HL Deb 12 May 1970 vol 310 cc531-43

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In July of last year your Lordships gave a Third Reading to a Conservation of Seals Bill after very considerable discussion both on the Committee and at the Report stages. We got no further because it was not taken up in another place. The Bill now before us comes up here from another place and is virtually identically the same Bill which your Lordships passed through all its stages less than a year ago, and it is couched practically ipsissima verba. I do not propose to weary your Lordships with yet another full explanation of the Bill, and will content myself, and I hope satisfy your Lordships, by giving the reasons for which such a Bill is necessary, going into perhaps a little more detail on the differences between this Bill and the one we passed last year.

Of the two seals found in British waters, one is the grey seal, which was found to be becoming very rare at the end of the last century and at the beginning of this century. It has been protected by legislation ever since 1912 during its breeding season, at the time at which a seal is most vulnerable to commercial exploitation. As a result, the grey seal has become quite common in some places, so abundant as to cause considerable damage to fisheries, and of course has caused considerable grumbles by fishermen. The other species, the common seal, has never been protected. It also is subjected to commercial exploitation and, without protection, in some places has become quite rare. Indeed, in some places it is no longer found. It seems obviously necessary, therefore, to reduce in some way the population of grey seals where there are too many, and to protect in some way the common seals where there are too few; and of course to provide that where seals have to be killed it is done as humanely and as expeditiously as possible. That is what this Bill does.

The Bill allows the Secretary of State, by making Orders for increasing the length of a close season or taking it away altogether, to control the nation's stock of seals; and it allows him to secure that seals are properly and humanely killed by specifying the weapons which are to be used. Moreover it brings seals, which, as your Lordships will be aware, are capable of doing considerable damage to fisheries, into the same category as other potentially noxious animals, like rabbits, hares and deer. It puts them on the same footing as those animals, in so far as if they are found on anybody's land in such numbers as to do damage to his neighbour's crops, the Minister can order the person on whose land they are found to destroy them in order to prevent further damage taking place. That is provided for by an Amendment which your Lordships introduced into the Bill last year.

Seals are attractive creatures. They arouse strong emotions, among naturalists like myself who like watching them, and among fishermen who do not like watching them destroying their nets and the fish within those nets. However, after considerable discussion last year we found a Bill which produced a reasonable compromise between the not necessarily entirely conflicting interests of the naturalist and nature lover and the commercial fisherman, and, as I have said, my Lords, this is virtually the same Bill as the one we passed last year.

There are two small alterations to which I should perhaps draw your Lordships' attention. In Clause 5 there is an increase from £50 to £100 for second offences against the provisions of the Bill, save for one which apparently in another place was not considered quite so heinous, and that was obstructing somebody in the course of his investigations. I think one might sympathise with that. There were also two very small drafting Amendments. As the Bill left this House last year, under Clause 9 it would still have been an offence for a fisherman to attempt to shoot a seal, but not an offence for him to shoot a seal if it was attacking his nets. That would seem to be a little ridiculous, and accordingly an amendment has now been made in the Bill. I hope your Lordships will look as favourably on this Bill in its very slightly amended form as you did on its predecessors. I beg to move.

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

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, it is a great honour for me to follow again the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who is such a great expert in these matters and who again has so lucidly explained his Bill. The situation is a little curious. On May 24, 1968, we had the Second Reading of the Conservation of Seals Bill. On June 10, 1969, again there was the Second Reading of a Conservation of Seals Bill; and here we are, in 1970, on May 12, with the Second Reading of the Conservation of Seals Bill. Well might someone coming from the realm of Alice in Wonderland think that he had wandered into the circle of perpetual time, when nothing ever happens. But this Bill has had the blessing of having been breathed upon by the wise men in another place. It has passed all their stages, so perhaps this time our efforts will not be in vain. There is not much for me to add, because I have said my piece before, and I think that to sell one's cabbages too often on the same subject is a mistake, as well as very boring for your Lordships.

There is one small point on which I think this Bill differs from its predecessors and which the noble Earl did not mention. This Bill limits the power of the Secretary of State in giving permission to kill seals. He is prohibited from permitting the use of strychnine in any form at all, and I do not think that was in the previous Bill.

The Bill has received unanimous approval in your Lordships' House and in another place. The only slight doubts we ever had in dealing with it were from noble Lords who, quite rightly, put what they considered to be the views of the National Trust, which body they felt had to represent the views of numerous members of their society. These, as the noble Earl said, tended to be people who probably loved looking at seals. But, as we know, it is not necessarily in the best interests of the seals that they should be allowed to increase in unlimited numbers on the same ground. This Bill gives power of control, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, will agree that the Secretary of State has given adequate guarantees, personally and to members of all parties, that these powers will be used only within reason, when it is obviously in the interests of the fishing and of the seals themselves for this to be done.

I hope that this Bill will go forth on its way, pleasing all. It was summed up best for me, I think, by what the honourable Member for Hereford said in another place: that the Bill combines regulation, conservation and humanity. I cannot do better than echo his words, and commend the Bill to your Lordships.

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, I suppose that I am next on the list of speakers. I should like to give a welcome to this Bill, although I do not intend to speak at any length on it. Indeed, there is no need to as it has been through another place. However I should just like to tell your Lordships that I was almost brought up among seals, and I particularly welcome this Bill because it will protect the common seal, which at the present time is getting into a rather parlous state.

The other point I would make about the common seal is that in my experience it actually takes very few salmon. I have shot several common seals out of interest, to try to find out what they were eating—I think I have said this before in your Lordships' House—and I have never found that the ones I have shot have been eating salmon. They do sometimes eat salmon, but on the whole they eat small fish, eels and shellfish.

Of course, the grey seal does great damage if it gets into a salmon net, but I hope that: the Secretary of State will not be too influenced by the interests of salmon netting and salmon fishing in ordering the wholesale massacre of seals. I am on both sides of the fence, because I have salmon fishings and salmon-netting rights, and I also breed salmon; but I imagine that the Greenland nettings probably take the majority of the salmon I breed. We are told that the damage done by the seals to the salmon fishing industry varies between £50,000 and £100,000 a year, but that is a mere flea-bite compared to the damage done by the Greenland nets; and, as I have said before, if only Her Majesty's Government would concentrate on trying to bring some influence to bear on Germany to support us, and particularly to influence Denmark in her Greenland fisheries, it would be a great boon.

We are told that if we do not destroy seals we shall have an imbalance in Nature. In actual fact that is complete nonsense, because Nature herself keeps by far the best balance. If we did not destroy seals the young seals in the colonies would not get enough milk and many of them would die. Also on the West coast we have the killer whale, which locally is called the "thresher" and scientifically is called the "grampus". It is amazing what this mammal can eat in half an hour. I have seen one chasing a salmon shoal, and this whale can eat in half an hour more salmon than a grey seal will eat in half a year.

I do not want to prolong this discussion my Lords. I welcome this Bill, but there is one point, which has been brought up before, that I am not very happy about: the weight of the bullet, 45 grains. That is all right if you are going to shoot a seal in the head every time, if you are a good shot. But if the shooting is done by people who are not good shots they are going to wound seals with a bullet as small as that. Apart from that, I can find nothing in the Bill with which I disagree. The clause relating to entry on land is, I think, perfectly fair. I presume that clubbing for seal cubs is allowed. It is abhorrent to me personally, but I presume that it is allowed and provided that it is done efficiently it is as painless as shooting. I should have preferred that young seal pups should be shot with .22, or killed with a humane killer, because they are so tame you can stand over them; therefore wounding should not arise. But I do not make any point of it. I welcome the Bill and hope that it passes through your Lordships' House.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise for not being in my place when the Bill was called; the loudspeaker in the Library is not working too clearly, and it was only when the noble Viscount was announced that I realised that this Bill had been reached. I do not wish to address your Lordships for long, because I have spoken on both the previous occasions when the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, was presenting this Bill to your Lordships. My concern about this subject is because I happen to be a member of the Council of the National Trust. The National Trust has on the Fame Islands much the largest grey seal colony off the coast of England. We have been in discussions with the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, but we have not succeeded in coming to any satisfactory arrangement with him and the sponsors of the Bill. I do not propose to expatiate on these problems this afternoon. When the Bill was in another place attempts were made by amendment there to protect the position of the National Trust, but owing to the rules, which I confess I always find it rather difficult to follow, there was difficulty in getting an Amendment accepted for discussion. I am proposing to put the same Amendment, or a similar one, down when the next stage of this Bill is reached.

Having said that, I want to make it quite clear that the general purpose of (he Bill is very much approved of in the National Trust, particularly the defensive measures which are at last being taken to protect the common seal. It has been pointed out on more than one occasion that the common seal is now no longer the common seal; it is becoming very uncommon, and without something of the sort of protection provided by this Bill it might well become pretty nearly extinct altogether. There are other features of the Bill which I think merit strong approval, and therefore I do not want it to be thought that I personally, or the body for which I am speaking, have any general opposition at all to the Bill. It is much to the contrary. We feel that on the whole it is a very good Bill. But our discontent is that our own position on the Fame Islands has not really been taken into account. I think that is all I need say today. I hope in due course to put down an Amendment which we shall be able to discuss at a later stage.


My Lords, may I make one small comment on the Farne Islands? I apologise for not putting my name down on the list of speakers. I know those islands very well indeed. On the Farne Islands there are now some 6,000 grey seals, and I believe that at the turn of the century there were no more than 200 or 300. An increase of that magnitude has done enormous harm to the fishing interests. Having regard to the necessity for moderation in all things, I hope the National Trust will agree to culling when it is considered necessary.


My Lords, I have already spoken on this Bill as a common seal. May I say, at the conclusion, that I am very relieved that the now uncommon seals are receiving some mercy at last.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, I should have been very disappointed if the noble "Seal" had not taken part, as he did on the last occasion with the most brilliant speech I have ever heard in this House. I have always been uncertain whether he is a common or a grey seal, but from the way he sings I think he is almost a harp seal.

I think the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, can be pleased. There is a certain repetitive quality about events in this House, as the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, has indicated. None the less, I think this is an example of the right way to proceed, and I think it is a credit to your Lordships that this Bill, which was initiated first by the noble Earl, was then the subject of co-operation and discussion with the Government and then was introduced by the noble Earl again, and further amended, should have gone as successfully as it has done through another place.

The noble Earl, who is in a very good position to judge all the interests, as himself a distinguished biologist, has really done a very good job indeed. It is important to stress again the matter to which I know he attaches importance, that this is a conservation Bill and not a protection Bill—I know that he was some what irritated that the word "protection" slipped in at one place. This is a much more up-to-date and contemporary approach, in which I think a successful attempt has been made to balance all the interests and generally produce a much more satisfactory situation.

The Bill we have before us to-day is, apart from one or two drafting alterations, identical with one this House passed last year; at least the principles are the same. There is one small but important change, to which the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, drew attention (or it may have been the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene), and that is that the Bill now prohibits absolutely the use of strychnine for killing seals. This was a matter which the Government undertook—indeed I undertook—to consider in 1968, and on which agreement has finally been reached. Although the Secretary of State is permitted to license the use of poison for killing seals, he is specifically debarred from licensing strychnine.

The Government therefore welcome this Bill. In our view, it contains the essential ingredients to enable the management of the seal population around the coasts of Great Britain to be put on a firm scientific basis; and when I say "a firm scientific basis" I fully acknowledge that this is an area where experience makes the scientific base firmer. But at least, even if there still will be areas of doubt as to the development of the seal population, we shall be able to proceed in a much more orderly way.

The establishment of close seasons for both species of seal which inhabit our coastal waters provides reasonable measures for preserving seals, and it enables the Government to strengthen those measures at short notice, by extending protection (which is used correctly at this point) throughout the year, if the survival of either or both species ever appears to be threatened in any area. It provides—a matter to which importance is attached—protection against cruelty, whether from inhumane methods of destruction, or from needless or excessive killing in the breeding season when seals are most vulnerable to attack by man. This removes the casual chap with the gun, to whom the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, referred, taking pot-shots at seals. At the same time, the Bill takes care not to add to the problems of fishermen and does not unreasonably restrict the killing of seals for fisheries protection purposes. It provides scope for selected culling of seals in the interests of conservation and management of seal stocks to enable a healthy and viable population of seals to be maintained.

The only matters which have aroused controversy—apart from the point to which I shall come in a moment, raised by my noble friend Lord Chorley—have concerned the minimum size of rifle and the type of ammunition effective for killing seals humanely. The other one is of course the provision relating to compulsory access on to land. The specifications of the firearm and ammunition included in Clause 1(1)(b) were drawn up in the light of expert scientific advice by the Natural Environment Research Council, and the Government are satisfied that weapons and ammunition conforming to these standards are, if properly used, suitable for killing seals humanely.

I think an essential point here is the efficiency of those who are engaged in this process. Noble Lords who are interested in deer stalking know that they never allow anyone to go stalking on their land unless they are reasonably certain that the man was going to kill any stag he fired at. This also calls for some accuracy in shooting, although the target in this case is not the head but the body and the heart. I have such confidence in the views of the noble Earl in this matter that if he agrees with the Government and the Natural Environment Research Council on this point, despite some evidence that has been given to the contrary, I am content to accept it.

I would now refer to the question of clubbing. Individual Peers and others find clubbing a distasteful method of killing, but I must stress that it is not necessarily an inhumane method. I think we have all had the experience of walking on land and finding wounded animals. Only the other day I found a squirrel which somebody had shot at. In these circumstances, the choice is either to wring the neck of any animal (although you cannot really wring the neck of a seal) or to club it. One ought not to be misled into thinking that clubbing is necessarily inhumane when it is done properly. But it will no longer be a very practical method of killing, because, while clubbing is not prohibited so far as the young ones are concerned, they can only be killed under licence in the close season; otherwise they are protected. So clubbing is likely to be very much diminished; and it has been the practice to allow killing only by shooting.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but I do not quite agree with him. I have always thought that clubbing, especially if it is inaccurate, is rather inhumane. If the Government permit a certain method of killing, why do they allow clubbing to go on? I do not see the logic in this. I should have thought that if properly administered clubbing kills, but if it is not properly administered it can be inhumane.


My Lords, the same thing applies to people who do not shoot straight.


Quite so.


Perhaps the noble Lord does not want people to shoot either. However, what I am saying is that clubbing is no longer to be an important method in this matter. But I will leave this issue to the noble Earl whose Bill it is, to comment further if he wishes.

I should like to touch briefly on the point raised by my noble friend Lord Chorley. The Government attach considerable importance—and I am reinforced by the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, who intervened, but who has left—to the need for Clauses 11and 12, which provide for the exercise of powers of compulsory access on to land to enable seals to be counted and observed for research purposes, or destroyed in the interests of fisheries protection.

As noble Lords know, the principle embodied in these clauses is not new; similar obligations will be imposed on landowners and occupiers in respect of seals to those which have long been in existence with regard to other forms of wildlife which, if not properly controlled, would be liable to become a nuisance and cause damage on other land in the locality. The reluctance of certain interests to allow seals to be killed on their land has in the past led to considerable difficulty in carrying out some culls that have been fully justified on scientific grounds for the protection of fisheries. The Bill, on the other hand, affords a greater degree of protection but, at the same time, recognises and provides for the rational management of seal stocks which underlines the need for provisions of this nature.

I should like to urge the noble Lord, Lord Chorley (though he may not feel able to accede to my wish), that he should not put down an Amendment on the Committee stage. The case has been strongly put. I appreciate that there are feelings among many individual members of the National Trust, but it seems to me that this is an important part of the Bill, and I sense that the view of your Lordships' House is that they would reject such an Amendment. It is not for me to anticipate in any detail what would happen, but I think we want to make progress with this Bill. It has had quite a long run. These issues have been fully debated and discussed. They were in fact debated in another place. I rather think that on the first occasion (though I may not be accurate on this) the Amendment was withdrawn, no doubt to provide an opportunity for further discussion, and then it was not selected. But I think that now we all want to get this Bill through. It is a useful Bill, and one which the Government would be pleased to see reach the Statute Book. It is particularly appropriate that a measure which is concerned with conservation should be passed into law in European Conservation Year.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords. I am most grateful to those of your Lordships who, both this time and previously, have supported this Bill. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House and to the Government, who could not have been more helpful throughout. The fact that the Bill is introduced in the form in which it comes to your Lordships is entirely due to the help that I have had from them.

I think I must refer to this very emotional question of clubbing, and I would ask those of your Lordships who are worried about this practice to think of the appearance of one of your children or grandchildren, or, for those who are not married, a nephew or niece, when newly born, when the sutures of the skull are still open, and when those of us who are males scarely dare to handle it for fear of damaging the brain. That is the position in which a baby seal is when it is clubbed. It is quite clear that, with the sutures of the skull not closed, one slight tap, accurately applied, is going to kill it instantly, and does.

Moreover, it is much more humane than shooting. If you are shooting, it is possible for your foot to slip on a rock and for the bullet to be two, three or four inches out of place, and you have to reload and fire again. If your foot slips on a rock when you are hitting, you can raise your hand and bring it down again within a quarter of a second. I am quite convinced that clubbing is the most humane way of killing juvenile animals that man has ever devised.

I would urge the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, not to put the National Trust in a position in which I, as a member of the Trust for many years, should not like to see it. The Trust, like every other landlord, if it neglects its duty as a landlord, so far as rabbits, hares, or deer are concerned and allows the stock on its land to get too big, is liable to be told by the Ministry of Agriculture to reduce that stock. If it refuses to have it done, it is done by the Ministry. Of course the National Trust has never put itself in that position. It has been a good landlord; it has maintained the stock of deer and the like (and it is particularly deer that can be harmful to the neighbours) at a reasonable level, and nobody has had cause to complain. I am quite certain that no body, whether a corporate body or an individual, that wishes to be a good landlord, would like to put itself in a position of being above the law and injuring its neighbours in a way that no other person in the country could do. I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, to think that over, and perhaps he may feel that the National Trust ought to be in exactly the same position as every other good landlord in the country—or bad landlord, as the case may be. I am grateful to all of your Lordships who have supported this Bill, and I hope that it will now receive a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.