HL Deb 28 April 1977 vol 382 cc734-75

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, this is not so much a conservation measure, although it will have conservation results, as an animal welfare one. The background of the Bill is that in the mid-1960s the number of otters fell by something of the order of 50 per cent. over most of England and to a rather lesser extent in Wales, a fall probably caused by the residues of persistent pesticides. Your Lordships will remember Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which was published about that time. As the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill says, faced with this problem the otter hunts followed the normal conservation practice of continuing to monitor the position by looking for otters, but if they found one they followed it for a time and called off the hounds without killing.

Between 1900 and 1950 the otter hunts had killed between them an average of about 200 otters a year. In the five years 1972–76 throughout the whole of Great Britain 40 otters were killed, an average of 8 a year, and if your Lordships look at today's Hansard you will see there is a Nature Conservancy Council report that five were killed last year and five the year before. In short, an entirely new pattern of otter hunting has developed over these past few years, and the effect of hunting on the status of the otter is now negligible.

In 1965 when the otter population was probably at its lowest, the Mammal Society started making distribution maps of animals, all mammals, on a 10 kilometre square basis, and with the fall in the number of otters becoming greater they concentrated on the otter from 1973 onwards. I placed a map in the Library and if your Lordships look at that you will find that naturalists had reported otters from about 50 per cent. of the area of Scotland, where there was no fall in the 1960s. In the Midlands it is quite clear that the number of otters is relatively small, but I am not concerned with that so far as this Bill is concerned because there is no hunting which takes place there. Outside the Midlands, in the areas where hunting takes place, about 40 per cent. of the total area contains otters. It begins to look as if the otter is beginning to recover its former status. Though there has been a new pattern of otter hunting developing, I cannot forget that, between 1900 and 1950, 200 otters a year were killed on average by hunts. Then I could see no justification for the deliberate killing of an animal which is not good to eat, and which in my part of the world was certainly doing no harm, and I asked the local hunt some 40-odd years ago not to come and draw my stretch of river.

As I said, in many places the otter is starting to recover its former status, and this Bill is designed to prevent the existing pattern of otter hunting, where the objective is not to kill otters, from being replaced by the former practice of deliberately trying to kill them when they were found. Otter hunters have been able to continue to enjoy their sport without deliberately hunting to kill for the last ten or dozen years, because the normal behaviour pattern of an otter calls for a specialised pattern of hunting.

Otters have always been very thin on the ground. In the 1950s it was thought there was about one otter for every 6 miles of river, and an otter seems to require that sort of length of territory to support it. They are nocturnal, and they do not usually fish over more than quite a small part of their territory, a mile, two, perhaps three, on successive nights. So on successive days they have to take shelter in a whole series of consecutive shelters or holts on their way down the river; then they come back, using the holts, up the river. To find an otter, therefore, the otter hunters have to find where it fished over the previous night. The otter's scent is very much stronger than that of any other animal which is hunted. Hounds can pick up last night's track, or even the night before's track, and they follow that until they get to the place where the otter is spending that particular day, when in the old days, of course, they frightened it out of its holt and chased it until they killed it or until it got away. I am told that the major pleasure, or one of the major pleasures of otter hunting, and the only one at the moment, is watching hounds puzzle out that line, the stale drag as they call it, of where the otter went the night before. It is that pattern of otter hunting without killing that this Bill is designed to secure.

In Clause 1 the Minister has to set up an "otter committee", and the membership is set out in the schedule. That is intended to, and I think should, secure that a majority, the two deliberately chosen independent people appointed by the Minister and the scientist appointed by the Nature Conservancy Council, should show a complete objectivity. The other two members, the representative of the British Field Sports Society and the representative of the animal welfare societies, are intended to stand up for their own particular interests, or at least to make certain that those interests are considered.

There are then set out a number of essential conditions. The first two are obvious and I need not say anything about them. Clause 1(2)(c) is intended to secure that only a pack of a reasonably manageable size can be used, so that it may be under the proverbial pocket handkerchief and easily controlled, and to secure that so far as the size of the individual dog is concerned this will be such as to prevent the use of terriers being put down the holt if an otter goes to ground, driving it out, as a ferret does a rabbit. Paragraph (d) is really the most fundamental one of the whole of this Bill. That lays down that the Minister shall define the time over which hounds may follow an otter in hot pursuit, or indeed whether otters may be followed in hot pursuit at all.

If your Lordships will turn to Clause 5, the definitions, you will see that the forms of pursuing an otter are two. There is what is called a hunt, when the hounds are in hot pursuit following an otter in front of them, and that is the procedure which the Minister can control completely. But following the drag left by an otter the previous night, when the otter which left it may be one, two or three miles away, is neither disturbed nor at risk, is not controlled. That does no harm, and the otter hunters can pursue that to their hearts' content. I shall refer to that definition a little later.

I believe that under the present pattern of otter hunting the otter suffers from continuous daytime disturbance by fishermen, pleasure boats and over-enthusiastic river authorities removing all the bankside vegetation, although that is not so continuous but is almost as important as interference. Mammals tend to react to that sort of condition and otters have done so. There is abundant evidence that in a great many places they are tending to leave the river during the day and lie up in some holt or shelter in an alder carr or wood some distance back from the riverside where they are not disturbed. If their drag is being followed along the river bank they will never know that they are being hunted, if one defines that as hunted, and will never be disturbed.

Naturalists and conservationists should bear in mind that we should establish artificial holts or shelters in these woods, well back from the river side and thus try to encourage otters to spend the day there, away from disturbance by fishermen, boats and the huntsmen. That being so, they would not be distressed by the fact that very little shelter has been left by the river authority. I have such a holt in a wood on my own land some little distance back from our river.

We know that otters can do harm, particularly in fish farms and where there are collections or wild fowl and the like. The provisos to Clauses 3 and 4 are intended to secure that where an otter is doing damage it can be dealt with and will be dealt with only where the recipient of the damage can satisfy a court of law that it is essential to kill the otter.


My Lords, these two clauses have set my mind at rest about the preservation of fish farms and so on. I should like to thank the noble Earl for having included this so clearly.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Baroness. That was the intention of the clauses. The five miles within which the otter may be killed is intended to cover rather less than the normal territory over which an otter ranges and feeds, so that one can be quite certain of catching it. I have only recently been brought into contact with otter hounds and otter hunters. About 18 months ago we started to prepare a conservation scheme to preserve the otter in Suffolk. It immediately became clear—indeed, we were so advised by our otter expert who had just completed a preliminary otter survey—that it was essential to get all interested parties together and that we must work with the otter hounds, the water authorities, riparian owners, fishermen, boatman and the like. Therefore, it fell to me to try to mug up on all the various interested parties.

It was then that I first realised this curious feeding habit of the otter of being continually on the move, sleeping every night in a fresh place and that it was only possible for an otter hunter to find it by finding the drag of the night before and following it until he came upon the otter. Until the hunters come upon the otter the otter is not disturbed or at risk. Of course, otters and nature do not arrange things quite so nicely that one invariably finds the drag first and then the otter. I presume that sometimes one can take the hounds clown to the river and come across the otter when its drag stretches away several miles below or above it.

The extent of the disturbance and danger will depend entirely upon whether and for how long the hounds pursue the otter once they have come upon it. As I have said, it has been the practice of the otter hounds to whip off in order to prevent killing it but by following it they do, of course, disturb it to a certain extent. Therefore, it seemed obvious that there should be a special Bill which contained a special clause—Clause 1(2)(d)—under which the Otter Committee and the Minister can decide whether the otter is pursued and, if it is pursued, for how long it should be pursued.

Almost all the national conservation bodies have asked that the otter should have legal protection but none of those who demand it seems to realise how otter hunting depends upon following the drag. All have asked that the otter should be placed on the Schedule to the Conservation of Wild creatures and Wild Plants Act—an Act which is totally inappropriate for dealing with the situation in which we find ourselves today. That Act can hardly control otter hunting. Under that Act it would be an offence to kill without reasonable excuse, exactly as under this Bill it would be an offence not to take "every reasonable precaution" to avoid killing. The phraseology is very similar and I do not quite know why I chose the second one instead of the first for the Bill. Under neither would it be an offence to follow the drag in the absence of the otter but under the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act—but not under the Bill—it would not be an offence mercifully to kill an otter who was severely damaged.

Most people would define otter hunting as tracing a fleeing otter with a pack of hounds, the otter running or swimming in front of them, trying to get away as fast as it can. It is that which causes a disturbance; it is then that the otter is at risk and it is that which is defined as a "hunt" under Clause 5. That cannot be controlled by the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act but, as I said earlier, it can be controlled by Clause 1(2)(d), and that is the key to the Bill. It was the necessity to be able to control that form of disturbance, or indeed any form of disturbance, the necessity to be able to prevent the unnecessary killing of an otter, which was the father and mother of this Bill.

Of all the beasts of the chase the otter is unique in so far as it leaves a scent behind it which is so strong that it can be followed on the next day and even on the day after. That cannot be done with the fox, the hare, or the deer. The track of none of them can be followed by hounds when they are far away in time as well as distance. That is secured by this Bill. There need be no disturbance, there need be no killing, and I believe that the otter hunters can continue to enjoy watching the stale drag being followed by their hounds without putting the otter at risk at all. This I feel is a Bill which I can commend to your Lordships, and I beg to move.

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

5.51 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to intervene at this stage to give your Lordships some indication of the Government's attitude to the proposals in this Bill. So far as can be ascertained from the Bill itself and from the Explanatory Memorandum, the aim of the Bill is to prevent the deliberate killing of otters with hounds except when this is necessary to prevent substantial damage to property. This would give statutory effect to the practice adopted by otter hunts in recent years of calling off the hounds before the otter is killed. It may be that the Bill goes, or is intended to do so, a good deal farther than this, but that is a matter that I propose to deal with a little later.

May I first deal with the relationship between this Bill and the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975. Under the 1975 Act it is an offence to kill, injure or take, or attempt to kill, injure or take a protected wild creature without reasonable excuse. Protected wild creatures are listed in Schedule I to the 1975 Act. While these include such familiar friends as the natterjack toad, the otter is not so listed. Nevertheless, an order can be made—and I want to emphasise this—to add any wild creature to Schedule I to the Act in the interests of proper conservation, provided that there is first a representation from the Nature Conservancy Council, who are the Government's advisers on such matters, that this should be done.

Before making such a representation the National Conservancy Council must consider that the creature has become so rare that its status is being endangered by an action which is designated as an offence under the Act. The effect of such an order, therefore, would be to prohibit—and I want to emphasise this—any attempt to kill, injure, or take an otter without reasonable excuse. Whether or not this would prevent all forms of otter hunt I am unable to say, but I understood the noble Earl to say that it would not. However, the fact remains—and I must remind him of this—that the decision would rest with the courts. Action would presumably be up to anybody who felt that the 1975 Act did in fact give this protection, and if the practice continued then it could be tested in the courts.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? It would certainly be an offence if an otter was killed with hounds, but otter hunting without killing would not be an offence. That is as I see it.


My Lords, as the noble Earl wishes to believe that, that would presumably be more correct, but I am not sure that I would agree with him there. I would say that if the otter was protected, then I question—and I should say the courts would have to decide this—whether it could be hunted. But I do not think that any useful purpose is going to be served at this stage by the noble Earl and I having a disagreement. We are used to having disagreements. We had them for some years on a county council. They were, if I may say so, always good natured.

In any event, your Lordships may feel that the protection of otters under the 1975 Act would go a long way to meeting the noble Earl's objectives. I have to make it perfectly clear that Ministers share the concern which has recently been expressed about the decline in the number of otters. My colleagues in the Department of the Environment have been seeking advice from the Nature Conservancy Council on action to conserve the otter and the need for protection of the otter under the 1975 Act.

Towards the end of last year the Nature Conservancy Council and the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation set up a joint Working Group to assess the current status of the otter and to determine whether measures are needed for its conservation and, if so, what form those measures should take. The Group is now completing its report with a view to publication at the end of May. I understand that they will be proposing a programme of measures designed in particular to safeguard the habitats of otters and to curb the effects of disturbance and pollution.

Again I want to say on behalf of the Government that we shall give careful consideration to the Group's recommendations and to the Nature Conservancy Council's views on them. While we have not yet received the Council's formal advice, I understand that the Council would generally welcome the range of measures proposed by the Group. Based on these, the Nature Conservancy Council are contemplating advising my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on the need for a variety of measures to be taken, including legislative protection of the otter. They are seriously considering whether it would be appropriate to use the provisions for area protection under the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975. As I think I said earlier, it is for the Nature Conservancy Council to advise the Secretary of State whether the otter should be protected under this Act. If any formal representation is received from the Nature Conservancy Council, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment will be undertaking the consultations with local authorities and others concerned which are required under the 1975 Act before an order can be made.

Your Lordships may well ask how all this affects the Bill. The first point I would make is that the purpose of the two measures is very different indeed. The object of the 1975 Act is conservation, while the object of the proposals in this Bill, so far as the Government understand them, is to reduce unnecessary suffering. I do not think it goes beyond that; to reduce unnecessary suffering. It follows from that that the considerations applying to the two courses of action are very different. My second point is that there appears to be no inconsistency or conflict in adopting either or both courses of action. The regulation of hunting so as to eliminate unnecessary suffering might he followed or accompanied by scheduling the otter under the 1975 Act on conservation grounds.

I turn to the proposals in the Bill. It seems—I can only report what I have been told because, I am very happy to say, I have no personal or practical experience whatever of otter hunting, that the activity at least in this country has one characteristic which distinguishes it from other forms of hunting; that is to say, the otter may be hunted for some time without being aware of the fact, a point which the noble Earl made. Apparently this is possible because the hounds follow a scent for some time before meeting up with the otter. If my information is correct, this means that up to that point the animal will not have been made to suffer by or from the pursuit. That is not to say that otter hunting as it has recently been conducted—that is, in which every attempt is made to avoid the actual kill—involves no suffering.

When moving the Second Reading of his Bill, the noble Earl drew your Lordships' attention to the fact that the otter may be disturbed by fishermen. I suggest that it is terrified if it is aware of being chased by hounds, even though they may be called off, and that is a very different thing. Let me say honestly that as an individual I am intrigued to know how hounds can be called off at such close quarters. How does one do that? The Government would not feel able to approve a form of regulating hunting which preserved such an element and, let us make no mistake about it, the Bill that is before us would preserve such an element.

As we understand it—this was the sense of the remarks of the noble Earl when introducing the Bill—his intention is that the conditions should be so drawn as to require that the hounds be called off the moment they come up to the otter. Is that realistic? Is it really possible? What does one say to hounds in such circumstances? Let us face the implications of all this. There has been talk about scents; that they can follow yesterday's scent but not today's. How does one determine which is yesterday's scent and which is today's? I certainly do not know.

In so far as the intention of the Bill is to eliminate any suffering on the part of otters, I can say without reservation that this is a principle which has the Government's support. Such reservations as we have stern from practical difficulties which we believe would arise from the provisions as at present drafted. As to whether what we understand to be the noble Earl's intentions could in practice be achieved, I have indicated that the character of otter hunting would appear to make this at least a theoretical possibility. But let us not forget that we are talking about a theoretical possibility and that there is a great deal of difference, a vast distance, between theory and practice. If, as I say, it would appear to be at least a theoretical possibility, the result would be almost indistinguishable from the total abolition of otter hunting so far as the suffering inflicted on the animal by way of sport was concerned. We believe it would be difficult to object to such a result; that is, if it could be achieved in practice. It would certainly accord with the Government's policy of eliminating unnecessary suffering wherever reasonable and possible.

In its present form, however, we are of the opinion that the Bill could not achieve that object. Accordingly, our attitude to the Bill at this stage, on our understanding of what its purpose is intended to be, must be one of neutrality. It is a matter for your Lordships to decide what should happen. But let me again be perfectly frank and say that the Government could not accept a measure of this kind on the Statute Book in its present form.

I understand that the noble Earl is ready to accept Amendments which would rectify the Bill's deficiencies and, if it is the wish of your Lordships that further progress with the Bill should be attempted, I can assure the House and the noble Earl that we should be happy to discuss the matter with him; that is, if your Lordships think it right to proceed in this way. In the course of such discussions, the matter we particularly wish to explore would be whether it is really practicable to devise mandatory conditions which would eliminate any element of suffering.

That is what it will turn on; whether it is feasible, possible and practicable to devise mandatory conditions which would eliminate any element of suffering. The question is whether it is possible to draft such conditions and whether it would really be practicable in that they could be apparent and observed; and then, of course, whether the provisions in the Bill would be satisfactory in the event of a deadlock between the Secretary of State and the otter committee. The noble Earl has set out clearly the appointment of an otter committee and the fact that, whatever else it might decide, four things would have to be mandatory. But what would be the position of the Secretary of State in relation to any recommendations of that otter committee?

The Government support the elimination of any suffering caused by the sport of otter hunting and would not object to the Bill if it could be amended to achieve that object. I have pointed out that we see very real and practical difficulties in doing that. We should not be prepared to contemplate Government approval for conditions which did not entirely eliminate the element of suffering, and I would ask with the greatest possible respect whether hunting an otter can be held at any time not to include an element of suffering. One must surely go with the other. We reserve the right to take action—as I am sure many noble Lords would wish the Government to do—under the 1975 Act, if appropriate, whether or not this Bill reaches the Statute Book.

6.10 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend has based his Bill on his view, which I quote, that …the effect on otters of hunting is comparatively negligible", that the otter is beginning to recover its former status in certain areas and, basing his figures and graphs to some extent on the authority of hunt records, he points out with truth that many hunts are continuing to enjoy this sport.

There are other opinions. The Hon. Vincent Weir made observations between 1967 and 1973 in North Norfolk. Those observations showed that it took about four months for otters, once they had been hunted—not necessarily killed—to return to their former territory. So, in taking figures from the hunts, it is clear that the huntsmen who know this behaviour of the otter are not going back to the former territory but are going to where they hope or, with their great skill, know the otter is. For that reason, we believe that many of the hunt records of kills and otters in the area are abnormally high. I believe that nearly every other authority in the country is of the opinion that the otter is both scarce and, in many areas, endangered. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, and his colleagues share our concern.

I should like briefly to quote the names of some of the authorities I have for saying what I have. They include the Otter Trust which said in a letter to me, All the scientists who have studied otter populations in this country—Chanin, Mason, McDonald, Weir, West, Erlinge and Green—have come to the same conclusion; i.e. that unless the otter is totally protected by law it will soon become extinct in most of England and Wales. They say that this view is endorsed by a large number of field naturalists who are helping with the present otter survey, of which Dr Chanin is the co-ordinator.

In addition to that, at a recent conference in Berne, the common otter was placed in Appendix I of the Washington Con- vention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. It is now, therefore, internationally recognised as being in need of complete protection. Trade in otters is now controlled and the otter will be added to the Red Data book of endangered species. Furthermore, only four days ago--last Monday—the status of the otter was raised at the Survival Services Commission meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, at Morges. The meeting expressed concern about the status of the otter in the whole of Western Europe and instructed that a telegram should be dispatched to the Department of the Environment—where I hope it has been received—urging Her Majesty's Government to give the otter immediate legal protection, including a ban on hunting, trapping and shooting.

These are powerful and authoritative opinions and they will, as the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, said, shortly be reinforced when we see the recently completed report of the Joint Otter Group of the Nature Conservancy Council, the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation, the Mammal Society and the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology. I am very glad to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, that he is considering measures that may do something about this very difficult problem.

The weight of evidence will surely be that the otter is an endangered species. It suffers many dangers and difficulties in attempting to survive in this country and, before one considers the merits of a Bill to permit hounds to hunt but not to kill otters, let me state briefly what these difficulties and dangers are. With so elusive a creature as the otter, a particular difficulty is that it is probably true to say that in many cases one cannot know for certain that the otter is seriously endangered in any area until it is too late. One only finds out when the damage is done.

What are the main dangers? My noble friend mentioned some in introducing the Bill. The first is disturbance in any form, whether chased by a hunt as legalised by this Bill or disturbed by fishermen, canoeists, sailors or even ramblers. There is killing, which this Bill attempts to prevent except in certain circumstances. In this connection, my noble friend men- tioned fish farming. There is also killing and trapping by gamekeepers and even fishermen in the not mistaken but much exaggerated belief that otters do damage to game fish. In fact, there would seldom be more than one otter to every six or even ten miles of river and, as everyone knows, the otter's main food is eels and coarse fish. Again, there is the destruction of habitat, often by the water authorities and with the best of intentions. They should leave one side of the bank for the otter so that the otters, if they are there at all, may try to live in peace. Finally, there is pollution. Undoubtedly, pollution did damage but the situation is now better and if the fish can live the otter can live there too.

Encompassed by all these dangers as the otter is, do we really need a Bill that legalises one of those dangers—disturbance by hounds—and attempts to prevent one other—killing by hounds? use the word "attempts" deliberately. The Friends of the Earth have made one point to me in opposing the Bill: hunters cannot guarantee calling off hounds to avoid a kill. The noble Lord Lord WellsPestell, made this point very clear. The only time that I ever came up to otter hounds was when I was a young man and I was fishing. Hounds were all running along the river sniffing. It was a most attractive sight. They put up a rabbit and bang! the whole lot were away over the field and though they were shouted at nobody could stop them. They drifited back, one after another, after a time.

In addition, if an otter is killed, what will be said? Any excuse will be possible —"I thought it was a mink, I thought it was a coypu". Both those creatures inhabit the same banks as the otter. I am totally opposed to legalising disturbance at this time, but do we have to approve a Bill just because it also tries to prevent the killing of the otter by hounds?

As the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, said, otters could be protected now under the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act. There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about that Act as also about this Bill and the otter itself. I want to comment very briefly on what the noble Lord said and to thank him for his explanation about this Bill. Many of us in the conservation world have not been clear. The noble Lord said that if the Nature Conservancy Council is satisfied that the otter needs protection an Order can be made. That is something that we all wanted to hear. He will agree with me that that order can be made either in a particular area or in relation to a whole area. If it is a particular area, it will be a little difficult because the otter moves about so much. It can be asked: against what dangers can the otter be protected and what known dangers remain? The noble Lord mentioned the dangers against which the otter can be protected—killing, which is the one referred to in this Bill, maiming, taking or attempting to do so. But a very wide field, such as disturbance, which this Bill seeks to perpetuate, pollution and habitat destruction will still remain.

So I oppose the Bill because the prevention of killing by hounds can be met by existing legislation, and because in legalising one form of disturbance it is an anti-conservation measure. I beg the Nature Conservancy Council—and the Minister has gone a long way towards answering me—to ask the Minister to add the otter to the Schedule to the Act, even though we know that the protection is only limited, and even though we know (and my noble friend will agree with me) that the other answer is also the establishment of recognised and controlled otter havens with, if possible, supporting legislation, and I would hope to see that. If necessary, I intend to divide the House, and I ask your Lordships not to vote for enshrining in law the disturbance by hounds, whether drag or hunting, of this rare and beautiful creature.

6.21 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to give some support to the Bill at present before the House because I think that it does something to protect the otter which is not being done at present. Although, as the noble Lords, Lord WellsPestell and Lord Craigton, said, there are things that could possibly be done, they are not being done now, whereas if the Bill became law it would do something to start the ball rolling to protect this very attractive and totally harmless animal which, so far as I know, causes no trouble or damage at all; or at least very little.

I do not propose to go into the matters which have been so well put forward by the noble Earl who introduced the Bill, but one suggestion I should like to make is that, if your Lordships give the Bill a Second Reading, when the Minister receives reports from the otter committee (which the Bill would make possible) these should be published so that people can know what is going on.

With those few words, I should like to support the Bill which, as I say, proposes to do something for the unfortunate otter which is not being done at the present time. Before I sit down, I should like to explain to your Lordships that I might have to leave the House before the debate is concluded, and I hope that your Lordships will excuse me if it should be necessary for me to leave.

6.23 p.m.


My Lords, the Party to which I belong has never believed in expressing a view, as a Party, on matters of this kind but has always preferred to leave them to the individual judgment and conscience of its members. I should therefore like to begin by making two things absolutely clear. First, that, if there should be a Division at the end of this debate, my noble friends are entirely free to vote as they think best. And, secondly, although I am speaking from this Dispatch Box, what I am going to say is my view and my view alone. Here I should like to declare a lack of interest in that, although I have been otter hunting a very long time ago, I have not been recently, and I do not intend to go. But by what I say I do not mean that I express the same disapproval of it as has come from other quarters of this House.

My Lords, a primary reason behind this Bill is the undoubted fact that otters are now in need of conservation, the question of the morality of otter hunting must arise, as indeed it has already. It has always been an unwritten law of the countryside that no animal should be killed for purposes of sport alone. But where it is necessary for a particular animal to be killed, either because it is a source of food, which of course does not apply to the otter, or because it is a pest, then it is quite acceptable for that animal to be killed in the course of a field sport, providing that no more suffering takes place than would be involved in other methods of killing, and provided that suffering is kept to the absolute minimum necessary. The Scott Henderson Committee endorsed this unwritten rule in paragraph 11 of their report (Cmnd. 8266).

As your Lordships have heard, there are now large stretches of waterways where otters are very few in numbers, and cannot be regarded as a pest, and in these places it would clearly be wrong for them to be killed by otter hunting or by any other means. But there are still places where otters, or more usually a particular otter, can he a pest, and where such otters have to be killed, I believe (and I must again emphasise that this is a personal view) that they are more likely to be killed selectively and humanely under the auspices of the Master of Otter Hounds Association. This is the distinction that my noble friend Lord Cranbrook seeks to make in his Bill.

At this stage I should like to answer a question that was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, and was mentioned also by my noble friend Lord Craigton. The question was: Is it possible, after hunting the drag, when hounds come up with the otter, to call off hounds at that point? My information is that it is. My noble friend Lord Craigton quoted an example of when he saw otter hounds killing a rabbit. I note in parenthesis that he was fishing at the time. When hounds come up with an otter, the instinctive reaction of the otter is to go into the water, and when it goes into the water at that point it has an advantage over hounds. A rabbit does not go into the water and hounds cannot be called off when they are chasing a rabbit on the land, but I am told that they could certainly be called off at the point when the otter goes into the water.

My Lords, like all controlling bodies of field sports, the Master of Otter Hounds Association has very firm rules which it enforces among its members. As a matter of deliberate policy, they have one positive written rule, rather than a number of negative ones. "Otter Hunting", its rule book begins: is the hunting of the otter in its wild and natural state with a pack of hounds. No pack of hounds of which the Master or representative is a member of this Association shall be allowed to hunt an otter in any way which is inconsistent with this precept". Rightly or wrongly, the Association felt that if its rule book consisted of "don'ts", it would be less easy to control what happened, whereas any wrong action that takes place can be condemned as an offence against the Association's one positive rule. Over the years the Association had issued directives to its members, specifying individual practices, such as "the stickle", "tailing of otters", and "owering of the water in mill pools", which, among others, would certainly be regarded as a breach of the rule. The Report of the Scott Henderson Committee, published in 1951, takes particular note of this, and concluded in paragraph 313: We think that these practices are now things of the past". After reading my noble friend's Bill, the Master of Otter Hounds Association issued another such directive, bringing the main provisions of the Bill into effect in advance, so as to cover the 1977 season, which started officially on 1st April. This directive reads:

  1. "1. No otters shall be killed except at the request of the riparian owners when they are doing proved damage. If for this reason any otter is killed the organs will be sent to the Monks Wood Experimental Station.
  2. 2. Hunting shall be conducted on a basis agreed with the Governing Bodies of the recognised Naturalists Organisations.
  3. 3. No hunting shall take place in rivers that do not afford the otter every opportunity to escape. Maximum care shall be taken to preserve breeding sites. No river shall be hunted so as to cause any risk to the breeding of otters; this must cover the number of hounds taken out and the use of terriers".
At the same time they said that when the report of the Working Party set up by the Nature Conservancy Council and the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservancy is published they will review this directive in the light of it.

My Lords, other controlling bodies of field sports have ultimate sanctions which can be used as a last resort to enforce their rules, in particular the ability to keep offenders' hounds out of the stud book. This is not available to the Master of Otter Hounds Association, since the pure-bred otter hound is now comparatively rare and it is much more usual nowadays to use drafted fox-hounds. The absence of such sanctions has not in fact so far proved to be a disadvantage, but, none the less, I am told that the Master of Otter Hounds Association welcomes the fact that this Bill would give it the teeth which it at present lacks.

My Lords, I am in the same difficulty as no doubt are the rest of your Lordships in trying to judge, as a layman, between the conflicting views of the naturalist advisers of my noble friend Lord Craigton and my noble friend Lord Cranbrook and his, over the effects caused by the disturbance of hunting on the breeding of otters. My noble friend Lord Craigton feels so strongly about this that he has told your Lordships that he intends to divide the House against the Second Reading of this Bill, and none of your Lordships will have the slightest doubt of the depth of conviction behind such an action; but I think it is allowable, and perhaps right, to question its wisdom. With this in view, I should like to put three points before your Lordships.

First, this Bill deals only with otter hunting. Otter hunting is by no means the only threat to the survival of the otter; and this is borne out by a Written Answer, which appears in yesterday'sHansard,given by the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, to my noble friend Lord Cranbrook. In that Written Answer Lady Stedman concludes: However, the Nature Conservancy Council has reason to believe that substantial numbers of otters are killed in other circumstances." [Official Report,27/4/77, col. 682.] An otter's pelt is worth, I am told, about£20. It can be shot and trapped comparatively easily, but it is very difficult to do either of those things humanely. If otter hunting, which is easy to control, were to stop, the other methods, which are not easy to control, might well increase dramatically.

The second point is that my noble friend's reason for asking your Lordships to vote against this Bill to control otter hunting is that he does not think it goes nearly far enough. He wants to ban otter hunting altogether; and the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, in a speech of remarkable neutrality, supported this view. That would not be the immediate effect of this Bill being defeated this afternoon. A vote against this Bill is not a vote against otter hunting, however much your Lordships may wish it were. The immediate effect of this Bill being defeated would be that otter hunting would continue, your Lordships having rejected the modest curbs being asked for by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook. If this Bill should be defeated this afternoon, I hope that the Master of Otter Hounds Association will still follow its precepts, but it would, quite frankly, he no thanks to your Lordships if it did.

Thirdly, and perhaps most important, we are awaiting the report of the Working Party set up by the Nature Conservancy Council and the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation. My Lords, 26 years ago the Scott Henderson Committee recommended—and I am quoting from their Recommendation 49: A thorough investigation should be conducted under the Nature Conservancy or some other suitable body into the natural history of the otter, and particularly into its feeding habits in various river conditions. The result of this inquiry should be taken into account in deciding whether or not otter-hunting should be permitted to continue". Such an investigation has been very long in coming. It seems to me to be a very great pity, and indeed wrong, to come to a decision in principle on legislation such a short time before the publication of this long-awaited report, and I hope that, in view of this, my noble friend Lord Craigton will not divide the House this afternoon.

6.35 p.m.

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, I am sure we would all agree with the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, whose expertise as a naturalist and whose admirable work for conservation over many years, particularly in his own county, everyone recognises, that the otter should no longer, in normal circumstances, be killed by hounds. So far, no one could quarrel with him as a conservationist; but what I regret about the Bill is that it goes no further than this in protecting the otter and, in some respects to which I shall come in a moment, would, I fear, actually worsen its present position. I think it is generally agreed, even if the situation may he improving at the moment, that the otter population has been declining and that early measures are needed to prevent a further fall in its numbers.

Such conservation measures are long overdue, and in taking them we should merely be bringing this country into line with most of the countries in Western Europe. Almost every country in the Council of Europe—which, as your Lordships will remember, is a more widely representative organisation than the EEC —has passed conservation laws for the protection of otters. We are the only country in Western Europe, apart from Ireland, which has no protective legislation, not even—and I think this is the most shameful thing of all—a close season for otter hunting.


My Lords, I hope the noble Earl realises that there is a close season, although not a legal one. There certainly is an extremely carefully kept close season for otter hunting.

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, I was referring to a legal close season, and I think the noble Lord, who knows a great deal more about otter hunting than I do, will agree that in fact otter hunting goes on, not everywhere, of course, but in some parts of the country, in April, May and June, when otters are breeding. As I say, we in this country are really in this lamentable position, but we must not exaggerate, of course, the effect of otter hunting on the position of the otter. Whatever legislation we may produce to protect the otter, we cannot stop the inroads of industry, urban sprawl and mechanised farming into their natural habitat on the banks of our waterways, and that is the principal threat to the otter. At the same time, we should certainly do everything possible to give the otter security in its natural conditions—a security which they are losing through the erosion of the countryside.

Our natural history, like our political and cultural history, is part of the history of Western Europe. We could show that we are good Europeans by preserving what is left to us of our natural environment for our own enjoyment and, indeed, for that of our continental neighbours. For a change, let us try to set a standard of conservation that is at least as high as theirs, and this opportunity may well come when we get the report of the Nature Conservancy Council, to which the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, referred and which he said, much to my satisfaction and, I am sure, to that of other noble Lords, will be with us in a month's time.

So we have recognised that the otter is now a rare animal, and we have recognised, further, that the otter needs special protection, because it was included last year in the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act. This gives some measure of indirect protection to the otter by prohibiting the sale to or purchase from abroad of any species of otter, save under licence, and also by prohibiting the import or export of otter skins or furs. But, of course, it does nothing to stop the commercial exploitation of otters at home, and I believe that in Wales and Scotland, where otters are still fairly plentiful, the otter is shot for the value of its skin. Of course, this is probably due to inflation. I think that my information about the value of an otter skin is that it is considerably higher than the value put upon it by the noble Lord opposite. But, at any rate, I am afraid that there is a strong financial inducement for the trapping or shooting of the otter. This commercial exploitation could he prevented if the otter was added to the list of wild animals protected by the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Plants Act 1975 which prohibits the killing or taking of any endangered species save under licence.

This was the Act which gave the Nature Conservancy Council the duty of making representations to the Government if it considered that any wild species should be added to the protected list; and the status of the otter has been under consideration, as has been referred to by several noble Lords, by the Council. The report is on the way and I understand from what the noble Lord. Lord Wells-Pestell, has said that it will include recommendations about a variety of measures—and a number of measures will be required, no doubt—for the conservation of otters. I sincerely hope, for it is the most important measure of all, that at least the otter will be added to the protected list in the conservation Act; and as the Minister will have the power to designate areas, it does not necessarily mean that areas where the otter is still fairly plentiful will be included.

Surely—and I am afraid that this is where I differ from the last words of the noble Lord, Lord Denham—it would be most unwise to legislate in any form whatever until the report has been received and there has been plenty of time for all the proper consultations with the other bodies concerned and for both Houses of Parliament to consider this report with the utmost care. I cannot help thinking that it would be a fatal mistake to pass a Bill like that submitted to the House by the noble Earl tonight that might conflict with the recommendations of the report of the Nature Conservancy Council. It is all very well for the noble Lord opposite to reserve his position; but if the otter were to be included in the protected list then it could be no longer hunted, as is proposed in this Bill, and killed in order to stop damage to fisheries and other property. That would be prohibited. It might be permitted under licence but this would be quite a different mechanism. It would therefore not be possible to do this unless the noble Lord were first to introduce amending legislation to amend this Bill if it were passed by both Houses of Parliament and became an Act.

Another alternative, and possibly supplementary, method of protecting the otter would be a special Bill like the Badgers Act which was piloted so skilfully through this House in 1973 by the noble Earl, Lord Arran. But fresh legislation is very difficult and lengthy and it is not the easiest way of dealing with the problem. I am sure that both these alternatives and, of course, other measures as well affecting the otter should await consideration of the report of the Nature Conservancy Council.

May I turn for a moment to the provisions of the Bill, for this, I think, no speaker has yet dealt with and I shall not be going over ground that has been covered. The noble Earl is asking the House to regulate otter hunting by a code of rules which he wants to make enforceable in law. The first question is this. Are these rules, in fact, enforceable? I would ask your Lordships to treat the mandatory conditions set out in Clause 1(2) as a test case. Most important of these conditions—and this we were told by the noble Earl himself was the most important of these conditions for it would stop the accidental killing of otters—is in Clause 1(2)(b). This provides that: every reasonable precaution shall be taken to prevent an otter being killed". So if an otter is accidentally killed by hounds and proceedings are taken against the hunt, the court must be satisfied that every reasonable precaution had been taken to prevent the accident.

The normal and obvious precaution would be to call off the hounds in good time before they have caught the otter. I am not going into the argument as to whether or not this is practical. Let us assume that it is practical. That is the assumption that I should like your Lordships to make. But how is the court to know whether the hounds were, in fact, called off in time to give the otter a fair chance of escape? The hunt followers would be unlikely to give evidence against the hunt and it would hardly be realistic to except a conservationist to go out with every hunt to see fair play for the otter.

I am glad that the noble Earl has not in the Bill suggested that our over-worked county police force should be used for this purpose. There is nothing in the Bill corresponding to Clause 10 of the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Plants Act 1975 which places the duty of enforcement squarely upon the police. There is no means of enforcing the provisions of the Bill. If the noble Earl has merely omitted to refer to enforcement, perhaps he might reply to this criticism when he answers the debate; but it seems to me that unless this criticism can be met the bottom falls out of the Bill.

My Lords, another important question which I think has not been asked this afternoon is this. Is this Bill really necessary? I think that every one agrees that we have too much legislation on the Statute Book and that we should not add to it unnecessarily. If it is now the normal practice, as the noble Earl tells us that it is, to allow the otter to escape, why is it necessary to legislate for the same purpose? May I draw your Lordships' attention to a directive issued this month by the Masters of Otter Hounds Association? The directive begins: No otter shall be killed except at the request of the riparian owners when they are doing proved damage". Surely, this is exactly what the Bill sets out to do. I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, will agree with that. I suggest that we ought at least to allow the masters of otter hunts to persuade their recalcitrant colleagues, if such there be, to conform to good hunt practice. Only if persuasion fails—and time will show—could there be any case for compulsion. It must be a cardinal principal with all of us that we do not take away the liberties of the subject by passing another law if it is possible to achieve the purpose of the law by agreement and persuasion. I therefore take the view that the necessity of this Bill—and I think the onus of proof is on the noble Earl opposite —has not been proved to the satisfaction of the House.

May I refer to one other clause in the Bill which is extremely important. It is part of the second purpose of the Bill which is the control of otters by hunting. Clause 4 permits an owner of land or water to invite a hunt on to his land if he alleges substantial damage to his property. So far as I can see, this clause would work in a way that would not give protection to many innocuous otters who have done no harm to anyone; for the landowner does not have to satisfy the court that damage has been done until after the hunt has taken place. It is only at that stage that he can be charged; and by that time the otter or otters could have been killed. If this clause were widely used there could be a great deal of damage. If protection is required, as it may be, for hatcheries, fisheries or fish farms, it could be given by licence on the application of the landowner—but that is not a procedure suggested in the Bill.

Clause 4 raises the wider question of otter control by hunting, which is what the noble Earl wants. There is some conflict of evidence about the damage done by otters, and we need to know more about the facts before we exempt the otter from protection on this ground. But on the assumption made in this Bill that the otter can be a pest, I still do not think that a pack of hounds is the best method of removing it. The hounds, even if they are successful, disturb and damage wild life on the banks of rivers or streams, especially when they are working during the nesting or breeding season, April, May and early June. This damage could be remedied or stopped by other methods—and humane methods —such as the use of the rifle.

My Lords, for the reasons which I have given, I cannot support a Bill which I find to be premature, unnecessary and unenforceable, and which offers far too little protection for the otter. I sincerely hope that the noble Lord may be persuaded at the end of this debate to withdraw this Bill. But certainly if there was a Division, I would find myself in the Lobby in opposition to the Bill.

6.52 p.m.


My Lords, may I start by answering two questions which the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, asked. He said: How can you tell the difference between a stale scent and a fresh scent? If you are hunting a line of an otter two days' old and you then come across a fresh line, in fact it is extremely easily told because hounds on a stale line have to puzzle it out. They give a little whimper and are not very keen. They take a long time. The moment they are on a fresh line, they hunt far more keenly, far faster and their cry—or "music" as it is called in hunting terms—is far greater.

The other question, which my noble friend Lord Denham answered very well, was about whipping hounds off. My noble friend Lord Craigton said that when he was fishing one day a rabbit got up and the otter hounds chased it. It was not possible to whip the hounds off. My Lords, if one had been on a horse—and I agree one does not hunt otters on a horse—one could have whipped the hounds off. An otter does not go off chasing across a field. It does into the water wherever it can, and hounds in water travel very slowly. They travel slower than a man can run on a bank. Therefore, provided the river is not very wide, you can stop them.

Having said that, reading the report from the Mammal Society, it is perfectly true there has been a great decrease in otters. They say there has been a fall of 40 per cent. from between 1957 and 1967. I do not think that you can equate the reason for that decrease with otter hunting. The decrease is largely due to disturbance by motorboats, trippers and pollution. The effects of pollution are lessening.

In the part of the world I know well, the decrease is attributable to trapping and shooting for the pelt. I have been otter hunting, but the only otter I have ever seen killed was a trapped otter. It had been in a gin trap and it had only three legs. Therefore the killing was an act of mercy. If we take the figures of otters killed by otter hounds in the past five years, it amounts to only 41. In the past two years it has been only five a year. Therefore, I do not think that we can attribute this great decrease in otters to hunting.

If there are not too many hounds, otter hunts serve a good purpose. if you did not have one or two otter hunts—and you can count them on your fingers, they are very few and far between—it would be very difficult for naturalists to assess the number of otters in the country. It is impossible to assess the numbers with any degree of accuracy. In my part of the world, the West Coast of Scotland, where I have a home, a few years ago I got up some hounds, about five couple, to try to take a census of otters. It is only in that way that you find the holts. We never killed an otter apart from the trapped otter.

Therefore, provided that otter hunting takes place in accordance with this Bill, the number of hounds is restricted, and terriers are not used, then it is satisfactory. If terriers are not used, one cannot bolt the otter out of the holt. Otter hunts can be beneficial from the point of view of naturalists making a census of otters. Under the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Plants Act 1975 it might be wise to designate certain areas where otters are rare and not to allow any hunting there unless naturalists wish to find out if there are any holts. A pack of three or four couple of hounds—or perhaps two couple would do—could be used.

An otter pelt was worth about£25 last year, but with inflation it will probably now be worth a lot more. Otters on the whole do very little damage. They chiefly take eels: they do take fish, though usually coarse fish. If they take a trout or a small salmon, it is usually a weak or diseased one. So on the whole otters do a reasonable amount of good. Of course they will sometimes take poultry, and I believe it has been known that they have taken lambs, but I have never come across that.

Regarding the Bill, I should be loath to see all otter hunting cease for the reasons which I have given: that you cannot really make a proper census of otters, my Lords, if you do not have one or two hunts. So far as I can see, the hunt does not cause great alarm to the otter. If it is hunted on the old drag, which is probably two nights old, it is a very difficult thing to do. You must have very good hounds, and it is very interesting for people to watch hounds puzzling out the line. The otter does not know it is being hunted, and if hounds actually come up near the holt the otter may remain in the holt. It cannot be got out if terriers are not used, and if it leaves its holt it goes straight into the water. You can whip hounds off if they are under control as they should be and if you do not have too large a pack.

I rather agree with the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, that this Bill probably does not represent very good law and it may be difficult to put it into law. But, perhaps, if it were wisely amended, it might be adequate. Having said that, my Lords, am not against the Bill. It is reasonably harmless so far as the otter is concerned. Certainly it will not serve to decrease the otter population. Perhaps it might cause some alarm sometimes to one or two otters but no more alarm than a motor boat going up a river. I have seen otters swimming and diving in front of a motor boat and I am sure they are just as much alarmed by a motor boat as they would be by three, four or five couple of hounds. I should be sorry if this Bill does not get a Second Reading, as I say, because I think it could be amended so as to make sense in law.

7.2 p.m.


My Lords, in speaking to people who are interested in wild life conservation, I find that one of the difficulties about this Bill is its Title. Had it been entitled, "Otters (Prohibition of Killing by Hounds) Bill" it would have got a very much better response. But people seem to assume, quite wrongly, that the Bill encourages otter hunting when in fact if does nothing of the sort. I support the noble Earl over this Bill, realising that it does not abolish otter hunting or make it illegal in all circumstances, but is designed to prevent the indiscriminate killing of otters with hounds. It permits the destruction of otters should their numbers increase considerably, which is hardly likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

The noble Earl and myself did not agree when we sat on the Select Committee which was considering the Hare Coursing Bill, but despite that disagreement I would pay tribute to him as a naturalist and conservationist. He has already told us that on his own stretch of river for 40 years he has not prevented otter hunting in any way. As for myself, I would always support a Bill of any description which conserves wildlife and I think this is a measure which contributes to that end. It will probably need amendment if it reaches a Committee stage. I would hope that if the Bill does go forward the noble Earl will be prepared to meet suggestions for Amendments, if they are made.

He has reminded us that the otter was disappearing from our waterways some 15 years or so ago, no doubt partly due to river pollution and the use of pesticides, and also perhaps because of otter hunting. We do not know. Otters have increased since that time. The hunts which are organised by the Otter Hounds Association have done valuable work in producing information on the habitats of otters, their customs, and so on, and we know of the activities of the Association. What we do not know about is the freelance hunting that may take place. That would be caught under this Bill, because such hunts would be outside the regulations which are set down in the Bill.

Generally speaking, otters, despite the fact that they are increasing in numbers, as we have been told, are not numerous. Many noble Lords who, like myself, have never been hunting will have by chance seen otters from a river bank. We know that their territory covers some five, six or seven miles and we know that they have disappeared completely from some rivers. They move very quickly. This afternoon an interesting discussion has taken place about the scent of otters, which I am told is technically called "the drag " That enables hounds to pick up the scent some days after the otter has actually been in that area. It strikes me as being not an unhealthy exercise for hounds or their followers to follow the drag of an otter which is not in the vicinity, but certainly I would hope that the otter is not caught and killed. We have heard a discussion as to whether or not dogs can be called off. I would not know about that.

An otter hound is an intelligent hound of the bloodhound breed, so far as I know, with perhaps a shaggy coat—that may be a fair way of describing it—as distinct from the bloodhound. But hounds are not always used in otter hunts. I happened to see an otter hunt on television a week or so ago, and it looked to me as though 57 varieties of dogs were joining in that particular hunt, so I doubt whether they could have been called off. I would be very concerned if an otter was frightened as a result of being chased and I have heard the argument put forward that no animal is frightened by being chased by a predator, in the way that we understand fright. Nevertheless, I find that very hard to accept.

If the Bill becomes law, it should end the indiscriminate hunting of otters and their killing by hounds. It should make their numbers controllable, if and when the danger to wildfowl sanctuaries, fish farms and so on, made it necessary. Under the Bill, the proposed Otter Committee will have as their objective the preservation of otters, and not their destruction. At the same time, as I have said, they will be concerned if at any time the otter should become a menace.

One or two points occur to me which might perhaps be better made at the Committee stage, but I would ask the noble Earl, when he replies, if he so wishes, to say why there should be a representative of the British Field Sports Society and not a representative of the Otter Hounds Association on the committee. Again, why should the Secretary of State wait 12 months before making an order by Statutory Instrument to make hunting illegal? Could we not operate more quickly, rather than waiting for 12 months, and so save the lives of a few more otters?

To my mind, this Bill is sensible. It does not go the whole way but it prevents the unnecessary killing of otters. It still enables those who need protection, such as people who control wildfowl sanctuaries and so on, to get such protection. They would have to obtain permission from the Otter Committee to do that. I should certainly like to see otters added to Schedule I to the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975. Although this question is now before the Nature Conservancy Council and we are waiting their report, reports take a long time, as does Government action; and I would settle for this Bill while we are awaiting further action. I am opposed to the killing of wild animals of any kind for the sake of killing, because it cannot be right. But should a Division take place I would support this Bill, using the argument that perhaps half a loaf is better than no bread.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to address your Lordships, I find myself once again in a situation where we are discussing an activity in which I personally would not take part, but which I do not find myself in a position to object to if other people wish to do so, and if it is reasonably well controlled. I have listened to the debate today, and I find myself in great sympathy with practically every argument for and every argument against this Bill. However, I find myself feeling that the decrease in the otter population cannot be blamed solely on otter hunting, and on the desctruction of otters for their pelts, and that it is perhaps due to the way in which human life has developed in this country. I think that pollution, and the use of pesticides, have probably been great instruments in the decrease of the otter.

A decrease in wildlife and in bird life frequently takes place. In past years, through no fault of anybody or anything, except the environment, there has been a decrease in wild birds. In my part of the world, the decrease in the number of small birds has been fantastic. But I am extremely pleased to see that this year they are starting to come back and breed again, though not in nearly the numbers that there were two or three years ago. I feel that, over those years, we may have witnessed another natural decrease in the population of a wild animal indigenous to this country. One thing which always rather surprises me is how well wild life, which is introduced into this country, prospers. We have the coypu, the mink and the grey squirrel, all of which are not natural inhabitants of this country but which have prospered, and continue to prosper, at colossal rates, whereas we are now having to consider legislation to protect badgers and otters.

I understand that for some time we have been promised a report by the Nature Conservancy Council, and that this report is now due in June. I think that the production of my noble friend's Bill might even have accelerated that report a little. But I would ask my noble friend to press on with this Bill, because if it gets lost we may find ourselves in a position where, having got the report, we again have a long period of nothing. I feel that my noble friend might be the light which is put to the blue paper, because while this Bill is going through it may encourage people to do something about a report which is soon to come.

One of the things which rather surprised me today was the vehemence with which the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell, spoke on the subject of causing terror and so on. I feel that today he gave the greatest encouragement to the anti-hunting fraternity and—I trust not—practically committed his government against nearly all forms of hunting with dogs. I hope that we shall never see a Government interfering with the pursuits of people who live in the country, and enjoy their natural life with enthusiasm, always provided that one is not compelled to take part in an activity if one does not approve of it. I think that this Bill might be a first step towards helping in the preservation of the otter. It at least takes out of the environment one small section of the threat against the otter. I hope that the noble Earl will press on with the Bill, and if it is pressed to a Division I will vote for it.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether he will allow me to say this. It is the responsibility of the Government spokesman to say what the Government feel is wrong, and one can do that at the same time as preserving Government neutrality. What I said very clearly was that the Government could not accept a Bill—I agree that it is for the House to decide—which maintained a situation where there was suffering imposed upon, in this case, the otter, and I was asking the question whether this was not so.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I shall read his words tomorrow with the utmost care, because my recollection differs slightly from what he has just said.

7.17 p.m.


My Lords, it is always a pleasure to take part in a debate where the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, gives us the benefit of a very wide know- ledge of natural history. He has done it once more today, and we must all be grateful to him. I have had some conversations with the noble Earl, and I promised him before this debate that I would not decide exactly how I would vote, or indeed exactly what I would say, until I had had the advantage of listening to him and hearing other people in the debate. By sheer good fortune I am last and, consequently, I have had the advantage of listening to everyone and it has been a very interesting debate.

The noble Earl is well known for his desire to conserve all forms of natural life. I myself, in dealing with a Bill in your Lordships' House, frequently had the advantage of his help and guidance, and I have no doubt at all that the noble Earl is absolutely correct in his whole approach to the problem of conservation. I think, however, that on this occasion he does not want to call it conservation. In fact, in an article that he wrote on the matter, he said that he did not want to call it conservation; that he was not concerned with the conservation of otters. He did not regard that as a problem. But he regarded the conservation of otter hunting—


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? If he will look at Hansard tomorrow, he will find that I said I was concerned with animal welfare, not otter hunting.


My Lords, I thank the noble Earl. I take his point and understand it, and I am sure that that is what he meant.


My Lords, that is what he said.


My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive me, there was an article in the New Scientist of 10th March 1977 in which the noble Earl said: I do not want to blaspheme the Gods by pretending that this is necessary as a conservation measure. It is not. My reasons are purely emotional".


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for making perfectly clear what I was trying to say; I said it a little obliquely. The noble Earl has put before us a logically thought out scheme with regard to otter hunting.

While listening to the debate I was struck by the fact that there is some confusion as to whether or not otter hunting is concerned with the killing of otters. The evidence presented by the noble Earl in a very interesting article in Country Life showed that the killing of otters by hunting has dwindled almost to zero. As my noble friend Lord Listowel pointed out, if this is so what exactly is the point of a Bill which regulates otter hunting in order to prevent otters being killed, since they are scarcely being killed by otter hunting? It seems that there is something a little strange here.

One or two noble Lords suggested that otter hunting is important in order to control otters, but evidently it is not doing so at present. Otter hunting is not illegal; it occurs. Only five otters were killed last year and the same number were killed the year before. In other words, there seems to be something a little strange about the need for the Bill. I find it difficult to understand exactly why one wants a Bill in order to make certain that otter hunting does not kill otters when otter hunting at the moment is not doing so. It seems to be a Bill to deal with a matter that is of no great significance.

If one looks at the situation one finds other inconsistencies. I mention these, because I was worried to hear various statements made in defence of the Bill which seemed to me to be entirely contradictory. For example, it is said that otter hunting is something which the otter knows nothing about. Again I have been a little rough in my paraphrasing but the noble Earl stated in his article that for most of the time the otter does not know that he is being hunted. On the other hand, we are told by other people that the otter is an extremely shy animal. that it never moves about in daylight if it can help it but makes most of its movements during the night and that it does its best to keep away from people. Yet, surprisingly enough, it does not know when a pack of hounds is after it. One would have thought that a shy animal, an animal extremely disturbed by human beings and very ready to take fright and run away, would notice if a pack of hounds was after it. I speak with no knowledge, for I have never seen an otter, but I should have thought that an otter is just the kind of creature that would be gravely disturbed by hunting.


But, my Lords, with the otter you are hunting a drag two days old when the otter is asleep in his holt and does not know anything about it. If you whip off the hounds before you come to the day's fresh scent, the otter will not know anything about it. The great joy that otter hunters have is to puzzle out this extremely difficult two days' drag. It is a very interesting procedure. I do not do it, but I know one or two people who do, and the point is to breed hounds which can do it.


My Lords, I have read the noble Earl's article and I am quite aware of that. If the otter never knows anything about the hunt and if, as has just been repeated, you are following a drag which was two days ago, then whatever is otter hunting all about? It seems to me that you are living in a strange Alice in Wonderland atmosphere: that you are chasing not what is over there but something which was there two days ago in the opposite direction. Does one need a Bill to regulate such an imaginary procedure? Because we are doing something which the otter does not know about—and which, in fact, we do not know about because the drag was two days ago—do we therefore need an elaborate Bill, and do we have to spend our time considering it in order to decide how to regulate otter hunting? It would be much better to have a Bill to regulate Punch and Judy shows. What has been worrying me this afternoon during the debate is that we are entering a world of pure fantasy in which we are chasing imaginary animals over fictitious fields near non-existent rivers.

In the first place, one has to try to decide what is the purpose of otter hunting, whether or not it does any harm to the otter, whether we need a Bill for the control of otters and whether it is going to be beneficial to our fishing industry. However, we have skated over every question of that kind this afternoon. We have gone miles away from the real issues. This is why I feel that what was said by my noble friend Lord Listowel is so true: that we are faced with a Bill which asks for action to be taken, although we do not know what the effect of that action is going to be. All we are told is that we shall no longer kill otters. But we do not kill them now. If your Lordships' House is going to spend its time discussing the Bill at great length, I think that it will be wasting its time.

If one wants to ensure that otters are conserved—I do and I think all noble Lords do—then surely we should try to make certain that the otter is included in the Schedule to the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act. That is the step which should be taken. You do not conserve otters by having a Bill which is labelled "Otter Hunting Regulation Bill". I should have great difficulty in trying to explain to any international assembly that we are playing our part in controlling the trade in otter skins and conserving otters by passing a Bill called the "Otter Hunting Regulation Bill". We must keep a sense of proportion.

If we pass the Bill, we shall be doing absolutely nothing at all to help the otter population; I doubt whether we shall be doing anything to save a fish; I doubt whether we shall be doing anything which is of any use at all, except setting up a body which would be called the Otter Committee. According to this Bill, that Otter Committee would draw up a set of conditions as to the duration of a hunt and the condition as to the number and size of the dogs that may be employed. But there is also another set of conditions drawn up, called the deposited rules. These are drawn up by a different body and it is said that where one is at variance with the other the conditions drawn up by the Otter Committee are to be decisive and overrule the deposited rules. Therefore why do we have deposited rules?


My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me to intervene for a moment? I have been sitting very quietly and have not yet interrupted anybody at all, but if the noble Lord were to read the Bill he would find that the deposited rules are the rules of the Master of Otter Hounds Association. They are to be deposited and, if approved, will be one of the conditions—but only if approved. So it is not really quite so silly as it may sound to the noble Lord.


My Lords, I could only take what was written in the Bill as I had it before me. It says: For the purposes of this section the expression deposited rules' means the Rules of the Master of Otter Hounds Association for the time being in force and as deposited with the Secretary of State…". It also says: If there be any conflict between the deposited rules and the conditions determined by the otter committee the conditions shall prevail". That is what I quoted. It seems to me that there are to be two sets of rules and there is apparently an umpire who goes on the field and he has to decide which set of rules he will follow. I think that with this Bill we have landed ourselves in a position where we are considering something which can do no good, which would merely clutter up legislation and would waste our time.


My Lords, I should like to intervene for a short time in order to make one point. Wildlife is part of our heritage and it is not for us to destroy that heritage. It is for us to hand down wildlife to our children, to our grandchildren and to future generations. I do not feel that this Bill goes far enough to ensure that my children, my grandchildren and their children will be certain to enjoy seeing otters in their natural conditions, as I have done. I shall vote against this Bill because in my opinion otters should be added to Schedule I to the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975.

7.33 p.m.


My Lords, I will deal first with the last interjection. If it is true that the otter generally is so rare as to need to be put into Schedule I to the wild creatures Act, I can see no harm in it. To my mind it would not in any way affect the necessity for this Bill. I think the two are complementary and do not pull in opposite directions. The fundamental point is that it depends on how far otters are being killed by pelt hunters and the like. I tried to find out in every way I could just how many were killed. I wrote to the Hudson's Bay Company, to the Fur Trade Association and to the largest dealers and I could find no evidence that many otters were killed. But it is the only way of stopping the killing, and if the NCC advises the Minister that it should be stopped in that way I can see no objection whatsoever.

The difficulty then is that otter hunting as at present conducted could still continue. All that the 1975 Act would do would be to prevent the killing of otters "without reasonable excuse". If anybody killed without reasonable excuse he would be committing an offence, but that is all that it stops. It is almost exactly the same wording as I have used in my Bill—"must take all reasonable precautions to prevent them being killed". I would not mind which phrase any noble Lord chose to put into the Bill during the proceedings at the Committee stage: there would be no way of controlling, as this Bill does, the pursuit of an otter once it is found. That would not be illegal under the 1975 Act, although it might be held by the courts that if an otter was then killed there was no reasonable excuse. But it could not be controlled if the hunters were able to conduct a prolonged chase of the otter without killing it. I do not like the thought of a prolonged chase. I would prefer to leave it to the Secretary of State to decide, but my own feeling is that I should like to see hounds immediately stopped, directly an otter was found, because then there would be no disturbance and no chance of killing.

The noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, replied to the question raised by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, as to whether it was possible to call the hounds off at that moment. I would not have included that in the Bill had I not made every possible inquiry to see whether it was possible. Everyone I asked told me that, so far as otter hunting was concerned, it was quite feasible and quite practicable and quite easy to call the hounds off immediately.

The example I was given was that in an earlier generation, when the huntsman interfered very much more often with the hounds, trying as hard as he could to kill, it was customary to have somebody walking ahead of the hounds as they were following drag down the side of the river, and if the otter was put up the man in front would see it and the hounds could be hurried on to get closer to it immediately, before they got to the place where they could follow the fresh scent. I was told by a master of hounds that that was no longer possible but it could certainly be used to whip up hounds immediately if it was necessary.

The noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, made fun of people who enjoyed watching hounds puzzle out the drag. I have never watched hounds puzzle out the drag, but I have many times watched hounds work at sheepdog trials. I have tried to train my own sheepdog to bring sheep in off the hill and the like, and it is fascinating to watch hounds work.

As I see it, if the principles of this Bill are carried out it would be possible for the Minister to confine otter hunting entirely to following drag, which the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, thinks would not be very amusing. If it were not very amusing nobody would do it and that would be the end of that sport. If they did find it amusing they would continue with it and it would go on, but the otter would not be disturbed or interfered with and a lot of people would have what they look upon as an enjoyable day, as I have had enjoyable days watching sheepdog trials. If you do not like it you need not do it. It would very rapidly die if people did not like it. But in neither case would the otter suffer in any way.

If I may criticise my noble friend Lord Craigton—I am going to be very rude to him—I regret that he made a prepared speech and did not make any attempt to answer some of the points which I made. I do not think that our outlooks differ; he does not want to see otters killed, he does not want to see otters disturbed; I do not want to see otters killed, I do not want to see otters disturbed. Our outlook is entirely the same in that respect. I am not satisfied that merely putting the otter on the Schedule to the 1975 Act is enough. I think this Bill is needed as well. You can go on hunting otters, you can go on chasing otters under the 1975 Act. Under this Bill that can be prevented.


My Lords, that is where the noble Earl and I disagree.


Well, my Lords, may I know where we disagree? Let me ask the noble Lord a question, if it is within the Standing Orders of this House. I think that under the 1975 Act people can continue chasing otters. Does the noble Lord agree?


Yes, my Lords, I do agree.


My Bill would stop that.


My Lords, the point is that the noble Earl's Bill enshrines in legislation further disturbance of the otter, and that is anti-conservation.


My Lords, I think that is sheer poppycock. My Bill is deliberately drawn up in order to enable the Secretary of State to say that the hounds shall be called off immediately an otter is found. It is true that it will jump in the river and go away. I do not think that is disturbance that is in any way comparable. It would be once a year at the very most, and in the great number of cases the hounds never come up to an otter; but no hunt hunts the same stretch of river more than once a year, and there is a constant coming and going of boats in rivers.

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene, dealt with the two points that were raised. I entirely agree with the noble Viscount when he says that otter hounds actually chasing an otter disturb it and it probably does not go back for three or four months. I have asked otter hunters and they tell me exactly the same thing. That is the reason why this Bill prevents them from being chased.

Most of the rest of the comments were Committee stage comments. It was suggested that there should be a close season. If anybody should wish to move that there should be a close season and it seems to be a reasonable one on any advice I can take, one would naturally accept that. The noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, made the point that this not only would prevent otter hunting by otter packs; it would prevent otter hunting by freelances. I had a good deal of evidence, particularly from Wales, that quite a number of people went out with dogs, and whether recognised packs or not, that would be brought within the ambit of this Bill; that is why I phrased it in that way. They discover where an otter is in a holt; they put a terrier down; a net at the mouth of the holt, and they catch it and knock it on the head and sell the pelt.

The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, asked me to press on quickly. If, as I hope, your Lordships give this Bill a Second Reading, I would not want to press on quickly. Now that the Working Party is about to report, I would certainly want to see what that Working Party said; whether parts of this Bill were nonsense as some people seem to suggest; whether additions should be made to it; whether things should be taken out of it. I would not want it to go forward and then find that the Working Party made a recommendation on something which none of us had thought of until that report. I believe that we are so close together, all of us; I think we all want to prevent interference. We all want to prevent disturbance, we all want to prevent otters being killed.

I would ask the noble Lord not to press this to a Division tonight. I think Amendments could be made to the Bill. I think, for instance, it would probably be better—it has been suggested to me—that the Ministry of Agriculture should advise whether or not otters were doing so much damage that they ought to be killed. I think the proper course for the noble Lord, if I may venture to suggest it to him, is to let this go through tonight, let us see what comes out of the report of the Working Party, and amend the Bill as appears necessary to your Lordships. If we fail to produce a Bill of which your Lordships can approve, the time to chuck it out, I venture to suggest, is on Third Reading and not on Second Reading. It is very unusual to strike out a Bill on Second Reading. I would hope that we could amend it in a way which would make it completely agreeable to all of us, in order that we could consider the principle on Third Reading.

If I can just sum up, when we get down to it I do not believe there is anything on which we differ. I believe this Bill could be a useful addition to the 1975 Act. If it is decided to put the otter on the Schedule, I think we ought to try to see whether we can make the two work together.

7.48 p.m.

On Question, Whether the Bill shall be now read 2a?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 29; Not-Contents, 24.

Alexander of Tunis, E. Emmet of Amberlev, U. Northchurch, B.
Amherst of Hackney, L. Falkland, V. O'Neill of the Maine, L.
Amory, V. Gainford, L. Piatt, L.
Aylestone, L. Hylton-Foster, B. Rankeillour, L.
Barrington, V. Kimberley, E. Romney, E.
Cathcart, E. Lindsey and Abingdon, E. Ruthvenof Freeland, Ly. [Teller.]
Cranbrook, E. [Teller.] Massereene and Ferrard, V. Spens, L.
de Clifford, L. Morris, L. Strathclyde. L.
Denham, L. Mottistone, I. Trefgarne, L.
Drumalbyn, L. Newall, L.
Amherst, E. Glenamara, L. Phillips, B.
Avebury, L. Greenwood of Rossendale, L. Segal, L.
Brockway, L. Houghton of Sowerby, L. Stedman, B.
Collison, L. Kirkhill, L. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Colville of Culross, V. Listowel, E. Strabolgi, L.
Craigton, L. [Teller.] Llevvelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Davies of Leek, L. Melchett, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Forbes, L. [Teller.] Oram, L. Wynne-Jones, L.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion for Second Reading agreed to accordingly: read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.