HL Deb 21 January 1974 vol 348 cc1219-41

4.11 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.


My Lords, reverting to wild flowers, may I say at the outset that I am one of those who is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, for introducing this Bill and I am very glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, who was a former constituent, if not rated as one of my most enthusiastic supporters. On this occasion I am glad to say that I agree with nearly every word that he has said. He touched on a great many points, but he did omit one which I expected him to mention: it was in a village in his county of Westmorland that the Wild Flower Society was founded, a society which has helped and encouraged a great many amateurs and, in particular, children to love wild flowers.

I do not know whether an omission which I discovered in the Library here in your Lordships' House a short time ago has been repaired. Just before we rose for Christmas, when I went to the Librarian to ask for a copy of the British Flora to look up something, I was horrified to find that there was no such books in the Library of your Lordships' House. I hope by now that that omission has been repaired.

Wild flowers are not just a matter of concern to professional botanists. They are for all and for free—not that there is much for free in this world in which we live to-day. For myself, they have been a continuing joy. I have had an interest in wild flowers from childhood, and even during the war years I found them a great solace at times. I have collected wild flowers over a great deal of the country that has just been under discussion, part of the area in which the Arab-Israeli war was conducted, particularly on the Syrian frontier and beyond. I had better confess, before I give any judgment on those who uproot wild flowers, that when I was commanding a company in North Iraq I had a lance-corporal in the company who was as keen as I was. We uprooted a lot of plants. We watered them as best we could and we took them when the battalion moved to Tobruk, and on the way they died. I am afraid that wild flowers when uprooted very frequently die, as the noble Lord has said, even when they are not exposed to the particular rigours to which our plants were exposed.

I have been lucky in that I lived as a child in Teesdale; that is, Teesdale before the flood. I do not think I need say anything more about Teesdale because I do not want to speak at length. I do, however, wish to put great emphasis on one particular point; that is, the responsibility of the highway authorities in our counties to-day, and in particular, to refer to the way they handle the verges of their roads. It is in their hands to make or mar the cause which so many of us have at heart.

I am told that one of the counties of England—a county in the South, I am glad to say—a few years ago spent £72,000 in one financial year on cutting roadside verges. One wonders how much unnecessary damage they did to wild flowers at the same time. All of us have seen so many verges disappear because it has been necessary to widen carriageways; but is it so necessary to spray verges and to cut them from the edge of the carriageway right back to the base of the hedge or into the ditch when for visibility reasons and for the protection of the carriageway a strip of about three feet wide would often be satisfactory? I am sure that most people who are concerned with this matter in different parts of England and who have had contact with the county highway authorities—that is, the chairmen of highways committees and their officials—will have found them most sympathetic to working out some way to improve the present situation, and there must be many informal agreements between county councils and naturalists' trusts. But that is only the beginning and not the end of the story. It is the men who do the work who do the damage through not understanding the spirit of these agreements. It may be that the timing of the work is wrong and that many plants are cut just before they have any chance of seeding, it may be, again, that an area behind the narrow strip on the edge of the carriageway which ought to be left undisturbed is cut almost as bare as a lawn. We must not forget that whatever we may write into this Bill, there is an increasing pressure for widening and straightening our country roads, particularly in the areas which are the most popular with tourists.

I was disappointed with the Government line as the noble Baroness explained it to us. I had hoped that even if she had had a rather bureaucratic brief, she might have put it on one side and told us a little more of what she personally felt. But I felt that she was telling us almost too much of the difficulties which officials are perfectly correct in representing to Ministers when Bills of this sort are discussed in the Department, and not least, when there is a danger of creating a very large number of minor offences which it will not be possible for the police to control. The police at this time have so many important duties to carry out that minor breaches of a Bill of this kind could have only a very low priority. I am sure the officials were right in pointing out these facts to her, but I wish that she had put them in rather a different way to us and had tried to indicate ways whereby these difficulties could be overcome.

My Lords, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, we are not pioneering here to-day. In hotels, particularly in the alpine areas of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, there are notices everywhere explaining the controls over the picking as well as the uprooting of a number of wild flowers. Some major countries, like Germany, have had some law of this kind for certainly as long as I can remember. I cannot believe that if Ministers and their advisers really set their minds to this and extended all the help that they can to the noble Lord Lord Beaumont of Whitley, we could not find a solution through this Bill. Even if we have to give up some part of it we ought at least to be able to retain the important parts. I hope that in all these circumstances, and being fully aware of these difficulties, we shall none the less give the Bill a Second Reading to-day and set our minds to overcome these problems during the Committee and Report stages, when we shall have ample opportunity to do so.

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend Lord Inglewood, with his deep and wide knowledge of country matters, and I am glad that he touched upon the matter of the roadside verges, as I would wish to do, but he has done it so much better than I should have been able to do.

I have been badgering away at people in high places, in the Nature Conservancy and elsewhere, for some years now to get this Bill reintroduced into Parliament. Oddly enough, I have not badgered the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, about it, but I am extremely grateful to him for having taken so much trouble over the preparation of this Bill and for introducing it to your Lordships this afternoon. It is none too soon for this Bill to come before Parliament again, and I hope that this time it will find its way past all the obstacles which face Bills of this sort. So I should like to stand up and be counted among those who wish to give it their support.

At the start, we should be quite clear that nothing in this Bill will prevent children from picking a bunch of primroses and taking them home, any more than they have been prevented in the past. But there is a loss of species going on, and a loss of species threatened, and that is regrettable for two reasons, first, ecologically and, secondly, aesthetically. Ecologically, it is not just the loss of one species of plant that is regrettable, although often it has taken Nature millions of years to evolve and adapt it to certain circumstances and environments and we cannot replace it. In addition, we may be removing a link from a chain of inter-dependability among plant and animal life which we do not yet fully understand and which, again, we cannot replace.

As has been said, there are two reasons for the dangers besetting our plant population, particularly the more sensitive of them. First, there is the contraction or elimination of habitat, and secondly there is the collecting and picking which has been going on for a very long time, but most seriously over the last 150 years. The case of the very rare lady's slipper orchid is well-known. No so long ago it was common in Durham and parts of Yorkshire. One can read of the factory girls from the mills going out and picking great bunches of them at the beginning of this century. But the specimens still extant can almost be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The Cotswold Hills and the Highlands of Scotland are my own special areas of interest in botany of which I am a very amateur exponent. I am lucky enough to live in the Cotswold Hills of England and to spend much of my time in the Highlands of Scotland where I am busy as a forester; and both of those areas are extremely rich in beautful and rather rare flowers. In the Cotswolds, the habitat has been vastly altered since before the war when farming was very much rundown and there were miles and miles of rough grass, which formed a very good habitat for many of the plants that we are talking about. But since the war-time agricultural expansion and the coming of more powerful tractors, with the need to cultivate every little corner of land, many of the banks which were a particularly rich habitat for species such as anemone pulsatilla and others have come under the plough. And, of course, the elimination of rare plants has been aided and abetted by the application of fertilisers and sprays.

The position is different in the Highlands where we have not destroyed by cultivation. But way up in the high hills there are many interesting relics of Arctic/Alpine flora dating back to the disappearance of the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago. There are some lovely species, such as six or eight different kinds of saxifrage and plants like mountain azalea, and their habitat is threatened not so much because we have changed the little conies and rocks where they live, but because Nature itself has changed the habitat and the climate. But they are relics of the Ice Age and in my view, which is shared by many others, they are all the more valuable for that. They are very sensitive to human interference—but I shall come back to that point later.

The problems of habitat are not really the subject of this Bill, although they have an effect. The Nature Conservancy and the county naturalists' trusts—and the farmers themselves, who have been educated in the need to leave some of the little patches and bogs untouched—have done a great deal to preserve particularly interesting areas by the creation of nature reserves and S.S.S.Is—that awful abbreviation which stands for sites of special scientific interest. But the habitat contraction makes this Bill all the more necessary. We have to look right back to Victorian times when there was a tremendous expansion of interest in Nature and botany, but, my goodness!, the Victorians were bad predators. Whenever they developed an interest in anything to do with Nature they had either to shoot it, if it was a bird, or pull it up if it was a plant—and they did a lot of that. Modern botanists are much better and, in the main, are conservers.

I have received letters from several botany societies asking me to say something to-day, which I intended to do anyway. But, unfortunately, they contain a small number of rogue botanists who are the most dangerous of all because they know what to look for. The ordinary person would pass by such plants as the Alpine woodsia which is very rare, partly because of the Victorians, and would not recognise it, but the rogue botanists would recognise it and would pull it up. But in the main one is worried about the casual visitors who see something nice and pluck it to take home. Even the high corries and the tops of mountains at 3,000 or 4,000 feet, where there are Arctic/Alpine relics on which I am so very keen, are no longer safe. It might be thought that not many people would get to such remote places, but for part of the year I live in the Cairngorms Nature Reserve and up there we are only too well aware of the enormous increase each year in the number of people coming to seek recreation among the hills.

Not long ago I had the privilege of serving on your Lordships' Select Committee which looked into the future of sport, recreation and leisure, and we found, as we expected, that interest was expanding enormously. There are now ski-lifts to the top of the Cairngorms, so that even the old and infirm—I was going to say, "like some of us" —can get up to those places. But there are some plant species which will not survive casual or any other sort of picking over the years to come. The attitude, "Let us take this home and identify it in the book", is an attitude which is frequently adopted and one which I think some of your Lordships may have to plead guilty to having adopted at times. I certainly have. "Is this a Veronica beccabunga?" There really is such a thing, my Lords, and it is quite common. You take it home and look it up in the book. "Oh, dear, no! It is not; it is a Veronica spicata", which is on the protected list and of which there are only a very few specimens left. In such circumstances, the old maxim, ignorantia let is non excusat, may seem a bit harsh, and you might get away with it, I supose, by pleading mistake of fact. But this sort of thing will not do if plant species existing in mere hundreds, or less, are to be saved from 60 million holidaying human beings. So there are problems to which your Lordships may wish to give thought, and I am sure your Lordships will. It is a problem very largely of education and a problem of the enforcement of any law such as we are considering. That ties up with the problem of better wardening in the countryside—a problem which crops up so often in relation to the Countryside Acts and to the activities of the Countryside Commission.

My Lords, I have only two other things to say. One of them is to echo my noble friend's disappointment at what the noble Baroness on the Front Bench had to say about the early clauses of the Bill, because there is nothing that I can see in the Bill as drafted which prevents a person from digging up the dandelions on his lawn or a farmer from pulling up the docks. I think we want to try to engender in the nation as a whole a sort of acceptance of the rule that you do not dig up plants; it is not the thing to do. The other point I would mention just briefly concerns the list of the protected plants which appears at the end of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, explained why the list has been kept very short; indeed, I think it is true to say that all the plants on the list are very rare indeed, and there are only a very few of them left. But there are a whole lot more species which are threatened and becoming rare. It may be politic to keep the list as short as possible at this stage, but I am not so sure, my Lords, and I should like to see very close attention given to making that list much longer—and soon. I hope that your Lordships will agree to give this Bill its Second Reading.

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, I must confess straight away that I am a layman so far as these things are concerned, or perhaps, to be more accurate, I should say I am a laywoman. At any rate, I should like to support this Bill, first, because I was asked to do so by Mr. Brickell, who is the Director of the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley and who, apart from that, is also a distinguished botanist. I must confess that I am not a botanist but I am a lover of wild flowers. I grow a number of flowers in my garden, some of them very wild; in fact your Lordships might call them weeds. Alongside my garden there is a public footway, and there I see many things going on, including, sometimes, lovely children coming along with bunches of flowers. It is probably a hot day, they have big bunches of flowers, and they have got tired of carrying them—the flowers are very nearly dead, anyway—and they have just thrown them down. A lot of these flowers, at the right time of the year, are bluebells, which have been pulled out with all their white stalks as well. But apart from sun-porting the listed plants, I also strongly support the variation of the Schedule, provided for in Clause 3, by which any wild plant which, though not rare at the moment may become so, may be added. I think this may come about because of, for instance, agriculture, motorways and, of course, reservoirs taking up more land.

Another point is that while many more people are walking about to-day, which is splendid, I believe that trampling is a problem and that many plants are destroyed in this way. Then, of course, this Bill is concerned also with over-picking, which leaves no flowers and therefore no seeds. I hope that the Government will support education so far as this Bill is concerned as much as anything, because I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, that very often it is those people who should know better who find the rare plants and think it would be fun to try them at home or take a part of them. They are really the people who ought to set an example to others. I do not believe that the rare plants are taken by children, because I think that a lot of these plants are not perhaps wildly exciting, and children like to take the gayer flowers. I think perhaps all of us need very badly to be educated in this matter.

I should like to give just one or two examples. I have no intention whatever of mentioning where these incidents happened, because you have only to mention such places and people rush there. A member of the Surrey Flora Committee told me that she knew of a village that had a nice little copse which some years ago was absolutely full of primroses. There is not a single primrose in there to-day, but every single village garden has primroses. Then she told me of another example, of a lady she saw walking down a hill with a very large handful of orchids. She said to the lady, "Do you realise that by picking those you have prevented them from seeding and that it takes ten years for the orchid seed to become a flower?" Of course, the lady was full of horror when she was told this, and was tremendously apologetic; but then, of course, it was much too late. Then, although this does not concern wild flowers, you have only to go to Wisley Gardens, to the Alpine House, where so often, alas!, one sees a blank space and a notice saying, "This plant", and then its name is given, and the country it came from—"has been stolen".

My Lords, I wonder what has happened to the Teesdale Sandwort. Has it survived the Upper Teesdale Reservoir? Is it too soon to tell whether the change of climate as a result of the now vast expanse of water has made the climatic conditions unsuitable for it? Lour Lordships will remember the Cow Green battle. I should like to end on this note: "Please help everybody to leave the wild flowers for others to enjoy." This is the plea of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, to which I hope the Government will give not only sympathy but constructive help in making this Bill a reality.

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, much has been said to-day of the danger to wild flowers in this country, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, said in a speech which interested me so much, there seems to have been a sudden realisation of the danger to living things. I should like very briefly to look at this Bill in the wider context of the conservation scene. First, in the world scene, I am advised reliably that one out of every ten wild plants are in danger of extinction. That is the astonishing figure of 20,000 to 25.000 plants—more than the higher animals, and a greater danger.

I am not going into the detail of this, but one point that worries me so much is that many of these plants, especially those in the islands all over the world, have been written off to take their chance. There is not the money, there is not the opportunity, to save them. This matter was recently discussed at the Stockholm Conference where there was concern, and rightly so, about the loss of wild plants in the world and the loss of the genetic diversity, to which my noble friend Lord Dulverton referred, in the upset of the balance of nature: and because concentration on hybrids tends to lose for ever the original plant from which the hybrids come. It was agreed at Stockholm that the nations represented there would record the facts, would set up collections and seed banks and conserve habitats—those are the three important things which have to be done—and that they would co-operate with other countries. This co-operation has already started.

Turning from the world scene to the British scene, we have been told that one in 14 of the 1,500-odd species are in serious danger. We have been told of the loss of suitable habitats and the four main reasons for that: recreation, urbanisation, the change in agricultural practice and pollution. Many organisations are helping to remedy this. There is the Nature Conservancy Council, as was said by the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton—and are we not glad to see them under the D.O.E.? They are doing a great deal though, as I have said before in your Lordships' House, they could, I think, do a great deal more with the S.S.S.I.s, now that they have the situation under control, with a Minister who really will be able to help them. There is the Council for Nature which co-operates with all the other nature conservancy bodies and the County Naturalists' Trust. These bodies, each in its own way—and especially the County Naturalists' Trust—are pinpointing the dangers and doing something about them. As this cannot be done without money, tribute should be paid to the World Wildlife Fund, as most of the Fund's money spent in this country is spent for this purpose. So, my Lords, the task in this country is the purchase and then the proctection of habitats, the management of those habitats where necessary and publicity and education which would prevent so much of the thoughtless collection to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hylton-Foster, referred.

Another group has been formed, the Plant Resources Working Party, made up of the Botanical Gardens, Nature Conservancy, universities, the Forestry Corn-mission and the Agricultural Research Council. They have given themselves the task of identifying and examining the principal plant collections held in Britain and so form the basis for future collections. Here again this Bill will play a necessary part.

My Lords, let me turn to the Palace of Westminster and raise something mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. I want to read an excerpt from the Report of the Eighth Meeting of the All-Party Conservation Committee of both Houses of Parliament held on November 22, 1972: A. E. Smith, Joint Honorary Secretary of Council for Nature and Honorary Secretary of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves, spoke on comprehensive legislation for the conservation of British wild life. His proposals were wide and constructive. It was considered appropriate that these should be printed and circulated to all members of the Committee. It was considered that such comprehensive legislation was desirable and should be adopted. It was agreed that Ted Smith's proposals would form a suitable starting point. Meanwhile there should be no slackening of efforts to achieve conservation successes through Private Member's Bills and through existing legislation. Quite recently this Bill was discussed by the same All-Party Conservation Committee and they gave it their blessing. So, my Lords, in giving this Bill your blessing you are giving it the blessing of both Houses of Parliament.

4.45 p.m.


My Lords, I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, in the excellent work that he is doing. There are one or two alterations to the Bill which I should like to see; it leaves out at least another 40 plants which are almost extinct. We have two great enemies. I am sorry to have to say this, being a farmer myself, but the farmer is, unwittingly, an enemy and I will give your Lordships an example. This year we found only the fourth site of the military orchid. This orchid likes semi-shade and it was growing in the semi-shade thrown by an overgrown hedge on a headland which had not been disturbed for a long time. An efficient, modern farmer unwittingly had the hedge out and put the headland under some kind of crop; and there is the problem.

The other great vandal—and this was touched on earlier in the debate—is the highway authority. For a long time I have had a battle with the Oxfordshire County Council highway authority over the mowing of a stretch of road outside Henley-on-Thames where the local authority has mown as closely as possible up to 20 yards from the roadway. Not only is this a waste of public money, but they have almost succeeded in eradicating a plant which is not particularly rare but very beautiful, the wild marguerite. To take a small area, Fair Mile, North of Henley-on-Thames, as soon as you get a wonderful, glowing, golden carpet of buttercups on each side of the road it is mown down, and all one can see is bits of paper and plastic and other rubbish. The mowing is grossly overdone. We do not have county surveyors any more; they were very helpful and useful. With the help of a sensitive surveyor we managed to save a site of the dwarf elder which is very rare; the cut-leaved elder of which there is only one known site. But we lost the battle, unfortunately, through a mistake on the part of a contractor, where there was a nice colony of columbine growing wild.

My Lords, I think that we must all put our local authorities under as much pressure as possible not to mow for more than three feet from the side of the road. I remember having a row about this with the county council and finally someone got up and said that beauty has no value. My Lords, beauty has a great value. The man who comes from America to do business on the Slough Trading Estate would come anyway. But the attraction of the beauty of England is an immense source of invisible earnings. Largely through ignorance, and sometimes through pigheadedness, we have this attitude on the part of local engineers, or borough surveyors, or whoever it may be. It is an attempt, as it seems to me, to turn the whole of the roadsides of England into a sort of urbanised area, with all the grass mown down.

I see the difficulty about implementing any law which is passed, but I hope that this Bill will go forward. The police have too much to do as it is, but individuals can do a great deal. I have been able to do something. I was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. Somehow we have to find means to educate people. The B.B.C. and the I.T.V. have been very good and helpful. They have shown films of wildlife which no doubt your Lordships have seen. The other way in which something can be done—and we do this locally—is through schools and the teaching there. It is better not to teach children to go picking bunches of wild flowers because they may pick something which is very valuable. But teaching them about the nature of flowers is of great importance. In that way we can be of sonic positive assistance.

I have been fortunate enough to be able to set aside 450 acres of my own land with public access. We have put up hides so that people may go there to eat their sandwiches, to observe and to take photographs. A small charge of a couple of shillings is made and they can spend all day there with a camera or binoculars just watching. Through inquiries made at Henley Grammar School and other schools, I found that a number of 14, 15 and 16-year-old children have been to Longleat and seen the lions. They have been to the Safari Park at Windsor and to the Duke of Bedford's Park and seen the bison, but they have never seen the English wild deer; they have never seen a badger or a fox. Therefore I am trying in my own small way to encourage them to take an interest in what the Almighty has given us and which has been very much abused.

Naturalist societies, such as the Berks., Bucks, and Oxon. Naturalist Trust, are of immense value. There are always difficulties when it comes to sites. I know, for instance, a site for a wild tulip, a plant which I do not think is on the list. As soon as the site of a rare plant is mentioned, some determined person will go and pick the flowers or try to dig up the plant. Two years ago we had a tremendous flowering of the ghost orchid, one of the rarest English orchids. It has a cycle of life and a rotation of flowering of about 15 years; and suddenly it sprang up not very far from Marlow. There were hundreds of plants which no one had seen growing there before. The difficulty is to preserve these things from people who are ignorant or ill-intentioned. I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, if he eventually amends the Bill, to increase the lists of species to be protected. I could cover South Oxfordshire for him. I am fortunate in living in the Chilterns, which is quite the best place for wild orchids and good for wild flowers generally. There is the case I know of the Fen Orchid, which is not at all common. The farmer on whose land it was found, being ignorant, fenced off the land and put his pigs in, so that now we no longer find that orchid there. It occurs to me that perhaps something could be done to protect these species in a rather similar way as in the case of trees, where a preservation order is placed on a particular headland or hedgerow. If it is pointed out to people that there is a valuable plant nearby most people will play the game. The main thing is to support the Bill: it can do nothing but good. I am grateful to your Lordships for having discussed so thoroughly something which is very close to my heart.

4.54 p.m.


My Lords, I hope the Government will take notice of the fact that there has not been one single speaker to-day who has not been wholeheartedly in favour of this Bill. There is nothing I can usefully add to the very powerful arguments that have already been put forward in favour of it. However, I should like just to support the plea made by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that the noble Baroness might ask her Department to take what I might define as a rather less Departmental outlook on this and remind the House that we did discuss this very problem during the passage of the Criminal Damage Act in 1971, when the noble and learned Lord who sits on the Woolsack pointed out to those of us who were then making pleas for conservation that half of what we wanted was included in that very Bill—now an Act of Parliament. I have looked up the words which he used, and he pointed out that you cannot dig up a primrose or a cowslip without committing an offence. That was the implication of it; and then the noble and learned Lord went on to point out that if you want to pick sloes to make sloe gin that was legal under that Act, as indeed it still would be under this Bill.

One of the two key clauses of this Bill is Clause 1, and Clause 1(a) is virtually already the law of the land, although I hope that the definition will be extended slightly to cover some of the less popular plants such as the bryaphytes and the like, which I should like to see protected. Perhaps I am going a little beyond the Second Reading, but it is important for the Department concerned to realise that these points should be looked at in the early stages. The noble Baroness suggested there might be difficulties in agriculture. So far as I know, nobody carries out any operation on any land unless he is the owner, the occupier, the servant of those people or some authorised contractor. So I do not think that agriculture can be damaged by this Bill in any way at all.

Finally, we get down to the possibility that this Bill will create a large number of extra offences. However, so far as the digging up of plants is concerned it will not create any more offences. A great many counties have long experience of a similar provision made under county council by-laws which forbid the digging up of any plant in any place to which the public have access. Such a provision would represent no burden on the police. Indeed, I might say that it would have the reverse effect, because the mere fact that the police are able to point out to someone in a country district that digging up plants is contrary to the county council by-laws or the law of the land has an immediate effect. People know that they are doing wrong. By and large, people do not want to break the law unnecessarily, and sometimes of course they do not know that they are breaking the law. I do not think I have ever known a prosecution for this offence during a great many years on the local bench, but I know how useful it has been to be able to tell people that such behaviour is contrary to the county council by-laws. I feel that if the Department would look at this clause with rather more of an open mind, and would realise that it does not ask for very much more than exists already, but represents just that little more which would make all the difference to the conservation of our wildlife, I am sure we should be able to get through the Committee stage in amity and produce a reasonable Bill.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, I must apologise for intervening in this debate so late. I assure your Lordships that I shall keep you for only a few minutes. This is an admirable Bill and I would congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, upon introducing it at this timely moment. I am a little concerned, however, about Clause 11, because it seems to me rather too widely drawn. I should be the last to wish to interfere with the rights of private individuals, but there is one particular aspect of ownership to which I should like to draw the attention of the House.

Some of the best land, botanically, is corporately owned, or indeed nationally owned. The rough of golf courses—par-ticularly those by the seaside—is among the best areas for finding rare specimens. That land, I suppose, is owned by all the members of the club concerned, and therefore Clause 11 ought to go very much wider than merely referring to the owner or someone authorised by a single individual owner. Other very happy hunting grounds for botanists are disused railway sidings, and even sidings on main-line railways. Owing to the fact that they are not cultivated, that is a very fertile field. This land belongs to British Railways, and I suppose that, indirectly, it belongs to us all. There is a third category on which I am not sure of my ground; that is, land owned by the National Trust. In giving the Bill my warmest support I should like to make the point that at the Committee stage, when we come to Clause 11, this question of land that is owned not by an individual but by a corporate body should be looked at very carefully.

5.0 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships' House for having failed to add my name to the list of speakers. I excuse myself on the ground that I have had other matters occupying my attention in the past few days. Now I take the opportunity of offering congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, on making this submission to your Lordships' House. I cordially support this Bill, in principle at any rate. May I declare my interest? Apart from my previous connection with the County of Durham, where in my old constituency of Easington they have a famous beauty spot, a nature reserve, Castle Dene. I am also the Patron of the Durham County Conservation Trust. These are my sole qualifications. My knowledge of botanical affairs is extremely limited. The Castle Dene is not only of botanical interest but has historical associations. It was first discovered before the beginning of the 19th Century and it has attracted the attention not only of people in the neighbourhood but of people from afar, persons interested in botanical and archaeological affairs. They are extremely anxious not only to conserve the contents of the reserve but also to make any possible improvements. For that reason I support the principle of the Bill.

I listened with interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Young, in the speech she made following the submission by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. As I understood her, she accepted the principle of the Bill. But—and I hope that I am not using an improper expression—she seemed to damn it with faint praise, because she intimated that there were many technical difficulties and obstacles in the way of implementing all the clauses and provisions of the proposed legislation. One difficulty which she mentioned was somewhat extravagant: it was that it is difficult to implement the intention of the Bill regarding farmland. She used the illustration that if wild flowers were flourishing in farmland it would be impossible to prevent them from being uprooted and disturbed by those engaged in farming occupations.

I can understand that; but it was not my impression from the speech we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, that it was the intention to include farmland in the implementation and the provisions of the Bill. I thought that the intention was to deal with designated areas, beauty spots, nature reserves, planned and controlled by a local authority or by conservation trusts, or by associations who were anxious to conserve the wild botanical specimens. Therefore, it may be possible in any proposed Amendment to the Bill, or any submission which the Government care to make, to include what I have suggested in designated areas of a particular kind containing botanical specimens which we are anxious to conserve. If such an Amendment were incorporated in the Bill it could assist in overcoming the obstacles which occurred to the noble Baroness.

One of the difficulties about conserving botanical specimens in nature reserves is that, naturally, these places are visited by young people and, very often, by children who are immature, lively and excitable. They pick flowers whenever they feel disposed, and therefore some education is required in these matters. This is where teachers in these areas could assist materially in educating the children in botanical affairs. It could be part of the curriculum—a very desirable part—to prevent what might be regarded as vandalism. It may be necessary to use botanical language which is clearly understood. Members of your Lordships House may be surprised that there was occasion when I once had a garden with 400 rose bushes in it. I did not tend them myself; I managed to employ somebody at a very modest rate of remuneration in order to look after them. I know something about gardens, but I know very little or nothing about wild plants.

I see in the Schedule some designations, and I should like to know what they mean. I can understand a child going into a nature reserve and picking a plant, not knowing whether it is wild, mature or cultured and not understanding the names. I see that one is called Dianthus gratianopolitanus. I am not sure what that means. I wonder if the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who is an authority in botanical affairs, could explain it. There is one name which is even more remarkable and which attracted my attention at once for a reason which will appear obvious: Orchis militaris. Has this anything to do with defence or the Army? Militaris ! Is that the kind of plant that stands up straight and soldierly?


My Lords, if the noble Lord looks at the left hand column of the Schedule he will see that that is a military orchid and the first plant he mentioned is a Cheddar pink.


Then why not say so in the first place, my Lords? Then we should know what we were talking about. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, who is a prominent educationist—


My Lords, the noble Lord has failed to notice that on the left-hand side of the Schedule there is the English name and on the right hand side of the Schedule there is the Latin name of exactly the same plant. Therefore, the name of every plant is given in Latin and English.


My Lords, it is not too apparent because they are run on parallel lines in columns. One would have supposed that they referred to two different kinds of plants. However, now I understand it. I am glad I intervened in this debate because I have gained some knowledge; if I have not imparted any knowledge then I have at least gained some. In the interests of my constituents, who are anxious to conserve these botanical specimens, because sometimes I have to pay them a visit and want still to be on good terms with them, and because I am proud of the fact I am the Patron—not one Patron but the Patron—of the Durham County Conservation Trust, I cordially support this Bill.

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, I am not too sure who are now the constituents of my noble friend Lord Shinwell. I think it is the whole world, because he occasionally speaks for the whole world—and with good common sense. He certainly spoke with common sense about the Bill that we have before us. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, will be happy with the way this debate has gone. I feel that I must say a few words in support of this Bill from this Bench, for I certainly should not like it to be thought that Her Majesty's Opposition are not in favour of protecting the plant life of our countryside, and particularly the species endangered by overpicking and by digging them up and uprooting them. There is little that I would wish to add to the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Charley, whose knowledge of the poetry of the subject did not surprise me though it certainly entertained me. I liked his mention of the medicinal properties of some of the plants that we might be considering to-day. The only one I can think of that I know has medicinal properties happens to be the foxglove. Digitalis has for a long time been used in certain heart conditions.

The picking of flowers by children has been mentioned, and particularly the picking of the bluebell. While I should not like to see our trying to prevent them from picking that lovely flower, I am bound to say that I have from time to time seen masses of faded bluebells on the road, picked and discarded by children on the way home. It seems to be the case that the bluebells are picked, they fade fairly rapidly, and then they are discarded. I know some areas where in my young days they were very prolific but where now they are not to be found at all; and I very much regret this. I agree with my noble friend Lord Shinwell that this is very much a matter for education.

I would support the plea of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, to the road authorities to do the least possible damage to our wild flowers by overcutting or spraying road verges. To his plea I would add a request to the Railways Board to deal understandingly with their embankments and the area between the permanent way and the railway boundaries, for those areas are so often the last refuge of the wild flowers of that particular part of the countryside. Then burning off, which is commonly done, can destroy beautiful banks. It so happens that on my way up to this House I have to pass a bank that used to be, in spring, a lovely mass of primroses: it was a joy to look at this bank on the way up to this House. But burning off has completely destroyed the whole of that bank, and it is now covered by brambles, and certainly not beautiful flowers.

My Lords, I welcome the Bill. I would thank the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, for introducing it, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young, for her criticism, which I am sure will be helpful to the House when we come to consider the Bill in Committee. From this Bench I certainly support the Bill.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, I am deeply grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate and who have unanimously given strenuous support to this Bill. I am sure that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not take up every individual suggestion that has been made in the course of this debate. The whole problem of increasing the number of species in the Schedule is of course one that we should look at at Committee stage. I think we should be well advised to include any species which may have been carelessly omitted but which definitely comes within the same category as the 20 named. I am not entirely certain that we should be right to extend the Schedule at this particular stage. This is because I should like us to treat the conservation of these 20 species as a matter of enormous importance.

I am not very happy, if your Lordships will forgive my saying so, with the noble Baroness's suggestion that agriculture, forestry and drainage were rarely sufficient reasons why the plants named in this Schedule, which are really endangered plants, should be endangered more and that some of them might have to be destroyed. This is a point on which I feel that this Bill could deal with even more strongly than it does. I should have thought that to make the ordinary agricultural operations a defence was, if not going too far, at least going far enough. But that is not a major matter, and I am quite certain that we can reach accommodation on this particular point. But there is a reason for keeping the Schedule short; that is to give the maximum protection to these particular flowers without trespassing on anybody's rights.

I was grateful to the noble Duke, the Duke of Devonshire, for his suggestions that we might look at these definitions again. I think I am right in saying that these definitions are based on those used in other similar Bills, but we will certainly look at the point. I am indeed most grateful to the noble Baroness for her general welcome to the Bill, and for the general welcome that the Government have given. It is a great step forward to-day that the Government have declared their support for the principles of this kind of conservation.

I join my voice with those of one or two other noble Lords in the plea that the Department might have a look again at one or two of the reasons which they put up for opposing Clause 1(a) and the reasons which the noble Baroness put forward for opposing Clause 1. I think that some of them were based on a misunderstanding. This question of cutting and offering for sale of wild flowers is one about which I have had a large number of letters from many people. People feel very strongly about it. I understand from the noble Baroness that one of the reasons for not liking this particular point is that many of these flowers are much the same as cultivated species and it might be difficult to differentiate between the two of them. But, my Lords, if it is wrong to cut wild flowers on other people's land and expose them for sale, is it not that much more wrong to cut cultivated flowers on other people's land and expose them for sale? Indeed, it is theft and therefore already covered. So I do not think that this particular difficulty of the definition should worry us greatly, because if the definition is extended then it is already covered by the law. Equally, as the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, pointed out, the Criminal Damage Act already covers a large number of the offences of picking plants on other people's land. All this Bill would do would be to extend slightly this coverage.

I was not certain that it was the happiest phrase the noble Baroness used when she said that we must not make offences of what are otherwise innocent activities. I do not think that digging up plants or cutting wild flowers on other people's land and offering them for sale—which is what we are speaking about—are innocent activities. We are not in any way threatening the innocent activity of just the occasional plucking of a wild flower. A further point which the noble Baroness made was about blanket coverage. The model Home Office bylaw, which is still in force in many parts of the country, and which is not now readopted only because of a technical disparity with the Criminal Damage Act—I stress that it is only technical—says this: No person shall without lawful authority uproot any ferns, primroses or other plants growing in any road, lane, roadside, waste roadside, bank or hedge, common or other place to which the public has access". So the Home Office has already given its blessing to this particular blanket coverage.

Obviously, we are coming to the end of the Second Reading debate. We shall have plenty of opportunity to look at these points on the Committee stage. I welcome the noble Baroness's good will in this matter. I warn her that I shall take full advantage of it and try to see whether we cannot iron out a number of these points before we come back to your Lordships' House. I have no doubt that out of your Lordships' support today will come a very worthwhile Bill, no matter what the details are. Whereas I certainly shall go back and look at what the noble Baroness has said, I hope that the noble Baroness and her Department will reciprocate.

I should like to close, slightly out of Order, I am afraid, by apologising for my inability to remain and support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, to which I should have liked to give the same support as he has privately given to my Bill. May I once again thank noble Lords for their support. I am quite certain that what we have done this afternoon, in the midst of this national crisis—or what I hope your Lordships are going to do in giving this Bill a Second Reading now—is a worth-while first step on the way to our obtaining a very good new law.

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