HL Deb 13 March 1969 vol 300 cc618-29

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Report be now received.

Moved, That the Report be now received.—(Lord Hughes.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

LORD BURTON moved as an Amendment: After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:

Killing or taking of otters by spring traps.

".After 1st July 1969 it shall no lodger he competent for the Secretary of State to make an order under subsection (4) of section 50 of the Agriculture (Scotland) Act 1948 authorising the use of a spring trap other than an approved trap as defined by subsection (3) of that section for the purpose of killing or taking otters; and as from the said date any order authorising the killing or taking of otters by spring traps shall cease to have effect."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that little explanation of this Amendment is necessary. If r was correct in interpreting the feelings of your Lordships on the two previous stages of the Bill, you would like to see the gin trap abolished for otters now, as opposed to 1973 when the Government propose to abolish it. I hope that that is what this Amendment will accomplish, but I must admit to difficulties in drafting, and it may be that some alteration will be needed to the wording. I gather that there may be some difficulty for the Government in accepting the Amendment, owing to undertakings given to the Salmon Net Fishing Association. However, as a director of an East Coast salmon net company and of another company which has West Coast salmon fishings, I am not unduly worried about disagreeing with the Salmon Net Fishing Association.

I would be the last to whitewash the otter. Few would deny that he likes a nice piece of salmon or that he is capable of doing substantial damage in a hatchery. But the otter is also partial to eels, which are very damaging to the salmon spawn and which also take pike and other coarse fish, so in their present numbers the otters are probably doing more good than harm. However, I gather it is the case in my own locality that the overall numbers of otters are diminishing; so much so that the British Field Sports Society has recommended a reduction in hunting. Therefore there seems to be a definite case for conservation and protection.

If, however, one wishes to control or reduce their numbers, they are not hard to shoot. They can be seen quite readily when they are fishing on a summer evening, and also when they cross over land. They will go a considerable distance from water course to water course, and being clumsy on their short legs they prefer to keep to regular paths, where I believe it is not difficult to snare them. As a matter of interest, I may say that two summers ago, while fishing for trout one evening, I was reeling in a little fish when an otter took it. For nearly ten minutes we struggled, but I lost my fish eventually when the otter broke my line. On another occasion a dog chased an otter into our estate office and I had the job of catching it and putting it into a laundry hamper. I sent it off to Mr. Gavin Maxwell, the author. So your Lordships will see that I have had some experience in handling otters.

It may seem somewhat incongruous that at one stage of the Bill I am pressing for the retention of the trap for foxes and at the next for its abolition for otters, but there is really nothing strange in this. Unless a replacement for the gin trap is found we shall have great difficulty with foxes in some areas, and possibly with wild cats also, but there is no reason why it should not be abolished for otters now. In fact, there are strong grounds for its abolition at the earliest possible moment. My noble friend the Duke of Atholl wished his name to he added to this Amendment, but I must apologise to him because unfortunately I was too late in submitting his name and the Amendment had already gone to print. He had hoped to be present in order to speak in favour of the Amendment, but he said that he might be detained on business and, if so, asked me to express his support for the Amendment. I beg to move.


My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Burton has said, there were on the Committee stage two points about which some of us were a little doubtful. One was the removal of the power of the Secretary of State to prolong permission to use gin traps for foxes in remote Highland areas after 1973, and the other was permission in the Bill to use gin traps against otters over the next two years. I think the first point, to which my noble friend has referred, with regard to foxes in remote areas, was fully discussed in Committee, but the point about otters was not so fully discussed and I hope the Government will consider this Amendment favourably.

I am an owner of salmon net fishings and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, knows, I am also, on public grounds, very anxious indeed to do everything to protect salmon stocks. The salmon is one of our greatest national assets in Scotland, and it is an asset which is at the moment in great danger from several quarters, but otters do not represent one of those dangers. This is a question of the opinion of modern naturalists. No one would object to the killing of pests which are destroying salmon, but most up-to-date opinion given by people who are good naturalists—those who advise the Nature Conservancy and others—is to the effect that, on the whole, the otter does more good than harm to salmon stocks, and that, in any case, the harm which he does cannot be very serious. I do not see therefore what justification there is in a Bill of this kind for prolonging the period.

We are all agreed that gin traps ought to he abolished. We are not all agreed about the question of making exceptions in the case of protecting hill sheep from foxes. But surely we ought to be agreed on this point: that there is no reasonable case for leaving in the Bill this permission to trap otters, and that if it is going to be abolished it ought to be abolished now. And, of course, all the arguments which were quite fairly used by the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, in reply to our other criticism about foxes would apply to this permission—if people buy, or set, gin traps for other creatures they can excuse themselves by saying they are using them to catch an otter. I hope that the Government will favourably consider acceptance of the Amendment moved by my noble friend.

4.32 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support my noble friend Lord Burton. I have had a certain amount to do with salmon, and I have seen plenty of otters. I am quite certain that the damage done by otters to salmon is well balanced by the good that they do, because in nine cases out of ten I am quite certain that the otter, where it has a chance—and it has plenty of chance just now—will go for diseased or damaged fish; and as we all know the rivers have been full of those. I believe that there is no excuse whatsoever for prolonging the use of the gin trap for the otter.


My Lords, I should also like to support the Amendment. I do so because I am convinced that people who fish and people who own salmon fishings would desire that this Amendment should be accepted by Her Majesty's Government, and I believe that would also be the wish of the general public.


My Lords, I should like to press most strongly from these Benches that the Government should accept this Amendment. I know that there are difficulties, that word of some sort has been given to the Salmon Net Fishing Association, but in view of the present position of the otter in this country I should have thought that the noble Lord could probably find some way round that and accept the Amendment.


My Lords, although since this point was debated in Committee my attention has been drawn to at least one case in which an otter in one night did an enormous amount of damage in a hatchery—and they can do a lot of damage when they get loose in such a place—nevertheless, if the noble Lord presses this to a Division I shall go into the Lobby with him. It seems a pity that we should have to consider this matter again, and a pity that the Government did not accept the proposition at Committee stage by which trapping would have been permitted with gin traps in the hands of licensed persons.

4.36 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to support the Amendment. In doing so, I apologise for not having entered into this discussion at an earlier time. I support the Amendment for slightly different reasons from those put forward, and say that I do not think we should be led too far along the path of alternative forms of trap is the main object of the exercise is the abolition of cruelty. Any form of trap can be cruel if set inexpertly and it can be just as indiscriminate unless the trapper knows what he is doing. Fears have been expressed that no suitable alternative form of spring trap will be available in 1973. My fear is that by that time there will still not be evidence of any serious attempt to organise pest control in the most suitable way.

Each area needs to be considered from its own peculiar standpoint. Consideration should be given to what is the predominant pest, what are the most appropriate methods of combating each species, how this should be organised so that all concerned are encouraged by example and satisfactory financial assistance to participate; and, above all, there should be the very closest attention paid to the training of the men responsible for pest destruction. The present gin trap need be no more cruel than the new types if they are improperly utilised. The human element is always of prime importance: the need for better knowledge of the pest itself, and, indeed, how far it needs to be hunted and destroyed. There seems to be ample evidence of this ignorance in relation to the otter which has been mentioned this afternoon. Therefore, a real understanding of the animal is required if only to determine the best method of catching and killing it.

I think also that some insight into the economics of pest destruction relative to their overall worth is required and, above all, the need for discipline in the operator of the trap line, for instance if only to consider the frequency with which the trap is visited. All these, I suggest, are as important matters for attention as the mere substitution of one form of trapping device for another. While I could not condone the continuation of the gin trap indefinitely as the major or only form of spring trap, I realise and appreciate the disquiet felt by many that its abolition is not being supported by a sensible appreciation of what should be clone now to form a satisfactory pest policy.

"Abolition" and "gin trap" recalled for me my days in the Navy, when "gin trap" referred to a snare set for young officers coming off the forenoon watch and into which they were most liable to fall between the hours of 12.30 and 1 o'clock. I do not suppose we are considering abolishing this trap, but I would suggest that an alternative lure more appropriate to the Scottish economy might be considered. This idea is not worth an award, I am sure, but it might be worth a thought. Seriously, I do not think we want the gin trap to become an exclusively Scottish trap, but in my submission I think it should cease to be an otter trap forthwith, if only to demonstrate that it is our intention to form a rational pest policy in 1969.


My Lords, I should like to add my voice in support of the many noble Lords on all sides who have pressed the Government to accept this Amendment. I have taken some interest in the preservation of salmon, but even so, anxious as I am to see the species preserved, I would most willingly support the Amendment.


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, may I say that there is another aspect to the question; that is, that many societies which are interested in the preservation of wildlife in the country have been very seriously worried about the position of the otter. Its numbers are diminishing very rapidly, and I think that anything we can do to preserve it—and we have heard from many noble Lords that it does a great deal more good than harm—would be welcomed. I therefore wholeheartedly support the Amendment.

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, it must be very embarrassing for my noble friend on the Front Bench to have to consider accepting an Amendment which has been moved and supported by Conservatives, backed up by Liberals, reinforced from the Cross-Benches, with nothing but silence so far from this side of the House. I therefore should like to add my voice to those who have pleaded for the abolition of the gin trap in so far as otters are concerned. The otter, despite its harmful habits, is a very nice wild creature, and we are in danger of seeing so many of our wild creatures become extinct. I therefore sincerely hope that my noble friend will be able to accept this Amendment.

I can hardly agree with the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, in his further suggestion that he would like to see the gin trap preserved for foxes, not merely for the period stipulated in the Bill but for a longer period as well, in the northern parts of Scotland. I think we have all come to the conclusion that the gin trap is a very cruel instrument and should be abolished as quickly as possible, and I should not like it to be, as the noble Earl suggested, extended for use in the northern part of Scotland beyond the period stipulated in the Bill. I know I spoke like this in an earlier debate on this subject in this House, and I know that I spoke from the incongruous standpoint of having been one who had followed a pack of foxhounds for ten seasons some years ago. But I think that in our heart of hearts we all feel that the gin trap is cruel and I sincerely hope that if we cannot abolish it immediately for foxes we should now abolish it for otters.


I was thinking the same thing as my noble friend Lord Leatherland. The way in which otters are caught can hardly be considered a political question, and it would have been a pity had there been no voice from this side of the House to ask my noble friend, whatever his brief may say, whether he will give serious thought to the acceptance of this Amendment. The otter is a charming animal. He does little harm—probably he does more good than he does harm. The gin trap is, of course, the most barbarous method of trapping him, and if the Amendment is pressed I should like to vote in favour of it.

4.41 p.m.


My Lords, I am quite certain that it will be a matter of great regret to all those who have taken part in the debate that the advice which I must tender to your Lordships is that the Government do not recommend the acceptance of this Amendment. It is not an unusual experience for me to feel lonely in this House in a Scottish debate. I am generally faced with the serried ranks opposite, but it is a comparatively new experience to find myself being sniped at from behind as well. But even that I could have borne if I had had inside me the conviction that I have always had in these Scottish debates, that the Government were right.

It would be wrong if I were to attempt at this stage to conceal the sympathy which I have already expressed for this Amendment when it was forecast at the Committee stage. But I am not here to put forward personal views. When Lord Burton spoke of this Amendment—or, rather, when the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, first spoke of this possibility—I was immediately impressed with the desirability of accepting it if it could possibly be done. I therefore consulted my colleague the Under-Secretary who has responsibility for the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries in Scotland; and he, like me, approached it from a sympathetic point of view. Those of your Lordships who have been Ministers will not be surprised that in no time at all the Department were able to find six most convincing reasons why the Amendment should not be accepted; and I can, without unduly breaking into the traditions of Government secrecy in the matter, let your Lordships know that neither of us had any difficulty in "shooting down" five of them.

But we were left with one which was not a matter of politics—because there are no politics in this matter. I would say that if there is any question of votes in it the line which the Government take on this is much more likely to lose them votes because, if for nothing else, of the reference which the noble Lord, Lord Burton, made to Gavin Maxwell's book, A Ring of Bright Water. Anybody who has read that must approach the subject from the point of view that killing an otter must rank close to killing a child. One wonders what the reaction of noble Lords opposite would have been if Gavin Maxwell had kept a pet fox instead of a pet otter. Should we then have had a strong possible membership drive for a society for the preservation of the fox? Because if there is such a body as a society for the preservation of the otter I would say it has never had a better opportunity of getting a large number of distinguished titles among its membership and of collecting guineas.

But the consideration which I could not "shoot down" was the fact that we had the most strong representation made to us by the Salmon Net Fishing Association. Quite unfairly, I thought, it started off by pitching against me—not against the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, for suggesting it but against me—for what I said in reply to the debate. Perhaps I may quote the beginning of the letter which came from the Salmon Net Fishing Association. It said: I have received your letter of yesterday in regard to the above subject. I am rather surprised at the terms of the statement made by Lord Hughes in the House of Louis last Tuesday when the Agriculture (Spring Traps) (Scotland) Bill received its Second Reading. Then the letter goes on to say that the Association are surprised, and the writer goes so far as to say: I can only state, therefore, that my Association would consider it to be a breach of faith if the Government were to accept at this late stage an Amendment which would vary radically the terms of the Bill which have already been accepted by the House of Commons. Having said that, I think I must, in fairness, let your Lordships know that we communicated with three Associations interested in salmon fisheries--the Association of Scottish District Salmon Fishery Boards, the Salmon Net Fishing Association of Scotland (from whose letter I have just quoted), and the Scottish Salmon Angling Federation. The other two organisations either have no views about it or are prepared to accept an Amendment along the lines proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Burton. So in fact the main objection comes from the principal commercial salmon interests, and they remain violently opposed to this proposal.

Had it not been for that, and the fact that we accept that the Government could not feel themselves clear of the allegation that a breach of faith was involved. I would have fought very strongly indeed against the last remaining argument against the acceptance of this Amendment. But the fact is that these discussions did take place, and we got the agreement of these Associations to the Bill in the form which it now takes.

Your Lordships may say that that is all very well; that the Government are seeking to preserve the undertaking which they gave to the Associations, but that this House has not given any such undertaking. That, of course, is a matter for your Lordships. But I think that I must stand up for the principle that when Government Departments deal with Associations which have a strong interest in a matter, and then arrive at a conclusion and produce a Bill which tries to give effect to the consensus of opinion arrived at, it is wrong for the Government to be a party to departing from it. If this Association could have seen its way, like the other two, to consent to this Amendment, I personally should have been delighted, my colleague would have been delighted, and I am quite certain that the Department would not have fought against the proposal.

The noble Lord, Lord Burton, said that he had great difficulty in drafting the Amendment, and that he suspected it might be defective. On this occasion his suspicions are well founded: the Amendment is defective. But again, trying to be as fair as possible, I must tell your Lordships that although it is not in the form that we should like to see it on the Statute Book it would not present the courts with any great difficulties in interpretation. The Bill, therefore, is workable. I am quite certain that if your Lordships do not accept my advice—though I hope that you will—and the Amendment goes to another place, if they were to decide to accept it it would be put in terms which would be more acceptable from a drafting point of view. I therefore do not rest my case on technicalities. I do not rest on the case which could have been made: that if there is any use of the gin trap from which the element of cruelty is less apparent, it is the gin trap when used against the otter. I mean, in fact, if it could be used in these identical conditions against foxes, the case for its abolition would have been very much weaker. I do not rest it on that, because our general objection to the gin trap is that it is cruel, and it will be an essential part of its abolition—of the aboli-

tion of its use against foxes—that it should be illegal to use it against otters, because one of the enforcement procedures must be that it will be illegal to sell gin traps. If its use were continued against otters on the ground that it was not unduly cruel in this case, then everybody who bought or sold a gin trap would, of course, be selling it for use against otters—never for use against foxes—and the law would become a dead letter in that respect. So I cannot argue both ways; I cannot argue that we must stop its use against otters in the interests of stopping the cruelty against foxes, and then argue that it is reasonable to continue it for two years because it is not cruel against otters.

I hope your Lordships will appreciate that I am trying to be as fair as I can in seeing the principle of the case and yet wishing to protect the happy relationships which we in the Scottish Office have with the various Scottish Associations with whom we have to consult from time to time. We are not unmindful of the fact that we still have the major issue to go through in relation to salmon, and we do not want to find ourselves ultimately legislating on the Hunter Committee Report in the knowledge that we have bitterly antagonised one of the principal Associations, on the basis that, "You cannot rely on what the Government are going to do with salmon, because when it gets to the House of Lords they cannot control the situation". I have never believed that we could guarantee control of any Scottish situation in the House of Lords. I have done my best this afternoon.

4.57 p.m.

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

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 71; Not-Contents, 25.

Alport, L. Chorley, L. Emmet of Amberley, Bs.
Arbuthnott, V. Cottesloe, L. Ferrers, E.
Atholl, D. Crawshaw, L. Ferrier, L.
Auckland. L. Cromartie, E. Goschen, V.
Balerno, L. Denham, L. Grenfell, L.
Balfour of Inchrye, L. Derwent, L. Grimston of Westbury, L
Belstead, L. Drumalbyn, L. Hanworth, V.
Burton, L. [Teller.] Dudley, L. Headfort, M.
Carrington, L. Dundee, E. Howard of Glossop, L.
Cholmondeley, M. Effingham, E. Hurcomb, L.
Jackson of Burnley, L. Milford Haven, M. Sinclair of Cleeve, L.
Jellicoe, E. Morrison, L. Snow, L.
Jessel, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L. Somers, L. [Teller.]
Kilbracken, L. Noel-Buxton, L. Stocks, Bs.
Kilmany, L. Penrhyn, L. Strathclyde, L.
Kinloss, Ly. Rankeillour, L. Stratheden and Campbell, L.
Lansdowne, M. Rowallan, L. Summerskill, Bs.
Lauderdale, E. Ruthven of Freeland, Ly. Thurlow, L.
Leathcrland, L. St. Helens. L. Trefgarne, L.
MacAndrew, L. St. Oswald, L. Vivian, L.
McCorquodale of Newton, L. Sandys, L. Willis, L.
Mancroft, L. Selkirk, E. Wise. L.
Merrivale, L. Shannon, E. Wynne-Jones, L.
Meston, L. Sherfield, L.
Amulree, L. Gardiner, L. (L. Chancellor.) Ogmore, L.
Archibald, L, Gladwyn, L. Phillips, Bs. [Teller.]
Beswick, L. Hilton of Upton, L. Serota, Bs.
Bowles, L. Hughes, L. Shackleton, L. (L. Privy Seal.)
Burden, L. Latham, L. Shepherd, L.
Byers, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, Bs. [Teller.] Sorensen, L.
Champion, L. Stonham, L.
Crook, L. Moyle, L. Tayside, L.
Douglass of Cleveland, L. Nunburnholme, L.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Amendment agreed to accordingly.