HL Deb 26 January 1978 vol 388 cc474-88

3.27 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is a very simple little Bill, and I hope I shall not detain your Lordships for more than a very few moments in explaining it. It is intended to amend the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975, under which a few very rare wild creatures could be protected—wild creatures which we now know as endangered species. But in that Act no provision was made to protect wild creatures which are rare but have not yet reached the stage of being endangered; and it is not surprising, therefore, that early last year a committee appointed by the Nature Conservancy Council reported that the Act should be amended—and I quote their words— to make it possible to protect species before they become rare to the point of being endangered". A little later the NCC itself said the same thing in different words, and this Bill is intended to amend the 1975 Act in order to meet those recommendations. The 1975 Act deals with both wild creatures and wild plants. This Bill deals only with wild creatures, because it is an offence to uproot any wild plant, however common, and the only additional crime you can commit so far as an endangered wild plant is concerned is to pick it. There is, therefore, no room for an endangered wild plant between those two categories.

Now, while there are 2,000 or 3,000 wild plants, there are literally tens of thousands of wild creatures—deer, fish, butterfles, snails, daddy long legs, earthworms. There are a very large number of people studying one or two very popular subjects, like birds; and a much smaller number of people studying the less popular subjects, like spiders—and I must confess to an addiction, myself, to slugs and snails—which demand a high degree of intelligence for all that.

Many or few, it is the people who are studying these wild creatures in the field who can say which of them is rare and which common. Most of these curious people, you may think, who study these rather curious groups have set up societies of their own and those societies, of course, have already realised that there are these endangered species and that something ought to be done about them. One or two of them have joined together and published lists of what they in their group consider to be endangered species, but they are only advisory and have no legal sanctions behind them. To try to find out what are the endangered species, I consulted those and various other societies and the two Schedules to the Bill before the House are the result. To sum up, that committee of the NCC, and the NCC itself, recommend that the Act required amendment, those who study the wild creatures in the field have produced a list of the wild creatures which they think should be protected and this Bill is the result. Of course, the NCC has not had the time either to produce that list or to consider how it should be put into legal shape in a Bill, and I have done it for them.

So far as the Bill itself is concerned, the first clause has nothing to do with what I have just been saying. But it was suggested to me that I should take the opportunity of trying to introduce some form of protection against disturbance. What I have done is to copy the Protection of Birds Act, and it seems that there is nothing much that one can do to protect wild creatures other than to protect those of them which have nests and young which are fairly easily identified and protected. Clause 2 is the meat of the Act. In subsection (1), it provides for the protection of vulnerable wild creatures. Subsection (2) follows the Badgers Act in providing that only the authorised person can take any steps against a vulnerable wild creature. It has been found to be very successful in the Badgers Act and it has the additional advantage that the farmer is an authorised person so that there is no trouble about trying to deal with him.

Subsection (3) was meant to provide the same kind of protection against the man in the street, but I am told that I have framed it the wrong way round and that it will require amendment in Committee. I apologise for the fact that it was not done more carefully. Clause 3 is the long list of wild creatures which it is recommended should be amended. Some of it is outdated. The otter, for instance, is still there because it was recommended before it was added to Schedule 1. Undoubtedly, there will be a number of people who think this is wrong. I, myself, am competent to answer for only a very small number; but we shall probably have some bickering in Committee.

Clause 6 is, in fact, lifted from the Conservation of Seals Act. There are quite a number of wild creatures which are already exploited commercially. You can go into Foyles and buy a little pamphlet telling you how to dissect a duck mussel or a crayfish which are much used for educational purposes in classes and are collected in the field and sold. I suppose that the classical one is the freshwater pearl mussel which provides a livelihood for a number of people in the North of England and Scotland. It appears that some of these creatures may be decreasing in number and it seems to me that this may be a useful clause to put in to deal with them.

Clause 7 recapitulates in the substituted Clause 12(a) what is already in the 1975 Act in order to bring the whole lot together; but subsections (b) and (c) are drawn as widely as I thought was possible in order to give the Nature Conservancy the widest possible powers of selecting the animals which needed protection. Turning to Clause 8, I deal, if I may, first with 12B which provides that when a vulnerable wild creature is put in one of those two Schedules it should come off after four years. By definition, they are not very rare and a reasonable expectation is that four years' protection would reverse any trend towards falling numbers. It seems sensible to make a fail-safe provision that they come off those two Schedules unless the NCC otherwise decides. This is as opposed to Schedule 1 where the fail-safe provision is that those very rare creatures are left in Schedule 1 unless the NCC decides they should be taken out. If an endangered species is taken out of Schedule 1, it seemed to me to be sensible to give it, as it were, a probationary period of four years so that it will go into Schedule 3 where it remains for three years, still protected, during which time the Nature Conservancy Council can make up its mind whether it was right or wrong in giving it that protection. As your Lordships can see, it is not a very complicated Bill. I hope that it will commend itself to the House and I beg to move.

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

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, let me say at once how pleased I am—and I am sure I speak for most of your Lordships—to see my noble friend Lord Cranbrook back again among us. I hope that his illness will be cured and that we shall be seeing much more of him. It is so pleasant to have him moving and explaining his own measures here in person again.

I should like to say straight away that I, personally, am in agreement with all that he has said today and with this Bill. As a consequence, your Lordships will be pleased to hear that I am not proposing to detain you for very long. I should like merely to say to him that I have discussed this with several people who are interested in this subject and that we have all found the proposals in the Bill—and we understand the reasons for this—to be a little complicated. I realise that, to be perfectionist, this is probably very necessary. But if this Bill is passed into law we are going to have three species: endangered, vulnerable, and rather vulnerable. This, as has been said, categorises two vulnerable species separately. So far, so good.

But, with all my admiration for the various expert, specialist conservationist societies, I am slightly dubious of the geographical limitations that we have in Clause 2 of this Bill. We are here asked to envisage a limitation within a 10 kilometer square of the national grid map. How many of us with the old one inch to the mile or four miles to the inch grid maps are going to change them for new maps? Can we afford to do so? Is it practical for us to expect to do so? Even if we have done that exercise and obtained new 10 kilometer grid maps, is it reasonable to expect us to know exactly in which square of that map we live?

Among British Army officers there used to be an old saying that, whenever a battle or action became important, it was always on the corner of the Ordnance map concerned, thereby requiring the use of four such maps. I merely draw attention to this detail to ask my noble friend whether it might not be wiser for us to have a better known geographical or electoral boundary which more people would know about. On the same principle, may we not ask that anywhere South of Oxford or anywhere North of Yorkshire be better and more easily clarified? My noble friend is a naturalist and this is a Bill for naturalists on which to give advice. I know exactly how closely the Nature Conservancy Council and my noble friend work together. The Nature Conservancy Council are probably very pleased with this Bill which, if it became law, would give better protection to vulnerable species of either animal or plant life before they became endangered.

Having said this, let me sound one slight note of warning, and that is the danger of these conservation measures being used for purposes other than pure conservation. It does not always follow that the killing of a particular part of a species will always lead to a decrease of the species. The culling of seals springs to mind, and in other animals the culling of the male strain to help the species survive. One could go on, but I merely mention this en passant to emphasise the need for eternal watchfulness to ensure that our legislation is used only for the purpose envisaged.

I do not think that my noble friend's measure requires, after his brief, masterly explanation, more speech from me. I am sorely tempted to tease him for more information about the Wart-biter; also, having in 1975 protected the Blue Heath, we now have two further additions, the Chequered Skipper and the Large Heath. I trust that this is no reflection on the likely lifeline of any friend of mine in another place.

I should like to support my noble friend in moving his Bill. It is a serious subject and the layout of intent is of great importance. The fact that 99 people out of 100 will not know what the Schedules are about does not matter; the hundredth person is a person or member of a society or body who will know, and it is to such people that this Bill is geared. What we all must realise is the immense variety of wildlife in this country which enhance our enjoyment of the countryside and, through sensible protection, will continue to enhance our children's enjoyment and that of their offspring downwards. I therefore express the hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, will bless this Bill for the Government, and that your Lordships will do likewise.

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I join with the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, in being glad that the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who has been absent from our deliberations for some time, is back with us, restored to health this afternoon. But I am afraid that I am going to be a poor substitute for my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who is extremely sorry that he is unable to be present this afternoon. He is keenly interested in this subject and was one of the sponsors of the wild plants protection Bill. I think it is fair to say that that Bill was one of the founding fathers of the 1975 Act which this Bill seeks to amend.

I have a note from my noble friend in which he says that the motivation of the Bill is of course entirely admirable and we support the ends which it is intended to achieve. He goes on to say that it appears, however, that this particular Bill is a little unwieldy and introduces some elements which may overcomplicate the object which we all have at heart. One can safely applaud Clause 1, which makes it an offence to destroy or disturb the sleeping refuge or the nest of an endangered or vulnerable wild creature. This is a real advance upon the 1975 Act which did not cover that point.

However, when one comes to Clause 2(3), I am bound to say that one or two doubts creep in. Subsection (3) says that any person for scientific or educational purposes, in any calendar year and in any one ten kilometre square of the national grid"— to which the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, has referred—may take not more than two specimens of a vulnerable wild creature. It may be one thing to license a particular person to take a limited number of specimens of one creature in one particular locality which is delineated and referred to in the licence; but to permit any person, who may be away from home on holiday on territory unfamiliar to him, always to have this regard for his position on the 10 kilometre grid is asking rather a lot. It occurred to me that P. G. Wodehouse might have had fun portraying the 9th Earl of Emsworth in hot pursuit of a rare butterfly, then suddenly having terrible misgivings about his exact position on the national grid.

It is easy of course to make caricatures of these matters, but there is here an underlying serious point. Furthermore, is this subsection not perhaps a little widely drawn? I can imagine a lecturer who has already collected his two specimens for the year badly wanting more and saying to his colleagues and students: "Now, any of you can go and collect two specimens each this year—if you can find me some, it would be of the greatest help to me". If that invitation was enthusiastically acted upon, might that not create a greater pressure upon that species in that area than was really intended when subsection (3) was drafted? When we come to Clause 7(1)(c) we find that: if any wild creature which is being killed or taken for educational or scientific purposes appears likely to decrease in numbers … unless it is collected with restraint and it should be added to Schedule 4 …"— the Nature Conservancy Council can advise the Minister to schedule it as a vulnerable creature. It occurs to me that any creature other than the commonest would be likely to decrease in numbers if it were collected otherwise than with restraint: that would apply to quite common creatures which have not necessarily reached the stage of becoming vulnerable. So here, too, do we not have a clause which is perhaps rather more widely drawn than was intended?

I have touched upon two points which I suppose are points of enforcement. I think that Parliament has all the time to bear in mind that it is being accused these days of enacting too much new law, and too much new law which is difficult to enforce. Particularly is this true of the criminal law; and, of course, this Bill adds another chapter to the criminal law. The criminal law works satisfactorily only to the extent that it has the respect of the people, and in order to earn that respect the law needs to be easily understood and readily enforceable. I am bound to say that this Bill, in its present form, does not seem to me to measure up to those two requirements. If we work hard at it in Committee it may well be that we can turn it into something which fulfils those two requirements, and I earnestly hope that we shall succeed.

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, I welcome this Bill and especially welcome the presence again this afternoon of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook. I thank him for the explanation of the Bill that he has been kind enough to give to at least some Members of your Lordships' House beforehand. The purpose behind the Bill is undoubtedly one which we would all feel should be approved by Parliament.

I break off here for a moment to make a comment upon Bills passed by your Lordships' House and on what happens, or does not happen, to them elsewhere. I understand, from experience rather than from knowledge of the constitutional side of the matter, that when another place passes a Bill it comes here, but when we pass one it does not go there. We have to await the Government's pleasure to introduce a Bill in another place. However, I hope that on the Future Legislation Committee, on which I once served, and on the Legislation Committee, on which I also once served, we have a representative with a voice to say that Bills passed by your Lordships' House deserve approving consideration by the managers of the legislative programme elsewhere, especially if they happen to be non-contentious and desirable, and to deal with the nobler causes for which I believe Parliament should occasionally stand. If we could occasionally get away from the pressures of prices and incomes matters, industrial democracy, economic growth and all the rest of the stuff which obsesses the minds of the British people at the present time, and if we could lift our eyes and minds to the grandeur of our environment and to the historic inheritance which we all have and think how to pass on the wonders of the world to future generations, we might feel better and happier people. I believe that this Bill is part of that process and, for that reason, I specially welcome it.

The next thing I want to say is à propos of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, a moment or two ago about more laws and their enforcement. It is of course true that laws are effective only if they are acceptable generally and can be enforced: that is to say, the breaches of the law must be relatively small and identifiable and the law must be largely enforceable. However, I do not think that one can put that problem altogether in one compartment. I would say that the widespread breaches of the litter Acts are due to carelessness, indifference, lack of education and lack of respect for the environment. Quite obviously, we have only to look at our streets at the present time to see that the litter Acts might well not be on the Statute Book for all the difference they appear to make. But there you really have a national malaise—we are a dirty people!

We are also an untidy people in many respects. One sees as one goes along the street that a person will undo a packet and, without a moment's thought, throw it on to the pavement and leave it for somebody else to sweep up. That is to a large extent a matter of education in schools and of the bringing up of the young to have an understanding of what community life requires in individual behaviour. Another law which is, of course, widely breached, is the speed limit; and that is mostly done out of sheer defiance. It is not thoughtlessness; it is, I think, largely a matter of the aggressions and motivations which seem to be aroused when people are put into speedy vehicles.

However, the enforcement of a Bill like the present one is an entirely different matter, because on the whole people do not enjoy the destruction of live animals and birds. There is a good deal of ignorance about, but I do not think there is a great deal of deliberate cruelty. There is thoughtlessness, lack of understanding, failure to appreciate the beauty or the value of wild life. It is a matter of enlightenment, and I believe that we are making progress in this direction. For example, the National Society for the Protection of Birds is doing a great deal to publicise the interests of bird life and I think that, if this Bill is passed, the educational side—the posters, the programmes, the media and all the agencies of public information and enlightenment—can be used to make people aware of what it means.

I believe that a great deal can be done. There are no more popular programmes on the television at the present time than those dealing with nature, the world around us, the life of the veterinary surgeon, the beauty of the world and so on. I am glad to see that type of programme becoming popular and plentiful. I think we owe a very great debt of gratitude to a few individuals who have sponsored these programmes and have done so much to bring up their standard.

Turning to the Bill in detail, one or two of my friends, who look at Bills with special care, suggest in regard to Clause 1 that it is not fully satisfactory to lift a clause from a Bill on birds and put it into a Bill of a general nature. The suggestion is that "the nest" should be replaced by "the rearing site"; and "the unweaned young" should become "the dependent young", because it so happens that some animals, when weaned, are still dependent upon their parents for food. Anyway, these are very small but interesting Committee points.

As the noble Earl said, the substance of the Bill is in Clause 2, and I think that there are a few little worries about the wording of that clause. There is the licence which is given to authorised persons to do certain things which would be an offence if done by anybody else. I am a little cautious about giving too much freedom to farmers. Farmers can be, and very often are, the biggest vandals in the community. They are almost a law unto themselves, and I believe that we submit too freely to the economic interests of the farming community on matters of environment and of conservation. They, after all, are entrusted with, perhaps, the greatest business responsibility of all—that of using the land for economic purposes, for commercial purposes and for profit, as well as for providing the food which the nation wants. But I am not in favour of giving farmers the kind of exemption which so many claim when they say, "If it is on my land, I have the right to kill it", whereas other people may not. So that we have to be a little careful in granting to the farming community the almost automatic status of an authorised person.

We also have to examine rather carefully inserting into a Bill what appears to be some kind of authorisation to injure an animal. Killing may be one thing, but injury may be another. I am a little concerned about subsections (2) and (3) of Clause 2, which gives a licence to certain people, in certain circumstances, to do what is unlawful if done by anyone else. Coming to the Schedule, I see our friend the otter. The noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, missed a treat—sadly, he was away—on the day when the hunting of the otter became horribly mixed up with the conservation of the otter. Nevertheless, we did the best we could with the otter on that day, in the absence of the noble Earl. The question now is; do we leave the otter alone, or do we drag him out and put him in Schedule 3 and, if so, what for? However, I leave that till later on.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, that, by the time we have dealt with this Bill in Committee, it will probably be a generally acceptable one. My concluding remarks are to suggest that in matters of this kind we must take the risk that we are legislating somewhat ahread of public understanding and public opinion. If we wait for public opinion to advance and then try to catch up with it, we may wait too long. On some matters, you can go ahead of public opinion, because they are not pulling against you. They are willing to be taken along, if there is statutory support for what you want to do, and the educational back-up for what the law hopes to achieve. If we bear that in mind, we need not maul the Bill about too much in Committee; we must just see whether what we have in mind will be achieved I by the wording of the Bill, and that it is translated into a generally accepted purpose.

I am sure that we all thank the noble Earl again for the scholarship and the care that he has put into the preparation of this Bill. None of us really understood how many types of moth there are, though I think that the more one sees of spiders the more wonderful creatures they become.

4.5 p.m.


My Lords, it will come as no surprise to those of your Lordships who have heard me speak before that I am today extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Cranbrook for giving me the opportunity to speak yet again on one of my favourite subjects, if not my very favourite subject—that of the plant kingdom. With the greatest respect to my noble friend—and I am not, like so many people who use that phrase, now going to turn around and be extremely rude—I know that he mentioned plants briefly in his introductory speech, but I feel that the plant kingdom has been rather scurvily treated in this Bill. It is true that the Short Title mentions wild plants, but, so far as I can see, the term makes only one other appearance in the Bill itself, and that is in Clause 7 which enhances the old Section 12 dealing with the duty of the Nature Conservancy Council.

Are there no vulnerable plants which could be added to Schedule 3? Indeed, I should think that, Parliamentarily or legislatively speaking, it would perhaps be more sensible to give them a Schedule of their own. Without any great thought, I can think of several. There is the fritillaria meleagris, which was mentioned in the first report of the fairly new Nature Conservancy Council. That is the snakes-head fritillary which spreads itself almost entirely by seed and is, so far as I can gather, dwindling very rapidly. Crocus nudiflorus, the naked autumn crocus, also springs to mind. That is a very doubtful native, and is believed in some quarters to have been introduced by the Knights of St. John in the 13th century. The Standard British Flora of those eminent scholars, Messrs. Clapham, Tutin and Warburgh, says that it is very rare, although the Atlas of the British Flora, which I consulted this morning, has it recorded in some 25 10-kilometre squares of the national grid from 1930 onwards, so perhaps the term "very rare" is relative.

My list would also contain spiranthus autumnalis romanzoffiana (the Irish lady's tresses), which has virtually died out; peonia mascula; and isoteris tinotoria (the woad plant), though I must admit that, in this day and age, I can think of little justification for picking the leaves of this plant in order to dye ourselves blue. Orchis fuciflora (the late spider orchid) would be another one. All these plants could well be described as vulnerable, and I have no doubt that, while most of them are not yet so rare as to need to be included in Schedule 1, there is ample justification for a Schedule of plants that one must not pick. I am equally sure that, with further thought and consultation among botanists and naturalists, there will be further plants that could be included in such a Schedule.

This is not a new idea although it has not been mentioned recently, so far as I know; certainly not in this Chamber. As long ago as November 1974, when your Lordships were giving a Second Reading to the Wild Plants Protection Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley—I had not then risen to this Chamber—the noble Earl, Lord Cork, suggested a list of semi-protected plants. Unfortunately, the idea was not taken up and died a natural, but rather untimely, death. As a strong believer in the transubstantiation of souls, I feel that we should take the opportunity to resurrect it, for the very good reason that the parent Act only makes it illegal for an unauthorised person to dig up any wild plant, but does not prohibit the picking of any part of the plant unless it is on the protected list in Schedule 2. It is worth noting here that there is in existence a very good colour poster of vulnerable plants, published by either the National Trust or the Nature Conservancy Council—I cannot for the life of me remember which. It is headed by some such words as, "Do not pick these plants", and although educationally speaking it is eminently sound it does not have the force of law behind it, which is one of the things I am calling for today.

I now come to a question which has exercised my mind greatly in reading both the Act and the Bill. It may be that my fears are groundless and that an Amendment to the Bill in Committee will not be needed. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, will be good enough to answer my question, or will perhaps write to me if she cannot do it when the time comes to reply to the debate for the Government. Section 10 of the Act covers enforcement, and paragraph (d) provides that a constable may: seize any protected wild creature or plant which is liable to be forfeited or restored under subsection (2) of section 11 of this Act … What happens then? What does the wretched constable do with the plant or the animal?

The problem is rather less acute with animals than with plants, although in any case I pity both the constable and his station if they have to look after a natterjack toad for any length of time—which may be days or even weeks. Given water, the wretched animal may more or less survive, but I suspect only for a few days; but the experience will almost certainly not do it any good and it might well die. On the other hand, plants are rather different. When freshly dug they need to be looked after immediately. They need water, and some sort of potting, some sort of container, in which to put the roots, and also the right compost. Over- or under-watering will kill them just as surely as will putting them into too limey or too acid a compost, and each of the plants on the Schedule has different requirements. To put it bluntly, the poor plants have not a hope. It could be that they would be better off in the custody of the suspect, particularly if he were a keen gardener or botanist, whether amateur or professional. Is there a policy for dealing with the confiscated animal or plant, or has the situation never arisen? If not, it most certainly will sooner or later. I venture to suggest that if there is no such policy there certainly ought to be one, and perhaps it ought to be written into the Bill.

In one of my earlier speeches I mentioned the plight of the large blue butterfly, Maculinea arion, although I was told as recently as this morning that the taxonomists who are prone to these things have been having another go at this and it should now more correctly be called Phengaris arion. When I last spoke about it, two years or so ago, it was seen very rarely in the Cotswolds and in North Devon and Cornwall. It has not been seen in the West Country now for three years and is supposed to be extinct, so the Cotswolds are presumed to be its last remaining station in Britain. I am told on very good authority that, although it is at a disadvantage because of its life cycle, it has been decimated entirely because of collecting. When previously I mentioned this butterfly I got no satisfaction, but perhaps perseverance will pay on this occasion, and it will be possible at Committee stage to include it in one or other of the Schedules.

Notwithstanding this, may we please see in this Bill less concentration on the animal kingdom but a little more on the plants? With this reservation I am delighted to support the noble Earl again on this occasion, and I hope your Lordships will give the Bill a Second Reading today.