HL Deb 18 January 1979 vol 397 cc1159-63

3.17 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 whether they are aware of the extreme damage done to hardwoods in many areas of Scotland by grey squirrels and whether they are prepared to allow the use of anti-coagulant pesticide (Warfarin) in Scotland, as has been the case in England and Wales for a number of years.


My Lords, in 1973 an order was made under the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1972 allowing the controlled use of Warfarin against grey squirrels in woodlands in certain limited areas of England and Wales. At that time Scottish forestry interests indicated that grey squirrel damage did not justify a similar measure for Scotland. The Scottish Woodland Owners' Association have now indicated their belief that grey squirrels are causing increasing damage to hardwoods. The Association are currently seeking evidence of such damage to justify requesting a Warfarin order for Scotland. If convincing evidence is produced, the Secretary of State will consider consulting all the interests concerned about the propriety of laying an order before Parliament.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his Answer, but may I press him a little further? Despite the timing of my Question being somewhat premature, in view of the fact that Scottish woodland owners have not yet completed their collection of evidence, is the noble and learned Lord aware, first, that the damage to hardwoods is intensive in certain areas of Scotland; secondly, that while the Forestry Commission plants very few hardwoods, the private sector owns practically all the hardwoods in Scotland which are so greatly valued by the public: and, thirdly, that grey squirrels have spread northwards right into Perthshire, and are displacing the native red squirrels as they go? Will the noble and learned Lord assure me and the House that the minimum delay will occur, when the Scottish woodland owners have finished collecting their evidence, in getting an order before Parliament, because in the meantime the damage is going on and it will get worse?


My Lords, we certainly have some indication of the spread of grey squirrels in the way that the noble Lord has indicated. I am certainly aware, too, that the Forestry Commission has a somewhat different kind of tree from that of the private owners. But the most important point to bear in mind is that when in 1972 Parliament approved the Act which I mentioned, consultation with all the interests was made obligatory upon the Secretary of State; and, of course, there are interests other than the forestry and agricultural interests. There are the wildlife preservation interests as well. Furthermore, the Secretary of State has to bring his order for Affirmative Resolution of each House of Parliament. In these circumstances, the Secretary of State must have convincing evidence. Of course, if such evidence is put before him there will certainly be no unnecessary delay.


My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Lord whether or not he will agree that when dealing with the eradication of vermin such as the grey squirrel it is very much better to do it when the numbers are very small rather than wait until the numbers are very large? Furthermore, can the noble Lord see that there is anything to be said for waiting until the grey squirrels have had another breeding season, for that, in fact, is what his answer amounts to?


My Lords, as I have already said, the Secretary of State cannot act until he is persuaded that there is sufficient evidence. Then he can consult the relevant bodies. It is not just a question of the grey squirrel. Any measures taken against a non-indigenous pest such as the grey squirrel are equally harmful to the indigenous red squirrel. There are many interests, as one knows from the Orkneys seal cull, which wish to ensure the preservation of animal species and not see them threatened by poison measures. So we need convincing evidence.


My Lords, has my noble and learned friend observed on his visits South of the Border that this pest is to be seen in increasing numbers all over the country? Does he recognise that the grey squirrel is destructive of trees and is almost impossible to deal with under any of the provisions of the 1972 legislation in some very beautiful metropolitan areas where it is multiplying visibly and rapidly, since it cannot be treated by poison because the poison is too dangerous to other animals and it is impossible in an urban area to use the methods prescribed? Will my noble and learned friend consider, as we understand that the destructive season is March, what steps can be taken to help to deal with the problem during the appropriate season, as his own Department recommends?


My Lords, I am sure that the House will appreciate that although my responsibilities have recently been enlarged I have none for England and Wales. Secondly, as my noble friend has indicated, in the Act we are concerned with agricultural land and land of that kind, so I cannot say more than that the Government are aware, and have been made aware by the interests concerned, of the character of the problem.


My Lords, in relation to what the noble and learned Lord said about the red squirrel, is he aware, in addition to the point made by my noble friend, that there are some areas in Scotland—for example parts of the North—into which the grey squirrel has not yet spread and where the friendly red squirrel still survives and that the grey squirrel pest is likely to invade those areas, too, unless severe measures to control it can be taken in the areas of Scotland concerned?


Yes, my Lords, I am aware of that, and I do not think that I can usefully add to what I have said in relation to the position of the Secretary of State.


My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord keep in mind the fact that most of the damage done by the grey squirrel is done during the second week of July when the bark is stripped off sycamores? Therefore, it is of the utmost urgency that action should be taken in time.


My Lords, I would merely repeat my assurance that, being aware of that circumstance, the Secretary of State will not lose any time over laying an appropriate order before Parliament if the evidence justifies it.


My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware of the effect of the drug warfarin? Is my noble and learned friend aware that if a human being should get some of it on to his fingers and nibble at it he will have more hallucinations than anybody seeing an unidentified flying object?


My Lords, the method of applying this poison, permitted under the order, is such that a human being would have great difficulty in obtaining access to it.