HL Deb 23 June 1977 vol 384 cc760-3

3.28 p.m.


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

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what progress has recently been made into possible utilisation or, alternatively, destruction of bracken; and whether they are satisfied that research on this subject is receiving sufficient priority.


My Lords, the presence of persistent toxins in bracken militates against its use for agricultural purposes. There are established methods of suppressing bracken by chemical and other means. Present research is concentrated on evaluating new forms of chemical treatment and related questions of management.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether it would be correct to assume from his reply that, apart from a single letter to The Times, which was very quickly contradicted, there is really no spark of hope of bracken being used as food for man or beast or even for bedding for animals, and that, that being so, the Government are faced with the need to concentrate upon elimination of bracken? Is the noble Lord satisfied that the methods of eliminating bracken, which are still so costly and so laborious, have really been sufficiently explored?


My Lords, all the remarks the noble Lord has made are absolutely true. With regard to Government policy, successful chemical suppres- sion depends upon application during the short period when the weed is most vulnerable, and it normally makes dormant the underground parts of the plant rather than killing them. If you kill the plant, of course, there are risks of injuring the soil as well. With regard to the objectives of present research, these are to evaluate new chemicals as they become available, in the hope of finding an agent which kills the underground parts of the bracken, and, secondly, to define more closely the management practices which prevent its recolonisation.


My Lords, as this Question refers to the destruction of bracken, would my noble friend care to advise the Government to seek the assistance of our noble friend Lord Kilbracken?


My Lords, in view of the damage done by bracken, through ticks and so on, to sheep flocks, could the noble Lord look into the question of grants for its elimination? At present a grant is available for elimination of bracken provided that afterwards a very severe treatment for grass is introduced. Will he look into the position of grants simply for eliminating bracken so that sheep flocks may thrive on the ensuing heather, and thus avoid the necessity completely to grass over the whole area afterwards?


My Lords, grants at a rate of 50 per cent. of approved costs are available under the Farm Capital Grant Scheme and the Farm and Horticultural Development Scheme; and in Scotland also under the Crofting Counties Agricultural Grant (Scotland) Scheme.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that answer. Will he agree that that applies only if it is followed up by grassing, rather than simply elimination and allowing heather to grow?


My Lords, this is one of the directions in which research is going.


My Lords, on the question of control and elimination, as New Zealand is the other country in the world which is most troubled in a similar way to the British Isles, is there the fullest knowledge here of theextent and character of the methods followed in New Zealand as regards the utilisation or destruction of bracken?


My Lords, so far as I know, there is a good deal of exchange of information between all countries which are affected. In Scotland, Government funding research is concentrated through the work of such organisations as the Hill Farming Research Organisation and the three Scottish agricultural colleges; and in England in the Investigation Unit at Thirsk.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in Scotland one can receive a 50 per cent. grant towards the eradication of bracken, and that one does not have to follow it up by any sowing of grass?


My Lords, I am sure that that information is very useful.


My Lords, did I understand the noble Lord to say in reply to a question a short time ago that the research effort is based solely on evaluating the effect of various chemicals? Could the Minister suggest that more money should be spent on developing new chemicals, because those chemicals are badly needed for both forestry and farming?


Yes, of course, my Lords. One of the objects of the research is to evaluate new forms of chemicals. A great deal of research—which I am sure will commend itself to noble Lords opposite—is done by commercial firms.

Viscount MONCK

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the first Earl Lloyd-George bought some land at Churt in Surrey which was heavily infested with bracken and keeping a large number of pigs on it made it suitable for cultivation? Is the noble Lord further aware that if Her Majesty's Government made pig producing profitable, my noble friend and others in this predicament could eradicate their bracken and also usefully supply the country with pork and bacon?


My Lords, I really cannot believe that Lloyd-George, who in addition to being a very distinguished statesman was a successful farmer, fed his pigs on a toxic weed like bracken.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, although I do not live in Scotland, I rid my farm in Sussex of bracken by the simple process of ploughing it up, without the aid of any chemicals, research or grant?