HL Deb 26 January 1978 vol 388 cc497-509

Debate resumed

4.39 p.m.

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, if we are now ready, as the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies, suggested, to return from the green pound to the green countryside, I should like to say how delighted I, like other noble Lords who have spoken, am to see the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, restored to health and able to take charge on this occasion of his own Bill. I should also like to thank him for the comments he was good enough to send me on his Bill before the Second Reading. I am sure we would all agree with the noble Earl and of course the principles of the Bill, that rare flora and fauna should be preserved before they become so rare that another whole species is in danger of extinction. The more people know about which species have reached that degree of rarity, the more careful they will be not to destroy them, and I am sure that the information about rare species in the Schedules to this Bill will be extremely useful to those of us who, like myself, are not naturalists. The distinction that the noble Earl draws between the vulnerable and the endangered is one that should be generally known and I hope that this Bill will receive wide publicity.

There are three difficulties that I find in the Bill as it now stands and I should be most grateful to the noble Earl if he would give them careful consideration before we reach the Committee Stage because I think they are of some importance. The first is this: legal sanctions for anti-social behaviour are of no value unless they can be effectively enforced. I have some doubt about the possibility of enforcing some of the provisions of this Bill. For example, Clause 2—this is a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale—would permit the killing or taking for various purposes of two specimens of the insects listed in Schedules 3 and 4 within an area of 10 kilometres in any one calendar year. I should imagine that it would be very difficult to prove that not more than two specimens have been taken. Ardent collectors will surely want to have as many specimens as they can catch. I look forward with special interest to what the noble Baroness, who will be speaking for the Government, can tell us about this matter of enforcement when she replies, because we look for guidance in these matters to her expert advice.

I think it would be agreed that it is always a mistake in an Act of Parliament to create a lot of new criminal offences that are likely to catch innocent people. Many of the insects listed in the noble Earl's Bill will inevitably be killed by accident when any of us is taking a country walk in an area where such insects are to be found and also happen to be rare. It will be an offence, for example, to kill, or even to damage the nest, of any of the rare spiders listed in Schedule 4 to the Bill in those parts of the country where they are scarce. I like spiders myself, but some people do not, and I am quite sure they will not know the difference between a rare protected spider and an ordinary spider. The only safeguard at the moment is that there will be the greatest difficulty in finding any proof of the offence, which is another example of the difficulty of enforcement. I think the noble Earl said that he was willing to alter the Bill in this respect, and perhaps he can confirm this when he replies at the end of the debate. My main complaint is about the otter, because by putting the otter in Schedule 3 to the Bill—


My Lords, if I may interrupt the noble Earl for one moment, I said in my introduction that the otter had been put on before he had been added to Schedule 1, and therefore would have to be removed in Committee. That was the recommendation of the scientific society concerned, who would sooner have had it on this Bill had it not been put on Schedule 1 later on. The otter is dead so far as this Bill is concerned. I apologise for interrupting the noble Earl.

The Earl of LISTOWEL

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl, and I am sorry that I missed this passage in his speech. This entirely removes my serious doubts about the position of the otter. All I will say is that these are all points which could be met on the Committee stage of the Bill. I hope the noble Earl, and other noble Lords interested, will give them careful consideration, and that the principle of the Bill, which is to assert the importance of the conservation of vulnerable wildlife, will be accepted by your Lordships in giving the Bill a Second Reading.

4.44 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join with other noble Lords who have spoken in saying how happy I am to see the noble Earl back in his place so capably guiding another conservation Bill through your Lordships' House. I wholeheartedly support the principles of the Bill. I have only one reason for briefly participating in this Second Reading debate. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, with his list of plants and butterflies, of which I know nothing at all, I feel there is only one omission, so far as I am concerned. I am greatly concerned for the future wellbeing of the red squirrel. I would like to have seen this animal included in Schedule 3. I consider that the red squirrel is a very vulnerable species, and in fact I think in many areas it is already extinct.

There are a number of parts of the country where there was once a considerable population of red squirrels and they have now completely gone. For example, they have gone from large areas of East Anglia where once they lived in abundance. The grey squirrel, which I consider a pest, has swept right up through the Breckland forest and has eliminated the red. In the woodland on my own farm in Norfolk a fair number of red squirrels lived quite happily up to two or three years ago. Then we first saw the odd grey. For a while we saw both species, but now only ever-increasing numbers of grey are seen and the red have completely disappeared. In fact the only red squirrel we have seen during the past 12 months was a dead one.

There are differing opinions, I understand, as to the reasons for this. One is that the grey carries some disease from which it is immune and the red is not. I suppose that is possible. Another is that the grey takes all the available food and eventually the red starves. But I discount this, for there are literally tons of hazel nuts in my own woodland, ample for both of them to live in perfect harmony. I favour the opinion that the larger and stronger grey squirrels fight and kill the red.

It is thought that there may be small pockets of red squirrel inhabiting conifer plantations within larger colonies of grey, which apparently are not so keen on certain conifer trees. Again that is not my experience, as I have softwood plantations within larger areas of hardwood and the whole has been colonised by the grey. I suppose it is still possible that the red squirrel is killed for its pelt; I do not know, for I have not investigated this in any way, but this Bill would afford its protection if this is the case. Nevertheless, I think it is very evident that the greatest enemy of the red squirrel is its grey counterpart, and how one persuades an animal to take note of a Government order I do not quite know. But, seriously, if the red squirrel is included in this Schedule—and I hope it will be—surely the Nature Conservancy Council would be able to conduct research into the distribution and numbers, and the threat to them, and hopefully discover some ways and means of protecting this harmless little animal, one of our loveliest and most interesting wild creatures. I am convinced that we are in danger of losing them.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to the noble Earl for introducing, this Bill. I think there is no doubt that we all commend the objects that he wishes to achieve. He has done a great deal for wildlife with his efforts in this House and elsewhere, and I am quite sure that in the future many generations of naturalists will be able to study various flora and fauna which without his efforts might not have survived and perhaps with his efforts may well survive into the future.

Having said that, I do not think that this Bill, regrettably, will achieve the object which he wishes to achieve and which we all want to achieve. It deals with the killing and the taking of small numbers of insects and so on. I do not think the killing of small numbers of insects makes any difference whatsoever to the general population. Surely what is important is such matters as habitat, the maintenance of fences and in particular the use of chemicals. I should have thought that if one could get that sphere right one is talking of the multiplication of millions of rare animals as opposed to the killing of just insignificant numbers.

The Bill raises the question of the 10-kilometre square. From what has been said, there is obviously some confusion about what that means. It is a cosy idea and it is clear on the maps. The one-inch maps are all marked with kilometre squares. However, as I understand it, the authorised person in any 10-kilometre square is the owner of the land, whether large or small. Of course, on the whole it is probably quite true to say that owners of land are responsible and consider themselves to be, as it were, wardens of the land which they control. Some of them are naturalists but many are not. Many companies own large tracts of land but, of course, one does come across the farmer who also has an interest in natural life.

One must especially remember as regards the farmer that, whereas the landlord and tenant system allowed him to have his land for £10 an acre rent, the political objective of doing away with the landlord and having the owner-occupier and his descendants, forces a rental of £100 an acre, or thereabouts, for servicing his mortgage. Therefore, there is no longer room for him to pay very much attention to nature. He must work flat out to get his output, regardless of the cost to nature in the form of nesting on his land.

What probably happens is that, either invited or uninvited, naturalists work on the land to find these various insects and it is very difficult for the authorised person to control them. What worries me most is that in every 10-kilometre square there are many owners of land, certainly more than one owner. If one takes the place where perhaps butterflies and bugs most thrive—for example, gardens where there are compost heaps—they could be located in semi-urban areas where there could be anything up to two and a half thousand different owners per square kilometre. When one has killed one of these particular bugs what happens to all the others? Which owner is allowed to kill a particular bug in a particular square kilometre?

Let me turn to identification. I do not know how to tell a Cucullia lychnitis if I see one, and I could not tell a Hemiptora-Heteroptera from a Hemiptera-Homoptera; and I do not suppose that any other noble Lord could do so. Then one comes across the problem that when reading in bed at night there is a buzz-buzz around the lamp and one swipes here and swipes there and misses and perhaps picks up the weekly Hansard and swipes again. Then one's wife complains that one has swatted her by mistake! Finally, when the lamp is knocked over one has either decided to go to sleep or one has killed a particular bug. It may be a rare bug and one may have had one square kilometre's worth as regards the particular bug that one has killed. How does one tell everybody else in that square kilometre that they cannot kill one of those bugs when it flies into their room the next night? It is nonsense. Perhaps the noble Baroness will be able to answer the problem for me.

I should like to repeat that I think the effort should be made as regards the habitat, hedges and chemicals and not as regards whether or not one kills so many in a square kilometre. The great example of that view was when Dieldrin was taken off the market. There was an immediate and obvious effect on butterflies, and many species of birds especially, immediately started to recover after having appeared to be extinct or very short in numbers in many areas. The Bill will not achieve that effect and will be unworkable.

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, I did not enter my name to speak, but as I have a collection of moths to which I add a few each year I do know something about the contents of the Fourth Schedule. I should say that I have not added any of those mentioned in the Fourth Schedule to my collection. However, I think that we must take into account the fact that insects generally lay a very large number of eggs and are capable of extraordinary recovery in favourable years. They cannot be put in the same bag as the otter, the dormouse or the red squirrel. In my view, they ought to be protected only if there is strong evidence that over-collection is having a deleterious effect on the species.

We all know that the Large Blue Butterfly is subject to very severe over-collecting and if one can catch a genuine British Large Blue Butterfly it is worth a large sum of money. However, in this Schedule we have a list of moths including the Viper's Bugloss, the Rosy Marsh moth and others. There is absolutely no evidence so far as I can see that collectors are having any effect on the numbers of those moths. I believe that, unless a good case can be put forward as regards all these species, they ought not to be included in this Schedule. To make a criminal offence of collecting, let us say, a female Rosy Marsh moth and getting it to lay a large number of eggs in captivity and then killing the moths when they come out should certainly not be an offence. I believe that the Bill goes much further than is requisite to protect our fauna at the present time.

4.57 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, may I begin by saying how pleased I am that the noble Earl is back with us this afternoon? I believe that he is still under the doctor's orders following his recent illness, and I offer him my very best wishes for a very full and speedy recovery. I was particularly sorry that he was unable to be with us for the debate on the otter order, and even if I was unable to agree with them I greatly respect the views that were so ably put forward on his behalf, by the noble Duke, the Duke of Atholl. I know that we all greatly admire the noble Earl's enthusiasm for the cause of nature conservation, and the depth of knowledge which he has on the subject.

One of the noble Earl's great services to the cause of nature conservation has been the part he played in getting the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975 on to the Statute Book. But no piece of legislation can ever be perfect, and we are greatly in the debt of the noble Earl for having continued to examine how this Act might be improved and strengthened and for now putting forward this amending Bill. May I say at once that we welcome a number of the proposals that are made in it? For example, I think that the importance of protecting rare wild creatures from wilful disturbance as well as from killing, injuring or taking is now generally recognised, although there may be different views as to the best means of achieving this protection. Similarly some of the procedural amendments which are proposed in the Bill will be helpful in the operation of the 1975 Act.

However, I am bound to say that after consultation with the Nature Conservancy Council, we are not wholly convinced of the need for an amending Bill at this time. I think that the noble Earl will accept that the points to which I have already referred could await a more comprehensive wildlife Bill, even though I agree with his view that such a Bill is still some way off. As I understand it, the noble Earl's primary purpose is to ensure that the protection given to endangered creatures under the 1975 Act is also given to vulnerable creatures, and to establish the way in which these different categories should be treated.

I recognise that this distinction between endangered and vulnerable is one that is made in certain other contexts, but I know that the Nature Conservancy Council have still to be convinced that it is helpful to make the distinction in this particular kind of legislation. We would start from the simple proposition that any species in need of protection can already be protected under the 1975 Act, and we have, of course, recently demonstrated our willingness to use the 1975 Act to the full in making the otter order. However, I am sure that your Lordships will not wish to reopen that particular subject, and I am grateful to the noble Earl for indicating his willingness to delete from his Bill before us today the reference to the otter.

Our doubts about the need to distinguish between endangered and vulnerable species were at one time reinforced by the fact that the legislative protection proposed for vulnerable creatures is very similar to that already enjoyed by endangered species. The Bill follows the 1975 Act in providing that any person who kills, injures or takes a vulnerable wild creature or attempts to do so without reasonable excuse, shall be guilty of an offence, and the only difference comes in some of the exemptions for which provision is made.

Although it seems reasonable to prohibit the general public from killing certain butterflies, bats, lizards, snakes and toads as well as otters, I am much more doubtful whether it would be reasonable to prohibit the killing of certain spiders or beetles, for example, in the same way. Although we may regret the fact, people are accustomed to killing spiders and beetles, and we can hardly expect a non-specialist to distinguish between one beetle or spider and another.

However, I now understand that the noble Earl's intention is to control only the collecting and commercial exploitation of vulnerable species, and that he will be proposing an appropriate Amendment to the Bill to make this point clear. Such an Amendment would certainly meet most of the difficulties to which I have drawn attention, although the underlying doubt about the need to make a distinction between endangered and vulnerable species would still remain.

I know that the Nature Conservancy Council are concerned about the Schedules of vulnerable wild creatures which have been included in the Bill. I recognise that these have come from specialist societies, but I understand that some of the information on which these Schedules are based is under review and that some of the species listed may even be extinct. I am sure that these Schedules will need substantial amendment and the amalgamation of the two separate Schedules of vulnerable species could well be considered.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, asked me interesting questions about what happened when the policeman took the natterjack toad or plant from someone who had it when he should not have had it. My original comment on my notes was: A jolly good question. I will write to him". But the intervention of the Statement on the green pound gave me the opportunity to take advice about it. I understand that the constable then contacts the regional officer of the Nature Conservancy Council who will advise him what to do and how to do it, or who will visit and collect the specimen if that is necessary.

My final concern relates to the demand which the Bill would make on the NCC. It would require assessments to be made of the population surplus and the maximum sustainable yield of a very large number of species. Although such information may be obtained without too much difficulty for certain animals, it is very much more difficult to obtain it for spiders and insects, for example.

It is true that the NCC can go to the specialist societies for advice on these matters, but what I have already said about the proposed Schedules of vulnerable creatures indicates that the final judgment must rest with the Council. The Council would require a considerable increase in scientific capacity to meet these demands and to make provision for research into the numbers and distribution of creatures on the Schedules as the Bill requires. Although I accept that the 1975 Act requires the Council to advise on the status of any wild creature, I think that in practice we must ask whether this amount of research would be the best way of making use of the resources available for nature conservation.


My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble Bareness, but is that not what the Council is there for?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, yes, that is what it is there for. I am saying that it will require many more resources if it is to carry out the duties that we would put on it by this amending Bill. These are matters of which we must be aware before we pass legislation. Like other noble Lords, we too are concerned about any increase in the enforcement and policing of the Act. However, I am glad that the noble Earl is willing to consider such drastic revisions to these Schedules, and this could well provide a means of reaching an acceptable balance between the needs of vulnerable species and other aspects of the Council's work.

My Lords, the Government do not wish to take any formal position on this Bill. Indeed, it would be unusual for them to do so. As I have said, we consider that the Bill contains useful provisions, but we are not wholly convinced about the fundamental purpose of the Bill in making a legislative distinction between endangered and vulnerable creatures, and we remain of the view that creatures which need protection can already be given that protection under the 1975 Act. However, if the House decides to give the Bill a Second Reading—as I am sure it will—we are more than willing to look at these points again, together with the noble Earl and with the Nature Conservancy Council, to see whether there may be particular areas in which such a distinction would be helpful, and how best we can meet the other points that have been raised today.

5.6 p.m.


My Lords, I must say how grateful I am to noble Lords who have said nice things about me. I have reached an age when I do not expect to hear anyone say anything nice about me, and so I am very grateful indeed. I am, of course, grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I think that everybody has given some useful advice which we shall find helpful when the Bill goes into Committee.

With another, and some would think more important, debate about to follow, I hope that your Lordships will not think me discourteous if I do not reply in detail to everyone who has spoken. However, I must just give a little lecture on the 10-kilometre square which seems to have worried a great many people. The noble entomologist on my right, Lord Cawley, will know, as does the noble conchologist who addresses the House, that all the specialist societies have been trying to find the distribution of the group which they study on a 10-kilometre square basis; because that gives us a great deal of information not only about the distribution but also the density, rarity or otherwise of the creatures which we study. The 10-kilometre square is, of course, purely arbitrary; it is marked on the map, as is a parish boundary. But all the societies are trying to discover which 10-kilometre squares contain what species, and that gives us all the information which has led to the production of the Schedules which almost everyone who has spoken has criticised. I do not take that in any way as a personal criticism because none of it is mine.

I think that I should just add one further comment. People who study any group or any species can merely be trying to discover its distribution or they can be making a population study of one quite small population and comparing it with another—the sort of thing which Darwin did and which some of the lesser creatures who followed him tried to do. One finds certain changes in the bodily form of creatures within 100 miles and within 10 miles, and it forms a remarkably interesting study. But if, in fact, that creature is already rare, people who know more about the distribution than oneself warn one, as they do in the Schedules, that that is not the species to which one should devote one's studies, but one should choose a more common one. The very wording of some of my clauses stems from the advice which the specialist societies give to their members on that sort of account.

I would suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, that he should perhaps look at the Long Title of the Bill, to see why I have not included anything about his favourite plants. As usual about any Bill of this nature, people have talked about "treading on spiders by mistake": but I have done my best, although I failed in one thing, to try to attain certainty. Your Lordships should not forget that these are relatively common animals. The killing of half a dozen, or perhaps 50, will not make any difference, and if 50 or 100 people happen to tread on the same species of spider I do not think that it will make any difference. I have tried to phrase the Bill so that that becomes abundantly clear.

For my concluding remarks, I should like to join issue with the noble Baroness and remind her of what her colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, said from those Benches when we introduced the Conservation of Wild Creatures Bill. Perhaps she has read the debate, and will remember that the Government have now spoken with two voices. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, speaking of the Conservation of Wild Creatures Bill, which ultimately became part of the Act which this Bill would amend, warned your Lordships that this would happen; that there is no scope for partial protection to be afforded to species which are uncommon but not endangered. That is three years ago, and the noble Baroness says exactly the opposite today. Personally I find that excuse enough to commend this Bill to your Lordships.

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

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