HL Deb 22 January 1987 vol 483 cc1087-91

6.58 p.m.

Lord Hesketh rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th December be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a very straightforward instrument. It will ban the tooth grinding of sheep by adding this operation to the list of prohibitions already contained in the Welfare of Livestock (Prohibited Operations) Regulations 1982. This regulation follows directly on a recommendation received from the Farm Animal Welfare Council, a body set up by the Government in 1979 to give independent and impartial advice on farm animal welfare matters. The council approaches this task with great dedication and professionalism and I should like to place on record the Government's appreciation for the work it does.

Grinding of sheep teeth can take two forms. Both involve the use of a special gag to hold open the mouth and keep the tongue out of the way while a small battery-operated angle grinder is applied direct to the teeth without anaesthetic. The more extreme form—sometimes known as the "Australian method"—involves cutting through the teeth with the edge of the disc near to the level of the gum. This almost certainly exposes the sensitive pulp cavity in the centre of each tooth—an act which would be painful in itself—and involves consequent risk of infection of both tooth and gum. The less extreme form—which practitioners know as "bite correction"—involves grinding the tops of the teeth with the flat of the cutting disc so that they impact properly on the dental pad.

In June 1986 the Farm Animal Welfare Council advised that the more extreme form of tooth grinding should be permanently banned on welfare grounds, and that the less extreme bite correction technique be banned until research showed whether or not there were any benefits to the animal, or adverse effects on welfare. Interested parties were fully consulted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and most strongly supported the proposed ban, although a minority felt that vets, or other properly trained staff, could be permitted to do bite correction.

There is a good deal of doubt about the overall effect of dental problems on a sheep's performance. Australian researchers argue that there is very little evidence to indicate that sheep with broken mouths have reduced foraging ability. On the more fundamental point about whether tooth grinding can significantly delay tooth loss and thus improve length of life, they conclude that there is no evidence that teeth grinding has any effect on the rate of incisor tooth loss.

There is doubt too about the extent to which sheep might suffer as a direct or long-term result of the grinding process. The Moredun Research Institute in Edinburgh has investigated the short-term effect of bite correction and concluded that the procedure can cause discomfort, although it was unable to say whether this amounted to serious pain. It also found that the present design of gag could damage the mouth, and that even very careful grinding under anaesthetic could come very close to exposing the sensitive pulp cavity.

Clearly we need to find out more, and to that end the Ministry has begun a trial at one of its own farms to compare the results of applying the bite correction technique to a group of sheep with other untreated animals kept as controls. Tooth loss and consequential longevity will be monitored over the next three years or so, and the results should help us come to a final conclusion on the issue. In the meantime it seems right to us, in view of all the unknowns, to call a halt to all forms of tooth grinding.

In so doing we feel that it would be wrong to make exemptions from the ban, even for a group such as veterinary surgeons. If the practice is to be stopped on welfare grounds, then this must apply to all potential operators. The regulations are of course quite specific to tooth grinding, and will not affect any other operation. The only exemption we are in fact making is for the purposes of legitimate research, such as that I have mentioned, under Home Office licence.

In conclusion, I should like to recommend these regulations to the House. They show that the Government are concerned about current animal welfare issues and that we are prepared to take firm action when this is justified. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th December be approved.—(Lord Hesketh.)

7.3 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, said that this was a straightforward order. I am afraid that I must disagree with him. I certainly agree with the idea that keeping a sheep from being "broken mouthed", which is the expression used in the trade, is a tremendous saving to flock owners, particularly in hill sheep areas and in my native country of Scotland. Broken mouthed ewes had to leave the hills and go down to the lowlands at a cheap price where they were fed or put in lamb again by lowland breeders who had the facilities to feed them turnips by cutting them. If they could keep those sheep in the hills and keep them from being broken mouthed for another season or two seasons there was a tremendous saving, because they did not have to renew their flocks because of this difficulty. I gather that it is like dental periodontitis—I think that is the expression.

I am just as keen as anybody to save animals from pain. When as a boy I went to the dentist—and that is a long time ago—there was no syringe to stop the pain; one had to put up with the grinding. I remember that it did not seem too bad, if my memory is good enough to think that far back. I gather that grinding—and I am not referring to the Australian method that the noble Lord mentioned—is the normal method of levelling off the teeth so that they do not have too much pressure on them, which causes disease. Grinding is not all that painful. I feel that to ban it completely in the way the order does and not even to allow a veterinary surgeon to do it for a farmer is going too far.

I used to be chairman of the hill sheep committee of one of the HFRO hill farms near where I farmed in Scotland. At that time—when the Australian method of grinding came over—we carried out a good deal of research on dental treatment of sheep. I never heard at that time that there was any great cruelty in the operation. I know that where a veterinary surgeon or a skilled operator was not available the taking of pliers to do it was definitely cruel and was not effective because it often split the tooth and its effect did not last much longer, anway.

I feel that the order goes too far. If the Ministry is not sure, I cannot see why it cannot be left, at least in some cases, for veterinary surgeons to do the job on farms. The order says that nothing must be done on the farm. Surely a veterinary surgeon attending there could be allowed to do the job. As the noble Lord said in his speech, there is no real proof that the levelling off of teeth with a proper grinder by somebody who knows what he is doing is cruel.

I should like to think that the Government will give this matter some thought. I should like to think that the research—and a tremendous amount has been carried out already—will be done quickly so that flock owners who are not in a very good position in hill areas will not be disadvantaged. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Elliot, is not here because she would have backed me up to the hilt. I should like the noble Lord to think again about this matter.

7.8 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I apologise for arriving in the Chamber two or three minutes after the noble Lord had begun his remarks. I wish to raise a matter of which the Minister is aware. The British Veterinary Association has been making known its view that while it is entirely in favour of the ban on the more painful method of sheep teeth grinding, it thought that the milder form of treatment, which might be desirable for therapeutic reasons for the health of the sheep, might be undertaken by a qualified veterinary surgeon in the ordinary course of his work.

On the face of it it looks as though that would be prohibited also. If that is the case it may be desirable to introduce that degree of flexibility into the order. I shall be glad to hear what the Minister has to say about this. For my part, I welcome anything that reduces what I regard as the malpractices and mutilations which, for one reason or another, animals often undergo in animal husbandry. Much of what is done to animals is for the sake of appearance, for the sake of avoidance of diseases or for economic reasons. One is not quite sure why all these things are done. However, there have been many practices that have lasted a long time but which eventually have been regarded as undesirable and have been prohibited. This is one of them, and there are still some others. The Farm Animal Welfare Council, whose efforts should be appreciated by all noble Lords in the House, works very hard on a wide and complex field of investigation, and sometimes it is not fully rewarded for what it does.

Now and again one should take the advice of advisory committees and do something about it, otherwise they are discouraged and disheartened and feel that the whole system is unproductive. I am not making any complaint in particular on the matter that is before the House at this moment, but in general I think that a great deal of attention needs to be given to what is received through the channels provided for by the House in legislation and otherwise to obtain the best advice for our own actions.

This afternoon I telephoned the Minister's office to find out whether the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, would be informed about this matter, and I presumed that if he were informed about it then the noble Lord opposite would also know of it. I was told that he would be informed of it. I should just like to ask the Minister whether we can be told the attitude of the Government on the representations that have been made by the BVA. Perhaps I may add a word about my interest in this matter. For what few services I have rendered to animals I was made an Honorary Associate (which is purely honorific) of the British Veterinary Association, and I have no other interest. I intervene to speak for any relaxation of a prohibition only because I think that the BVA feels that what it seeks is reasonable in the circumstances. I put that question to the Minister for reply.

7.12 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, this has been a most useful if very short debate. I am very grateful for the contributions made by both noble Lords, Lord John-Mackie and Lord Hougton of Sowerby. To answer the first two points that were brought up by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, the Government are following the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. We are not in any way proposing completely to eliminate for ever the lesser of the two forms of action. We have taken the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council and on that basis we shall conduct a trial. I know that some people might feel that there are others who should possibly be able to conduct their own trials at the same time. As I said in my opening speech, in order to try to avoid making the wrong exemptions, we have had to limit the scope to its present form.

With regard to periodontitis, I am told that we have no evidence that sheep tooth grinding cures this illness. I hope that remark does not inspire the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, to disagree.

The noble Lord, Lord Hougton, raised the question of the position of the British Veterinary Association with regard to its not being allowed to grind teeth for the duration of the trial. The difficulty lies in the question of who should and who should not be allowed to do this. We have made it very clear that this measure will only be for three years, during the Ministry trial. It is of course quite possible that at the end of that time the more minor form of grinding will be considered perfectly acceptable.

Animal welfare is a sensitive subject about which people have strong feelings, as is seen from the Ministry's large postbag on the subject. Therefore it is important to try to be as objective as possible when formulating legislation in this field. I have explained the Government's reasons for bringing forward this measure, which in some sense is an interim step. By all means we can have another look at the situation when current research has been completed and assessed. Meanwhile, I am glad that the House has shown some sympathy with the Government's views on tooth grinding, and I can assure those who have spoken that their comments will receive careful consideration.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask whether he will find out how much research there has been in the past? I can tell him that way back before the war, when I was chairman of a hill farm in Scotland, we were conducting research there. If the HFRO has been carrying out research, has it been ignored?

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I shall investigate this matter and write to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie.

On Question, Motion agreed to.