HL Deb 19 October 1981 vol 424 cc636-45

143 Schedule 2, page 57, line 7, at end insert—

'Curlew Numenius arqata'.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 143. Perhaps I may have your Lordships' permission to speak to Amendments Nos. 143 and 144 together as the arguments are very similar.

After a full debate during the Committee stage when we discussed these two questions I withdrew my amendments to remove both these birds from the quarry list at the Government's request so that the advice of the statutory birds advisory committees could be sought. At the Report stage the House considered the question again in the light of that advice and the amendments were carried by a large majority of 83 to 32, with all-party support. In another place a Conservative amendment to put both birds back on Schedule 2, which I call the quarry schedule, was accepted without a Division. We must now decide whether to confirm our previous view. I have no doubt that if it is necessary to press this to a Division again—I hope it will not be—we shall again divide on non-party lines. What could be less political than the curlew—a real Cross-Bencher?

None of the arguments has changed since February. If anything, the case for protecting both birds is stronger than it was. The England and Wales Advisory Committee on Birds which now comes under the auspices of the Nature Conservancy Council could not recommend the protection of either bird on pure conservation grounds, but a strong majority would accept their protection on aesthetic and common-sense grounds, or on what were described in another place as ethical grounds and grounds of sentiment. The Scottish Committee made no comment. Both comm- ittees had been asked by my noble friend to consider the views expressed during the Committee and Report stages when we discussed these matters.

Both birds are quite common in this country. The wintering population of the curlew is probably around 60,000 and of the redshank around 100,000. These figures must be fairly wide estimates and both figures, I understand, are accepted by the Government. About one in six of the European population of the curlew winters here, and as much as one-third of Europe's redshank population. They winter in our estuaries, many of which are classified as sites of international importance for birds, which gives us a special responsibility in this respect.

Birds are not fair game just because they are common. Among the waders, for example, knots and dunlins, which are protected and always have been, are far, far more numerous than curlews and redshank, the dunlin so much so that it is 10 times more common than the curlew. Its numbers run into something like a half a million wintering population. Are we to shoot song thrushes and larks, like the French always have done, because they are common? Nobody has suggested that we should, nor robins or swallows. Patéde grieve is something which I do not like eating at all, and I would not like to eat Paté de chevalier, which is the French for the redshank.

Evidence is conflicting as to whether the numbers of curlew and redshank are on the decline. Nobody can be sure. Probably they are. Certainly they seem to be as breeding birds. Both are probably on the decline in other Community countries as well, though their numbers are quite clearly cyclical. Therefore any clear decision about this is difficult. There is no doubt, however, about the fact that the loss of habitats which they can most frequently be seen in is bound to affect their numbers, especially the loss of wetlands. This is no doubt one of the reasons why Mr. Stanley Cramp, an eminent and much respected ornithologist and the chairman of the England and Wales Advisory Committee, strongly favours the long-term protection of both these birds and has so advised the Commission in Brussels to which he has been the senior consultant, I think I can call it, during the consideration over the past six to eight years of the Birds Directive of which we have taken such careful account. Some 30 species of waders visit our shores. The curlew and the redshank are the only waders which will remain on the quarry list unless Parliament accepts these two amendments. That was no doubt one factor in the advisory committee's mind when they made their recommendation. No doubt they also had in mind, as we have, that both birds are all too easily confused with protected waders —some of them rare or even very rare.

For example, who could possibly put their hand on their heart and say that they could tell the difference in the half light of morning or evening between a spotted redshank and a redshank or between the whimbrel and the godwit on the one side and the curlew? I do not think that anybody can be sure of doing this. Shooting them therefore causes a lot of disturbance to large numbers of protected shore birds, many of which must get killed or wounded by mistake, especially in the half light of early morning or dusk. So protecting these two birds would result in a welcome reduction of daytime shooting on estuaries since most wild- fowling, as we all know, takes place generally at dawn and at dusk. There is no excuse, either, for shooting these birds for the pot, most people being agreed that they are pretty inedible, particularly later in the season. Some say they are quite nasty. Discarded corpses of redshank and curlew have been found in a number of places in this country, most recently in Lindisfarne, presumably because those who had shot them could not be bothered to pick them up because they were not worth eating. It has never been suggested that either bird is a pest, which some shore birds can be.

I suppose sentiment enters into it to some extent and under that heading I would make this one comment: Curlews really are one of the most beautiful birds that we have in this country. Their call is a haunting, wonderfully liquid cry—perhaps even more lovely than the song of the nightingale. Any of us who have heard the call of the curlew in a marsh can hardly think of anything more beautiful.

As to the serious suggestion that has been made that these are ideal birds for youngsters learning to shoot, what are we coming to? Let them have a go at the vermin—the hooded crows, the pigeons or even, if they must, at the starlings which make a passable imitation of partridges at times. Indeed, anything on the black list but not the curlew and not the redshank. Who on earth, my Lords, really wants to shoot a curlew or a redshank and, for heavens' sake, why? I wonder how many noble Lords have actually shot them? Very few indeed, I would warrant.

I cannot help feeling that the lowest common denominator has had its way in the British field sports advice that has been given, although their director has made it clear that a good many of their shooting members favour protecting both birds. I have little doubt either that the same is true of WAGBI, now renamed as the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, and I hope they will now recognise that tastes and times have changed and wildfowling practices with them. I hope, therefore, that they will live up to the last word of their new title—Conservation.

I am very happy indeed to see my noble friend Lord Arbuthnott in his place and I hope he will contribute to the debate, although I fear that he may not fully share my views. As for your Lordships' House, whose Members the Economist regard as "habitually clumping around in marshes", there are few things I enjoy more. I love my wildfowling. How right that enlightened weekly was to beg us to have the courage of our earlier convictions. That is just what I am asking your Lordships to do today, in the hope that it will not be necessary to divide the House again. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House doth disagree with the Commons in the said amendment—(Lord Chelwood.)

Lord Melchett

My Lords, when we discussed these amendments previously, as the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, has said, we passed them by a very large majority made up of Peers from all sides of the House and from the Cross-Benches. We on these Benches again support the deletion of the curlew and redshank from the shooting list.

I have had some correspondence which has suggested to me that this would be a terrible threat to wildfowling. If I may take up the point made by the noble Lord that wildfowling attitudes and practices do change, during the summer I was reading a book which was published in 1935 called Sea Swallows, about Blakeney Point, which is now a national nature reserve near where I farm in Norfolk. One part of the story of the life of the warden on the Point contains the following reminiscence, which is told with some pride in the achievement and in the interests of the area of which he was warden. He says: On another occasion three hunters met on the flats opposite Stiffkey and paddled up to a large flock of knot"— one of the birds which the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, mentioned as being a lot more numerous now than curlew or redshank— all fired simultaneously and bagged 603 birds. The knot is grey with a few dark spots and a trifle larger than the blackbird". I would suggest that that wildfowling practice, while being perfectly acceptable and indeed something to be proud of in 1935, is not something that many wild-fowlers would be particularly proud of if they heard of it happening today. Practices change. In my researches among actual wildfowlers in the area where I farm I have yet to find anybody who claims ever to shoot, as a matter of course, redshank or curlew, and indeed I have met a number of wildfowlers who have assumed that they were already on the protected list. It seems to me to be a little far-fetched to suggest as some have, that to protect these birds would be a terrible blow to the sport. I simply do not think that is the case.

The noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, said that some people had suggested that they were suitable quarry on which people might practice and I am afraid that the RSPB has received reports from East Anglia of people using redshank for practice and not even bothering to retrieve the birds that are shot because, as the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood said, they are completely inedible. My father told me that he had once eaten curlew, and he described it as being like a Wellington boot that had been boiled in sea water for 24 hours. It is not surprising that if these birds are shot they are often not recovered.

Finally, it is clear from the debates that there have been in wildfowling quarters, as well as from the debates in Parliament, that there are many people who go wildfowling regularly who are very unhappy at the idea that these birds should remain on the shooting list. They feel that that is not a sensible thing for wildfowlers to be attempting to defend. As the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, said, it is very hard for even the most experienced ornithologists to claim that they can distinguish a redshank from a spotted redshank at dusk, and I do not think very many wildfowlers would seriously claim to be able to do so. They would see the demise of the spotted redshank as being one of the incidental disadvantages of this, but I dare say that if they had not gone to retrieve it they would not he aware that it had happened.

It seems to me that the arguments which convinced your Lordships' House some months ago have, if anything, been greatly strengthened by the investigations and the experience of the last few months, and I very much hope that the House will reiterate its earlier decisions on both these amendments.

Lord Kilmany

My Lords, I find it unnatural to be on different sides with my noble friend Lord Chelwood, especially on a matter of this sort where we are both so keen on what is good for the natural life of the countryside, but I am bound to say that when he asked your Lordships, "What wildfowler would want to shoot a curlew?" he seemed to expect that no wildfowler in this country—and I include Scotland—would want to shoot a curlew. But the fact of the matter is that, not only if you go to the committees of wildfowlers but if you go among them and talk about it as a wildfowler, you will find that a very large proportion of wildfowlers are only too happy to shoot a curlew, and it does not do anybody any harm.

A noble Lord

Except the curlew!

Lord Kilmany

My Lords, it does not do any harm to cull a species which is not in short supply. It is a good thing to cull the domestic hens; it is not a bad thing to cull seals when they get too numerous, or even deer. The curlew, and to a much lesser extent the redshank, are well able to look after themselves.

I do not want to stamp upon the sport of not very rich people who cannot afford to shoot grouse but who can afford to shoot wildfowl on the shore, and for that reason I hope that the Government will take a firm line and will not accept this amendment although it has been moved by my very good friend Lord Chelwood.

Baroness Hylton-Foster

My Lords I should very much like to support the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, on this amendment. I was brought up within sound of the call of the curlew and it was always regarded as absolute sacrilege if anybody shot one. When I was in Scotland this year I listened for curlews—I knew it was past the time for their wonderful call but I asked why I heard so few and I was told that there were many fewer. I only wish that the habitat of the curlew could be extended to many more places, because I do not think it does any harm and, with due respect to the noble Lord opposite, I do not think it should be considered for eating. I think it would be sacrilege to do so and therefore I very much support the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, to take up the point the noble Lord has just made, is he really suggesting that there are too many curlews when he talks about culls? He talks about seals and other animals and birds. He talks about culling curlews, but I do not think that enters into this debate at all. The suggestion is not that the curlew should be restricted in this country.

The Viscount of Arbuthnott

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, knows, I cannot support him in his amendment, really for the reasons he gave himself; that is, that there are no conservation reasons to give us any reason to take away from the legitimate sportsmen what is presently their legitimate quarry. As he said, wildfowling habits are changing. He referred to an incident at Lindisfarne where one of these quarry species was discarded, and I know that that case was taken up seriously by the wildfowling organisations concerned and the culprits disciplined. But I go back simply to stating that there are, as the noble Lord admitted, no conservation reasons why—

Lord Melchett>

My Lords, I wonder whether I could intervene. The noble Viscount says that there are no conservation reasons, but both the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, and I suggested that it was impossible in practice to distinguish the redshank from the spotted redshank, and the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, said a curlew from a whimbrel. These other birds are protected and there are good conservation gounds for protecting them. Surely that is a conservation argument for these amendments.

The Viscount of Arbuthnott

My Lords, I am sure the House does not want to prolong this discussion on these slightly esoteric matters. The fact is that the redshank we are talking about is more likely to be found on the high marsh and it is not very difficult to distinguish it there from its rarer fellow. Equally, you will not find whimbrel fighting in the same way as curlews do. I do not think that argument stands up. I come back to the argument given by the noble Lords themselves; that there are no conservation reasons that I know of for taking these species off the quarry list.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I should like to find out what the definition of a sportsman is. The definition of a sportsman, as I see it, is either somebody who kills because something is vermin or because it is useful. Personally I have never heard of curlew pie. I wonder whether you can use their feathers for anything. I cannot think of anything else that would be useful, and I do not know whether they are vermin, so I hope somebody will repy to me on that.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, this debate is showing signs of coming to life, and it might just as well be on the curlew as anything else. 1 think the time has come to send a note of defiance to the other place and no better subject on which to do it than this. I think we should try and curb the predatory instincts of the other place. As the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, asked a moment ago, what do you shoot a curlew for? Is it to eat? Is it for its feathers? The answer is, No—for sport. That presumably is what it is all about. And I do not think shooting anything is a genuine sport. This constant concern for the wildfowlers—what God-sent creatures are they? Have they some special claim upon the sympathies of the community—wildfowlers must be out at night; wildfowlers must be out on Sunday because they cannot wildfowl on Saturday. We have had all this out, and it seems to me the arguments are so thin that they can only really come from those who feel that the right to use the gun is something which should not be taken away unless there are very strong reasons for doing so.

We heard a moment ago that to shoot a curlew is not to do anybody any harm—nobody, that is, except the curlew. I think all shooting probably does harm in the long run in public attitudes. I shall have an opportunity a little later of saying that with all that we hear from the party opposite about law and order they will not curb the gun. I think the fewer species there are to shoot lawfully the greater the curb on the use of the gun. Your Lordships may say, "Here is an extreme fellow; he is putting up these arguments on the general principle of shooting and not addressing his remarks to the particular question of the curlew". On that I would say we went over all this before and we reached a conclusion. There is no reason why this House should change its opinion.

My criticism of the Government is that very often they gave the impression of accepting the will of this House in the course of the earlier stages of this Bill, and let our progressive reforms in this Bill slip away in the reactionary atmosphere down in another place. We ought not to put up with that. It really is time for your Lordships to assert the prestige and the authority of this House, and let us tell the country the curlew shall be saved.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I think one ought to put in the remark that the next time a Conservative Opposition attacks Labour Bills the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, will be quoted with considerable relish about attacking the reactionary principles of another place. I think one ought not to be too unkind about wildfowlers. They need support. It is a perfectly legitimate and honourable sport in my view. But all the same I think there are enough duck for them to shoot, and you can eat duck and they are good to eat. The feathers would make an excellent hat for the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington. But there is no necessity to confuse the curlew with the whimbrel or the redshank with the spotted redshank. I sincerely hope that your Lordships will vote in numbers, coveys of your Lordships will go into the Lobby, on the side of the curlew and the redshank.

Lord Tryon

My Lords, I will be very brief, but 1 may slightly surprise your Lordships in that if we do divide on this amendment I may find myself in the same Lobby as the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. Having been extremely keen on shooting all my life, I have thought long and hard about these two birds, and I have never shot them, although I would probably be the only person in the Lobby supporting Lord Chelwood who has almost certainly shot every other bird on Schedule 2, Parts I and II, quite a lot of other things I should not have done besides. These two birds, I think, are very well worth preserving and I see no call to put them on the shootable list.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I rise to support noble Lords who have spoken in defence of the Commons amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, asked what is a wildfowler. I was glad to get support from a very unlikely source here. Having said he was going to vote the other way, I am not surprised that he is moving out of the Chamber. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, who described the wild-fowler as the common man, the ordinary chap who goes down and shoots below the tideline, where he does not have to pay the large rents which certain noble Lords on this side of the House can afford to pay for their shooting. He is not some terrible character who goes out and shoots everything that moves. I put it to your Lordships that if there are a number of wild-fowlers who do not wish to shoot the curlew there is nothing in the Bill that compels them to do so. They can be quite happy to watch them go over.

Indeed, I very much like watching the curlew. I am lucky enough to be in one of those places where there are both curlew and redshank and with common nests, and I love going to watch them. Nothing would induce me to shoot one—absolutely not. I cannot think of anything that I would less rather do. However, I think that those who go and shoot them are quite entitled to do so. They eat them. It is amazing to me that nobody seems to have grasped this. I have actually eaten one. I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, that it tasted rather like old boots. In fact it is referred to as a poor man's grouse. They do, generally, like eating them. They take them home to their wives and I suppose that they tell them to pluck them. What they do with the feathers I do not know—it is up to them. In any event, they shoot them, take them home and eat them.

There are nearly as many people who shoot curlews, on the foreshore as there are people who have the good fortune, as some of us may think, to shoot red grouse during the grouse shooting season. There are a lot of people at stake. Noble Lords have given various reasons—not many of which I agree with—as to why this species should be excluded. I think that there is a sentimental reason as the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, has said. It is lovely to hear their bubbling cry. I love it myself.

On the other hand, there are people who enjoy sho- oting them, who go down and shoot them, and who take them home and eat them at the end of the day. To deprive them of that right, which they have had for goodness knows how many years, for the reason of conservation, when there is no good conservation reason for it, is a matter as regards which I hope that your Lordships will support the Government.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Swinton has finished on the line with which I should like to begin. It seems to be common ground that there is no conservation reason except the reason produced by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, of mistaken identity. Confusion of identity is something at which we have looked and we rejected it as a basis for listing, otherwise the mind boggles at what one might have to take into account. Anyway, it is the Government's considered view that there is no conservation reason. However, not many are shot and the numbers are stable. I am not even sure that, if anybody were to say they were decreasing, I would not say that they were increasing.

It might interest the House to know that in the Community, Denmark, France, Italy and Greece shoot these species and Ireland shoots the curlew. Of the other Community countries, only Germany has given up shooting both species recently, and those species are shot in nine other countries in Europe outside the Community. Therefore, Britain for once is not the odd man out.

The particular objection to the use of a moral argument when the argument of conservation fails, is that once accepted there is no logical stopping place. The Government believe that there is a place for field sports and fishing and the moral argument, however sincerely held, ends only when all these are abolished. Conservation must be the touchstone to decide whether changes need to be made. This sound basis has led to 13 species being removed from the quarry list. Noble Lords, of course, will be aware that that figure includes the bar-tailed godwit as regards which it has been accepted that there is a conservation case for giving it protection at all times. We rest our case on conservation and hope very much that the House will agree with the Commons in their amendment.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, I listened with great care, naturally, to the excellent discussion that we have had. Very little entirely new has been said but I should like to comment on one point, namely, the question of mistaken identity as regards which, with great respect, I think that my noble friend on the Front Bench and the noble Viscount, Lord Arbuthnott, have both got it wrong, which is rather surprising, particularly bearing in mind that the noble Viscount, Lord Arbuthnott, is I believe President of WAGBI.

The curlew and the redshank occur in mixed species flocks. That is a fact. Indeed, curlew and whimbrel often flock and roost together which makes it all the more difficult to identify one from the other, particularly, as I said in my opening speech, in the half light. The same is true of redshank and spotted redshank which are often seen in mixed flocks. Therefore, the question of mistaken identity is very serious. There really cannot be any doubt that many protected birds—some of them, as I have said, extremely rare—get shot and wounded by mistake; and that is something which certainly should be avoided.

As I have said, I have listened with care and attention to the debate. I think that the case for protecting all shore birds as they are protected in North America is a very strong one indeed. I feel bound to divide the House and I feel sure that, if the amendment is passed again, as it was during the Report stage, another place will take most careful account of the reiteration of our strongly held view. I beg to move.

8.45 p.m.

On Question, Whether this House doth disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 143?

Their Lordships divided: Contents 62; Not-Contents 43.

Alexander of Tunis, E. Houghton of Sowerby, L.
Ardwick, L. Howie of Troon, L.
Bernstein, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Bishopston, L. Irving of Dartford, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. John-Mackie, L.
Broadbridge, L. Kemsley, V.
Brockway, L. Killearn, L.
Chelwood, L.—[Teller.] Kinloss, Ly.
Collison, L. Knutsford, V.
Cooper of Stockton Heath, L. Lawrence, L.
Cranbrook, E. Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
Davies of Leek L. Loudoun. C.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Lovell-Davis. L.
Faithfull, B. McCluskey, L.
Greenway, L. Masham of Ilton, B.
Hacking, L. Melchett, L.—[Teller.]
Haig, E. Monckton of Brenchley, V.
Hampton, L. Monk Bretton, L.
Hanworth, V.
Montgomery of Alamein, V. Stamp, L.
Stanley of Alderley, L.
Murton of Lindisfarne, L. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Napier and Ettrick, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
O'Hagan, L. Strabolgi, L.
Onslow, E. Tordoff, L.
Oram, L. Trumpington, B.
Peart, L. Tryon, L.
Phillips, B. Underhill, L.
Platt of Writtle, B. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. Wells-Pestell, L.
Renton, L. Westbury, L.
Ross of Marnock, L. Wynne-Jones, L.
Arbuthnott, V. Holderness, L.
Avon, E. Hornsby-Smith, B.
Bathurst, E. Kilmany, L.
Beloff, L. Long, V.
Belstead, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Beardman, L. Lyell, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Margadale, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Marley, L.
Cork and Orrery, E. Orkney, E.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Reigate, L.
de Clifford, L. Sandys, L.—[Teller.]
Denham, L.—[Teller.] Savile, L.
Digby, L. Selkirk, E.
Ellenborough, L. Sharpies, B.
Elton, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Ferrers, L. Strathclyde, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Swinton, E.
Gibson-Watt, L. Vivian, L.
Grimston of Westbury, L. Ward of Witley, V.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Young, B.
Hives, L.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Commons amendment disagreed to accordingly.