HL Deb 06 December 1977 vol 387 cc1511-65

5.14 p.m.

The Duke of ATHOLL rose to move, That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government in place of S.I. 1977 No. 1700 to make an order under Section 7 of the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975 adding the otter to Schedule I to the Act, but restricted to areas where the Nature Conservancy Council advise under Section 12 of the Act that the otter is so rare that its status as a British wild creature is endangered. The noble Duke said: I move the Motion on behalf of my noble friend Lord Cranbrook who is, unfortunately, in hospital. That is a bitter disappointment to me as I never envisaged myself being in such a prominent position in this debate. I am sure that it is also a great disappointment to everyone, as my noble friend is recognised as one of the leading authorities on wildlife matters. He was a member of the Nature Conservancy for very many years. I am sure it will be the wish of the House to send him our best wishes for his speedy and rapid recovery. We hope he will soon be back in his place.

I am afraid that I have had short notice that I would be in this prominent position and, as a result, I hope I shall be forgiven for any inadequacies in my opening remarks. I am fortified by the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, is speaking fairly early: as he undoubtedly is the other leading expert in this field, I feel sure that he will deal with any of the matters which I leave out. There are two problems behind my noble friend's Motion. The first is the fairly simple conservation one. The second is the equally simple but rather unusual constitutional one. Conservation was a new policy for preserving our wildlife, and was largely built up by the Nature Conservancy during the 1950s and the 1960s. It was an essentially flexible policy. Animals and plants were protected where they were rare and endangered, but only where rare and endangered, and provision for removing protection when it was no longer necessary was made. Curiously enough, the first mammals for which such a policy was adopted were seals. They are closely analogous to otters. They were rare and endangered over part of their range but not endangered over much of it.

Some protection was given by voluntary effort where grey seals were endangered. An island in Orkney was set aside as a sanctuary amid many islands where seals were left unprotected. This was very successful, and I believe that the number of seals on this particular island has more than doubled in five or six years. By 1970 it was clear that statutory conservation was necessary over part of their range and the Conservation of Seals Act came into being. This allowed legal protection for the common seal over the whole of Shetland where it has become very rare. Again, this was successful. The population is almost back to normal after about five years of protection. With that experience behind it, Parliament passed in 1975 the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act. That Act provides that it is the duty of the Nature Conservancy Council to advise the Minister: if any wild creature has become so rare that its status as a British wild creature is being endangered either generally or with respect to a particular area". That last phrase is very important. Parliament contemplated a situation where a wild creature was only endangered over part of its range, a situation which it is generally agreed applies to the otter. For instance, no one doubts that the otter is very much endangered in the West Midlands, but there are many parts of Wales and the more rural areas of England where the otter is not in danger. It is, for obvious reasons, never a common animal in that it needs a large range for its territory, something like six or seven miles of river. Therefore, in any given area, there are unlikely to be more than a few otters.

The first Motion of my noble friend which I am moving is couched more or less in those terms that would ensure that the NCC does its duty in accordance with the provisions of the Act. The NCC itself is barely four years old and cannot be compared to the old Nature Conservancy which was abolished in 1973 and which the NCC, in part, replaces. The Conservancy was a science-based body under scientific direction and responsible for a number of research stations. It had two other main functions: the management of nature reserves and advising Government and others on conservation matters. Its capacity to do those depended very largely on the work done at its research stations in the field and in the laboratory.

In 1973 the research stations were handed over to the National Environment Research Council, known as NERC. The duty of giving advice to the Government was handed to the newly-established NCC. It was expected to obtain such advice from NERC and other bodies and individuals engaged upon research. The NCC's effectiveness in giving advice to Ministers must depend upon the effectiveness with which it is able to keep in touch with the work now done by NERC, which was previously done by the Nature Conservancy, and, in addition, by encouraging and acting upon other research.

It is difficult to see how it can do that effectively without having the power and the money to undertake research and, if necessary, to support a research station. The proposed order seems to be the result of a lack of that contact. I might say that when the Bill splitting the old Nature Conservancy went through this House there was a lot of opposition to it. Unfortunately, as I think is now shown, the Government won their way and the research functions were taken away from the Nature Conservancy Council. I am sure that is one of the troubles of the present order.

The NCC proposes adding the otter to Schedule 1 to the 1975 Act over areas where no suggestion is made that it is endangered. The reason given a Minister in the other place is: Further surplus is necessary to move out from those areas where otters still occur to recolonise those areas where they have become scarce". The experience of the Nature Conservancy shows that this theory is not borne out in practice, and it is interesting to note that the Biological Records Centre, now under NERC and formerly under the Conservancy, says that in 1975 otters were recorded in 54 10-kilometre squares where they had previously not been recorded. In 1976, 75 such new squares were added. That means that the otter is now known to be present in approximately 900 10-kilometre squares in Britain. There are, of course, other squares where it is not known to be present, but because it has not been recorded in a square it does not mean that it is not there.

The reason that the Minister's argument that further surplus will move i out from the well-colonised areas to recolonise those areas where they have become scarce seems somewhat fallacious is that the real reason for the diminution in the numbers of the otter between 1957 and 1967 is the destruction of much of its habitat. The area in which it is undoubtedly very scarce and is endangered is the West Midlands. That is probably due more to lack of suitable habitat than to the fact that otters are persecuted in that area. It is interesting that the 10-kilometre squares show that in each of the last two years the National Environmental Research Council have found otters to be more widespread than they thought they were the year before. There have been no signs since 1975 of a decrease in their numbers: rather, the numbers may well have actually increased in the last two years. It must be remembered that, when the 1975 Bill was going through Parliament, there were attempts to add the otters to the Schedule. Those attempts were resisted in both Houses, on the advice of the NCC at that time.

It is clear, knowing that the NCC would lack the research facilities of the old Nature Conservancy, Parliament was right to lay down in Section 12 the criteria defining "endangered". It was in fact advised to do so by the NCC. Neither the otter nor any other wild creature needs protection save where it is endangered, and my noble friend's Motion would ensure that it is protected where it is most endangered: that is, in the places where it is extremely rare and where probably more should be done to improve its habitat. That would be much more effective than any amount of protection. My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in the name of my noble friend.

Moved, That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government in place of S.I. 1977 No. 1700 to make an order under Section 7 of the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975 adding the otter to Schedule 1 to the Act, but restricted to areas where the Nature Conservancy Council advise under Section 12 of the Act that the otter is so rare that its status as a British wild creature is endangered.—(The Duke of Atholl.)

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, I think that, whatever view we may take on this matter, we are all grateful to my noble friend the Duke of Atholl for stepping into the shoes of my noble friend Lord Cranbrook and for moving this Motion and explaining its purpose. Today, there are a lot of speakers and I shall try to be brief. I shall not go into unnecessary detail because there are many other speakers who will be able to raise points of detail if they wish. Also, today we all speak for ourselves alone and therefore the views I shall express are personal to me: they are not the views of my Party.

In the past, when we have been discussing the conservation of wild creatures and wild plants, I have been fully behind the Government in their efforts. Furthermore, I even suggested to the noble Baroness that there was a case for including otters in the endangered creatures schedule, as it appeared that the otter had diminished, was diminishing and should be protected. But since then we have had the masterly report, Otters 1977, a joint effort of the Nature Conservancy Council and the Otter Group of the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation. That report appeared only in June of this year and now, in this very December, in the current issue of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society we have an equally scholarly report by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, entitled The Status of the Otter in Britain 1977. Both reports are very full and detailed. There is no time to go into them at length this evening, but suffice it to say that I have become converted to the view that within the meaning of the Act the otter is endangered only in certain areas of the country and in particular in a large portion of central England.

In Part 4, Section 3, of Otters 1977, the report says inter alia: that whilst there is a case that the species is endangered in some part of its range (i.e. much of England and possibly parts of Wales) there is insufficient evidence to show that this is brought about by killing and taking. In the same section they point out that under Section 7(2)(b) of the Act it is possible to protect a species in a particular area. They go on to say that, while this power has never been invoked, it is presumably capable of application to a situation in which a species is rare or absent over much of the country but is locally more common or, conversely, to a species which though not rare nationally is endangered over part of its range by factors which are an offence under the Act.

That is the situation as I see it now, with all the new wealth of evidence to hand. My noble friend Lord Cranbrook would have the Secretary of State designate the otter only where endangered, and he suggests that the otter should be declared "vulnerable" in his new Bill, the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants (Amendment) Bill, for the rest of England and Wales.

I expect that many of your Lordships saw the letter last week in The Times from Mr. I. J. Linn of the Department of Biological Sciences in the University of Exeter. He said he would wholeheartedly support any measures which he and his colleagues felt would lead to a general increase in the number of otters and to their return to areas where they had become rare or absent. He went on to say that he had grave doubts about the action of the Government in this instance. Only in a large area of England, centred around the Midlands, did he consider the otter scarce enough to merit the term "endangered". He went on to say that he believed that the good from this measure would be minimal and the harm real, because it would produce an unwarranted sense of euphoria about the future of the otter, and he thought that placing it on the list would probably bring that list into disrepute.

Everyone interested in the future of the otter knows that what is needed are areas of river and lakeside free from human disturbance, and, above all, with pure water. Can the Government further curb industrial and domestic pollution of rivers, farmers who use chemicals such as aldrin and dieldrin near rivers, huntsmen who kill, the boating public, water authorities and others? Some conservation areas where the otter would be undisturbed are essential, and the Government can really help here if they so wish. Let us do what is right to help the otter openly and pay what price is needed.

I believe that the suggestions of my noble friend Lord Cranbrook are worthy of attention and I, for one, am convinced by him and other learned bodies who support him. I am only sorry that he was not able to be here tonight, and I hope that he will soon be better. But he has had a worthy champion to propose his views in the person of my noble friend the Duke of Atholl. I must apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, who, on doing something requested by me, finds that I have done a volte-face. All I can say to her is that, on present facts available, I am genuinely more impressed by the views of the noble Earl on how to help the otter, than by what the Government are suggesting. And even at this late hour I would ask the noble Baroness urgently to get the Government to reconsider their position.

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, speaking on behalf of the Youth Hostels Association, of which I have the honour to be a Vice-President, and for myself, I should like to give my full support to the case which the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, has brought before the House, and which has been so ably presented by the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, this afternoon for the protection of the otter. The Youth Hostels Association has as its object, To help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside …". And that, by extension, means everything in the countryside and, in particular, its wildlife. That is why the Association, with the wholehearted backing of its conservation experts, wishes to see the otter treated as a protected species.

I need hardly say that it is a tragedy whenever, by our own heedless actions or by default, we allow a natural species to become threatened with extinction or to become extinct. Today, fortunately—and, in this respect, I am pleased to think that this country can take pride in the pace-setting contribution it has made—there are probably more individuals and groups than ever before dedicated to the preservation of our wildlife, by ensuring that neither attrition nor our own actions threaten its existence.

In the case of the otter, the species is one which has been identified as, at best, "vulnerable " and now by the scientific body appointed by the Nature Conservancy Council as "endangered" in many parts of England and Wales. Though it is stated that the fall in the otter population has been unevenly spread, it is clear that we are considering fairly small numbers of a species whose individual territories consist of fairly sizeable stretches of river and areas of land. Even taking the most optimistic view, in my opinion it seems clear that action should be taken to protect the otter, and that it should be effective action.

I remember that shortly after the war, near my parents' home in Warwickshire, it was possible on occasion to observe otters in and about the river. I also remember, with some dismay, otter hounds and huntsmen baying and splashing their destructive way up river in search of a prey which was, even then, clearly few in number and harmed no one except a few coarse fish, of which there was in any case an abundance. No one, I think, has seen an otter there for very many years, and I believe that even the hunt has given up a pursuit which has finally become fruitless.

I am not emotionally confused about the conservation of our wildlife. If a species becomes vulnerable to the point where its very existence becomes endangered, then we should take action to protect it. If as a result of that action the decline is halted, and the species even flourishes—though in the case of the otter, given the other hazards it faces, this hardly seems to be an immediate prospect—to such an extent that it begins to affect and seriously damage other plants or creatures (and it may be argued that this could happen to important fish stocks), then we shall simply have to take the necessary steps to control the situation. We can do this. I believe that this has already occurred in the case of the badger, in those areas where infected badgers were causing brucellosis among cattle.

The important point is that we preserve the species that we have, and never allow them simply to be wiped out. In the case of the otter, this probably means that we have to ensure not only that it is neither killed nor taken, but that the destruction of its habitat is halted, and even that alternative havens are provided. The latter steps will take time, a good deal of time, and, in the words of one of the Youth Hostel Association's qualified ecologists specialising in fresh water, it, will be pointless if by then there are no otters to conserve". In the view of the Youth Hostels Association, and, in particular, those members who, as qualified ecologists, have studied the report from the Nature Conservancy Council and the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation, a clear case has been made for the protection of the otter in England and Wales. I agree with that view, and therefore, while acknowledging all that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, has done in the causes of nature conservation, and all that the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl has said this afternoon, it seems to me that on the evidence the most sensible and speedy action for the Government to take is to add the otter to Schedule Ito the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975. I hope that the House may decide that this is the best course.

5.37 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, has done a very worthy job standing in for my noble friend Lord Cranbrook. I, too, hope that we shall soon see him here again, because the noble Earl is one of the most dedicated conservationists in this country, and we must recognise that first. I should like to say that, knowing him well, it is inconceivable that he could have tried to put any hurdle in the vv ay of the Government's intentions, if he was not trying to help the otter. I must make that point first.

I, too, speak as a conservationist. I have been associated with the conservation movement since the 'thirties, and I am connected with it still, occasionally perhaps in too vulnerable a position. But I also speak as a scientist and as a realist. What I want to know, first, is whether what is now proposed in the order will achieve its purpose. Secondly, if it will not achieve its purpose, what needs to be done and what is the Government prepared to do? The objectives of the 1975 Act are admirable. There is nobody—no reasonable, sensible man and no feeling man—who could possibly not support that Act. Section 1 tells us that we should preserve endangered species and the definition of "endangered species" is given later in the Bill in Section 12, not in Section 7. I must make that very clear.

One or two of these points have already been made, but to be listed in Schedule I to the Act the otter would have to become so rare that its status as a British wild creature is being endangered by killing or taking; and we have already been told that the Otter Group have agreed—and I think that this is plain, too, from the statements made by the Government—that this is not the case with the otter. I believe that the same point is made in the document which has been circulated by the All-Party Conservation Committee. My noble friend Lord Craigton, whom I see in his place, was, I believe, responsible for the circulation of this paper. He, too, makes the point that it is not certain that the decline in the otter population is due to hunting and killing. It must be made absolutely clear that one should dissociate the question of hunting otters from their preservation.

Reference has been made to the evidence of a decline in the otter population. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, has made that point perfectly clear in his paper, to which the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, referred and which is to be published later this year. Indeed, that paper contains a map which indicates the distribution of the otter in this country. There was a decline in the otter population during the period 1957 to 1967, but since then there has been an upturn. How big that upturn is, and how significant it is, I do not know; and, with respect, may I say that I do not believe that the Otter Group knows, either. This is not an exact, scientific inquiry. What I do know is that I am holding in my hand a map, the dots on which show where the otter is now to be found in this country. If this is a map of a species which is so endangered that it has to be associated with the few species now on the list, then I should like to see the kind of map which indicates a common species in this country. It would be totally black.

Clearly the otter is in danger in some areas. The Otter Group's report of 1977 makes that point. It is made, too, in the document which has been circulated by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook. He points out that since the Nature Conservancy Council does not, as a body, carry out research into conservation, it appointed an Otter Group of scientists to investigate and report. The document then says—I believe this point has been referred to already, but perhaps it should be mentioned again—that in 1977 the Otter Group reported that: the otter could be regarded as an 'endangered species' over a large part of England … and perhaps in part of Wales, but that it could not be said to be sufficiently endangered for it to be added to Schedule 1 on a national basis under Section 12 of the Act. Therefore, I feel that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, is correct in calling for some measure of protection in those parts of the country where the otter is endangered.

But what is the purpose of saying that the otter should be protected everywhere? The opening words of the Act refer to killing, injuring, or taking or attempting to kill, injure or take any protected wild creature. If I may quote the most recent brief that I have in my hand, the Evening News contains an article by an ardent otter propagandist who makes it quite plain that what he is after is to stop the hunting, shooting and trapping of otters and that that is what he means by protection. It is right, then, to ask whether stopping the hunting or shooting of otters will make the slightest difference to the otter population of this country and, if it is going to make a difference, how big a difference? Is it going to make the kind of difference which the Government have in mind by introducing this order? Can the Minister, or the Nature Conservancy Council, provide any evidence that protecting otters in this way will help the situation? That is a question which needs to be answered. Is hunting otters a significant cause of loss? That is another question which needs to be answered.

Reference has been made to the disappearance of the otter because its habitat is interfered with. What weight do we attach to the various factors which come into the question of the decline of the otter? Are shooting and hunting just a trivial part or an important part of it? As I read the evidence, it represents a very trivial part. Reference was made to the very sensible letter in The Times written by Dr. Linn. The New Scientist, a magazine which is sometimes given to somewhat extravagant statements on the matter of conservation, stated only a fortnight ago that protecting the otter in the way suggested will not make much difference. Has the Nature Conservancy Council or have the Government taken account of Dr. Linn's new statement? Has the Nature Conservancy Council examined the paper written by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, which is about to be published? One ought to ask whether what we are concerned about is the protection of the otter or an attempt to stop the hunting of the otter.

We need a strong body of sentiment to make conservation a goal worth fighting for. I accept that absolutely, but we need science and scientific analysis to achieve that purpose. The Government's regulations should be based upon scientifically established facts, and I must confess that I, for one, am not satisfied that those facts are here.

The separation of the Nature Conservancy into two bodies—the research body, NERC, and the Nature Conservancy Council—has been referred to by the noble Duke, and I should like to endorse everything that he has said about it. The Institute of Terrestrial Ecology was a body which might have been consulted directly. The Fauna Preservation Society, of which I have the honour to be President—and the chairman of the council is looking me straight in the face now—is cited as one of the bodies that made representations to the Nature Conservancy Council. I know what it has done so far as otters are concerned, but I do not know that it has added, as yet, any facts to the debate. Did the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation add any scientific facts, or did it merely suggest that it would be a good thing for this order to go through?

We have to remember that in the case of conservation we are dealing with a highly emotional subject and that some extraordinary statements are made. There are some bodies, for example, which tell us that the application of artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides to the soil destroys the fauna of the soil. However, if one reads one of the latest issues of the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau one discovers that no such thing happens—that the soil fauna is just as rich, possibly better in some places, as it was before any artificial fertilisers or other agricultural chemicals were used. When in 1963 the wren population suddenly declined enormously it was said that this was due to pesticides. It was due to a very hard winter. Today the wren is probably the commonest bird in this country.

Obviously the Nature Conservancy Council is an authoritative and highly respectable body. However, I should like to ask a further question: whether or not the NERC should be asked directly to give its advice on this subject. It seems to me that it is time that the divorce which took place when the Nature Conservancy Council was established and the research part of the old Nature Conservancy was handed to NERC was repaired. It is conceivable that the two bodies could perhaps—I do not know how close they are—become closer, because if they were really close I do not believe that we should be debating this matter here today.

If, to conclude, the Government want the 1975 Act to be properly implemented, science and not feeling should be used to interpret Section 12, in order to support the noble Earl's Motion, and I sincerely trust that it will have the support of your Lordships' House. If it fails, some solace may be given to what is called "the otter lobby", but I fear very little to the otter.

5.50 p.m.


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken that my noble friend Lord Cranbrook is the most dedicated conservationist. All the time I have been in your Lordships' House I have not met anybody who knows so much about conservation legislation as he does. In this case, however, I fear the noble Lord has not clearly appreciated the current situation. I will endeavour to give the current situation briefly: starting with the world scene, it is that the otter is now listed as an endangered species under the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and so now, here in Britain, it has been added to the schedule of the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act 1976. The otter is listed by the Council For Europe as one of Europe's threatened animals. The otter is already protected by law in some 12 European countries. I am sure we are grateful to the noble Duke for standing in for the noble Earl but in making the case it was suggested that the order should apply only to areas where the otter is positively known to be scarce. Whatever the experts may say to the contrary, there are many experts who will agree that if this is done the otter will be in even greater danger than it is now because, in the free areas where it will still be attacked in various ways that I shall explain, there will certainly be no surplus population to re-occupy the areas that are already empty.

Let us think not quite so much about science and a little more about the otters. The frightening aspect is—


My Lords, I thought it was rather odd to say that we should think a little less about science and a little more about the otter. I hope the noble Lord will quote the authorities he has already mentioned.


My Lords, I withdraw if I have said something which I should not have done. What I wanted to say was that there is more about the otter than merely the scientific facts. The facts are very frightening, that this shy creature is so rare that it is too late to wait until you can prove by science that it is becoming rare. That is the experience of everybody who has tried to find out the true status of the otter. There have been scientific surveys—and I know the Minister will tell us more about them; there is the counting of spraints, foot prints and food remains. What has that shown? It has shown the otter to be scarce in England and in South Wales, stable in Scotland and, so far as the surveys have gone—they are not completed—it appears to be not too plentiful in North Wales. So the scientific facts show that it is rare over very large areas.

The hunt records show that the numbers have been dropping, that in the last year they standardised, but I cannot understand how one can take full account of the hunt records. The records are per hundred hunting days and the fines are per hundred hunting days. Anyone who was going out hunting would go where the otters are to be found and not to places from which the otters have disappeared. Therefore, to say the least, surely one must take the hunting figures as being slightly optimistic.

We recently had the report of the Joint Otter Group. They reported in 1977. At the risk of being out of order again, I should like to say that I am not impressed by the information given by the noble Duke, of the 10 kilometre squares. They are not up to date. The Joint Otter Group also had them and, in the face of those squares—and this is the Nature Conservancy Council and the Society for the Preservation of Nature Conservation—came down against this order. Their opinion was based on the Group's interpretation of the Act, which opinion was wrong. In this report to the Minister they said, "Do not put the otter on the list"; but they said that the otter was scarce.

I want to read to your Lordships a Press Notice they have recently put out about this apparent difference in their saying that the otter is scarce but that we should not add it to the Act. It is quite short and it is as follows: We wish to state that we support the order and regard it as an important component in the package of measures being taken to conserve the otter. The rejection in our report of the use of the 1975 Act to extend to the otter the statutory protection for which our report called was based on an interpretation of the Act which, in the light of subsequent correspondence between the Minister and the NCC of which we are aware, we now recognise was mistaken. So those of your Lordships who feel that the Act has been misinterpreted fall into the same trap as did the Joint Otter Group in 1977. This is not a question of science; it is simply a question of the interpretation of the Act, and we now know that the Act can be interpreted in the way which allowed the Minister to make the order.

Before making this order under Section 14 (2) of the relevant Act the Secretary of State must consult local authorities and such bodies or such persons as he thinks fit. He consulted 29 such sources; all but three—the British Field Sports Society, the County Landowners Association and the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook—out of 29 supported the order. What was the Minister to do with all this evidence and support? The Nature Conservancy was right to advise the Minister under Section 12 that the species was endangered, and the Minister was right under Section 7 to lay this order.

The point which really matters in this debate is that at least one of the dangers, one source of killing, taking and maiming, (which are the offences concerned), would be eliminated by this order. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, that if the only result of this order were to stop otter hunting it would be too drastic a measure, in current circumstances, to stop the killing of what may be two or three otters a year. But what are the facts? This order will bring many other protective benefits to this charming and harassed creature. First, there is disturbance. Disturbance is one of the major dangers. This order will prevent one particular danger, especially to otters carrying young: namely, the disturbance of the hunt. But there is more to be gained. This is not an anti-hunting measure and it was never intended to be: it is a conservation measure.

There are other dangers from which, once it is on the list, the otter will, under certain circumstances—and I must repeat "under certain circumstances" be protected. I will give your Lordships some examples. Snaring: a live otter today is worth £200. If the otter goes on the list (and I hope your Lordships will support it) the offender who is caught snaring an otter must then substantiate a plea that he was not tracking otter, he was tracking meat. Poisoned bait: now the plea must be that the bait was for vermin and the plea has to be believed. The protection of the fish farmer: the fish farmer will now have to think twice, because his plea must be substantiated by proof that the otter was killing his fish. Finally, and the most dangerous of all, the keeper and the water bailiff, especially the water bailiff, many of whom treat otters as vermin, and can now take, kill and maim freely, with immunity, will find it difficult to justify that process.

My Lords, finally, this order is still just a step in the right direction. The Joint Otter Group recommended legislation. I have seen two Private Member's Bills. I would hope that the Minister would give us an assurance that the Government will produce a suitable Bill and not rely on a Private Member's Bill. But even a Bill cannot be comprehensive. Who could, or would, wish to prevent the canoeist, the rambler, from enjoying himself? One attractive safeguard which has been mentioned is the formation of otter havens on private or protected land; and I applaud the Minister for encouraging the water undertakings, the Forestry Commission and similar bodies to do what they can. We must also applaud the Vincent Wildlife Trust which, as the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, knows, with the Fauna Preservation Society, has its otter haven project; they are now actively seeking for havens where, with the co-operation of the landowner, suitable habitats can be created where the otters can flourish undisturbed.

Speaking for the many voluntary bodies—and Lord Lovell-Davis's YHA is a member of one—I can assure your Lordships that we are not all crazy; there is deep and well-founded concern, and these bodies are each in their own sphere doing what they can. They come asking the Government for help, as is their statutory right. There is one undisputed fact, and that is the decline in the number of otters in England and Wales, which Lord Zuckerman himself confirmed. We know the need to do everything possible for the otter's protection.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may be allowed to put a question to the noble Lord before he resumes his seat. I have to apologise, since I cannot remain until the end of the debate. My question is simply this. Is there any evidence—since the noble Lord felt that he ought to set aside science for something he did not define—that the decline in the otter population between 1957 and 1967, and any decline which may have occurred since—and I do not believe it has occurred—is due to acts which are regarded as offences under this Bill; in other words, killing, injuring, taking or attempting to kill?


My Lords, I can only speak from my information. I have not seen any evidence. But my point is that this is not an anti-hunting Bill; this is a conservation Bill, to protect the otter.

6.3 p.m.


My Lords I must apologise for not having been present at the beginning of this debate; I was attending a Committee upstairs. Secondly, I should like to apologise on behalf of my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley for his inability to take part in this debate. My noble friend is deeply disappointed in not being able to do so, being, as he is, a sponsor of the Bill which is now before this House to amend the Act which we are discussing.

I wish indeed that I had the expertise to be able to discuss the merits of this matter. All I wish to do is shortly to raise a narrow point as to the vires of the order we are discussing. The Preamble begins: Whereas, on a representation made to him by the Nature Conservancy Council, it appears to the Secretary of State to be necessary…". Those words, "on a representation made to him by the Council are taken from Section 7 of the Act, and when one looks at the Act to find what considerations the Council have to take into account one finds that Section 12 of the Act says: The Nature Conservancy Council in exercising its functions… at any time may,… and every five years … shall, review the Schedules to this Act and shall advise the Secretary of State if any wild creature … has become so rare…". —and may I emphasise the past tense there— …that its status as a British wild creature … is being endangered…". —and there we have the present tense— …by any action designated as an offence under this Act". That, of course, means the unlawful taking and killing of the otter.

The latest information that we have as to the thinking of the Nature Conservance Council on this matter is contained in an Answer to a Written Question in the House of Lords Hansard of 27th July at col. 1118; an Answer by the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, to a Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones. The noble Lord asked the Government: Whether they have received information from the … Council which would enable them to decide whether or not the otter should be added to Schedule 1". In the course of her Written Answer the noble Baroness said: The Council's advice is that the otter has become so rare that its status as a British wild creature is endangered in England and Wales by a variety of factors". The only factor that we are concerned with this evening is the offence of taking or killing unlawfully, because that is specifically referred to in Section 12 of the Act which I read out just now. The reply goes on: It is the NCC's considered opinion that any future killing…". There we have, in the section of the Act, the reference to the past tense and to the present tense, and here we have the Council saying that in their opinion, …any future killing, injuring, taking or attempting these actions constitute an increased threat to this status. The Council is therefore convinced that on present evidence it is justified in making a recommendation under Section 7.". The question I ask is what business have the Council, when they are considering what representations to make to the Minister with a view to his making an order, to speculate about any future taking and killing? How do they know how much future taking and killing of otters will occur? I put forward the suggestion that the Council have misdirected themselves as to the matters they were entitled to take into account before making their representation to the Minister, and that, if the Minister's order is based upon a misdirected representation from the Council, that must, surely, cast doubt upon the vires of the order which the Minister makes upon that misdirected representation.

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, asked the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, a few moments ago whether there was any evidence that what this order would stop had contributed to the decline in the number of otters during recent years. Well, this order, like all similar orders under this Act, stops people killing things; that is all it does. It stops people killing things, and one can assume that if people go on killing things then they are contributing to the declining numbers, unless there is any evidence to the contrary. That seems to me to be the issue. Another point the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, made was that these matters should be settled by science and not by emotion. I distrust the scientists when they come to apply their minds to deeply moral and emotional issues. Politics is the application of emotion, morality and political expediency to facts and circumstances. That is why we always try to keep the scientists underneath the considerations of politics and administrative wisdom.

It seems to me that those of us, and I am one, who are against the hunting of any animals—and I regard hunting as a depraved sport—see nothing ennobling in men and dogs chasing wild animals. If men want to get nearer to God, which they always say they are striving to do, then I suggest that they cease to wage war on others of God's creatures. Therefore, I look at this matter first of all from the point of view of being opposed to otter hunting. Of course, I realise that we are not dealing with a Bill or an order under a Bill that deals with otter hunting as such. However, the Motion deals with the killing of otters whether by hunting or by other means.

The reason that there is such a good attendance in your Lordships' House this afternoon is not, if I may say so with great respect, that we are all deeply concerned about the future of the otter; what we are really deeply concerned about is the future of otter hunting. If it comes to the question of what conservation is involved in the Act so far, let me remind your Lordships of the animals which are, at present, protected under the principal Act. The otter is the subject of the first proposal for an order for an additional animal to come under the Act. Would your Lordships' House be as full as it is if we were discussing an order to protect the mouse-eared bat, the sand lizard, the natterjack toad or the large blue butterfly? Should we all be deeply concerned, emotionally and scientifically, if they were under discussion? I do not remember the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, being present when they were under discussion, and he cannot even stay for the end of this present debate. Therefore, if we are to have scientific judgment brought to bear on this matter, it should be brought to bear all the time and not just when a particularly emotional question comes before your Lordships' House.

I believe that it is difficult for any of us to separate the question of the conservation of the otter from the question of otter hunting. I find it extremely difficult to do so and I have confessed my bias. If other noble Lords are to take part in the debate I hope that they, too, will disclose their bias. Are they in favour of otter hunting or are they not? Are Members of your Lordships' House who are against otter hunting against the order? That is an important and frank question to put to your Lordships. Clearly if an animal is endangered—no, I shall not give way to the noble Lord, Lord Denham—presumably one of the sensible things to do about it is to stop people from killing it by any means whatsoever, at least until we can be satisfied that the conservation order to stop people killing it is not assisting the conservation of the animal itself. A period of time would be necessary to test the efficacy of a conservation order introduced in those circumstances.

Here we are faced with a conflict of expert evidence. We have the representations made by the Nature Conservancy Council. We have the extremely important study of this matter by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook. Those of us who are not in a position—I submit, with all respect, that not many of your Lordships are in such a position—to judge scientifically or precisely between the conflict of evidence of those who have studied the matter, presumably from a dispassionate point of view, and have presented their findings to the Minister on which he has had to exercise his own judgment, should give the benefit of the doubt to the otter. If it were not for the fact that the otter is hunted we would all give the benefit of the doubt to the endangered species. We would not say that because the mouse-eared bat is endangered, the justice of the matter is not to give it protection under the Act unless we are absolutely certain that it needs that protection. We would weigh the scientific evidence impartially in the scales and come to a conclusion as to whether or not the mouse-eared bat should be protected. We should not go through that process. We should say that, in all the circumstances, we should give the benefit of the doubt, if there is one, to the endangered species.

However, when we are dealing with the otter we find ourselves in emotional difficulty. There are at present nine active otter hunting packs in England and Wales. It is with their activities that we are really concerned. I do not pretend that the stopping of the killing of otters by hunting, shooting, trapping or other measures would necessarily conserve the otter to the satisfaction of conservationists. There may be other factors, and I believe that there probably are, which have endangered the otter. Reference has been made to pollution, disturbance by tourists and by walkers and so on. There are other factors which may have led to the decline in the number of otters. At least if we stop killing them that is one contribution, however small, to the conservation of the otter and it is one that we should try, to see what difference it makes.

In all the circumstances, there is no reason—there is no real hardship—why the nine active hunting packs should not join the more numerous inactive hunting packs and give the otter a chance. That is really what we are concerned with this afternoon. Let us be candid; it is not an anti-hunting order. However, we must frankly admit that if the order is approved it will make the continuance of otter hunting extremely hazardous within the law. If someone kills an otter it is an offence, and if he is found with a dead otter that also will be an offence. Therefore, although otter hunting would be lawful provided that there was no killing of the otter, and the disturbance to the otter might in consequence be harmful to its conservation, nevertheless the order does not of itself stop otter hunting. I should like to see a Bill to stop otter hunting, but that is not the matter before the House at present.

Therefore, I hope that the House will approve the order and give the otter a chance. If the House does not give the otter a chance, then it will show that we are more concerned with the preservation of otter hunting than we are with the preservation of the otter. We must candidly face that dilemma. The results of the Division which I understand we are to have will be an indication of whether the accusation so frequently made against your Lordships' House, that it is full of hunting, shooting and fishing, is right or not.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he asked a question and then, somewhat irrationally, refused to give way. He asked whether any Members of your Lordships' House were against otter hunting and against this measure. Well, my noble friend Lord Cranbrook has made no secret of the fact that he is against otter hunting and against this measure.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, I cannot agree with much that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, said. Today we must decide whether the otter is an endangered species and whether it is endangered by taking or killing. I was surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, say that he had little regard for scientific evidence. I, personally, have a great regard for scientific evidence as it relates to wildlife. As an amateur, I have had a good deal of experience in observing wildlife. For instance, I would quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, if he was talking about business and said that he did not take much notice of the views of economists. I would quite agree that to have an economist in a business could be a very dangerous affair. However, when we are dealing with wildlife we must have regard to the scientific evidence, and the scientific evidence is that the otter is not endangered throughout England and Wales.

There is evidence that in certain areas the otter is endangered and that, therefore, it should be protected in those areas, which is what my noble friend's Bill suggests. The other point to be cleared up is whether the otter is endangered by killing or taking. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, was very vociferous—if that is the right word—on the question of otter hunts. We have all the records and evidence to show that for the last two years, and, even before that, the number of otters killed by hunts has averaged only five a year. In the last 10 years the average has been either seven or eight a year.

Who else kills otters apart from the hunts? I suppose that one or two water bailiffs might. But no one shoots otters for sport. It may be that one or two otters are snared, but I do not know who snares them. It may be that one or two people—perhaps keepers—snare them for their skins. I should like to quote the NCC. In June of this year they wrote a letter to the Minister saying that in their opinion the killing of otters was not really relative to the other factors of its decline. Today we have heard that the real causes are pollution, disturbance, destruction of habitat, motor-boats, motorcars.

The otter has the strange habit, in that he does not like to go under bridges. If he wants to avoid going under a bridge he has to cross a road. Quite a few otters are killed by cars. It may be that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has himself run over an otter at night without realising it. When millions of cars roar out into the countryside causing pollution and disturbance we are bound to lose much of our wild life. My personal view is that (it is, of course, of no account) if we put the otter in the class of an endangered species—under Section 1 of the 1975 Act—throughout the whole country, it will make no difference at all to the population of otters.

My noble friend the Duke of Atholl quoted some evidence about the number of kilometre squares in which the otter has been reported. My noble friend also pointed out that in 1975 a survey of the Mammal Society reported otters from 54 areas, and in 1976 from 75 areas, each area being a 10-kilometre square, when they previously have not been found in those areas. That would appear to show that perhaps the otter is increasing in numbers. If we add to that the 700-kilometre squares prior to 1975 which the Mammal Society's survey showed it shows that the otter is not so scarce in the country as people think.

I agree that one hardly ever sees an otter. It is a very secretive and nocturnal animal. I can show people otters on my estate in the Western Highlands. They can be seen in daytime there because they are so numerous. However, I quite agree that there are few places in England where they can be seen, although there may be one or two places in the West Country and in Wales where otters can be seen during the day.

In this House we try to make the law relevant and logical, but often our attempts fail because the other place does not always agree with us. However, if we are to put the otter on the endangered list, why do we not also put on that list the pine marten, the polecat and the wild cat? They are far rarer than the otter and are found in only a few areas. It is not always accurate to judge the numbers of an animal by the number of 10-kilometre squares in which it is found because the otter, and the wild cat for instance, have quite a wide hunting range whereas the pine marten and the polecat do not. The number of 10-kilometre squares in which the pine marten is found is only 108; for the wild cat it is 127 and, for the polecat it is 192. However, compared with the otter's range these are small areas. We must not make the law look an ass, as it frequently does. If we are going to make the otter an endangered species throughout the whole country we should include these other mammals.

How much better it would be to support my noble friend's Bill to have this new offence of killing, injuring, or taking vulnerable wild creatures. A vulnerable wild creature must be in a different category from an endangered species. I imagine an endangered species is an animal that is going to vanish in three, four, perhaps, five years if some action is not taken. If you put an animal into the vulnerable category, as proposed by my noble friend, the question of killing or taking can then be controlled by the Secretary of State; of course it can be controlled with the logic that if the vulnerable animal is becoming rare in an area it can then go on the Schedule of endangered species and get full protection. Until the Secretary of State has the advice that the "vulnerable" animal is becoming rare, it is wrong that it should go on the endangered species Schedule.

I do not think that the NCC have given the Minister the best advice. Their advice does not appear to bear out all the scientific evidence. You must look at the scientific evidence with objectivity. The NCC do not appear to have done that completely. I should like to say that the question of hunting coming into this argument is really absurd because otter hunts today always call off the hounds if any pressure is put on the otter. You can see this from the number of otters killed every year, which is as already stated, negligible. I should like to end by saying that I hope that the House will support my noble friend's Bill and Prayer against the order. I am quite sure that, if you do put the otter on the endangered species list without also putting on these other animals, you will make a mockery of the law.

6.33 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Viscount and I sat together on a Private Bill dealing with the East Anglian waterways. In the course of those days I think we were a little disturbed and surprised at the vagueness and intermixture of powers of the number of authorities—official authorities, local government authorities, water board authorities, and so on—which operated throughout the area, and the possible conflicts of the object of preservation with the object of providing needed entertainment, and so on. Because in that area we are now being told that the otter survives rather more than in any other area, I have been thinking about some of the little problems involved.

It seemed to me that Lord Craigton's very effective speech dealt with everything that I should have wished to say, and with quite a few things that I could not say because I did not know them. It was a singularly able speech. I would only hope, if I may, humbly and fearfully, to try to reinforce one point he made. I do not think there is anyone in this House who does not feel that this species has a special place in our ecology and in our affection. I regret the absence of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, both because he is ill, which I regret very much, and because no one who has listened to the discussion of rare species in this House over thisperiod—and they have taken a fairly considerable time in my limited experience of this House—can doubt his absolute sincerity. No one who reads the article he wrote and generously circulated can doubt that he knows a great deal about the otter.

Even the most ignorant of us, among whom I count myself, have to admit that not a great deal is known about the otter even by the experts. The study of the otter is a comparatively recent thing. The decline in population in the 1960s was a much noted phenomenon and attracted a great deal of attention. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, says, it is shy; it is averse to disturbance; it reacts to any alteration of its habitat. It has quite remarkable individual characteristics; it catches its fish in the waters and then takes it on shore to eat, and eats only while undisturbed, and so on. It is essentially shy.

The question of hunting may be subsidiary. I quote from the article to which I have just referred about the reduction of population. I hope I am doing the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, no injustice if I rely on my memory and say that I recall his suggesting what the noble Viscount almost suggested himself, that if you are going to hunt you can call off the hunt before the kill. There was quite a discussion about that, and about whether you could identify a pregnant bitch otter and call off the hunt the moment you saw it.

With great respect, if a creature is very shy, if a creature reacts to disturbance, I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, that hunting may not be a very serious matter for the otter population, even if the hunters refrain from the kill. Indeed, I should have thought it so overwhelmingly probable that hunting may constitute quite serious reactions upon the otter population. We are told about the fall in numbers between 1957 and 1967. I quote from Lord Cranbrook's own very gifted paper. It is impressive, good reading, and it says that the fall was very small in areas like Scotland, for example, but that there was a fall of 40 per cent. in the number of otters found in the hunt areas. The fall was negligible in Scotland and mid-Wales, but it exceeded 50 per cent. in the area of the Dartmoor Otter Hounds, and was 54 per cent. in the area of the Eastern Counties Otter Hounds.

One of the suggestions—a very attractive suggestion—being canvassed at the moment to restrict the fall of the otter population is the provision of otter havens. It seems to those who are not deeply concerned to be an almost extravagent proposition, in that it means the laying aside of special areas with non-eutrophic waters available, and with the reasonable freedom from disturbance and other ecological factors which are known to be damaging to the otter. If the Nature Conservancy can do that, so much the better. But when one looks at the size of the problem it seems to be a very big problem indeed, and one that will certainly not be achieved with the necessary breakdown in consent of owners or authorities in a brief period.

Meantime, we are told that many sincere people are convinced that the otter really is menaced at this moment, and that the next year might be a devestating year. I think that it was the noble Viscount whom I followed who referred to the fact that if it is able to live in one area and to grow, that prevents it from becoming an endangered species. At this moment in Scotland some varieties of eagle are being given very special protection, and indeed the great auk was by no means extinct until some gentlemen with guns—reverend gentlemen, too, if I remember correctly—in the Hebrides decided that it would be good sport to kill it. The great auk has not been seen since. Many of these types of eagle are in danger of extinction without special efforts at preservation.

Now, after long discussions, and after passing Acts in previous Sessions, and accepting Amendments from both sides, the Government come along and say that they are advised that this step ought to be taken. Why not take it? If it meant the complete cessation of hunting for 12 months, would that be a grave matter? As the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, said, measures have been taken in other countries. The warning note has been heard in both Europe and the United States, and this House ought to hear the warning note today. That warning note suggests that we should pass this order, and I hope that that will be the conclusion of this debate.

6.43 p.m.


My Lords, I will not refer to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hale, other than to say that I agree with it. The noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, asked why anyone may wish to take an otter. I think we could hazard a guess at that, if one knows that an otter sells for about £600. What is it that is at stake this evening? Surely it is part of our heritage, as wild life is our heritage. We have it in trust. It is really a case of whether or not our children, our grandchildren, and their children will see otters in the wild, and not see them only in zoos and pet shops. What we have to achieve is that live otters can always be seen in this country, and not just read about or seen in museums. If we fail, we alone will be held responsible by future generations, because once any part of our wildlife heritage goes, it goes forever. There is no known means of reviving it.

So what is the present problem? I do not believe that anyone can doubt the need to preserve otters. As my noble friend Lord Craigton said—and this is so important that I think it should be repeated—the otter is listed by the Council of Europe as a threatened mammal, and is already protected by law in some 12 European countries. It is listed as an endangered species under the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Of the need to preserve the otter there can be no doubt. The doubt today is how best to achieve the protection.

Some noble Lords feel that the present order, as laid before Parliament, prohibiting the killing of otters from 1st January, 1978, is not the right answer, as Schedule 1 to the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975 is not wholly appropriate. What then should be done? The Motion tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, proposes another and more effective order, and I could go along with his ideas if it were not for the time factor. Another order could not—I repeat, not—come into effect this Session. Therefore, the few remaining otters could be in danger of being killed for at least another year. What is vital is action, and action now, as the signals are already flashing red. It is no use arguing that only a few otters are killed each year, for now it is these few which really matter. Action, although we know it not to be perfect, must be taken now, and, unfortunately, the only way this can be done is by not praying against the present order, which is only a first step in the right direction.

Then, having got some measure of protection for the otter, Her Majesty's Government should quickly bring in a new Bill to cover the protection—(as required)— of all our mammals. The order does not extend to Scotland where investigations into the otter are still going on. One must not prejudge these investigations, but from talking to those involved in them, it would seem almost certain that, while as a whole there are a good number of otter in Scotland, there is little doubt that their distribution is far from satisfactory. On the rough terrain of the West, and in the Highlands, it would seem that numbers are at present adequate, but in the East, where there is much more intensive agriculture, numbers have declined drastically. I would go along with these thoughts, as living near the River Don, which flows from the West of Aberdeenshire out into the North Sea, I find that otters which I used to see 10 or 20 years ago simply are not there to be seen now.

What is really required is a new protection Bill for all mammals. It might classify mammals into various categories: those requiring no protection; those requiring full protection; and those requiring partial protection in certain areas. Such a Bill should enable action to be taken to begin protecting a species as soon as evidence shows that it is declining; in other words, something to enable action to be taken when the lights are still amber and before they change to red. Because once the lights go to red and the species has sunk below, it could be wiped out through no human fault; it might just be an accident of nature.

As I began by saying, wild life is our heritage. We, and we alone, are the persons responsible for it. With that responsibility fairly and squarely on my shoulders, I cannot support the noble Earl's Motion, as moved by my noble friend the Duke of Atholl, and I must advise other noble Lords to do the same The present order prohibiting the killing of otters from 1st January 1978 is at least a step in the right direction.

6.51 p.m.


My Lords, I must begin by apologising for the state of my voice. I have had a slight cold for the last two days, and it has not done my voice any good at all. I too should like to congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, for taking on at such very short notice the sponsoring of this Motion; it is by no means a simple task. I was very sorry, too, to hear of the reason why he had to do it. My Lords, I welcome this order. I think it is a very necessary one, and I think it should be accepted by all. It is, as your Lordships have heard, the result of surveys by very experienced naturalists, and is based on evidence given by local hunts themselves. I have not in fact been on any of these surveys, but my noble friend Lord Zuckerman showed your Lordships a map which had been very carefully prepared by experienced men, and I can see no reason to doubt the evidence of their work.

However, I should like to make one point quite clear—and this, unfortunately, is the place where I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I do not do so very often, and I hope he will forgive me. He says that you cannot separate the question of otter hunting from otter conservation. I hold that you can and that you should. I, too, have been approached by the anti-otter hunting lobby. Here, I must make my own position quite clear. I have every sympathy with that lobby. I should like to see the end of otter hunting; but I do not think this is the place to do it. If you want to abolish a field sport, then you must come into the open and introduce a Bill to do it, which, of course, is precisely what the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, did in 1975. Unfortunately, he introduced it too late in the Session for it to get through. Perhaps he will try again.

That, however, is not what we are considering tonight. We are considering a conservation order, and I think it is a very necessary one, for the evidence which has been produced proves unquestionably that there are parts of England where the otter is, I will not say common, for it is never common—it is very unusual ever to see an otter—but where it has not declined in numbers; while there are other parts of England and Wales where it is becoming an endangered species. To my mind it would be quite wrong to add the otter to Schedule I to the 1975 Act without reservation; but this order gives us the chance to make those reservations, and I think it is extremely valuable. I hope your Lordships will not think that my support for the order is influenced in ally way by my feeling about otter hunting. I assure your Lordships that it is not.

6.55 p.m.


My Lords, the decline in the population of the otter which occurred between 1957 and 1967 seems, from the evidence, to have been brought about by several likely causes, and many have been mentioned. There is disturbance by humans, fishing, boating and particularly weed cutting and hank weed clearing, as otters do not like travelling along rivers which have no cover along the sides. But particularly those years coincided with the use of aldrin and dieldrin, and the most severe fall ill numbers occurred in areas where those chemicals were much used in agriculture and foxes and hawks feeding on dead and dying birds were seen to suffer a high death rate.

For the concern we now have for the otter population we can in fact thank almost entirely the otter hunts for giving first warning of the declining numbers in this country. Only the hunts regularly saw otters, as they are in nature few and far between. The Stevens Survey considered one otter per six miles of river to rate a classification of "very numerous", and one family is estimated to need about 30 miles of river. For 50 years the otter was hunted and killed without effect on the population. However, in 1962, as numbers of otters suddenly deteriorated, the hunts promptly introduced a practice of monitoring but not killing the otters where they could avoid it. In recent years the Joint Hunt Committee has designated certain areas as restricted, and hounds must be called off before the otter is put under pressure. As a result, only 20 otters were killed in those restricted areas over four years, 1968 to 1971, and only eight otters a year, on average, have been killed by otter hounds from 1972 to 1976 in the whole of Great Britain—far fewer than those killed by ears and nets.

Meanwhile, by their finds the otter hunts have been able to provide very valuable information on the population of the species, and have taken a wholly responsible attitude towards the preservation of the animal, entirely on their own initiative. They have led population surveys, decided themselves not to hunt to kill and provided much helpful information to other interested organisations, such as the Mammal Society. There is little doubt that the population of wild animals and birds is seldom affected by organised sport—not indiscriminate sport, but organised sport. Even hard pigeon shooting has been found to have limited effect on the next year's population. What does have great effect is, first, the weather, with the effects of either a hard or a soft winter; secondly, loss of habitat, particularly; and, above all, pollution. This latter cause is the area which must be tackled if wild animals are to survive, and much has already been done, as we know, by such things as the banning of aldrin and dieldrin.

I am not an otter hunter, though I did go out once many years ago; but I believe the hunts make a great contribution to the preservation and study of the otter. I do not wish to see legislation passed which would, in effect, stop them hunting. Indeed, the greater the area over which they can hunt the greater the chances of the otter being encouraged and preserved by riparian owners; for example, by the preservation of river banks and the maintenance of habitat. I hope that makes it clear to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, who presumed to damn the sincerity of the people who wish to preserve the otter if they also wish to see hunting continue. He damned those who spoke for speaking with emotion, yet I felt that he himself based his whole argument on emotion, without a shred of evidence.

The NCC should give advice to the Minister based only on scientific evidence. I do not believe they have proved their contention that any future taking of otters whatsoever would increase the threat to the otter". I think that the damage caused each year by a handful of otters being killed by hounds will be totally outweighed by the value of the information which the hunts can obtain thereby, and which has proved more accurate than the information obtained by naturalists. The NCC has indeed stated to the Minister, in a letter in June 1977: The effect of the killing of otters is likely to be small relative to other factors". I should like to quote from their report: There is insufficient evidence to show that this is brought about by killing and taking". This Instrument would totally ban otter hunting. I believe that to deny the help that the hunts can give, and have given, would be quite counter-productive to the preservation of a species that we all want to help. I shall therefore support the two Motions.

7 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of NORWICH

My Lords, I feel that I ought to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Hale, on behalf of the unknown clergyman who killed the last great auk in Scotland. I hope that he was a Presbyterian, but I do not know. But, on behalf of the Church in general, I apologise for his behaviour. I find it difficult, as we all do, not to have a certain emotional tinge in our preparation and our speaking on this really very important debate. In preparation for it, I visited the warden of our own otter trust at Earsham in the Waveney Valley in my diocese in the last fortnight. I met the young tame otter who is the film star of the "Tarka the Otter" film. He is called "Mouse" because he was that size when he was born. He was hand-reared with a pipette every quarter of an hour, which is a reminder that not only the otter hunts but other people as well take care of otters—following the moving statement of the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, about the care of the otter hunts for otters.

I was very impressed with this particular otter because I found, as I knew from an earlier visit, that otters are very curious, very lovable and extremely conservative with a small "c". When the letters come in the morning to the otter trust, "Mouse" is allowed to nibble at the rubber bands provided by a grateful Post Office, to open the band of letters. Then he chews the rubber band, every morning. If the Post Office tied a piece of string round the letters then he was disturbed or, to use our own word in this House, agitated. It is, I think, a simple fact and one which has underlain so many things we have been saying, those of us who know about otters—and we all know a lot about otters—those of us who are close to otters, and see something of them. They are extremely shy, they are extremely conservative in the sense that they like to do the same things over and over again, and they do not like a great deal of change. For this reason we, as human beings, need to be particularly sensitive in our general responsibilities to one of the most lovable of the animal species that we have in this country still. I liked the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, about giving the order a chance and the otter a chance.

I must say a word about otter hunts. There are, I think, eight, and not nine, active packs now—nine was mentioned; eight or nine. But when holidaying on the Isle of Mull, where we sometimes go as a family, it was a little distressing for us to find that the Devon Otter Hunt had travelled all the way to the Isle of Mull to attack our otters in Mull; and they did not show quite as much loving care for them as Lord Gisborough was suggesting in his moving and, I thought, very fair speech.

We have been bandying a few figures about. In 1947, 79.8 per cent. was the otter killings per 100 hunting days. In 1967, 20 years later, it was only 43.6 per cent. of killings per 100 hunting days. Now it could be either that the otter hunts have had a change of heart or that the otters had got a turn of speed, or that other factors different from those came in; but the most obvious reason is that there were fewer otters. It seems to me that we are facing that simple fact: that, in general terms there are fewer. The otter population is decreasing and therefore, rather than be mealy-mouthed about being fearful that by the addition of the otter to this order we might be taking away a tiny bit of liberty from the eight remaining otter hunts, should we not be more positively determined to find ways actively of increasing this particularly delightful, charming, gentle and conservative animal?

I think that it is only fair to say that the people who care most for otters outside the otter hunt world, in the conservancy world, want it to be known that the proposal to add the otter in this order is not an anti-hunting measure, for the simple reason that those who spend much time caring for otters know that many more otters are killed by trapping and by shooting than by hunting. So the otter hunting matter is really peripheral to the main issue. I think this is important.

With great respect, in the very clear and detailed opening speech by the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, he said that the NCC is only four years old and spoke of it as though it had not yet, therefore, gained much experience of life; and another noble Lord suggested it is not a very scientific body. But it is certainly a very active body in the attempts it has made to do a great deal of consultation concerning this matter. A great many bodies, including water boards, gamekeepers and local authorities, were consulted by the NCC and only four major objectors, of whom the British Field Sports Society, the Country Landowners Association and the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, were three. I do not think therefore, because the opposition to the implementation and the expansion of this order is not very large, although it is very influential, that this should necessarily deter us in this House from taking great care over the otter.

I am speaking only in my personal capacity as a Member of the House, but I note that, when this matter came for passing reference in the Church Assembly on the 5th February 1970: The Church Assembly is of the opinion that the practices of hare coursing, deer hunting and otter hunting are cruel, unjustifiable and degrading and urges Christian people in the light of their Christian profession and responsibility to make plain their opposition to activities of this sort and their determination to do all in their power to secure their speedy abolition. This was a reasoned and carefully agreed motion in the Assembly of 1970 which led on to the General Synod. Following the way in which certain Synod business was dealt with in this House last week, I think it a little unwise of me to quote that at this juncture, but, knowing the extreme breadth of opinion and the kindness of your Lordships, I thought you would like to know what the Church of England Assembly has said on this particular matter.

I should like to finish by suggesting that we take the broader view of this very simple fact. When all the figures are added together and all the surveys, scientific or otherwise, are looked at, there are very few otters in our country today; and it is surely more important for us to seek to preserve a very lovely animal and to do all we can to encourage it in half a dozen different ways—by otter trusts, otter havens, by the sensible and careful use of this order—than to do anything else to put at risk an animal which, if I could introduce you to this particular otter that I was talking to last week, knowing the warmth of heart of your Lordships' House, all of you would fall in love with and vote resoundingly against the noble Earl and the other side.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, when it comes to wildlife I am sure that the debates in your Lordships' House are at their best. No one can say that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, does not feel passionately on this matter, but I am afraid that many of us feel that he holds mistaken views. However, this House is possibly one of the main guardians of the rural countryside, and I suspect that we all wish the otter well. It has been suggested that some water bailiffs kill otters. I was disturbed to hear this because they must be rather uneducated since otters kill a great many eels and eels are far more destructive to fish than otters. It is time someone started to educate these people.

Our differences, however, are of course on how best to carry out the protection. Though I support the Prayer of my noble friend, I am not sure that I entirely agree with all his views. It is perhaps difficult on these matters to refrain from taking a parochial point of view, and to avoid being unduly influenced by events in one's own area. But equally there are instances when the findings and observations in one area may be of some use, and I believe this to be the case of the otter in the Ness catchment area. It has been suggested that the fall in the otter population has been negligible in Scotland. My noble friend Lord Craigton suggested that the numbers are stable North of the Border. But this is not the case in the Ness catchment area, which is a big one. In general terms, it may be that the numbers in Scotland as a whole have not fallen but there has been a very marked fall in numbers in the past 15 or 20 years in the Ness. It was a rare occurrence to go to the river on a summer evening and fail to see at least one otter.

I well remember one evening fishing with a trout rod with a tail fly and two droppers, when reeling into the boat a small trout there was suddenly a great weight on the line. I was convinced that I was into a large salmon. The line was taken out well into the backing then, just like a big fish, back up to the boat. As the cast appeared from the water, so did a round head. It was clear that the sight of me or the boat was distasteful to the creature, for there was a short struggle and the cast was broken. I had only one of the three flies left and I was worried that one of the other two flies might have been in the otter. However, the next evening, about the same time, an otter came back up the river—I hoped it was the same one—near to the place where I had been fishing.

What was interesting was how tenacious the otter was. It had taken hold of my little trout; there was no hook or anything in it but he was not going to let go. He then broke the line and took the trout away. Another instance which shows how numerous the otters were in that area at that time was when one afternoon I went down to the estate office and one of the girls in the office said: "Don't come in! There is a beastie in the hall!" I crawled in through a window and saw a three parts grown otter. It had probably been chased in by the fat old spaniel belonging to the clerk. However, someone had shut the otter in. I caught it and put it in a laundry hamper. I rang up Aberdeen Zoo and asked if they would like it. I was very surprised to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, that otters are worth £600. Aberdeen Zoo turned it down. No wonder they went bankrupt the other day! However, I contacted Gavin Maxwell and he came over and took the otter away to his home in Glenelg. I do not think that I ever received the hamper back.

Now I regret that it is a very rare occasion to see an otter on these waters. What is significant is that there has been no material change in the shape of disturbance or habitat, and of course there is no hunting. The volume of water in Loch Ness and the amount of possible pollution from persistent insecticides such as aldrin or dieldrin could not possibly have had any effect on the otter in this area. Why then have the numbers dropped? There can be little doubt that the reason for the fall has been the filth poured in through the Inverness sewer.

The fish have declined and the shellfish are almost non-existent. The number of wildfowl has also markedly declined. Yet just the other day a brand new sewer was put in. There is no septic tank or purification works. It is put in crude. When I was on the county council we fought this, but now it is happening. This is wrong. If we are going to protect otters we have to stop this situation—not two or three otters being hunted. Pollution must be stopped. It is no use playing around with an order like this when officials are allowed to put enormous quantities of crude sewage into the water.

In making legislation covering wildlife we must be extremely careful. Some of your Lordships may not like this very much, but the banning of the dieldrin sheep dip, without having a suitable alternative, has caused problems. I do not know whether it is realised what effect it has. But thousand of birds have been killed by the abolition of dieldrin sheep dip. There has been a major tic explosion, killing a great many birds in the moorland areas in Scotland. A veterinary officer told me the other day that the banning of dieldrin has resulted in infinitely more trouble with tick-borne diseases in cattle and sheep. Of course it affects the deer as well. It is 40 years since I have been otter hunting; I have had very little to do with them, but I suggest that otter hunters have a vested interest in otters. They are the watchdogs who have alerted this country to the scarcity of otters. To do them out of their little ploy seems to be sounding the death knell of the creatures which we all wish to protect.

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, after listening to the fascinating speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, I looked along the Opposition Front Bench expecting to see an otter. He assured us that they were the most conservative of creatures. He gave us a number of reasons why we ought to be careful about the otter. These were put earlier with great cogency by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, who outlined very clearly indeed why this order was placed.

Like other noble Lords—Lord Zuckerman was one of them—I wish to pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook. Many of us have learnt a great deal from him. My own knowledge of animals and natural history is slight, but I have learnt a great deal from his wisdom and knowledge. I have no doubt at all that the noble Earl has not set out to do something which is going to be destructive of animal life. But the issue here is really not as simple as has been made out. The noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, put forward very ably Lord Cranbrook's point of view. But he leaves out an important matter; it is that, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, said, the Nature Conservancy Council is the body set up to advise the Government on these issues.

I took a considerable part in the proceedings on the Act under which this order is placed and also on the Endangered Species Act. In regard to both those Acts I raised the question of who should advise the Government. We are always faced with this problem. If you leave it to the Civil Service, who may have the most expert advice, you will get complaints that this is being done not by a body independent of Government, not by a body which is supposed to be looking at the matter in a general and impartial way, but by a body which is part of the Government. If it is done by the Natural Environment Council, that is a body which has been specifically set up for scientific research, and it does not necessarily have at any moment of time the particular expertise to deal with a particular problem.

The Nature Conservancy Council by Act of Parliament and by our own intentions in this House—not by something imposed by anyone else—was the body named to advise the Government on placing these orders; yet the moment they place an order we promptly challenge it. We want to overthrow the very procedure we thought was the best. We did, my Lords; we all took part in this. I do not remember it being challenged in this House at the time, but now we come along and say, "This is not the right procedure".

What is the right procedure? Are we to go to this man here or that man there, or are we to choose some other body not named in the Act? Do we realise how subversive this attitude is and how we are completely upsetting the whole procedure of an Act of Parliament which we wanted? We passed it, we liked it and we spent a lot of time arguing about it in this House. Now, when an order is placed, we say: "Oh no, we do not like that order. We want to do it another way". But, my Lords, we are not the authority. Of course we have the right to do what we like here, but we are not the named authority. That is the Nature Conservancy Council. Therefore I suggest that we would be doing something which is political madness, to overturn this order without very much clearer evidence and advice than we have got. If we found that the Nature Conservancy Council had been corrupt or had done something that really was monstrous, then perhaps we could do something; but not, I submit, on the basis that they have given the advice which it, in the opinion of many people, good advice. No one questions that the otter is rare; no one doubts that it may be endangered; and yet we get up and say, "But the Nature Conservancy Council has no right to advise us in this way: there are other people who would say something else". Of course, we would always get people who would say anything, with the best intentions; but this is the statutory body which was asked to advise the Government. It gives the advice: can we possibly reject it?

7.23 p.m.

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, listening to the speeches this evening it is obvious that we all deeply regret the absence of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, because the debate has become rather like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. We are grateful to the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, for stepping into his shoes at such short notice and, if I may say so, with such exemplary brevity.

All I should like to do in a very few words is to refer to some of the arguments which have been put forward for the Motion, although there is very little I can add to the really admirable speech of the noble Lord, Lord Craigton. I think everyone agrees—because this is really a matter of fact—about the serious decline in the numbers of the otter population South of the Border in the last 20 years. But quite a number of noble Lords took the view that it would be quite sufficient to protect the otter only in those areas where it has become extinct or is extremely rare.

That appears to be the object of the Motion before the House this evening: to limit the degree of protection to such areas. But this is not only a question of preventing a further decline from the present critically low level of the otter population but of restoring it to its former level and therefore of building it up again in those parts of the country where the otter is now rare or has completely disappeared. We need enough young otters to move out of the areas where they are still relatively plentiful in order to colonise the depleted areas. That is why, for my part, I am delighted that this order will cover the whole country South of the Border, including those areas such as part of Wales, where otters are still to be found in considerable numbers.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, has just pointed out, those who oppose this order are in fact challenging the considered opinions of the Nature Conservancy Council, of the various conservancy societies and the Joint Otter Group, which has been quoted this afternoon—all of them bodies with a special knowledge of the otter. They maintain in common that the otter is an endangered species throughout England and Wales, though it is, of course, bound to be more plentiful or more rare in some areas than in others. I hope that this formidable body of expert opinion, quite apart from the constitutional position which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, will at any rate cause some noble Lords who had considered opposing the order and supporting the Motion to hesitate before doing so.

It has also been said by some speakers that the banning of killing and taking or attempting to kill and take will make only negligible contribution to the preservation of the otter. That may be so. I think it is difficult to make anything like a just estimate, for the loss from practices which result in the killing of the otter may be greater than some people had thought; but surely any greater safeguard for such a rare animal as the otter is worth having, and that is exactly what this order will give. I fear it is the truth—and with this I am sure all your Lordships would agree—that so long as there is a profit from the sale of pelts or live animals, the shooting or trapping of otters will continue. A figure has been given. The figure that I was given before I heard it in this House was £600; that is what a live otter will fetch on the open market. That was the figure given by the noble Lord, Lord Forbes; and other speakers have given a lower figure. But, at any rate, a very considerable sum of money can be obtained by anyone who can trap or shoot an otter.

One effect of this order which I think is particularly important is that it would stop the commercial exploitation of the otter. It is particularly important to stress that, because it shows that the case for the order is not the case against otter hunting. I agreed entirely with the delightful speech of the right reverend Prelate, particularly when he said that otter hunting is merely "peripheral"—I thought that was a very well chosen word, if I may say so—to the whole matter. But, of course, there is bound to be more controversy about the effect of the order on otter hunts than on any other aspect of it, and we have heard that controversy voiced very loudly in the course of the debate this afternoon.

I think everyone would agree that the otter hunts have made a sincere effort to prevent the killing of otters, but in spite of this effort to stop hounds before they catch their quarry they have not been altogether successful. Moreover, there is the question of disturbance that hounds cause in contact with the otter. Therefore, I do not think it was surprising that in its report the Joint Otter Group recommended voluntary ban on otter hunting, pending legislation.

With those few comments on otter hunting, I support the order on the much broader ground that it will serve in some small measure to protect the otter and do something to preserve this vanishing mammal. It will, of course, be particularly effective if it becomes part of a package of conservation measures. I hope that the Department of the Environment will support and encourage all those public authorities concerned with such measures, and I trust that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, will take to heart the appeal of the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, to make every endeavour to do just that.

I hope that your Lordships will support this order not only because of the otter in this country, but because it will bring us into line with similar protective legislation which has already been passed by most of our European neighbours. It will be greatly to our credit, if we can say that we are no less backward in protecting our wild fauna than the majority of our neighbours in Western Europe.


My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down may I ask him this? He talked about our neighbours instituting this ban. Has it helped them to get any more otters back into their countries by having this complete ban?

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, I cannot answer that question off the cuff, but I believe it is true to say that there would have been fewer otters if there had not been any protective legislation.


My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, may I say that I cannot understand—if he cannot answer me perhaps somebody else will—why the wild cat, for instance, which is far rarer than the otter, is not to be added to the list of endangered species. Then, too, there are the polecat and the marten, which are far fewer in number and in far smaller areas.

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, I think that I need notice of that question.

7.32 p.m.


My Lords, may I first associate myself with the many other noble Lords who have expressed their regret and sorrow at the reason for the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, not being with us today to move the Motions in his name. I am sure that all noble Lords in this House wish him a very speedy recovery, and we hope that we shall soon see him back again on the Benches. At the same time, while not agreeing with what he said or with what he has done, I should like to congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, on the way in which he stepped into the breach and so ably moved the Motion on behalf of the noble Earl.

The noble Lord, Lord Forbes, reminded us that the otter is part of our national heritage. The conservation of our national heritage is increasingly regarded as an important part of the Government's responsibilities, and it is also a very emotive subject. But I have always been encouraged by the amount of support which we receive from Members of this House in that part of our work. For some time, there has been concern about the decline in the number of otters. As we have heard tonight, it is a concern which is by no means limited to England and Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Craigton, reminded us that the Council of Europe has already listed the otter as one of the threatened mammals of Europe, and it is protected by law in many European countries. If I can find out the results of that protection, I will write to the noble Lord.

The otter is also regarded as a highly endangered species under the Washington Convention on International Trade; and international trade in otters and their products is now virtually prohibited under the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act 1976. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that we should be considering the conservation of otters this evening, even if I am rather sad that the occasion for so doing is a challenge to the measures that we have taken to give the otter protection under the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975.

The otter is a charming and lovable, if shy, creature and, if we are to believe the right reverend Prelate, conservative with a small "c". It is a creature with tremendous public appeal, but this is not the basis on which the Secretary of State has acted. The order has been made on the basis of hard scientific evidence that the status of the otter as a British wild creature is now endangered. Your Lordships have heard from all sides of the House that the Nature Conservancy Council, which is the Government's statutory advisory body on nature conservation matters, set up a Joint Otter Group with other interested bodies in September 1976. The task of this group was to establish what is known about the biology, distribution and abundance of otters in Great Britain, and to consider the need for conservation measures. The Group's report makes it clear that there is evidence which indicates that the otter has declined in, or is even absent from, substantial parts of Great Britain.

This evidence is of two kinds. The first is from scientific surveys involving a search for signs of otters, such as spraints, footprints and food remains. For example, surveys in East Anglia in 1967–72 and again in 1974–75 indicate that otters have disappeared from the River Waveney and have become much less common on the Little Ouse. Surveys on the River Severn in 1973 indicated that otters were scarce on, or even absent from, the English side of the river. Indeed, the conclusion from the surveys is that there are now very few otters in the area bounded by Cheshire and Lincolnshire in the North, and Gloucestershire and Middlesex in the South. While surveys in Mid-Wales indicate a rather better situation there, there are very few records of any otters in South Wales. Only in Scotland do survey records show a widespread distribution of otters.

The Nature Conservancy Council are continuing their research and they have informed me that the latest data available to them confirms that the status of the otter in much of England and South Wales is now at a critically low level, and while I do not personally claim to be an expert naturalist, it seems to me that there is ample evidence available for them to come to this conclusion. They are also satisfied that the measures for habitat protection, about which we have also heard tonight, can best be undertaken on a voluntary basis without the need for any new legislation at this stage.

It is not often that the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, and I are on opposite sides so far as conservation measures are concerned, but perhaps we have managed to convince him as the debate has proceeded. But reference was made to the paper published by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, in the December issue of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society. As I read it, the noble Earl asserted that the NCC had ignored recent evidence from otter hunts; that the negative evidence of naturalists should be treated with caution, and that the evidence of naturalists themselves suggested that otters are present in sufficient numbers and at a sufficient density over the whole country, save for the Central Midlands, to ensure the otter's recovery to its pre-1960 density. In his very telling and moving speech, the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, also referred to the hunt reports from a rather different angle and, if your Lordships will bear with me for a moment, I should like to explain, as we see it, the relative value of evidence from hunts and from scientific surveys conducted by naturalists.

Nobody disputes the value of evidence from hunts. The Mammal Society survey was based on hunt returns relating to the number of finds per 100 days' hunting, a recognised indicator. It was valuable in showing that the number of finds recorded by hunts fell by almost one-half in the decade up to 1967. Since then. I suggest, returns from hunts need to be viewed with caution, and I say so for two reasons. First, it is unlikely that hunts will continue to operate in areas which are unproductive; instead, they will tend to concentrate in places where they still expect to find otters. I may say that this is seen to some extent in the hunting, for example, of the Eastern Counties Otter Hounds, who now hunt only in the productive coastal zone of East Anglia, although their traditional territory extends to much of East Anglia and to the Fens South of the Wash. Secondly, as the less productive hunts, such as the Buckinghamshire, cease their activities, the overall average number of finds recorded will consequently be increased. Both of these factors could bias the returns from hunts towards optimism and indicate a false improvement in the situation.

That is not to say that surveys by naturalists are infallible. However, I wish to emphasise that the surveyors are not looking for the best otter sites, as are the hunters, but have to look at four or five pre-selected sites in each 10 kilometre square. These sites are those most easily approached—for example, road bridges which otters are reluctant to swim under. The results now coming in from the survey being undertaken on behalf of the NCC in Scotland show that without doubt this survey system can easily pick up otters when they are present. It could perhaps be said that even this form of survey is optimistic, in that one is looking for spraints, some of which may have been on the site for several weeks. What all this means, I think, is that it is unwise to decry evidence from either hunts or surveys. Surely the sensible and responsible investigator tries to look at evidence from both sources.

That is, in fact, what the NCC did in advising my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to schedule the otter. Certainly it is quite wrong to suggest that the NCC ignored the evidence from hunts. It is largely the evidence from that source which led the NCC to believe that the otter had continued to decline since 1971. I am sure your Lordships will be interested to know that the NCC's hunting evidence for the years 1972 to 1976 was provided by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook. I have with me a copy of a letter of 9th May from the noble Earl which gives this information. The noble Earl's letter includes a table summarising the activities of all the hunts for the years 1972 to 1976. The table shows that in 1972 the average number of finds per 100 days' hunting was 45.3. How you get 0.3 of an otter, I do not know! By 1975 the average had fallen to 31–1. It rose again in 1976 to 40.00. I hope that indicates some evidence of recovery in the otter population, but it is clear that the general trend is downwards. I am at a loss to understand why the noble Earl did not include these figures also in his paper.

If I may turn now to the question of whether otters are sufficiently numerous and widespread to ensure that the population will recover to the pre-1961 density, the noble Earl asserts in his paper—and the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, referred to it today—that outside the Midlands the position of the otter seems to be reasonably secure. The basis of the assertion that the future of the otter is secure is, as the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, told us, a distribution map compiled by the Biological Records Centre which shows the pattern of 10-kilometre grid squares in which naturalists reported the sitings of otters. What the noble Earl did not explain in his paper—nor did the noble Duke today—although it is recorded on the map itself, is that the reports of sitings on which the map is based were compiled over a period of 16 years. So far as we know, no otter lives for 16 years. Therefore the map records the presence of otters long dead before the job was complete. In short, the noble Earl's conclusion does not flow from his evidence. However, as the noble Earl rightly pointed out, the 1975 Act does not only require evidence that a wild creature is endangered before it can be placed on Schedule 1. The noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, referred to this fact.

Section 12 of the Act requires the Nature Conservancy Council to reach the conclusion that the wild creature concerned has become so rare that its status is being endangered by any action designated as an offence under the Act; namely, killing, injuring, or taking, or attempting to do so. We have always accepted that these criteria should be applied to representations for additions to the Schedule under Section 7 of the Act. Our difference with the noble Earl comes from the fact that, unlike him, we are satisfied that the representation we have received from the NCC is based on these criteria.

The noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl, referred to the question of research. I would advise him that the NCC has its own scientific capacity. In addition, the Joint Otter Group, which now accepts the rightness of the order, included also a representative of NERC. As the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, said, the Joint Otter Group has now issued the further statement, dated 30th November, from which he quoted to noble Lords in his excellent speech.

The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, and other noble Lords have said that there is no evidence that the decline in the number of otters is caused by killing, injuring or taking, but this is not what the Act requires. The Act requires the NCC to conclude, first, that the status of otters as British wild creatures is being endangered and, secondly, that any further killing, injuring or taking constitutes an increased threat to its status. It was because of this misapprehension about the requirements of Section 12 that the Joint Otter Group concluded that the otter could not be protected under the 1975 Act and therefore recommended that it should be given some other form of legislative protection. However, in paragraph 11(1) of their report, the Joint Otter Group said: The evidence available at present on the numbers and distribution of the otter indicates that its status in England and Wales gives cause for great concern. While the factors controllable under legislation are by no means the only factors responsible for the otter's present status, they are no doubt contributory factors and their elimination can be expected to contribute beneficially to the otter's survival and recovery". To me, my Lords, it seems that this paragraph alone could provide an adequate justification for the order made by my Secretary of State.

The noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, and other noble Lords have pointed out that the number of otters known to be killed by hunts is small—only about five animals each year throughout Great Britain—and that there is no other firm evidence of killing. But what about possible killing by bailiffs? I understand that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, himself would put this at some 12 to 15 animals in each hunt area. This would amount to over 100 otters per year in England Wales alone. Even five otters are sufficient to recolonise between 30 and 40 miles of river. Surely it is obvious as the population of the otter declines, from whatever cause, that the threat from killing, injuring and taking becomes an increasingly important factor. Furthermore, since otters now occur only in small and isolated islands of population, the loss of even one individual is potentially serious to that unit of population.

The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, suggested that there are still parts of England and Wales in which otters are relatively common. That may well be the case, but in order to maintain the status of the population of any wild creature it is necessary for there to be a surplus of young available to make up for natural mortality and human predation. In addition, in order to restore a depleted population a further surplus is necessary to move out from those areas where the creature does still occur to recolonise those areas from which it has disappeared.

If a species is to improve in status, it must be permitted to breed without threat in areas where it does still occur and clearly it would be ridiculous to protect otters only in areas from which they are absent and not in areas from which a new population can come. It may be said that this could also be a reason for protecting the otters in Scotland. But the position is very much better there, and it cannot be said that otters in Scotland are threatened with extinction. However, I can assure the noble Lords, Lord Forbes and Lord Burton, that the NCC are aware of the danger that the protection of otters in England and Wales could bring the otters in Scotland under increased pressure. They will be watching the situation in Scotland very closely and they will also be watching the position of other mammals if and as they become endangered.

The noble Lord, Lord Forbes, suggested that perhaps it was time we had a Bill to protect all other animals as well, and I can advise him that we are studying the possibility for comprehensive wildlife legislation of this nature with the NCC and the voluntary bodies, but it is a very complex area and it is likely to be some time before any firm proposals emerge from those consultations, by which time the status of the otter will have further declined without this order.

I should like to say something about the effects of the order on otter hunting. I know that many of your Lordships share my view that this is a deplorable sport. Nevertheless, I should like to make it quite clear, much as my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby may regret it, that this is a conservation and not an anti-hunting measure. What we are saying is that the otter has become so rare that it should not be killed, injured or taken and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, that I understand that the hunts recognise the need for conservation measures as much as we do and that they have already instructed their members not to kill otters, except at the request of the riparian owners when the otters are doing proven damage.

In the last Session, during the debate on the Otter Hunting Regulation Bill sponsored by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, we were told that otter hunting now consists essentially of allowing the hounds to follow a stale scent while the otter lies safe and unconcerned in its holt. Many of your Lordships were highly sceptical about this idyllic picture. But if it is true, let the hunts persuade the courts that they are not killing or injuring otters or attempting to do so. If they succeed, they will not have committed an offence: if they are still killing and injuring otters then their actions are harmful to the continued existence of the otter in England and Wales and should not be allowed to continue. We recognise that killing, injuring and taking are not the only factors which need to be controlled to reverse the decline in the otter. The effects of pollution, referred to this evening; disturbance by boating, fishing and walking and the loss of habitats through clearance of river banks have also to be taken into account.

The NCC are undertaking further research into these factors, and are supporting practical projects for habitat restoration and management, including the establishment of otter havens. However, the prohibition of killing, injuring and taking, forms an essential framework for these measures. Indeed, it could well be that landowners and others concerned will be more ready to support these other projects because of the recognition that has now been given to the vital and urgent need for the protection of otters.

Your Lordships will know that there is considerable public feeling on this subject. Nor does this come only from conservation bodies. In another place, a Motion pressing for the protection of the otter attracted over 250 signatures and a Prayer for the annulment of this order was not pressed to a vote. The noble Duke and other speakers are clearly in sympathy with our desire to protect otters, and I am only sorry that he does not accept that this can be done under the Act which was introduced by his noble friend Lord Cranbrook, without the need for further legislation. It is also clear from our consultations that our action is supported by bodies as diverse as the Forestry Commission and the British Waterways Board, the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, the British Fur Trade Association and the Gamekeepers' Association. But I am quite satisfied that the NCC have not been influenced by this public pressure in the advice that they have given to the Secretary of State. This advice is fully justified on scientific grounds. However, the NCC will be continuing their research into otters, and I am sure that they will recommend that the otter should be removed from Schedule 1 if, as we all hope, otters become so common that their status is no longer endangered. But, unfortunately, this is not the position at the present time. I therefore must ask your Lordships to support the order that is before you tonight and to oppose the Motion put forward by the noble Duke.

7.57 p.m.

The Duke of ATHOLL

My Lords, I am sure the best thing I could do would be to sit down again immediately, but I do just want to answer one or two of the points that have been made. I certainly will not attempt to answer them all because that would keep your Lordships here until far too late an hour. I personally, and I am sure my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, accept perfectly that protection can be given to the otters under this Act. If the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, had read our Motion she would see that it is as follows: To move, That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government in place of S.I. 1977 No. 1700 to make an Order under section 7 of the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975 adding the otter to Schedule I to the Act, but restricted to areas where the Nature Conservancy Council advise under Section 12 of the Act that the otter is so rare that its status as a British wild creature is endangered". We accept the point that it can be protected under this Act but we feel that the NCC has gone—as the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, made so clear—ultra vires in suggesting that the whole of England and Wales is covered by Section 12 of that Act. This is the point we are getting at. It seems to me that very few noble Lords spoke on this particular point. I think my noble friend Lord Forbes, in his most interesting speech was one of the exceptions.

Whichever way the vote goes tonight, I hope the noble Baroness will convey to her friends at the Department of the Environment and its equivalent in Scotland that the real culprit is pollution and the destruction of habitat. I think we are all agreed that the number of otters that would not be killed if this order became law is very small and, in the long run, would make not all that much difference. But what will make a difference is if the pollution, such as was instanced so well by my noble friend Lord Burton, in the Firth of Ness can be cleared up; and I think it is very important that this message should be carried to the Ministry of the Environment.

It is interesting that the Otter Group in their report said, on the subject of pelts: This supports the suggestion that the trade by itself is insufficient to have influenced the status of the otter". It further went on to say: Whilst there is a case that the species is endangered in some parts of its range, i.e. much of England and possibly parts of Wales, there is insufficient evidence to show that this is brought about by killing and taking". That is the point that my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, and I believe the noble Lord, Lord Zuckerman, and I wish to get at: we do not feel that the otter is covered by Section 12 of the 1975 Act over the whole of England and Wales.

All we have done is to ask that Her Majesty's Government should withdraw the order they have made and make an equivalent order covering the otter for those parts of England and Wales in which, I think we are all agreed, the otter is extremely rare and where the killing and taking of even the odd otter might make a difference to its status.

In the circumstances, I do not feel that I can withdraw. I very much hope that the House will accept my Motion, or at least my noble friend's Motion. I am confident, or at least I very much hope, that if it does, the Government will withdraw their order and introduce an order which takes more notice of what Section 12 of the 1975 Act says.

8.9 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Cranbrook, I shall not move the Prayer standing in his name on the Order Paper; viz. That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants (Otters) Order 1977 (S.I. 1977 No. 1700) be annulled.