this question, but I happen to have the details. The net and cobble fishings estimate that they suffer a loss of 7 per cent. of the fish which they take, or a loss of 1,700 fish per year, so one can work out their total catch. That is for the net and cobble fishing. I do not know what the rod fishings are, I am afraid. However, it will be appreciated that the loss is substantial, and I think we must bear this in mind when we consider how we are going to deal with this matter. In addition to these losses, between 5 and 15 per cent. of all the marketable fish—as has already been said to-day, there are a good many which are not marketable—have been injured by seals. So that, apart from what the seals are actually taking, they are in fact injuring and damaging a considerable number of the salmon.

Your Lordships are well aware of what has happened when official Government culls have attempted to take place, with the killing of these seals. We have all seen reported recently in the Press—indeed, we have just had a report read out about them—allegations of cruelty, and so on; and well-informed protectionists, photographers and television cameras have often arrived on the scene before the official cullers. I maintain that this is not the way to operate proper conservation and management. I wonder, though, how we can adjust the numbers to the correct figure. Obviously, there must not be too many, but I want to make it quite clear that I do not want there to be too few. I also like seals.

My Lords, I have the same views as my noble friend who has introduced this Bill, but I am afraid I do not entirely agree with his Bill, and I should like to suggest what I think is the remedy. I feel that we should ban, with severe penalties for any breach, the shooting of these animals with shot-guns except for very special circumstances, when I believe the shot-gun is better than practically any other weapon for killing the pups; and this could he done under special licence. We should also ban the crossbow. This is in a more general respect, but I think we must look at this again somewhere. The crossbow, my Lords, is becoming a menace. Your Lordships may laugh, but crossbows are now very lethal weapons, with sights and everything else on them. They have a considerable lethal range, with a steel guard. This is becoming a poaching weapon which I think will require general legislation, but I do not see any reason why it should not, meanwhile, be put into a Seal Bill.

Secondly, the number of grey seals is increasing, and with the amount of damage which they are causing I feel that we should not protect them further. If we do, obviously their numbers will continue to increase. In fact, I think that possibly a slightly heavier cull is rewired of the grey seal. With regard to the common seal. I think it quite possible that the number is slightly declining, in which case we need to look at the position very carefully. The various bodies who do research should see what in fact the numbers are. It is much harder to count the common seal, so-called, than the grey seal, because they do not go and pup in colonies, as we have been told, where they can be counted quite easily. The count is not easy, but I think there should be a little more research on this.

Action is already under way to provide greater control of the issue of fire arms, and on the uses to which they should be put. We have heard several people to-day talk about taking "pot shots" at seals. Under present legislation this should not be possible. I am afraid that what has happened is that some chief constables—I can think of one in particular in the North—have been far too lax in issuing firearms certificates. On the other hand, there is a chief constable in the South of England (I think ho will be well known to the noble Lord Opposite) who has been too severe on this, I believe, and is causing some difficulties. However, if this is properly balanced and a proper control of firearms is implemented, and if shot-guns are banned, I cannot see why it is necessary to go through all the paraphernalia of hiving a considerable Bill with a great many further restrictions. Purchase tax, also, has restricted the sale of skins to some extent, and I believe that if any further control on seals were required—this is from the commercial aspect—it could be done on the skins alone. This would do away with a great many of the restrictions generally which will otherwise be imposed under the Bill.

My Lords, if this Bill is to go through in its present form I know that the fishermen, particularly on the East Coast of Scotland, will be very concerned, and as the Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland I hope that perhaps it may not apply to Scotland, where perhaps the position is not so pressing as it is in the Wash.

12.38 p.m.


My Lords, as a member of the National Trust I should like to say a few words about this Bill. The noble Earl has referred to the substantial seal colony on the Fame Islands, which of course belong to the National Trust, and it is because of this that I am concerned about this Bill. He estimated the seal population of the Fames at 5,000 or more. That is a good deal in excess of the figure which I have been given, and this illustrates one of the difficulties in connection with this matter—the accurate estimation of the number of seals with which we are concerned. Obviously, it is extraordinarily difficult to count the inhabitants of the sea, and I have no doubt at all that there is a considerable error one side or the other in many of these estimates.

However, my main point is that from beginning to end the National Trust has never been consulted or advised about the introduction of this Bill by its sponsors, which, considering that the National Trust is a very important national institution and has the largest seal colony off the coast of England, is really. I think, quite unforgivable. It is not at all clear to us what the result of this Bill will be; and I should like to say just a few words about the recent history of this problem. At the National Trust we approached the question of the culling of seals on the Fame Islands with a completely open mind. Indeed, when the Ministry of Agriculture approached us some years ago to permit them to come on to the islands and do a cull this was brought before the committee, the arguments which were put up by the Ministry were considered and permission was granted.

This led, perhaps not unnaturally, to a considerable amount of agitation on the part of the lovers of seals, who brought a number of very eminent naturalists in support of their contention that there was no need for a cull on the Fame Islands at all, and they made us look at the matter again. We found that scientific opinion on this point was remarkably evenly divided, and it was very difficult for the layman, so to speak, who did not know a great deal about it, to decide on which side the right lay.

The argument was then shifted to the damage to the fishing industry of the Tweed; and that had to be looked at, too. We paid careful attention to the evidence which was put before us, and my chairman, Lord Antrim, who had a personal interest in this problem, made more than one visit to that part of the country in order to hear the complaints and to examine the situation on the spot. While there was evidence that damage had been caused, we were satisfied that the complaints were very much exaggerated. I felt, myself, when I listened to the noble Lord. Lord Balfour of Inchrye, that some of the complaints that he was making were also much exaggerated and that if the emotion was anywhere it was there rather than on the side of those who were wishing to protect the seals. Obviously this is a very difficult matter and it is one on which there are two points of view. Eventually, at the National Trust, we said to the Ministry, "We are not really satisfied. We must withdraw the permission we have given." That permission was withdrawn, and since then we have not agreed to the culling of seals on Fame Islands. We said, "It is up to you to satisfy us that this is necessary." The offer is open; but so far they have failed to come.

My Lords, what we are worried about is whether, under the provisions of this Bill, it might be possible for them to have a compulsory culling on the Fame Islands. Clause 2 of the Bill is fairly widely drafted. When I asked the noble Earl about this the other day, he said that our fears were groundless; but I should like to have a public statement to that effect. If the Minister who is to reply could reassure us, we should be grateful. Are the people who are to be licensed to do this extermination going to have the right to come on to the Fame Islands without the permission of the National Trust and to carry out a cull? This is an important point. I should have thought that they did not have the right; but it is important that we should be protected in this regard and have a very explicit assurance about it.

There can be no question at all that the grey seal protection Acts, which were started before the First World War, have saved the grey seal from extermination. I think the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, mentioned that in 1913 the grey seal population was down to something like 500. Can there be any real question that those 500 would have disappeared completely had it not been for the Protection Acts? And the strengthening of the Act in 1933 was undoubtedly of great value. It enabled the population of grey seals around our coasts to be reasonably high. I doubt whether it is much too high at the present time; although perhaps here and there it is. It may be that the Farne Islands numbers ought to be diminished. We in the National Trust would be ready to agree to that if an effective case for it could be made out; but so far it has not been.

I think there was a great deal in the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, which was based on his experience in North Scotland. Our information is that the common seal is certainly decreasing in number. It might be sensible to extend the protection given by the earlier Acts to the common seal—which will cease to be the common seal if the sort of treatment to which it is now subjected and to which it has been subjected over the past years is not in some way controlled. These I think are important matters and I hope that the noble Earl will be able to give an assurance about them.

12.45 p.m.


My Lords, I think the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, can be well satisfied with the reception that his Bill has received from this House and with the degree of knowledge and experience that has been brought to bear on it. We have had the seals' own representative—appropriately sitting on the Cross-Benches—and the matter has had a pretty thorough airing. I must admit, in personal terms, to a great deal of sympathy with the noble Earl's approach. The theme he stressed—which may not satisfy everybody; but which is nonetheless the basis of his case—is the need for management. He rests his case on this. In the course of my few remarks, I should like to direct your Lordships' attention to certain aspects of that matter.

It is, of course, clear that there is a great deal of public disquiet at the moment on this subject, and especially about the alleged wholesale slaughter of seals; although the evidence has been that wholesale slaughter is not always very successful. I do not think I need describe in the detail that I had at one time thought necessary the circumstances of the seals that we are discussing to-day. It is true, as my noble friend Lord Walston has said, that I too have had experience of seals in the Arctic. I was thinking when reading about this Bill that often in some off the most isolated parts of the world there is a degree of control over the taking of wild life that we fail to exercise in our own environment. Even thirty years ago, when seals were fairly available in the Arctic, the Eskimos had a rule that you could not shoot a walrus unless you first harpooned it, for the reason that you could so cause needless slaughter and get no benefit from it. Unaware of this rule, a member of our Expedition found himself at one time before an Eskimo court of three of their most experienced hunters. He got off on a technicality; but the Eskimaux felt it important to make the principle clear. In the Antarctic there are the most stringent rules against the taking of wild life. By contrast, here we find that there is not the sort of control that is applied elsewhere.

Having said that, I still think we need to examine closely the case which has been made by certain noble Lords. I have in mind particularly the noble Lord, Lord Burton, and the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye. I should like to state some of the facts as I see them in this matter. The Grey Seal Protection Act 1932, as has been pointed out, imposed a close season from September 1 to December 31 subject to the power of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make orders varying or suspending the operation of the close season. This power has been used on several occasions in recent years in respect of the Fame islands and also, more recently, in respect of the Orkneys and of certain West Hebridean Islands. In this respect I do not think the noble Earl really has any complaints. His complaints related to uncontrolled activities; these particular activities are controlled.

There have been criticisms of these culls from protectionists. The noble Marquess, Lord Willingdon, referred to a particular aspect of them which had aroused the concern of certain animal welfare bodies. I do not want to take up the time of your Lordships' House in answering these charges in detail—there is a certain blur over the events—but I think I ought to take up the noble Marquess's point about the 0.22 rifle. Certainly, in my view, it would have been absurd to attempt to shoot seals with a 0.22 rifle thirty or forty years ago, but there have been developments in the manufacture of ammunition and now one of the most damaging killing and military weapons, the Armalite rifle has in fact a relatively small calibre. The ammunition which was authorised on this occasion was much more powerful high-velocity ammunition which I understand had the general approval of the Natural Environment Research Council. I think it important to examine this point, though in the past I would have said that 0.22 calibre was too low for this purpose. So there are answers to some of these points.

There is always a controversy on the subject of predators. In the Highlands one has seen a head stalker shaking his fist at a golden eagle; one has heard controversies with regard to the kestrel and other predators, and there are different interests which conflict over the seals. I might argue that it is absurd that a farmer should be entitled to shoot a fox (provided that he is not in too strict a fox hunting area) which raided his hens, and a fisherman or somebody concerned with fishing should not be entitled to take similar action to protect his own commercial interests. To the fisherman, seals are pests; to the seal hunter they are a resource and, of course, to the nature lover they represent wild life which has to be protected. In our more civilised approach in these days, as was well expressed by my noble friend Lord Soper, there are ethical aspects of this problem, and we should object strongly to the needless taking of wild life.

My Lords, despite the powerful arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Strange, on the risks that confront salmon, there is no doubt that quite serious damage is done by seals to other kinds of fish. Seals are opportunist feeders, they parade "on sentry-go" along drift nets set for herring and strip the nets of fish. One would wish to make clear that it is not only the salmon which are affected: the white fish industry also suffers from the depredations of seals. It has been found in one area that there are, on average, six holes in every net which is hauled in, and in some nets there may be as many as thirty holes. The seals feed on most kinds of fish, although they have a particular liking for salmon. We cannot dismiss these facts, even though we cannot quote exact numbers. There is also the question of the employment of the people concerned, and it is not ignoble to consider their welfare along with that of the seals.

A great deal of research, but perhaps not yet enough, has been carried out into the question of damage caused to fish and fishing equipment, which is particularly serious in Scottish waters (we know the reasons: the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, explained them) where there are the traditional methods of salmon fishing by the use of stake-nets and bag-nets fixed in a river mouth or along the coast. Seals gather near these nets and not only damage the nets by tearing them to get at the salmon, but also disfigure the fish. There are serious depredations in the fixed cod-net fisheries off the East Coast of Scotland. As I say, a great deal of research has been undertaken especially by a Consultative Committee set up in 1959 under the auspices of the Nature Conservancy. A report published in 1963 indicated that the Orkney and Fame Island colonies had almost certainly increased and an annual cull of seal pups for five years was recommended in order to reduce by a quarter the breeding potential in these colonies.

My noble friend Lord Chorley said that there was some conflict of scientific advice. I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, would confirm that this Bill gives no additional powers to override the rights of landlords or the National Trust or anyone else. I am rather surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, who is such an expert lawyer, should be concerned about this, but since he is concerned I think that we need to be rather careful. Normally, I would have said to any noble Lord who is not legally qualified that I should not have thought that any danger arose in this direction.

My Lords, culling is a well-established method and principle of management, which is, after all, applied to all animal management in one way or another, whether in relation to wild animals, such as deer, or in animal farming in Africa. Culling may well be a necessary process. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, does not seek in any way to prevent this from taking place, provided that it is done properly. There are no completely accurate figures of the world seal population. Some figures have been given and I will not repeat them in detail. I think the latest suggestion—and this was said by the noble Earl—is that the world population of grey seals at the time when the Consultative Committee were considering the situation was estimated at 46,000; of which 30,000 were in colonies in Scotland and another 6,500 in the rest of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

It is clear that in the interests of everyone these culls should be closely supervised, and in fact they are closely controlled by the Fisheries Department which supervises the operation and ensures both that the seals are killed humanely and that the total number killed is as near as possible to the predetermined figure. There was a particular reference to the use of strychnine. What always bothers me when we discuss these matters is that we express great horror about a cruel method like using strychnine to destroy a particularly attractive kind of animal, but go on using it freely against other animals which do not arouse sympathy—for instance, rats, which are very sensitive animals.


My Lords, the noble Lord will recollect that some years back we passed a Bill forbidding the use of strychnine against every animal except the mole.


Yes, my Lords, but for a long while it went on, and strychnine is still used against moles, as the noble Earl said. In fact it has been used only on a very small scale, and I am told that only seven permits were issued in 1967. But, clearly, there is a strong feeling on this matter, and I will see that it is further considered. None the less we do tend to adjust our attitude regarding kindness to animals according to our particular sympathies. I am not accusing the noble Earl of this; I hope he will not take this personally.

The work of the Consultative Committee has now been taken over by the Seals Sub-Committee of the natural Environment Research Council and a unit has been set up for research on seals. Reference in the Bill to the Research Council carrying out scientific research has no doubt been put in for the sake of completeness and to establish the relation between the purposes of the Bill and the noble Lord's conception of scientific management.

I should like to say a little about commercial killing. Here we have been helped by the admirable report produced by the University Federation for Animal Welfare. I think that it is a model report from an animal welfare body, showing great restraint and objectivity. It has enabled us to assess more thoroughly what the situation is, particularly in the Wash, and gives us the figures of kills. Other noble Lords have gone into the details of this report and the methods of disposal, which clearly is something that will have to be further considered. We now know that both grey and common seals can and do cause considerable damage. However, there is no evidence that either species is in danger of becoming extinct at the present rate of exploitation, and I am not sure whether the noble Earl's case in relation to the conservation side has been completely made out. I want to make this point because I am sure that we ought not to introduce legislation to increase the powers of control unless the case is fully made out.

I should like now to discuss the Bill itself. I think the noble Earl's case, although resting largely on arguments of scientific management, is intended to cover wider issues than that, including the problem of the wanton and cruel killing of seals. The noble Viscount. Lord Massereene and Ferrard, spoke of people driving along the coast and taking "pot shots" at seals, but the noble Lord, Lord Burton, pointed out that there are ways of dealing with these people which might be less onerous than establishing the sort of system of control envisaged in this Bill.

Until I heard this debate I was pretty much of the opinion that the case for this Bill would be difficult to make out. Now, having heard the debate and the strength of feeling in your Lordships' House, I think it would be right for us to consider the matter a great deal more closely, but I do not think that the Bill will do as it stands. Some of the reasons for this have been given. In making my criticisms, I do not want to criticise the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, because I think that it is a skilfully drafted Bill, but we all know how difficult it is to get legislation right. For instance, it is not clear whether, under Clause 1(1)(b), the Bill would penalise possession of a sealskin. The saving in the proviso to Clause 1, which allows action to be taken against seals caught in flagrante delicto—caught in the act—of damaging nets or tackle would have to include seals damaging catches or actively interfering with fishing operations. I am sure that the noble Earl, who has wrestled with this Bill, is well aware of the many difficulties. We should probably have to attempt to define what is a "surplus" of seals; or perhaps we could leave it, as I think the noble Earl would like to leave it, to the Minister, advised by the Natural Environment Research Council—though I am not sure that they would be the proper body to advise on what a surplus was, because there are other interests involved. Again I do not know how a "healthy" breeding stock would be defined.

Clause 3 concerns matters which, given the variety of purposes and circumstances contemplated for control, would perhaps be better dealt with in the licensing process rather than by statutory regulation. This would not rule out the adoption and licensing of any standing practices and safeguards. Clause 5 imposes some rather novel responsibilities on the appropriate Minister, as does the penalty clause, and these will need careful study. I must say honestly that my right honourable friends have not yet come to any views on whether they ought to accept these responsibilities.

This Bill will put a big premium on knowledge, wisdom and expertise in control. Licensing is a familiar feature of protective legislation of this kind, but I am not sure whether it is entirely suitable for seals. How would licensing discriminate between the good and the not-so-good purpose; or between the good and the bad applicant? These difficulties may be capable of being overcome, but it is possible that there could be a Bill of a similar kind which would prohibit specified methods of destruction (the noble Lord, Lord Burton, said something on this) and empower the Minister, in certain circumstances, to make wider orders scheduling particular areas and to issue licences in protected areas for the particular scientific and educational purposes which are envisaged in the Bill.

Your Lordships have to decide whether to give this Bill a Second Reading. I must say frankly that I had been advised that the Bill in its present form ought not to go on to the Statute Book. I think it is doubtful whether it will reach the Statute Book in its present form, but I feel that the case has been made so strongly to-day that we ought not just to reject the Bill. Indeed, I think it is unlikely that your Lordships would reject this Bill and it is necessary to recognise this.

What I should like to suggest to the noble Lord is that, provided the House gives the Bill a Second Reading—and I would certainly not oppose the Second Reading—we should examine the Bill further, without necessarily going on with the Corn-mince stage, see that any further interests that have to be consulted are consulted, and give the Government an opportunity to harmonise their own policy in this matter. I do not think it will probably be done in this Session, but quite early in the next Session, after consultations have taken place, perhaps the noble Earl might introduce another Bill on which there was a greater measure of agreement and on which there would be less anxiety. I am sure that in a matter of this kind it will be necessary to have further consultations with the interests concerned. I hope that the noble Earl will feel that this is a reasonable and constructive approach to a matter which he has put forward with great moderation, but which, none the less, arouses strong feelings, and rightly so, among a large number of people.

1.10 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the House has suggested that I might feel satisfied with the reception which this Bill has received, and indeed that is so. And not the least of my satisfaction arises from the fact that the noble Lord himself has replied for the Government, with his vast experience of research in this country, and practical experience abroad, even of eating seals, which I have no doubt is not to be encouraged too often, unless you are hungry. I think the suggestion he has made is a useful one, and if your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading to-day, I should certainly like to have the opportunity of discussing with the Departments concerned the appropriate action to be taken in the future.

Even at ten-past one, after a long debate, when it might be reasonable for me to sit down after saying that, I should like, if this is the last opportunity I shall have in this House to defend myself on this Bill, to do so by saying that I think the fears of the noble Lords, Lord Balfour and Lord Burton, are really unfounded. I fully intended that the fixed net fishermen should continue to be capable of defending their nets, and proviso (ii)(A) in Clause I was intended to provide for that, although of course in such circumstances it is difficult to tell how far off the seal is that is doing damage. I recollect a case, when I was a young man, of somebody who shot his wife's lover when he was outside the bedroom door, and it was held that there had been reasonable provocation. I have no doubt that it would be held to be reasonable provocation in the case of somebody who shot a seal away from the nets.

Noble Lords have made a number of useful points, and I hope they will forgive me if I do not reply to them all now. I should perhaps thank the noble Lord, Lord Strange, for his interesting dissertation on the habits of the salmon, but I could but wish that he had read my Bill before he started on it. The other points raised could he dealt with at a later stage and, with your Lordships' leave, I will not answer them now.

On Question, Bill resd 2a, and commited to a Committee of the whole House.