HL Deb 10 June 1985 vol 464 cc1070-4

7.15 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of this Bill is to close a loophole in the Hill Farming Act 1946, which gives powers to control by regulation the burning of heather and grass. This Bill will extend those powers to include gorse, bracken and vaccinium. As your Lordships will know, it is necessary for a number of reasons to burn, particularly to encourage new growth. But such burning needs to be done carefully and at the correct time to encourage this new growth and avoid damage to wildlife; hence the need for regulations.

In order to assist the Minister, a working party was set up in 1983 to advise and monitor the effect of these regulations. This working party, which consists of various organisations interested in farming and wildlife—and I believe that my noble friend Lord Peel is a member of it—has recommended the addition of gorse, bracken and vaccinium to the existing heather and grass. I understand that the Government welcome the working party's report—a report that illustrates once again that it is perfectly possible for farmer, conservationist and bird lover to work happily and constructively together. So Clause 1 of this Bill gives the Minister powers to make these regulations and Clause 2 makes the necessary provisions to bring this Bill into line with existing legislation and allows it to come into force two months after being passed, should your Lordships pass it. Perhaps I should add that it also brings any offence under the Bill into line with the Hill Farming Act 1946.

This Bill was taken through another place by my honourable friend Mr. Robert Jackson with cross-party, unanimous support. I therefore commend it to your Lordships with the hope that it will receive similar treatment by your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Stanley of Alderley.)

7.19 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, who has a lot of experience in hill farming, has put this Bill before the House in the hope that we will pass it, and I think that his hope should be granted. Muir burning, as we call it, has always been a bit of a contentious subject in hill farming and I hope that this extension of control by regulation will not increase that contention, because a lot of hill farmers do not feel there is enough muir burning as it is to give them better grazing and better keep; and I know that the grouse people do not like too much. They just like sufficient nice young heather to keep the grouse going and the two rather get at cross-purposes. I hope and I am sure that this extra power will not inhibit farmers in any way from improving their grazings, because it is absolutely essential that they should carry on doing this.

I cannot think of anybody who would like to burn bracken. That only improves it. It grows better than ever once you burn off the dead bracken. The only cure for bracken is to spray it. I know that conservationists do not like that, but it is the worst of all weeds in hill farming. I was chairman of the Hill Farming Committee of the North of Scotland College of Agriculture. A good deal of research has been done in one way or another on bracken control and on how much damage it did, particularly in the days of flyblown sheep which ran into the bracken for shelter and died there because they could not be found. Research has been done, and rumour has it that the blasted stuff is now carcinogenic. That really makes it a bad weed.

On the question of gorse, burning only checks gorse for one year. The best way to deal with gorse is to get a tractor with a chain and pull it out. I cannot imagine who would want to burn blueberries. We call them blaeberries in Scotland. In my opinion there are not a great pest. I appreciate the point made by the noble Lord that it was to prevent people burning this as an excuse for burning more heather. The areas most affected are Scotland, the north of England—the noble Earl, Lord Peel, will no doubt mention his area—and Wales. I always remember that the late Tudor Watkins looked after his hill farmers in Wales; and if anything was suggested to harm his hill farmers he was on our tops very quickly indeed—at any rate, at the time when I was Minister. I hope that the new Member—the House will probably know that a by-election is due in that area—will look after the farmers as well as he did.

I talked to some people who suggested that this was a conservation measure only. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, has made it clear that it is not that. I hope it is not. Any conservation measure seems to hit hill farmers more than anybody else. Anything that stops them improving their pastures and their grazings cannot be justified because unless they can go on improving their grazings they will simply not make a living at the job. That is the one thing I hope the Bill will not do. We give the Bill our blessing and hope that other noble Lords will do so also.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I must apologise to the House and to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, for the fact that I was sitting in my room writing and failed to notice the important change of business until this moment, but I should like to welcome the Bill very warmly because I think it is extremely necessary.

Hill burning of any kind is a highly skilled business. One farmer in Scotland was heard to say, "I don't know what these hill improvement schemes are. The best one I know costs a penny ha' penny for a box of matches. If you use it you improve the farm". We all know that this is not true and that hill land improvement involves extremely careful burning. The Bill does not apply to Scotland. I do not know whether or not we have been more sensible, but obviously it was a great foolishness to regulate only the burning of heather and grass and to fail to regulate the burning of other important pieces of vegetation, particularly the one which I did not understand but have since found out is the blaeberry. That is what we call it in Scotland. It could not be more delectable. To burn it would be a sin and a shame. I give the Bill a warm welcome.

7.24 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I, too, should like to thank my honourable friend Robert Jackson for introducing this Bill into another place and my noble friend Lord Stanley for introducing it into your Lordships' House. It is a short but significant Bill, and quite rightly, as my noble friend says, brings bracken and gorse and vaccinium under controls similar to those for heather and grass. It is perhaps quite pertinent that the wording of the Bill should use "vaccinium" in the Latin form and bracken and grass in the English form. I am surprised that both noble Lords opposite have used the word "blaeberry", which is the word I use in Yorkshire. I am not quite sure what my noble friend Lord Stanley would use in Wales.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, bilberry.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I know that one as well. This is a simple piece of legislation and will, I hope, prevent some of the ill-effects which burning at the wrong time of the year can have on wildlife and the long-term damaging effects on the environment in general.

In addition to the Bill, and equally significant, are the new regulations which have already come into effect—at least, I hope they have come into effect; if they have not, I must admit I have been breaking the law. I am pretty certain that they have. The regulations govern the rules of burning and are incorporated into this extremely useful and well-presented code which the MAFF have helped to produce. I would seriously urge everyone, keepers and farmers alike, involved with the burning of heather or the various other species which are now incorporated in the Bill to take heed of the code as bad burning, even during the permitted periods, can cause both short-term and long-term damage to the environment. Large fires are basically a total waste of time. Anyone who knows anything about the management of heather would accept that. I say with great respect to the noble Lords opposite that on the whole this tends to happen in Scotland, where usually the interest in game shooting has gone and the farmers, rather sadly, I feel, just drop the match and let the fire run without having full control and without realising the long-term effects that this can have on the environment and on wildlife in general.

Very often the general public fail to appreciate the effects that the proper control of burning have on the environment, not only in maintaining the quality of the upland vegetation but also as a means of producing a healthy food supply for both livestock and game, and as a means of conserving the habitat of those species which rely particularly on this type of country. It illustrates very often the very significant difference between the two words "conservation" and "preserva-tion". The aesthetic value of the heather and the upland vegetation is greatly enhanced by proper regular burning.

Finally, and speaking a a Yorkshireman, I must say how delighted I am that my noble friend the Minister has seen fit to extend the burning periods for Yorkshire and Lancashire, and indeed other parts of the United Kingdom within the less favoured areas, to coincide with those of Scotland, Durham and Northumberland. We are now allowed to burn our heather from 1st October through until 15th April. This is a great bonus. It is a great relief, and means that we shall not have to be filling in endless forms. I am sure that this will cut down enormously on bureaucracy. I welcome the Bill and the new regulations that go with it.

7.30 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Stanley for presenting this Bill. On behalf of the Government I should like to add my voice to what your Lordships have said about this Bill and give it full support.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, made the point that hill farmers need to improve their grazings in pursuing their businesses in the hills. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, added that very great care is needed with burning in the hills and uplands. I like to think that those two expressions of view are reflected in the controls we have at present with respect to the burning of heather and grass, with prohibition between sunset and sunrise and during the spring and summer months when the risks from fire are at their greatest.

The regulations allow burning under licence within the prohibited months in order to take account of prolonged wet weather, which may have delayed the onset of spring, but with licence applications being given very careful scrutiny, with the advice of the Nature Conservancy Council being sought in each case. There are also the amendments to that system which my noble friend Lord Peel has just mentioned.

The Ministry established a working party, of which my noble friend Lord Peel is indeed a member, to advise on moorland burning, on which the interests of agriculture, conservation and the landscape are represented. It was the work of that working party which identified the loophole in the present controls which my noble friend's Bill is designed to close. The working party also produced the Heather and Grass Burning Code, which we had made freely available to farmers.

In essence, those are the measures we have and which we would want to extend, with perhaps minor changes, to gorse, bracken and bilberry should this Bill pass into law. The precise form of new regulations would be a matter for further consultation—with the working party, for example—and we would want advice, too, on the guidance we ought to give to those carrying out burning. We have, however, given some thought to this matter already and I recently asked for the views of my right honourable friend's Hill Farming Advisory Committee, which meets twice a year and which met very recently at the Ministry of Agriculture in London.

Although this Bill deals with a practice that is essentially agricultural, its effects on the landscape and the environment can be considerable. This Bill provides us with an opportunity to close a loophole. I repeat my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Stanley for introducing the Bill and I commend it to the House.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, I should like to thank all noble Lords who have spoken in favour of this Bill; I am most grateful. I shall just repeat and endorse the remarks of my noble friend Lord Belstead in respect of getting the balance right—a point which the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, raised. This is the part played by the working party and I really do believe that they have got it right. I trust that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, will be satisfied as much as any farmer can ever be on this matter.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, might ask about Scotland. The answer is that the regulations in Scotland and those for England and Wales are broadly similar. Thanks to a little help from my friends, I have here a long description which I shall give to the noble Lord when we leave the Chamber, if he is interested. By and large, the regulations are very similar.

I was pleased to hear my noble friend Lord Peel give his support to the Bill. It may be that at some stage in the future I will have to remind him of the essential need to burn at certain times, but perhaps I should leave that point for the moment. Meanwhile, I am very grateful to noble Lords for the support I have received throughout the House.

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

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.34 until 8.15 p.m.]