HL Deb 14 December 1987 vol 491 cc512-8

7.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington) rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 30th November be approved [8th Report from the Joint Committee).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with permission, it would be convenient to discuss this order and the Coypus (Prohibition on Keeping) Order together.

The orders before your Lordships' House are made under the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932. In both cases they replace existing controls for Great Britain which expire on New Year's Day. Separate legislation covers Northern Ireland.

Your Lordships will know that wild populations of these non-native animals became established as a direct result of escapes from fur farms. The new orders develop the policy which has been adopted by successive governments since 1962 in a positive way. They balance the interests of a small but valuable sector of farming activity with the need to protect other farmers and our wildlife. Together with changes in the operation of the arrangements, they will tighten considerably the restrictions previously applied for coypus which are no longer farmed for their fur (nutria) and, in some respect, for mink.

Both existing orders prohibit commercial keeping except under licence, and thereby apply other measures provided for in the Act including allowing keeping for science or exhibition under a special licence and requiring occupiers of land to report the presence of animals at large to the agricultural departments.

In the case of mink, the new order renews for a further period of five years existing powers to control keeping but prohibits commercial farming entirely on all offshore islands of Great Britain which have neither mink farms nor a wild population and in Caithness and Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands where the situation is the same. It removes the obligation to report the presence of mink at large.

In the case of coypus, the new order prohibits keeping for commercial purposes entirely. This leaves open the possibility of special licences for exhibitions, science or other exceptional purposes. It continues the obligation to tell the agricultural departments if a coypu is seen at large.

The arrangements proposed for these two species differ because we have reached a significant turning point. In the case of the coypus, we are on the edge of success but even in the case of mink all is not lost. I need hardly remind your Lordships that mink are predators of wildfowl, poultry, fisheries and game birds. Despite strenuous and expensive efforts in the past, the species is now present in most areas of Great Britain. We have considered the position again and once more come to the conclusion that there is no prospect of eradicating wild mink. The policy must continue to be one of control by farmers and wildlife interests alike. This does not mean that we must abandon the countryside to this alien species.

Twenty-five years ago, there were about 700 mink farms in the country; now there are about 60. Standards of security are high: escapes occasioned by poor security or lax practice are rare. However, the potential for both short-term and long-term damage by escaping mink is great. The continuation of licensing, with the discipline of official inspection at least annually, ensures that standards of physical security are given proper priority.

But physical security cannot guard against every eventuality, as the recent hurricane damage has demonstrated. Many of our offshore islands and areas of the Scottish Highlands support colonies of birds, some of international importance, as well as numerous small native mammals and fish upon which wild mink could prey with devastating effects. These areas are also sufficiently protected by natural features so that it will be many years, if ever, before mink reach them by natural colonisation. It is therefore fitting that they should enjoy the protection which the Act can give them.

The ban is a sign of our determination to promote the policy and objectives of the Act, and do what we reasonably can to control the spread of this destructive, non-indigenous species. And in the areas where keeping is allowed the agricultural departments' discretion in granting or withholding licences will be exercised with care.

Requests for licences will be considered in principle before applicants incur expense in preparing for mink farming. Applications will he considered on their merits, and account will be taken of the intended site and knowledge of the presence of any other mink. Whenever possible any special risk will be met by the introduction of additional licence conditions and/or by reducing the period of validity of licences and increasing the level of official inspection. The Act provides for revocation of licences, and we expect licencees to take their obligations seriously. However, if there is real doubt as to the possibility of reducing the risk at a particular site to acceptable levels then a licence will be refused.

In these circumstances. it may seem odd to remove the obligation to report the presence of mink at large. We have considered whether the information to be gained in this way would help us monitor the spread of mink. It would not. It is much better to conduct specific surveys on the areas which matter.

The position of coypus is quite different from that of mink. Britain's wild population, which has been at large for 45 years, has for some time been contained within East Anglia. In 1981 a campaign was launched to achieve eradication over about 10 years. I am pleased to be able to say that the efforts of the independent coypus control organisation and of our own scientists have already resulted in some 30,000 animals having been trapped or killed in the last six years. No coypus have been found since April last, but to verify eradication the campaign will run at least until 1989.

Coypus have been a costly and troublesome nonnative pest, causing extensive damage to root crops, water-courses and reed beds in Norfolk and Suffolk. Eradication is in sight, and it would be unthinkable to jeopardise this considerable success, achieved at an estimated eventual cost of some £2.5m. by allowing coypus to be kept in this country and thus run the risk of further escapes.

About 70 coypus are kept in six licensed premises comprising zoos, wildlife parks and research establishments. The order will prevent the establishment of commercial keeping. Special licences for science or exhibition will continue to be granted to existing licencees only if the establishments concerned can achieve standards of security at least as good as those required of mink farms. In addition, animals remaining in captivity will have to be marked to permit identification should there be an escape.

In these closing stages of the eradication campaign there is a special need for vigilance, and the requirement to report sightings of coypus will remain a legal obligation.

I commend to your Lordships these two orders and the associated policies as positive and cost-effective measures to protect all our interests. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 30th November be approved. [8th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Trumpington.)

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, we are much obliged to the noble Baroness for putting across these two instruments so well. Way back in 1962 when the first orders were produced for this job I ventured to suggest, being in Opposition then. that the people who let coypus loose and the well-off people who wore the expensive coats, etc., should pay for the work to get them caught again or eliminated. I was told then that it was a little difficult to identify each coypu or mink and who they belonged to.

That rather tempts me to tell the story of the Aberdeenshire doctor who, many years ago, persuaded his old mother to come down to London where he had taken up his practice. She lived in a little village in Aberdeenshire. They were driving away from King's Cross Station in a thoroughly bad humour in the dark (and with a lot of parcels, and so on) when a cat ran out across the road in front of the car. The doctor hit the brakes to avoid the cat. His mother turned round and said, "Fast! Catch that!" She knew all the cats in her village in Aberdeenshire, but not in London! So identifying a coypu is evidently not possible in these days!

May I ask the noble Baroness how many wild mink she thinks there are loose? Is it an impossible job to eliminate them? I know that the coypus are in a particular area and they could definitely be contained, while they were being eliminated. The mink are much wider spread. It would be interesting to know if it is possible to eliminate them.

I do not want to say any more. These orders are very necessary, and I am sure that farmers will cooperate. Mink make an awful mess if they get into a hen-run. They do not kill one beast for their own use; they just start to kill the lot. So we definitely support these two orders.

Lord Walston

My Lords, perhaps I should declare a personal interest in this matter. Some years ago my wife introduced on to a pond near our house some decorative ducks which were very beautiful, very attractive and rather expensive. One by one they disappeared. The culprit was diagnosed as a coypu. Officials from the noble Baroness's department were speedily on the scene bringing the appropriate gear which they set in the appropriate places. Unfortunately, they failed to find any coypus. However, since that time there has been no indication that there are any coypus in that particular part of the world. They may have been frightened away-or of course it may be because there are no more decorative ducks waiting there to be caught by them. I think I can now therefore look at the matter rather more objectively than at the time when I was a sufferer from coypus.

I would say, without any more ado, that I think both these orders for mink and coypus are the right thing. They have done their job well and they should he retained or renewed as the noble Baroness has asked.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I regard myself as being a sort of guardian of the supper break. You will not be surprised if I refer to that. If we are to do business during the supper break, why has it to be so depressing? We seem to get all the miserable subjects to deal with while other noble Lords are enjoying their supper. The noble Baroness gets more than her share of this kind of work because it is to do with agricultural orders of one kind or another. The other week we were dealing with the battery hen and the veal calf. Last week we were dealing with a very sensitive matter, a dispute between Church and state where the interests of the Church were involved and a piece of land in the City of Westminster. Many of us had to turn up to stand guard over one of the diminishing open spaces in the City of Westminster. Here we are: animals in cages again.

Although it is gratifying that the control of these destructive animals is continuing unabated, one wonders why we still have these animals in our industrial premises at all. It is 55 years since control of destructive animals imported into this country had to be imposed. Why have they come here? Why did they bring them here?

I believe that mink farming is a detestable industry for a contemptible purpose. For fur and fur coats for women mink were brought in. I do not want to make a sexist speech but the fact is that mink coats are worn by women. All that could be avoided if only the women of Britain would take a stand against the exploitation of animals, cruelty to animals for their own adornment or the indulgence of their taste in luxury and their subservience to the overtures of men who offer them rewards for dubious activities. There is nothing men will not do for profit out of animals unless the law stops them. That has been found to be so over the years.

It is gratifying to know that there has been a substantial reduction in the number of mink farms in Britain in recent years. I did not quite grasp all the figures that the noble Baroness gave us. I do not know whether she gave us any idea of the total mink population. I gathered that the coypu order prohibits the keeping of the coypu and that only a few licences have been granted to keep them for special purposes. So presumably that order merely renews the existing one. It will really make no difference.

However, in the case of the mink order one gets the impression that there is a new prohibition, a total prohibition, on the keeping of mink in the offshore islands to which the noble Baroness referred and which are set out in the order. If so, that is good news. I take it that that does make a difference or are they prohibited in these areas already?

I sometimes think that the explanations given for these orders are rather more confusing than the orders themselves, and I am not very clear as to the effect of the mink order in these areas. I assume that it is a new prohibition against the risk of importing mink and increasing their population in these islands. It is to spare them the ravages which other parts of the country have suffered because of this animal.

I think that the licences granted for mink farms should now begin to he phased out. What are we doing keeping on these mink farms? Surely if it is for the purpose, as I suspect it is, of fur for fur coats and similar garments, the social attitude towards the wearing of these garments is now changing and there is a widespread feeling of disapproval. I hope that we can enter into the spirit of this desirable change in attitude towards the rearing and destruction of animals for the purpose of luxury coats.

I am sorry to indulge in this outburst but I believe that the time has come when nothing should be allowed to pass unnoticed which is a continuance of the ill treatment of animals and the keeping of unsuitable animals under unsuitable conditions for an undesirable purpose. I think that is enough for the time being until the next miserable order comes for the noble Baroness to move about something else in cages, something else that is doing a lot of damage unless it is kept under control. Probably we shall now be allowed to go till Christmas without having our attention diverted to these unhappy subjects. and we can have a more contented Christmas if only noble Lords will have some regard for what happens to other animals at Christmas and will make merry on Stilton cheese.

Lord Walston

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down—and I listened with great interest to his strictures on fur coats—may I ask whether I would be right in assuming that he is an adherent to the old saying that diamonds are a girl's best friend? If so, how does he equate that with his very admirable views on trade with South Africa?

7.35 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I hate to interrupt this happy little moment, but perhaps I may first thank the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, and also the noble Lord, Lord Walston, for their words. I especially thank the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, in view of his long-standing concern over this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, told us a fascinating story about coypus killing ducks. I think that mink must have been present, because coypus only eat plants; they do not eat ducks. Or it may have been some other vile creature which was lurking in the rushes. But it would not have been coypus which were guilty in that case.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is a sad and sorry person on this occasion. This is most certainly not depressing for me. This is a good news story that I am bringing. The end of the coypu is in sight and the mink ban is very good for wildlife, which is something I presume he cares as much about as wishing to see women stop wearing mink coats. I totally disagree with him. I have seen quite a few men wearing mink coats and a great many men wearing fur hats. So I am sorry to disagree with him, hut I think he should look up to a few men, around their collars and on their heads, and see what they are wearing over this festive season.

I would further remind the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, that mink farms are a small hut valuable part of' our farming industry. Most of their production—95 per cent., I think—is for export. Mink are farmed under a strict welfare code. Anyway I have to say, honestly, that they are the most revolting little animals. As regards the numbers of mink, it is not known how many wild mink there are at large, but certainly there are many thousands. I say that in answer to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. As of this moment, the number of farmed mink in England—one can never be quite sure, just as in the case of rabbits—is 73,880, while in Scotland the figure is 25,948, making a grand total of 99,828.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, also asked me whether a total prohibition in the islands, and in the two Scottish counties of which I spoke, would make a difference. The answer is yes. In the past, farms have been established on islands and planning controls have stopped some other island farms. Wildlife is now assured of protection. I think that answers the questions asked of me by noble Lords. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, a very happy, peaceful and untroubled Christmas.

On Question, Motion agreed to.