HL Deb 03 August 1972 vol 334 cc457-9

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether in view of the harassment of horticulturists by ever increasing swarms of pigeons, rabbits, bullfinches, grey squirrels and, in some parts of England, deer, they will consider the reintroduction of anti-pest schemes.


My Lords, it is the responsibility of occupiers, including horticulturists, to take their own control measures against pests on their land. The agricultural Ministers have enforcement powers under Part V of the Agriculture Act 1947 and these are exercised as appropriate. I should point out, however, that reports which my right honourable friend receives regularly from all parts of the country do not lead to the conclusion which my noble friend's Question implies.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his reply, which is flatly in contradiction of my own experience. Am I right in thinking that a number of years ago rabbits were alleged to do £50 million-worth of damage to agriculture? At to-day's prices that would be well over £100 million. Am I not also right in thinking that squirrels are doing great damage to all the plantations in the country; that bullfinches are ruining plant and apple orchards so that some growers are grubbing them up; that many farmers are giving up growing brassicas because of the plague of pigeons, and that the Forestry Commission has only one deer clear to cover the whole of the South of England?


My Lords, I am not sure that I could confirm all the matters about which my noble friend has asked. I would only tell him that I accept that in some parts of the country there are problems; but my right honourable friend's Department carries out surveys and has come to the conclusion that, on the whole, there is not a great increase in the number of these animals. I would confirm that before 1954 about 94 per cent. of all farms had rabbits, that now only about 60 percent. Have rabbits and that only 2 percent. are badly infested with them.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that some of us would prefer to have a swarm of pigeons, a bunch of rabbits, bullfinches taking the top off the milk and grey squirrels, than to have lorries which we cannot control? If we are going to listen to every egghead who, with his mortar and pestle, is producing poisons in the countryside, this country will be denuded of some of the lovely things which God has created. I would rather be in a country where bullfinches sang and where it may have cost nothing to keep them. The ox that treadeth his corn should not have a muzzle.


My Lords, I think the answer to that rather depends whose corn he is treading.


My Lords, may I declare a personal interest in this matter, because since I have been here grey squirrels have been occupying my home for longer periods than I have? Is the noble Earl aware that when Her Majesty's then advisers elevated the civic rat catcher to a distinguished rodent officer they forgot to tell him what a rodent was? The grey squirrel is a rodent. Might not a little information be helpful to those of us who are suffering what is a real and difficult plague?


My Lords, as my original Answer indicated, it is the responsibility of occupiers to take their own control measures. If I found my house occupied by grey squirrels, as the noble Lord does, I would take measures to try to get rid of them.


My Lords, will the noble Earl assure us that whatever his noble friend has said about the rabbit he will never tolerate the reintroduction of the control of rabbits by myxomatosis?


My Lords, in fact, myxomatosis is the cause of the greatest control of rabbits at the moment.


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that on the occasion when there was a bounty (I cannot remember whether it was on pigeons or squirrels) the Chief Scientific Adviser of the Forestry Commission and of the Nature Conservancy said that it was as effective as erecting a six-inch high sea wall round Britain to keep out the sea?


My Lords, I was not aware that that statement was made. I do not think it concurs with the advice that I am given with regard to the control of squirrels.


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware of the very high cost of the materials that may be used to deter animals from nibbling at vegetation and also of the high cost of cartridges? Would he look into this?


My Lords, yes, I am aware of the high cost of both these deterrents. Some time ago Her Majesty's Government used to subsidise the cost of cartridges for the destruction of wood pigeons, but it has been considered more appropriate that this cost should be borne by the occupiers themselves rather than subsidised by the taxpayer.


My Lords, would not my noble friend agree that if Her Majesty's Government were to introduce pests officers, and if we were to have hordes of pests officers as we had at one time, they would be likely to become just as great pests as the pests they were supposed to limit?


My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. I do not think this would have the desired effect.