HL Deb 17 February 1988 vol 493 cc677-738

4.25 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, we on these Benches are grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for drawing our attention to the report. It is an important report, it is delivered as the European Year of the Environment is drawing to its close and at a time when public concern and interest in environmental protection and in the whole area of wildlife continues to grow.

As the report says, the NCC's responsibilities are diverse. But with so many of your Lordships speaking, it is virtually certain that all or nearly all of the subjects raised in this report will receive the expert attention of one or other of your Lordships. I personally intend to exercise severe self-restraint by dealing with one single matter.

I was very tempted to raise the subject of the continuing development of skiing in Scotland and I hoped that the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson of Bowden, would have had a word to say about that. I should have liked to have said something about the extremely slow designation of marine nature reserves. Indeed the noble Earl has already drawn our attention to the fact that as yet only one has been designated in the course of seven years. However, I shall not deal with those subjects. I propose to speak about environmentally sensitive areas—ESA's.

As the chairman says in his review at page seven, the designation of ESA's is potentially of great long-term significance. I stress the word "potentially". It is good to learn on page seven that the NCC has allocated additional resources for the ESAs and is giving more time to its ESA project officers.

It is worth reminding your Lordships of the pioneering project as regards the Broads grazing marshes scheme and the Peak National Park—an integrated rural development project—both of which can be said to have been forerunners of ESAs on our own native soil. I should like to pay a tribute to the Ministers of Agriculture at the time and, indeed, to Mr. William Waldegrave, who receives a well deserved tribute in this report, for getting the ESAs off to such a good start. I am delighted that the Government should have decided not to await further experience with the pilot ESAs before making further designations.

However, when it comes to dispensing credit—and here I am very happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson of Bowden—it is above all to the farmers in the areas so designated that credit is due for their readiness to co-operate. It was natural that there should be a certain number of reservations and doubts in the minds of some of them. A friend of mine who farms in the uplands on the Welsh Border in my own parish of Llanfairwaterdine has wondered whether it may become the "thin end of the wedge". That is the first stage in a more rigorous and demanding list of conditions in tier two of the agreement. I sympathise with that concern. I hope that in the event there will no cause for it. Tier two asks a great deal of people whose traditional livelihood will be or is likely to be adversely affected by the EC legislation.

Given the example which has been set by my friend and others like him—participation, to the tune of some 90 per cent. of the 400 farms in "the Shropshire borders" ESA; and hopefully 70 per cent. participation in tier two—the prospects are promising in that particular ESA. In another sense I personally hope that the potential referred to by the chairman of the NCC will be realised and that the ESAs will increase in number and be expanded in size to include the balance of the original list proposed jointly by the NCC and the Countryside Commission. I further hope that the ESA status will eventually be accorded to national parks and AONBs—areas of outstanding natural beauty. At present, ESAs are relatively small areas within or outwith those designations. Therefore, when the Minister replies perhaps he will say something on the matter of increasing and expanding ESAs.

We surely want to avoid a situation whereby one ESA such as the Shropshire borders, consisting of 21,000 hectares, is improved in the real terms of its environmental values, its wildlife habitats and archaeological sites while adjacent upland areas to the north and south along the Welsh border are improved in an agricultural sense but lose out environmentally, their heather and rough grazing ploughed and re-seeded, their hedges and single trees uprooted, wire proliferating and new farm buildings springing up while older traditional buildings fall into disrepair.

The chairman makes two points in the first paragraph of the review which are of special relevance to the success of ESAs. He calls for forestry policies more sensitive to major conservation and points to the need for co-operation by all concerned in seeking solutions to the problems arising from nature conservation. The Countryside Commission also expressed concern in its policy document Forestry and the countryside, published in December 1987, that forestry in the designated areas, should not detract from their natural beauty". In an earlier policy paper, A better future for the uplands, published in March 1984, the commission pressed for forestry to be subject to planning controls above a proposed 50 hectares.

I am particularly concerned about the bearing of that sentiment and that statement of policy on the ESAs. I am concerned because of the small size of the ESAs. In the Shropshire borders ESA agreement, there is no mention of not planting conifers as an alternative crop. It may well be implicit in the undertaking to maintain the status quo. The existing woodlands are excluded from the ESAs as such. New planting will depend on the attitude of the Forestry Commission and ADAS, the Agricultural Development Advisory Service.

I believe it should be made explicit that there should be no conifer planting. As everyone who knows the Welsh border country is aware, it is an area where the linear regiments of dark conifers march up and down and across the shapely hills and tend to dominate the landscape. We cannot afford to have more of them. Meanwhile, short of planning controls, is it not desirable to enlist the co-operation of the Forestry Commission in the ESAs to landscape the existing conifer plantations with fringes of local broadleaved trees such as oak and beech in which local wildlife such as the buzzard, the raven and the pied flycatcher can survive? When the Minister replies perhaps he can say something about forestry in the ESAs.

I turn to the second point made by Mr. Wilkinson in his review Working together. It is referred to at page 64 of the report. An excellent example is given, at page 8, of Coed Cymru, a joint project involving the Nature Conservancy Council and other agencies to save the ancient woodlands of the Principality. This kind of co-operation is, or should be, the keynote to conservation in all its aspects—landscape, archaeology, other scientific interests and forestry.

If I have any criticism of the report, it concerns the very scant reference—appearing only in the context of research at page 35 and, in the Coed Cymru project, at page 8—to the Countryside Commission. The commission is the counterpart of the NCC. It is its partner in regard to the ESAs. Its responsibilities lie in the wider conservation of the countryside within which the particular interests of the NCC are located. Many species of wildlife depend upon that wider catchment area for their survival. Perhaps the Minister can assure the House that these two statutory bodies are in all respects working closely together.

4.35 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, we must all be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for initiating this debate. He speaks with great authority on these matters. I am one of those privileged to sit under his chairmanship on the Environment Sub-Committee.

This is the first time that the Nature Conservancy Council has been debated in the House since it was set up in 1973. I think that we should debate it more often. Before the debate I reread not only the 13th report but also the NCC book "Nature Conservation in Great Britain", which came out in 1984. It seemed to me an admirable survey. I commend it to noble Lords who are not familiar with it. It struck me on reading it that there was a paradox in that in the last 40 years, since the second world war, there has been an immense growth in concern throughout the country about conservation. Half a million people now belong to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for example. But, in the same 40 years, immense damage has been done to very many habitats in the country—marshes, chalk downs, hedges, ancient woodlands, hay meadows. All is documented thoroughly in the NCC's book.

I remember when I was a boy seeing birds like quail and water rails in Wiltshire, which I do not think one would see now. There has been an enormous decline in the number of butterflies. Even once common birds like partridges and snipe are now much scarcer. The important thing now is surely to ensure that in the next 40 years we do not continue that process but halt and reverse it.

In that, I believe that the Nature Conservancy Council must be in the lead. It is doing a very important job at present under its distinguished chairman, Mr. Wilkinson. It has notable and distinguished members on its council—people like Sir Andrew Huxley and the noble Lord, Lord Middleton. I think that most noble Lords will warmly applaud the work that it has done.

I wonder whether the time has come when that work should be extended to the whole of the United Kingdom. It seems odd that it is restricted simply to Great Britain. Once again we have left out Northern Ireland. This may be a point about which the noble Lord, Lord Blease, will say something later. I think that it should cover all the United Kingdom.

I have one other small criticism. I note that only 5.5 per cent. of the total budget of the Nature Conservancy Council is spent on the wider countryside, which of course is by far the greatest part of the land area of the country, especially now that the process of renotifying SSSIs is beginning to come to an end. It would be a good thing if in future the NCC could spend rather more on the wider countryside.

I have a further small criticism. There have been some instances in the past when the Nature Conservancy Council has, I think, been a little insensitive in dealing with matters of field sports. After all, field sports like fishing and shooting have contributed a great deal to conservation in the past, and most of the fox coverts and pheasant coverts in the country are havens for wildlife. I noted recently, for example, after Chimbolton Common on the Test was notified as an SSSI, that the anglers on the Test are concerned because they have no legal guarantee that they will be able to continue, or that their successors in ownership of the riparian rights will continue to be allowed to fish for trout. We must preserve the sedges and insects along the banks of the Test, but it seems reasonable that people should have a right to fish there just as people at Newmarket may train horses. I believe that the NCC should work even more closely than it does today with the many organisations, like the Freshwater Biological Association, the Anglers Co-operative Association and all the others concerned with water problems and field sports.

In its report the NCC mentioned three main areas of concern; namely, agriculture, forestry and estuaries. As regards agriculture we are clearly facing a period of great change after the rather murky compromise reached recently in Brussels. The Prime Minister seems to have set out for Brussels like St. George about to slay the dreadful dragon of the CAP. However the dreadful dragon seems to be still in very good form and liable to be with us for a considerable time.

I notice that a policy of set-aside was decided at Brussels. What seems to me to be very important is that in a period in which there are to be great changes in agricultural practice the NCC and the Countryside Commission should be very fully consulted and should play a leading part in ensuring that these changes are beneficial to wildlife.

I do not propose to say much about forestry because many of your Lordships are much more expert than I on the subject. I welcome the Chairman's remark in his report that he would, prefer greater incentives to encourage positive management of broadleaved woods to benefit nature conservation. I believe that one of the most sensible statements I have seen recently about forestry was the letter in The Times of 5th February from Mr. Barber, the chairman of the Countryside Commission. He called for a national forestry policy to be based upon multiple objectives. That seems to me to be very important and I hope very careful note will be taken of what he said.

I am glad to see that in the Government's reply to Mr. Wilkinson which was announced by Mr. Rifkind in another place on 23rd October, the Government said that they had taken careful note of what the NCC had said concerning the need to review the present tax incentives for forestry. I believe that very many people would agree about that need.

As regards estuaries I believe the importance of our coastline and estuaries for wading birds and wildfowl can hardly be over-emphasised. They are a very important and central part of the Eastern Atlantic flyway. Birds come from Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Siberia and Scandinavia and they all come to winter in Britain or they pass through on their way south and then return.

In the past a good deal of damage has been done to our estuaries through land reclamation and the establishment of oil terminals, docks and so on. Sometimes it seems that the measures we are now proposing are almost frivolous. For example I might mention the Cardiff Bay Barrage which is proposed not for any economic benefit but simply in order that those who are to live on the reclaimed part should look out on muddy water rather than on what are now called "unsightly mud fiats". I believe we ought to take serious notice of the future of our estuaries.

Lastly there is one very small point about TBT or tributyl tin mentioned at page 53 of the report which we are considering. It is described there by the NCC as, the most toxic biocide ever deliberately introduced into the marine environment. I know that it has been banned for small boats and for fish farms. I wonder whether it is safe to allow it to continue to be used by large ships until we know what effect it is having in deeper water and when these ships come into harbour. I wonder whether we ought not to conduct careful research with the NCC and the National Environmental Research Council into possible alternatives for use on large as well as small ships.

4.45 p.m.

Earl Granville

My Lords, I fear that it is far too long but I have never had the temerity to come and speak here. So I must ask for the indulgence of your Lordships for any mistakes that I am sure to make. I would not now be so bold had I not been lucky enough to have lived in North Uist for 30 years. That gave me the opportunity of meeting and getting to know the nature conservancy people. I made good friends with them and I strongly support their aims.

I shall restrict myself to our domestic concerns. Grey seals and geese have been a problem over recent years but they are both apt to be controversial subjects so I had better not refer to them and instead refer to SSSIs. Between the 1940s and 1981 there were few regulations and in fact an owner or occupier of an SSSI did not necessarily know that he had one on his land. If there was a worry about birds, plants or habitat the regional officer, when asked, would come over, chat up the crofter concerned and, possibly over a dram, get an agreement to leave alone or mind that piece of land. This nearly always worked.

After 1981 the governing bodies responsible for SSSI's were equipped with the teeth they needed but there may have been a rush of teeth to the head with some assistant regional officers. A number of them had urban backgrounds and, with the law behind them, some may have become a little overenthusiastic bearing in mind that the conditions in the Western Isles are, thank heavens, very different from those in England and some parts of Scotland with very little threat from developers and the like. I have heard fairly recently of many complaints of the arrogance and high-handedness of the NCC which is in direct contrast to the feeling previously. I am sure this was due to one individual who was known to be abrasive and who did not get on with the crofters. He seemingly made little effort to do so. He has now moved and I hear that he is making his presence felt in another part of Scotland. The NCC is responsible for the officers it appoints and for their methods. I am glad to say that the present assistant regional officer covering the Uists is a charming and very helpful lady who has already done much to restore the good name of nature conservancy.

As regards the SSSIs, there are eight notified or re-notified in North Uist; two concern offshore uninhabited islands; five are what one might call blanket covers and take in over 9,500 acres out of a total of just over 105,000 acres. What is more relevant is the number of crofts affected to a greater or lesser degree, which is 250.

I do not believe that even the regional officers whom I have met can visit that number on the same basis as previously. At the moment in North Uist we have only two management agreements. One of them raises an interesting point. A crofter on Baleshare, with a blanket SSSI, had been granted an apportionment of the common grazing on condition that he drained and cultivated it. He was not allowed to do this so he negotiated his management agreement. Now he is technically in default of his agreement and should perhaps return the land and his compensation to the township. Fortunately any decision is the responsibility of the crofters' commission which seems to be keeping a low profile. This might affect other crofters when they come to negotiate a management agreement.

The other case is more local and concerns a prohibited drainage ditch. The crofter responsible for one end is enjoying his management agreement but the crofter at the other end is still waiting for his agreement after three years. One might call it an island anomaly.

There is an instance of conflict between the NCC and a fish farm about an SSSI which might be of interest to fish farmers. A fish farm supplying salmon eggs and smolts to Western Isles' on-growers had the intention to expand into Loch Obisary when the time was right. He had cages with salmon smolts there for a year and a survey from the Scottish Marine Biological Association; all of this before the SSSI was designated. The Western Isles Council has laid down that fish farms have to have planning permission in which case the NCC is asked for its recommendation. When the fish farm wanted to proceed, the NCC advised against it, thereby not only preventing the fish farm from expanding its business but also debarring it from negotiating a management agreement.

As regards the SSSIs on the rest of the Eastern Isles, I have only the numbers but not the acreages involved or the crofts affected. In Lewis there are 18 SSSIs; in Harris there are eight; in North Uist, eight; in Benbecula, two; in South Uist, five; and in Barra, two. There is only one management agreement in Lewis and Harris and there are 11 in the Southern Isles. The only reaction to SSSIs that I have heard is a no doubt malicious rumour that South Uist is delighted with SSSIs which may stop their snipe bogs being drained. Such a thought would never have occurred to me.

I would urge the NCC, if it so wishes and if it can find room for more SSSIs in the Western Isles, to restrict the areas to specifics and to maintain a personal approach with or without the drams.

4.51 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, it is a privilege for me to follow the noble Earl after his excellent maiden speech—excellent in its content, thoughtfulness and caring, in presenting the down-to-earth issues of nature conservation and in its quiet manner of presentation. I suppose that it is what we should have expected from him. He had a very distinguished career in the services in the last war. He has given excellent service, and it is a great privilege for me to congratulate him here today and to wish him well on behalf of the House. I can almost say that we share a common interest in the better things of Ireland. Looking at his address—and he spoke about the Outer Hebrides—I am almost tempted to say that we are part of the Celtic fringe. I hope that he will find health, happiness and a sense of commitment to the procedures of the House and be with us often to take part in debates such as this.

Before I take part in the debate I wish to explain to the House that I have an unavoidable commitment this evening and I may have to leave before the debate is concluded. I have explained to the Minister and tendered my apology.

From the list of noble Lords who are to take part in this debate and from the remarks of those who have already spoken, it is evident that this 13th report of the Nature Conservancy Council is timely and challenging. I agree with the opening words, where the NCC chairman states: There is no doubt that the general public is attaching increasing importance to nature conservation and the countryside generally". I am pleased to say that those words are true also of the general community attitude in Northern Ireland. What is absent is imaginative and understanding leadership with clearly defined management objectives for nature conservation. That will be the main thrust of my remarks in the debate this evening. I have been encouraged by the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who spoke about the importance of management in conservation.

The legislative territorial remit of the Nature Conservancy Council covers the regions of England, Scotland and Wales. However, it is gratifying to note from Chapter 8 of the report on page 66 the much wider horizons of the activities of the NCC. This part of the report deals with the wide range of the input, the influence and the interests of the council in relevant international matters. It explains the ways in which the council has helped to shape and influence the principles of the world conservation strategy and to inspire the hopeful developments at the international conference held in Ottawa in June 1987.

Along with the work in a number of other international nature conservation bodies, there are references to the council's participation in the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and in the activities of the new European Committee for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. It is obvious from this chapter of the report that in its representations on the various international bodies the council speaks for the whole of the United Kingdom and for the United Kingdom Government. I was pleased to hear the reference of the noble Lord, Lord Moran, to Northern Ireland. He has encouraged me to develop this point about the remit of the council.

Along with others in Northern Ireland, and especially people in the Province directly concerned with conservation work, I welcome and warmly support this important, indeed vital, role, and the high standing of the NCC in these international conservation activities. Great Britain cannot remain isolated from what is happening internationally. It must take a larger part in what is happening in the world. If that means taking into consideration part of Northern Ireland, then all to the better.

However, I consider it pertinent to suggest to the NCC that as Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom it may be helpful to the council, and I am sure useful to Northern Ireland, if the NCC could take an interest in the current state of nature conservation in the Province. In the few minutes I have in this debate I wish to speak about some aspects of nature conservation in Northern Ireland. As elsewhere, there is a growing awareness of the need for conservation and of the urgency of the challenge confronting us all.

Among all parts of the community in Northern Ireland there is an awakening to the great treasure house of wildlife, to the richness of the flora and the fauna and to the great variety and beauty of the landscape, with a new vista in every turn of the road. Sadly, there is much lacking in the legislative provisions, and the administrative framework for the Province falls far short of the glaring need for a suitable nature conservation strategy. There is an urgent need for a co-ordinated protection policy against widespread damage to the countryside. Clear administrative action is required to counter the critical loss of the precious and delightful variety of wildlife in the Province. In addition, there is a serious decline of natural resources through thoughtlessness, mismanagement and neglect.

The present legislation governing nature conservation is the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. The provisions and functions of the order are under the control and authority of the Minister and the countryside and wildlife branch of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland. Under that legislation, two advisory committees have been appointed by the Northern Ireland Minister —the Ulster Countryside Committee and the Committee for Nature Conservation. I understand from members of both committees who have expressed their views that in the three years since they were established there has been little or no progress in practical conservation matters. The meetings of both committees are wholly discursive and lacking in bite. They do not involve the deliberative and decision-making processes that are necessary to promote enthusiasm and inspire action. Some of the members have found such involvement totally frustrating and a diversion from their previous efforts and commitment to the practical tasks required to progress nature conservation.

One body in Northern Ireland which is earnestly and strenuously making efforts to meet this challenge of change is the Northern Ireland Environment Group. This informal association of some 16 voluntary conservation and amenity organisations consists of representatives of academic distinction and professional practitioners of proven experience and commitment to nature conservation matters. It has stated that there is a need for an independent commission for nature conservation in Northern Ireland, with its own professional staff who will be able to take the initiative in new ways of thinking and in resource management and operation and who would be able to advocate new policies whenever and wherever the need arises.

Had time been available this evening, I could have given the House more extensive information about the tremendous destruction of the countryside and loss of wildlife—precious wildlife in the Northern Ireland context. A number of studies have been carried out by Queen's University, the University of Ulster and other organisations. However, I am more concerned in getting over the point about the machinery required to promote some adjustment to the needs of Northern Ireland.

This presentation is not merely a request for the appointment of another quango or a demand for more financial resources; it is a plea for the establishment of adequate and effective administrative machinery and the efficient use of existing resources. That point has been cogently stated by Dr. Arthur Mitchell of the Northern Ireland Environment Group, when he recently spoke to a town planning institute conference. He said: I don't want anything above what you have in the UK mainland. I just want what you do have, and regard as having had it rightfully". I do not know whether that Irish alliteration comes across, but Dr. Mitchell meant that we have it here in the mainland as of right and we should like to have it in the Province.

I hope that the chairman and the officials of the NCC will read the Official Report of the debate and that they will be helped by what they glean from it in connection with the wider context of Great Britain and in the international field. I hope that they will consider matters in the Northern Ireland context and make suitable arrangements for a meeting with the Northern Ireland Environment Group. I consider that the public in Great Britain is fortunate to have this excellently prepared report and we are fortunate to have the opportunity for this debate.

I conclude by inviting the Minister to convey to the Secretary of State and Ministers in the Northern Ireland Offices a request that earnest consideration be given to the proposal that an independent commission or an agency be established for nature conservation in Northern Ireland.

5.4 p.m.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, 1 add the congratulations of this side of the House to those that have already been expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Blease, to the noble Earl, Lord Granville, on his excellent maiden speech. How much we all agree with him when he says that so much depends on the confidence the local agricultural community has in the local regional officer of the Nature Conservancy Council. We all hope that the sound commonsense and excellent leadership which has been shown by the present chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council in England and Wales, and his counterpart in Scotland, will start to permeate through the whole of the organisation.

I feel that I must declare an interest, as the owner of the most westerly, large expanse of lowland blanket mire at Altnaharra in Sutherland, which is shown on many of the old 18th century maps. It is marked as "Lord Reay's Green Table". It is the land lying at the head of the River Naver watershed where, over several thousand acres, rainfall of some 45 inches per annum feeds a vast peat sponge of immense scientific value. That importance was recognised by the International Mire Conference when it visited the flows in September 1986, and declared it to be the most unusual mire formation in the whole of the British Isles.

I should like to make clear what we mean by a "flow". A flow is a large damp area at the head of the watershed where the rainfall takes a long time to make up its mind which way it will go. Therefore, it stays there for a long time. That is what makes this sponge which is so important for the environment of any watershed.

I want to deal especially with page 9 of the conservancy's annual report. It stresses the need to encourage the traditional land uses in the area. We must recognise the problems associated with carrying on the present pattern of land management in those areas. Hill sheep farming is viable only so long as the present level of support is continued. Any increase in the stock of farm animals will result in grazing pressures which will damage the fragile balance on the moorland. Re-seeding and fertilising some parts of the hill are of dubious current value and do not provide a true long-term improvement.

The stocks of deer, grouse and salmon are the other source of employment; but they will not stand the increased cull needed to meet present-day wage levels and the expenses of such a remote area. We must face the fact that just to leave the flows alone will not ensure that they will survive nor that the communities that live in them can possibly survive.

There are only two alternatives: a new partnership with the Nature Conservancy Council in line with its sentiments expressed in the annual report, or the development of a forest industry. The recent announcement by the Secretary of State on the need to reach a balance between conservation and forestry interests recognises that forestry in the flow country is a growing part of the local economy. The timber yield is as good as in many more widely accepted forestry areas, and establishment costs are much lower.

Reports are circulating about a demand to change the tax treatment of individuals who undertake forestry planting. Planting trees is an article of faith. If the nation wants to reduce its timber imports, then individuals must be encouraged to make that commitment. The taxpayers' contribution is directly affected by the costs of planting. In Sutherland and Caithness, because the establishment costs are lower, the taxpayer is actually getting good value for money.

The alternative, if forestry is not acceptable—of course it is not acceptable in much of that area—is equally contained in the Secretary of State's Statement that the Nature Conservancy Council must be given encouragement to protect the vast area of up to 400,000 hectares encompassing the flow country of scientific importance, either by its SSSI procedure or by its power under the Countryside Acts of 1949 and 1968. The money needed to safeguard these areas is not great on any reasonable scale. I trust the Government will make it available so that the planting right can be extinguished, leaving the sporting and restricted grazing rights in this area. When we consider the conservation problems I think we must face up to the fact that islands of conservation are not enough. A few SSSIs dotted about the place achieve nothing; they waste money in fact. The real wilderness needs scope for its proper preservation. The flows of Sutherland are also peopled by pastoral communities; they are not the sort of people who will work in forestry, and they certainly do not want to be displaced by forestry interests.

In conclusion, I think that we must bear in mind the immense damage that a forest does to the fishing industry. An inch of rain falling on an acre of heather and bracken runs off at 90 per cent., and an inch of rain falling on an acre of coniferous trees which have canopied at 20 years runs off at only 28 per cent. A forest is a very thirsty neighbour, to say nothing of the increase in peat and acidity in the rivers brought about by forest ploughing. For every yard ploughed in order to establish a forest, six yards of raw peat is exposed. Then the rushing of the water down these new peat drains washes out the spawning beds and it destroys the valuable sponge, which I mentioned in the first instance, that is so important in times of drought.

Whatever noble Lords may think about wetness in the Highlands, one must bear in mind what a low rainfall there is in eastern Sutherland and Caithness when compared with some other parts of the Highlands. I am certain that during the course of this debate other Members of your Lordships' House will stress the damage to birdlife in the flow country from too much forestry. I believe that we have all neglected the botanical and entomological importance of this area. Over the past 20 years we have all seen what a partnership with forestry—not necessarily the Forestry Commission—can do in this part of the world. But what we have not got in the flow country is a proper working partnership with the Nature Conservancy Council. It is my ambition to establish such a partnership in the centre of Sutherland in the hope that others will see it as an alternative way of managing the area.

I have reason to believe that the Nature Conservancy Council would welcome such a move if the resources which are relatively small in national terms could be made available. If public money is to be spent to preserve these unique hydrological systems from afforestation then public access and information must be available. There are new employment opportunities here for informing the public about the wilderness, and that is what we are trying to protect. I hope that during the course of the next year we shall see that the planting right will be extinguished on a large part of the flow area and then in some 90 years' time perhaps subsequent generations will have time to see how the balance of birds, bogs and forestry has been maintained.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I should like to join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Granville, on his maiden speech and to tell him how much we look forward to hearing him often in this House. I should also like to express my apologies to the Minister. Unfortunately due to the Statement and because I have another appointment this evening I shall leave as soon as I have finished my speech. I am very sad about this but I hope the noble Earl will forgive me.

I should like to congratulate the Nature Conservancy Council on this magnificent report, and most of all on the outstanding progress which it has made in the designations of environmentally sensitive areas; the notification of sites of special scientific interest; management contracts and the acquisition and management of national nature reserves. This has often been in co-operation with voluntary conservation bodies and individual owners. There is a very good record contained in the report.

I suppose one must also congratulate the council on its report last July on birds, bogs and forestry which drew particular attention to the flow country in Sutherland and Caithness. I suppose I must admit to having a certain interest in forestry since I have some forestry in Scotland and also down in the South of England. What strikes me as being quite unacceptable in our dealings with planning permission for forestry is that we have no licensing system in this country. On the other hand, everybody looks on the grants for planting agreed with the Forestry Commission as a virtual licence. Therefore one must to a certain extent blame the Forestry Commission for what went on in the flow country. Although the local planning authorities have limited powers, they are involved in the principle of the change of use of land. So the ordinary investor who wants to go and plant forests cannot do so without those two restrictions. However, they obviously have not been enough because we have made too many mistakes.

I was delighted to see in the report in the Guardian that the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr. Malcolm Rifkind, reported that he had given permission for another 5,223 acres to be planted. I was also delighted to read that the Highlands Regional Council is setting up a working party to produce a land use strategy. I understand that the report is expected next month. 1 believe that all over the country we should have much more strategy planning about land use than we have had in the past.

However, I really want to talk about the taxation problems of forestry. I suppose everybody has read the supplement in the Observer about the kinds of people who are investing in forestry in Scotland at the moment. The conclusion is that they do so because it is a good tax incentive. It is very rarely mentioned that the estate duty relief on probate is also of great importance to people who happen to have some money which they want to invest long-term. If we want forestry to grow in a balanced manner in this country, we must give some incentive to people to plant. If there is no incentive, then, because of the long-term character of investing in forestry, which is a minimum of 60 years, there would be very little investment.

Some people argue that when the Schedule D incentive to planting was introduced a very large sum of money was paid by the Government because that was in the days when income tax and surtax were in the region of 85 to 90 or 94 per cent. So for the high earners the Government paid the majority of the investment in the first instance.

We now have a lower maximum rate of tax and there are some people who hope that after the next budget it will be only 50 per cent. This means that everybody who invests in forestry contributes pound for pound towards its cost against the Government's Schedule D assessment. I believe that that is perhaps not a bad thing. But if it is to remain I should like it to he confined to landowners who use their own land to plant forestry. However I do not believe that it will remain and I am doubtful whether it should because the problem of the cost of the scheme to the Exchequer is very difficult to quantify. So the suggestion is that one removes the Schedule D provision and replaces it by ongoing maintenance grants for a number of years. That is easily quantified. A study must be made to ascertain the cost of such a scheme.

The scheme would have to continue for some years and for longer in the case of hardwood planting. But one of its benefits would be that it would fit in with the Government's and the EC's proposed policy on set-aside and the farm woodland scheme. Moreover, it would not discriminate against the smaller farmer who has no interest in writing off his income under Schedule D because he probably does not have very much of an income. But it would help both the larger landowner and the small farmer.

I do however consider it essential that the assessment for tax under Schedule B should remain. Otherwise we shall not encourage planting in areas of reasonable economic returns. I also believe that it is essential in major forestry programmes, both public and private, that we fulfil the EC requirement for an environmental impact assessment. In that way all interested parties including the Nature Conservancy Council would have an input into the design of the forestry programme.

Timber products cost us about £5 billion a year in foreign exchange. It is therefore essential that we manage our afforestation programme efficiently. We must give enough encouragement to the people who want to go in for forestry, but we must also safeguard our countryside.

I come from Sweden and one only has to look at the contribution that Swedish forestry makes to the Swedish national economy. In my view it is well managed with a continuous replanting programme. There is limited clear felling and much natural regeneration which creates forests of different ages. We really must look at the whole of our afforestation programme so that we do not deface the countryside but manage to create forests that are natural and look natural. We have a lot to learn.

5.23 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I too would like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Granville on his maiden speech and express the hope that he will drag himself away from the Western Isles in order to be with us from time to time in future. I also wish to thank my noble friend Lord Cranbrook for the excellent way in which he laid the foundations of this very important debate.

The importance of the work of the Nature Conservancy Council can best be seen and measured by our acknowledging that this planet is so far the only place on which physical life is known to exist. Of all the countries on this earth not many possess the varied climate, soil and rich wildlife that we have here. It has taken millions of years to create and it is or should be a cherished part of our heritage, but in the past 150 years too much of it has been destroyed forever.

I wish to put into their context the interesting figures quoted by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook when he mentioned that national nature reserves occupy only 160,000 hectares, of which the Nature Conservancy Council owns only 43,000 hectares. That is in a land area of Great Britain of nearly 23 million hectares of which nearly two-thirds is agricultural if we include the rough grazings; 2.3 million hectares are already covered by forests. That is just over 10 per cent. of the total land area of Great Britain. Most of those forests are conifer forests.

The Nature Conservancy Council, as has been said, is doing a wonderful job in the face of various obstacles, each of which strangely enough is subject to regulation in one way or another by Act of Parliament. These obstacles sometimes give rise to conflicts with public authorities as well as with individuals. But conflicts with public authorities can only be resolved by Ministers. I shall briefly mention those obstacles. There are four of them, speaking in the broad.

There is pollution of various kinds, industrial and urban development, agriculture and forestry. The last three may and generally do cause loss of habitat of wildlife. Pollution was discussed in a short debate on 13th January but I wish to add two points which I consider of some importance. The Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act was passed 37 years ago and much progress has been made under it in cleaning up our rivers. But 10 per cent. of our rivers and canals are still badly polluted and river pollution has been increasing in recent years. Pollution has also been caused increasingly in recent years by farm waste and by overloaded sewage works. These are matters in which the Government can use their influence and provide further resources.

Industrial and urban development is made necessary by our ever-increasing human population. That is a problem which I hope we shall debate before long. We have not debated it fully in your Lordships' House for some years. One reads in the centre pages of The Times this morning that before the end of the century—and that is not far off—room will have to be found in the South-East of England alone for another 1 million families.

Meanwhile we must bear in mind that, although most local planning authorities want to protect their environment, they do not consider themselves bound by the need to protect wildlife. I suggest that our planning procedures should be re-examined so as to require local planning authorities to join with the NCC and others in protecting wildlife.

As regards agriculture, we are entering a new and more hopeful phase in which it will be in our farmers' interests to act upon advice given by the NCC. They seem more willing to do so than they were in the past. The agriculture Ministers will of course have an important part to play in this.

I now come to the NCC's most difficult area of conflict; namely, forestry. No one is against forestry in the right place, although I must say from my knowledge of Scotland especially that we now have much less need for planting more conifers than we had after the last war. I suggest that the highest priority now in the use of incentives to individuals and in government resources must be in restoring plantations in the South of England which were so badly devastated by the hurricane in October and by other gales. That surely must be the highest priority in forestry.

The important factor in forestry is surely to ensure that it is carried out where it does not damage the environment or ruin for ever the habitats of wildlife. That brings one yet again to the best known conflict between nature conservation and forestry, which is the threat to the flow country. That is a matter on which my noble friend Lord Kimball spoke with great local knowledge and, if I may say so, great conviction. I enjoyed his speech very much.

My noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa has asked me to mention that problem. He is not present this evening because he is studying bird life in the Galapagos. First, he feels—and I agree with him—that the flow country is a unique and separate issue from forestry policy and has little to do with it. Secondly, the flow is internationally recognised as being of supreme and unusual scientific importance. Europeans and others would be shocked if we allowed too much further destruction of it. Thirdly, as my noble friend Lord Kimball said, if the area is left as it is or almost as it is, it has great tourist potential. It gives the prospect of employment. Hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation, garages, shops, wardens, keepers and ghillies will all be needed. Far more people will be needed than would he necessary in afforestation.

Turning to the eloquent speech of my noble friend Lord Sanderson, he told us of the intention of the Secretary of State to resolve the potential conflict in the flow country between, on the one hand, the owners of peatland who wish or may have to sell that land for personal reasons for afforestation and, on the other hand, the Nature Conservancy Council, which wishes to conserve the peatlands. I hope that the proposals of the Secretary of State are not yet firm and binding and that they will not become so until he has considered the further review of the area which is being carried out by the Highland Regional Council. I see that my noble friend is nodding his head and I am thankful.

In the opinion of many people, it would be very unfortunate if the proposals provisionally announced by the Secretary of State were regarded as final. They go too far. Meanwhile I hope that the Government and others will not lose sight of what is said in the report on pages 9, 28, 29 and 37 concerning the importance of the peatlands and the damage that would be done by their destruction for forestry.

In conclusion, I return to the responsibility of Ministers. The conflict between agriculture and conservation will, we hope, recede. However, it is still with us. The conflict between the NCC and forestry interests, public and private, does not show much sign of receding. Ministers and their advisers tend to resolve those conflicts by achieving what my noble friend has called "the right balance". That sounds splendid and it is often used in many contexts. However, I suggest that it is a misused expression on many occasions. It is often used to justify departure from a vital principle so as to yield to popular demand or political pressure. When applied to conflicts over conservation, the expression simply will not do. Too much of our natural environment and wildlife have already gone for ever. Ministers must resolve those conflicts by protecting what is left.

5.35 p.m.

Viscount Ridley

My Lords, the report which we are debating is a most impressive document, as were all its predecessors. The range of subjects which it covers is enormous. I am an enthusiastic amateur naturalist, as, I suspect is, everyone else on the list of speakers. I have read the report with the greatest possible interest. The council deserves high praise for the energy and skill which it has devoted to nature in Britain. The report covers everything from the walrus to something which is called the stinking goosefoot. The restoration of the sea eagle and the large blue butterfly are outstanding successes. I suggest that the council is our most effective and active quango.

However. I should like to take this opportunity to make what I hope are a few constructive criticisms of some of the council's work. If what I refer to are sins, they are sins of omission rather than any other kind. First, I suggest that the NCC should use its formidable scientific skills in the future to advise the nation how to control certain species. That should be part of its remit. I find no reference in this or previous reports to the need to reduce numbers of animals or indeed birds. I tread on dangerous ground in that matter. However, are seals too numerous for their own good or for the good of fish stocks? As a Sunday newspaper might say, I think we should be told. How do we stop the steady increase of species like the larger gulls, which do such damage to smaller seabirds? How do we stop starlings which do enormous environmental damage with the mess they make on public buildings?

More often than not, conservation means control, which means reducing unwanted populations because we have so upset the balance of nature that natural controls are not working. That cannot be done without a great deal of scientific evidence to support it. We should look to the NCC for such evidence. We cannot conserve everything or we shall risk losing some of the rare species on which the report so wisely spends so much time. As a further example of my point, perhaps I may suggest that those of us who are still fortunate enough to possess red squirrels would like to know how to stop the spread of the grey variety in our areas. I am not getting involved in politics at all in mentioning that matter!

Secondly, perhaps the most contentious issue facing the NCC is the delineation of SSSI boundaries. I think that there is a natural tendency to declare an area which is far larger than is strictly necessary in order to protect some unusual or rare species. Also, it is often done to protect a species which is on the edge of its range in a particular place but quite common elsewhere. I shall not waste your Lordships' time by giving examples.

In many cases, there may be no harm in doing those things. But there is a real risk of antagonising local people with too many unnecessary restrictions or, more importantly, what people think are too many unnecessary restrictions. When I was the chairman of the Conservation Committee of the National Trust, I dealt with two cases in which we examined problems on the ground. In both cases, it was unanimously concluded that it was the hill farmer concerned who was becoming the endangered species because restrictions on reseeding or numbers of grazing animals threatened to make his farm unviable. In at least one case, a boundary adjustment was made, but not without a great deal of pressure.

There should be a greater willingness to compromise on such details in the interests of the NCC itself and indeed of the people who live in SSSI areas. That policy would also avoid making enemies of people who, though basically sympathetic in nearly all cases, can so easily destroy a rarity or, far worse, abandon the land, leaving the ecology to change permanently for the worse. As other noble Lords have said, conservationists can be arrogant and may all too easily ignore local amateur opinion. Having said that, it is good to know that the National Trust and the NCC have no bones of contention between them at the moment.

I should also like to refer to the success of the services in the field of conservation on lands which they own. The army is all too often blamed for denying access to training areas. Not enough credit is given for the way that rare species or natural landscapes are protected. One does not like to think of the fate of Lulworth Cove or the Lulworth skipper butterfly if that area had been acquired by developers. As it is, the army has preserved both intact since 1917. The Otterburn hills in Northumberland have been protected from forestry by the Royal Artillery. I find no reference in the report to the positive way in which the MoD has approached its responsibilities since the appointment of a full-time conservation officer, consequent on the report which was produced under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford. That responsibility has culminated in the signing in January of this year—which I recognise is since this report was published—of a declaration of interest between the MoD and the NCC which formalises the relationship between the two. I venture to hope that next year's report will expand on that relationship and help us to debate it.

That development is important, if only because no fewer than 5,000 volunteers annually help the MoD in activities to assist the preservation of wildlife on their defence estates. Somewhere or other those estates contain practically every rare or uncommon bird species on our list and a great many plants as well, in some cases in very large numbers. If you happen to be a rare bird it is far safer to nest in the middle of a rifle range than to expose your eggs to collectors or photographers in a national park. Therefore I believe it is right that on this occasion we should pay tribute to the Ministry of Defence for its initiative in this very important work, and we hope that the Ministry will be fully encouraged to continue with it.

Finally, perhaps I may thank my noble friend Lord Cranbrook for introducing this debate in such an excellent way. I am sure that it is a benign coincidence that he has chosen the 59th birthday of the Secretary of State for the Environment, and I hope that we can make this debate an annual occurrence in the future.

5.42 p.m.

Baroness White

My Lords, I too join in the expressions of gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for initiating this debate. On this occasion I am almost tempted to call him my noble friend. I think that we are all much indebted to him.

My specific noble friend on the Front Bench mentioned that on previous occasions in this House I have drawn attention to the entirely legal but often gravely damaging effects—particularly in Scotland, which has been mentioned frequently in this debate, but also in the Principality of Wales, which has hardly been touched upon—of the type of tree planting from which people like Terry Wogan and Cliff Richard enhance their fortunes.

I am not a reader of Private Eye and therefore I cannot regale your Lordships with the politically salacious titbits which I understand from my noble friend may be available to you in the current issue by reference to the beneficiaries of the current taxation regime. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Observer newspaper for having undertaken an investigation into this area of dubiety which is beyond the capacity of the ordinary private citizen to undertake and also of most voluntary organisations. Nevertheless, I know that voluntary organisations are very much concerned about the distortion which can occur in forestry policy through a taxation policy which they believe to be perhaps not entirely out of date but almost so.

I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, has had to leave because I found her speech very interesting. I was glad that she took up the position of the Nature Conservancy Council, which in its current report refers to its earlier recommendation contained in a previous report that there should be a restriction on automatic tax incentives for afforestation and that stricter controls over the planting of conifers should also be introduced. The noble Baroness referred to both those aspects, suggesting that an environmental impact assessment of some kind should be observed in areas where large scale afforestation was being undertaken and that there should also be some possible changes in tax policy.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to a document issued recently by the Council for the Protection of Rural England. I speak as President of the Council for Rural Wales but we admire our big brother in England. That report is headed "Budgeting for British Forestry" and includes recommendations for reform of our forestry taxation policy. I am not proposing to quote from it at length, but I should like to recommend it to Members of your Lordships' House who are interested.

The recommendations in the report include a suggestion that all private sector investment in forestry should be assessed for tax under Schedule B. It continues: At a time of enormous change in rural policies, with far greater official emphasis being placed on tree planting and the creation of new plantations, it would seem to be essential that the main policy mechanisms are altered now to allow conservation priorities to be integrated into forestry policy and practice". That is a point of view which would appeal to many of us who work in the voluntary organisations concerned with the protection of our countryside.

I had thought of quoting—but perhaps I should spare your Lordships because there are many speakers still to come—from a money brief which is issued even to very modest people like myself. I may say that I am a basic rate taxpayer and would not benefit at all from tax incentives, even if I had any land on which to plant trees. It is perfectly clear the tax advisers have no hesitation in proposing that for many of their clients forestry is a very good investment. There is no reference whatever to conservation or other amenity considerations. I am absolutely staggered by the number of advantages that one can obtain if one is in the right income group.

However, there are others present in the House who know more about taxation than I do, so I wish to turn to another subject which has not been touched on at any length today, and that is marine nature reserves. We have heard many comments about land-based sites of special scientific interest, and the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, referred very briefly to marine concerns. Those of us who sat through the lengthy debates on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill in 1981 will remember that one of the most popular novelties in that piece of legislation was the innovative idea as far as the United Kingdom was concerned of establishing not merely SSSIs and national nature reserves on land but also in appropriate areas marine nature reserves.

That was in 1981. Since then only one reserve has been formally adopted; that is Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. Various problems seem to have been overcome, not least because the Landmark Trust was in any case I think in ownership as well as in management of that particular small island. Virtually no further progress has been made.

I have made recent inquiries into the position at three Welsh sites which were included in the NCC's list of seven sites which were to be the first to be considered. In my area, the island of Skomer, the Menai Straits between the Isle of Anglesey and the mainland, and Bardsey Island off the Lleyn peninsular have all been under consideration. It was confidently expected that Skomer at least would present few problems, because for some years now a very strong element of voluntary restraint has prevailed among those who frequent the surrounding waters for sport, recreation or study. However, this has not happened; impasse remains. An unbelievable amount of time and effort by the Nature Conservancy Council staff has been consumed in trying to follow faithfully the conditions of the 1981 Act.

Of course it is the sea fisheries committees which have to formulate and administer the appropriate by-laws that affect fishing; it is not the Nature Conservancy Council. There are very obvious difficulties in having two authorities both trying to protect the same area. I know that they endeavour to work in harmony so far as concerns the three sites that I have mentioned but it seems to me that they are fighting a losing battle. No sooner has one problem been resolved than another comes up. For example, divers of various kinds and nature reserves do not associate easily together. I am told that last summer, between early May and late September, 2,727 divers were recorded as active around the little island of Skomer and that there were only five blank days without divers, those being attributed to bad weather.

In considering the desirability of establishing Skomer as a marine nature reserve, more than 200 public bodies, organisations and individuals are recorded as having established an interest in that tiny island. They all have to be consulted and have to agree to any proposals. One of the officers concerned has written: We find ourselves in the position where, though we have the acquiescence or positive support of almost all 200 consultees, we are still unable to take the final step because of the opposition of a single group of users, albeit an important group, with whom we would wish to establish a positive and beneficial relationship. I return for a moment to the Menai Straits, which is an area that has been subject to systematic biological studies since 1887 and which presents other problems. The straits are bordered by several townships, of which every citizen is certain that he or she is the sole authority and arbiter of what should be allowed to take place. Consequently it has been very difficult to produce a satisfactory consultative document.

Again, as regards Bardsey, it is said that the difficulties with Skomer and the Menai Straits are such that Bardsey has had to be put on the back-burner. There is simply not time to make the effort to embark upon what is an apparently endless process of consulation which never reaches a final conclusion. So, having acquainted myself with the endless problems of Skomer and the Menai Straits, I have come to the conclusion that we surely ought to acknowledge that there is something wrong either in the provisions of the relevant sections of the 1981 Act or in the interpretation so far accorded to them.

Ought we not therefore to press upon Her Majesty's Government that those provisions should be reviewed and if need be revised? The most conscientious efforts have been made to meet the requirements primarily of Sections 36 and 37 of the Act, which I believe that possibly the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, might be able to confirm were inserted into the Bill without perhaps the full consideration that might have been desirable. To continue to take up so much time of so many scientists, officials, voluntary and statutory bodies over so many years is surely unjustified.

The answer to the problem may lie in strengthening the decision-making powers of the respective Secretaries of State. I do not presume to judge. All I know is that this sector is not working well. At the time the Bill was enacted it was greatly welcomed but I hope that we shall now be able to find a more satisfactory way to realise its excellent intentions.

The only other point upon which I wish to touch is one which has greatly disturbed many people in South Wales and it concerns the conflict of interest over the proposed Taff Barrage. I am speaking in the presence of a former Secretary of State for Wales who during his period of office did a very great deal to encourage the development of the economy of South Wales. I know that he is a vigorous supporter of the Cardiff Bay experiment. I am sure that he will recognise that there is still very genuine concern about the effects of the conflict of interest that is taking place there. I understand that some Dutch experts have now been called in to study the highly complex problems of how one builds a barrage across not one but in effect two rivers and so alters the entire ecology of an area in which the ornithological interest is acute. No adequate compromise solution seems yet to have been achieved.

I have been supplied with various notes, naturally enough, some from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. That organisation is by no means the only one which is particularly concerned with this problem. I do not want to weary your Lordships with the details of what is a very complex situation but in a debate on this very valuable report of the Nature Conservancy Council I think that it would be unrealistic not to mention something which throughout the period covered and still today is causing considerable concern. The report itself and this debate should be of interest to a great many Members of this House, and I again thank the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for having initiated this discussion.

5.56 p.m.

Lord Rees

My Lords, I should like to begin by adding my congratulations to those that have already been offered to the noble Earl who has introduced this most interesting debate in which such a wealth of experience has already been deployed. The 13th report of the council covers many aspects of country life but, like many other speakers, I want to concentrate my brief intervention on its conclusions concerning forestry. In so doing I must declare an interest as the owner of a small and modest acreage of woodlands and also as chairman of a forestry company.

Page 28 of the report reiterates a point that was made in an earlier paper by the council that automatic incentives for afforestation should be restricted. That question has been taken up of late in the press and elsewhere, as well as in this debate, to the point that some people might be led into thinking that all new planting is tax motivated. Quite unreliable calculations have been made about tax reliefs achieved by named individuals and I think that probably a gross injustice has been done to many.

It is perfectly true that the higher the rates of direct taxation, the more attractive tax reliefs appear. I do not wish to anticipate the Chancellor's budget proposals, but the corollary is that the more the higher rates of tax are reduced, the more the attractions of tax reliefs are reduced also. It is difficult to quantify the amounts conceded in recent years by way of tax reliefs to forestry. A reasonably reliable estimate of the amounts conceded annually by way of tax reliefs is between £10 million and £15 million per annum—a figure which I hope puts the problem into some truer perspective.

Again, if we are to debate the fiscal dimensions of forestry, then in fairness it is right to recall the main tax reliefs special to forestry, which on the whole have existed since the end of the War. First, under Schedule B there is the taxation of woodlands on a conventional basis—and that of course is a relic of the days when agriculture was assessed on the same basis and not on its profits or losses. Secondly there is the postponement of the charge to inheritance tax and the special basis for the calculation of the charge on woodlands.

Thirdly, there is the right to elect to have profits and losses brought into charge under Schedule D, like the profits and losses of any business or profession. The loss relief available in the early years of planting—and as noble Lords like myself who have had experience of planting from scratch will know, there are losses for many years—is no different in kind. I should like to emphasise that point. It is no different from the loss relief that is available, for example, in the early years of a business. Indeed, it is right to point out that in most forms of business but not forestry, it is possible to have another relief under the Business Expansion Scheme.

Therefore, any fair observer who is not concerned to construct meretricious examples based on assumptions which are not easy to check, must recognise that the present system of taxation has drawn into forestry resources which have served to make good, if not totally, the ravages of two world wars. However, it is also fair to observe that the system of tax reliefs has not been sufficient to enable the Government to achieve their target of an annual planting rate of 33,000 hectares a year. Indeed, I have a specific question which I hope my noble friend Lord Caithness will answer when he replies. Is the Government's target for planting still 33,000 hectares a year? If that target is not achieved—and it has not so far been achieved—then what measures do the Government propose to ensure that it is achieved?

I am also heartened by the 24th report of the Select Committee of this House on European Community forestry policy which went very thoroughly into most aspects of the problem. I should like to pay a respectful tribute to the committee's work. In particular the report concluded: The committee recommends that the current income tax reliefs in the United Kingdom should continue. It also recommends the investigation of the possibility of exemption from capital gains tax and of the recent change in the basis of capital allowances.

Speaking negatively, it is possible to predict that any fundamental change in these reliefs must damage the confidence that has been built up by numerous statements of policy by this Government since 1979. I hope that it is not inappropriate to refer to what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said at the Conservative Party Conference in 1987: we are in the business of planting trees for our children and our grandchildren or we have no business to be in politics at all. Any change, if change is contemplated, in the system of taxation must take into account that—unlike almost any other form of economic activity that I can call to mind—the end product of forestry can at best be produced over one generation and more likely over two or three.

I leave the field of taxation and turn to another proposition of the council in its report; namely that afforestation should be moved away from the uplands. To use the chairman's telling phrase, grant aid for planting woodlands and farmland should be targeted to take forestry off the hill. I very much hope that advantage will be taken of the new scheme by lowland farmers. However, like the Select Committee, I suspect that it will on the whole be the more marginal land in the uplands that will be drawn into forestry. Indeed, if that is not so, it is again unlikely that the Government's planting targets can be met.

While I can certainly understand the views of those who believe that our hills should remain bare and relatively treeless, it has to be recalled that their present appearance—and I speak perhaps with more direct knowledge of Wales than anywhere else—is largely due to the hand of man and to the grazing of sheep. Had the Nature Conservancy Council been set up some years ago it would no doubt have fought vigorously against that process. Indeed, in its report the council recognises that the process of re-afforestation will but restore a long-lost woodland cover to open landscape.

At the same time there is a great deal of what I hope might be described as uninformed prejudice against what are often described by those who I suspect have not appreciated the glories of such pineta as Bedgebury or Benmore as foreign or introduced conifers. In fact the number of native conifers, or indeed broadleaved trees, are extraordinarily few. We have profited as a country by the introduction of exotic species over the centuries.

Beyond that, altitude and rainfall must dictate the kind of tree that can sensibly be planted in any situation. Would that we could all play the role of Capability Brown or Repton with broadleaved trees in the lowlands. Alas it is not given to many of us.

It is not unreasonable to require that new planting should be sensitive to the contours. Rigidly geometric blocks should be avoided. Where possible monoculture should be avoided, and measures should be taken that will attract and not repel wildlife. There are many examples—and I hesitate to inflict them on the House—where such objective has been achieved, even in planting since the War.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has said that, broadly speaking, afforestation replaces the threatened and vulnerable with the commonplace and adaptable. That is attractively aphorismatic but it simply is not true. I hope that in this debate we can find common ground in this House that forestry is an important, I would even say a crucial, national interest. I have in mind in particular what my noble friend Lord Renton had to say, that with the possible exceptions of the Netherlands and Ireland we are still the least afforested country in Western Europe. Forestry, combined with the wood-processing industries that it attracts, produces jobs in areas where other activities are hard to find. If poor agricultural land is to be taken out of production—and that after all is the thrust of European Community policies at the moment— forestry is an obvious alternative land use.

The timescale of forestry is such that if Government targets are to be met, assistance, whether by way of tax reliefs or grants, will have to continue. On all the evidence, in both this country and abroad, tax reliefs are more effective and less expensive than grants, providing planting is undertaken sensitively—and that battle has largely been fought and won by those who care passionately for the environment. The Forestry Commission led the way, I believe with the assistance of Dame Sylvia Crowe. Most of us who have been involved in new planting are alert to those kinds of factors. Both uplands and lowlands can provide ground for more planting.

Finally, a properly administered forestry can continue to make an economic, aesthetic and ecological contribution to the life of this country.

Baroness White

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, did he see the photograph in the Observer of the pattern of afforestation recently carried out in the flow country? If he had done so, I do not think he would be quite so enthusiastic about it. Has he ever lived on the edge of a coniferous forest, as I have?

Lord Rees

My Lords, I come from the County of Monmouthshire, now called Gwent. I have; and I have planted in such country. I have observed the kind of standards that I have been presumptuous enough to enjoin on the House. No, I have not been to the flow country. Yes, I have read the Observer article. I thought most of what it had to say on the fiscal question was meritricious in the extreme. I understand that the noble Baroness does not associate herself with that part of the article at least.

Baroness White

My Lords, I was referring to the photograph.

6.9 p.m.

Viscount Blakenham

My Lords, the chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council writes in his report that we are at the start of a new era for nature conservation. I should say that I am a member of the council and a former chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I very much support that view.

There is now a much better understanding of the issues involved. The general public is attaching increasing importance to nature conservation and the countryside generally. Television and press are giving nature conservation increasing coverage, and voluntary organisations involved in conservation are continually gaining in weight.

Enormous credit for the improving situation is also due to the Government, first, for bringing in the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 1981 and strengthening it in 1985; and, secondly, for increasing the NCC's grant-in-aid from £12 million to £36 million over a period of four years. That has enabled among other things the bulk of the notifications and re-notifications of the sites of special scientific interest to take place. They have also introduced the concept of environmentally sensitive areas. They have recently provided incentives for the planting of broadleaved woodlands, and have provided the visible moral support that is so necessary if a statutory agency is to operate effectively.

However, much still needs to be done. Threats to our estuaries and few remaining unspoilt places are still increasing. The farm woodland scheme is very welcome, but its use should be discouraged on marginal livestock-rearing land where it could destroy some of the most important remaining areas of semi-natural vegetation. Wider spacing between trees should be encouraged. Indeed, the whole forestry policy needs to be thought through and more clearly defined. Perhaps some debate can take place as to why the government planting target is 33,000 hectares per year.

In its report the NCC identified the peatlands of Sutherland and Caithness as being the most important conservation issue that now confronts us. This is because they are believed to represent the largest single expanse of blanket bog in the world and the largest single area of habitat in the United Kingdom that is of major importance on a world scale. These peatlands should be respected under the Berne Convention, the RAMSAR convention and the EC directive on the conservation of wild birds, to all of which the United Kingdom is a committed party.

Sadly, the flow country is not being protected adequately. Substantial areas, as we have discussed this afternoon, are continuing to be planted. The Secretary of State for Scotland recently advised the Forestry Commission to provide planting grants to four out of seven afforestation schemes in the area. In doing so, he wrote: It seems to us that some new planting needs to take place in Caithness and Sutherland both in order to contribute to the national forestry planting programme and to maintain local employment in forestry and maximise the opportunities for future investment in the wood-processing industry. That argument could be extended indefinitely. The NCC is worried by the fragmentation of the area that the additional planting is likely to bring about, even if as much as half the total area could be protected through SSSI notification.

I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Granville on his excellent speech. Of course the personal touch is necessary; of course the situation is delicate; of course jobs are vitally important. But a recent National Audit Office analysis suggests that (ignoring jobs more than 25 years distant) forestry job creation in Scotland has cost on average £50,000 per rural job per year. This compares poorly with figures for the Highlands and Islands Development Board, which range from £,000 to £,000 per job created or retained; and it should not be forgotten that some farming, stalking or shepherding jobs are displaced by forestry. A balance of this nature may not in the long run prove the best.

Finally I believe it is vital that if the Government are to play the important role they should in international conservation matters, they must be seen to be respecting international obligations at home, whether they relate to peatbog, Greenland white-fronted geese or pollution. When that happens I believe the new era for nature conservation will clearly have dawned.

6.15 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Robson of Kiddington, I have to crave your Lordships' indulgence because I may very well have to leave in order to try to get back to the flow country where I live. I have an appointment tomorrow and it takes a long time to get up there.

I am very glad to have this opportunity which has been presented by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, to discuss what is to all of us a most important problem. Whether we are on one side of the fence or the other, the problem is still important.

I have been struck by the fact that nobody has yet spoken up for the most endangered species in the flow country, homo sapiens. I should like to speak up for homo sapiens, sub-species Scotticus, variety Caithness and Sutherland, because by successive regimes and governments he has been very nearly driven out of his native habitat. I say this about the area where I live and I am prepared to back it up with facts.

In the strath of the Thurso River from the confluence upstream where the Little River flows into the main Strathmore water there used to be in 1750, 825 souls living in this barren area of flow ground, moorland and flushes, as they call the rushy bits. By 1950 the number had fallen to 75. Today I can count them on the fingers of my hand; there are around a dozen souls living in the area. In conservation parlance there are only two breeding pairs. When I was a boy there were three schools there: there was a a school at Altnabreac, at Dalrigh and at Backlass. These were all within this area of roughly 100 square miles; 64,000 acres.

I must not get my decimal point in the wrong place. I think the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, added a few noughts to the end of his rainfall. My rainfall is 30 inches, not 30,000. At the top end of the River Strath it is 30 inches and at the bottom end it is 28 inches. I imagine that he gets something of that variation on his part of the upper waters of the Naver.

If one attacks any part of the economy up there, one attacks the whole economy, because we need every possible industry. We need forestry, agriculture and fishing and we need atomic energy. They are all bad words. Nobody wants to know the Atomic Energy Authority; nobody wants to know the forester, the farmer, the fisherman who is raping the sea. What are we to do? Well, a few of us make glass—at least your Lordships will take that from us. But perhaps we are adding to the greenhouse effect.

It is important that we are able to keep our economy going in the sparsely populated parts of Scotland, in the so-called flow country. It is important to keep it going because otherwise there will be no facilities there for the people who come up and gawp at the flow once every 17 years, which is the length of time between visits which David Bellamy allows. I think it is very important to make this point during this debate because many people in the Highlands—and I think I quote rightly from the excellent maiden speech of the noble Earl, Lord Granville—"feel the arrogance of the conservationists". They are people who have not looked our way for a generation, have suddenly discovered a flow and have come up to tell us what we must do in the area. They are people who have covered the South of England with rolling red brick and tarmac, who have cut down the forests through which Robin Hood and his merry men used to run, who have despoiled their own countryside so that they have nothing worth making into SSSIs and who want to have 40 per cent. or 50 per cent. of Scotland covered with them so that they can claim to have reached 8 per cent.

Caithness is heavily covered with SSSIs: one can hardly walk for any distance without tripping over one. They are in the most extraordinary places. One of them covers an area where a ditch on a croft became blocked. As a result an area of ground was flooded and it was colonised by some ragged-robins. Lo and behold, it was turned into an SSSI! That is the kind of view which people in the flow country take of such nature conservation.

We believe in conserving nature and we always have. It is there for everyone to come and see. This year the Nature Conservancy Council contacted me in relation to one of the many SSS1s which stand on my land. It asked whether I had any objection if it came to continue its bird count on a particular area. I told the nice young lady who runs that side of its affairs in Dornoch that I had no objection but I should really like them to stop carrying out the surveys because it disturbs the birds so terribly. She said that she would try to make it the last count but that it was rather important because the council wanted to see how the nesting habits had changed from one season to another.

The next communication I received was from the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, which stated that it wanted to count the same area for the same kind of birds. In addition it wanted to send a man with a pointer dog to run over the ground and count the area more closely. I said, "I wish you would not. I wish you would allow just one count to go ahead and obtain your facts and figures from that". That seemed to me to be a reasonable request. However, a little later I was driving up the hill road past the SSSI and noticed a strange car parked in a lay-by. It was heavily locked and I looked all around. On the seat was a map of the area marking the flow country. I wondered what it was about and whether they were egg thieves, people coming to molest the birds or whoever else.

As I went down towards the lower country I stopped at the first telephone box to ring the police. I gave them the number and told them that the car was parked empty and that at that time of year my natural reaction was that they were egg thieves. I asked the police whether they knew anything about the car. They investigated the matter and told me that there was no known owner of the car and that they wanted to investigate further. I asked whether they wanted me to investigate or to ring the keeper and ask him to investigate or whether they would investigate the matter. The police said, "Leave it with us".

They went up to the area and the person they found was a representative from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. He was carrying out a count and had not had the decency to let even the police know that he was in the area. That is an example of the interference that goes on with the breeding life of the poor birds because they are supposed to be so interesting. It does no good and it does not help the birds to multiply.

During the debate I was most struck by a suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, that flows can provide employment. I have never seen a flow produce employment for anybody except on one occasion. I was driving across a flow in a Weasel and skidded into a dubhloch and became stuck. I then had to find several people to help me pull it out. There is not a great deal of employment to come out of flows and people should not be greatly encouraged to tramp over them because it does them no good.

I was equally struck by the assertion made by, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, to the effect that a flow that is surrounded by forestry will never survive as a flow. In fact one can drain fairly close to a flow before having any effect on it. I have never been able to make the Nature Conservancy Council understand that fact. A flow is as described by the noble Lord, Lord Kimball. It is a sponge sitting on the stop of a ridge holding water. The ridge is drained and the water runs down it so that the slope comes to the edge of the flow. At that point one changes from hard heather ground to flow ground in a matter of yards. If one were to put a ditch a few yards further in one might drain the ground below but within yards of the ditch there would again be flow. Such is the nature of that kind of peat. There is not a great deal of danger of draining away the flows or removing them altogether if some of the slopes are planted.

That leads on to one of the dangers of the argument about the flow country as a piece. It can stand a certain amount of forestry properly placed within it and that is what we want to achieve. We want to achieve a properly planned strategy of farming, forestry, other forms of tourist recreation and so forth integrated in the areas so as to keep the people there. For that reason I was encouraged to hear the noble Lord, Lord Sanderson of Bowden, suggesting that the Scottish Office is thinking along the right lines of integration and of mixing the different activities on the same piece of land. I believe that to be the key to all that we do in the area.

There is no point in turning a deserted piece of land into a complete desert when it can very well support families and help to support the infrastructure necessary if anyone is to use that land and enjoy it. I hope that in any future strategy the Government will hear in mind that forestry can mix with agriculture and flow country to the benefit of us all.

6.30 p.m.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Cranbrook for introducing the debate and to the Nature Conservancy Council for publishing an attractive, well produced and, above all, readable report. As we have heard this afternoon it is far-reaching and provides a wide field for debate.

I shall restrict myself to two interlocking subjects. I think that there will be groans around the House when I say that the first subject is forestry. The second subject, which has not yet been mentioned, is the preservation of our heather uplands. I believe I should keep off the flows. I know this part of the world because my noble kinswoman comes from there. She happens to be a Sinclair and is therefore a kinswoman not only of the noble Earl who is about to reply to this debate but also of the noble Viscount who has just spoken. I was amazed the first time I saw Caithness. I was taken to see my wife's ancestral burial ground where all the gravestones instead of having crosses on have skull and crossbones. I was then shown a succession of ruined castles all around the coast where I was told that her ancestors and, therefore, the ancestors of the noble Earl and the noble Viscount, spent generations doing the most appalling things to other people, and as far as I can make out, mostly to each other.

The noble Viscount said that the inhabitants of Caithness are an endangered species. I think that the presence of my noble friend on the Front Bench after his week with the Local Government Bill and the very spirited speech from the noble Viscount opposite show that there is a great deal to be said for the survival of the fittest.

To be serious, I should like to take up what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, said; namely, that there should be the rather draconian measure of relieving all tax reliefs on forestry. That seemed to be a reaction to the problems of the flow country. At the risk of upsetting my friends in the NCC and wearing my cap as a member of the Countryside Commission, I should very much like to draw your Lordships' attention to an admirable publication produced by the Countryside Commission entitled Forestry in the Countryside. Indeed the noble Lord, Lord Moran, referred to the letter about it in The Times written by our chairman Sir Derek Barber. Included in this is the evidence which they will presently submit to the agricultual committee in another place. This document contains much common sense.

Forestry is still very necessary in this country but must be mixed. I personally like the idea that we should concentrate more on producing broadleaved trees and there are some very exciting ideas in this pamphlet. I particularly like the idea of a new New Forest which could be something for the 21st century based on what remains—and this was mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso—of Sherwood Forest. It could perhaps be something in the Midlands in a large area of population where people can enjoy it; something where there could be forests mostly of broadleaved trees. There could be villages, farms and open spaces. I hope that is something which the NCC might support. It also struck me that this would provide a marvellous opportunity for pop stars and media personalities to invest some of their money instead of receiving a rather bad press for planting more and more conifers in Scotland. They would be popular for providing access to the public in a generally welcomed and beneficial environment. I hope something might happen along those lines.

I now turn to heather uplands. There is a paragraph about the importance of these on page 27 of the report. The heather uplands and moorlands arc a unique part of our heritage. I remember about four or five years ago when rather like the noble Viscount I was approached and asked if I would co-operate in a bird study being carried out, I believe, by the NCC on upland birds and particularly on waders. I readily agreed to do that and it went on for some time. I was telephoned one day by the person in charge of it and he said, "I am sure Lord Swinton that you will be delighted to know that we have come to a very definite conclusion that waders do much better on keepered moorland than unkeepered moorland." I was not surprised. It seemed to me to be as obvious as it could be. However, I have been encouraged in recent years—and I am sure that this will not be the case now—by the general acceptance of conservationists (and here I would exclude some of the more Loony Left of our access pressure groups) that field sports play a very important role in the preservation of the countryside. I agree entirely with what the noble Lord, Lord Moran, said about that.

Perhaps I may just quote very briefly from the first page of the excellent report by the chairman of the NCC where he states: Work by the Game Conservancy has shown the wildlife benefits to be gained by providing conservation headlands in arable areas by leaving margins unsprayed". Of course, that particular example comes as a direct result of the game conservancy's research into why the grey partridge is disappearing. Nowhere is this link between game management and the protection of flora and fauna more obvious and important than on grouse moors.

I think I agree rather more with the noble Baroness, Lady White, than with my noble friend Lord Rees on the value of large blocks of conifer forest. In my experience they provide little environmentally except homes for foxes and carrion crows. I think that waders and other small birds suffer as much as a result of predation from those species as do grouse.

Where we have grouse moors, and where those grouse moors are not oversheeped, we have the happy and attractive heather-clad countryside, particularly in Northern England and Scotland. I am afraid there is not so much in Wales and that may be because in the past there have been too many sheep. I think that what I have said is environmentally sensible and economically it works. However, the moment it is ruined by too many sheep, the heather goes and the pressure is on to plant large blocks of conifers. I do not think that is any good at all.

Perhaps I may just mention very quickly, because time is going on, that I believe that moor management plays a very large part. Bracken spraying produces new areas of heather, and bilberry and is of benefit to all types of wildlife as well as the grouse. A good rotation of heather-burning has much the same effect. Of course, the careful control of various forms of predators is also a benefit to all species of birds.

I could go on for some time on this theme but just in case there are any doubting Thomases in your Lordships' House, or indeed out of it, perhaps I may commend to your Lordships a most excellent and attractive new book called The Fox and the Orchid by Robin Page. I believe that anybody who reads this book, even the most doubting Thomas, would be convinced by the argument I have put forward.

6.38 p.m.

Lord Margadale

I should first of all like to congratulate my cousin Lord Granville. I feel quite proud of him. We had the same grandfather who—and I am sorry to have to say this to the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso—was a Liberal Foreign Secretary to Mr. Gladstone. I should like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for being responsible for starting this debate, and also for his very interesting speech; although I must admit that I do not agree with all of it. If you were a crofter in Islay—and I have been connected with Islay all my life—it would be difficult to believe that everything was quite as happy as it sounds in this Chamber. On one side is the Atlantic Ocean and on the other side is your croft. You possibly have another job to do as well, and life will be quite difficult because of all the restrictions put on by SSSIs. I personally think that there are too many, and that there will be a great difficulty.

I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Moran, on his remarks. He complained that no mention of sporting affairs was in the NCC report. and I thank him for doing so. It is noticeable that books produced by the Nature Conservancy Council, (which is an admirable body) contain virtually nothing on sport as a whole, that means shooting, fishing and hunting which is common in this country and quite within the law. I am glad that that point has been raised today. To turn to fishing, as has already been touched upon, great care must be taken when forestry plantations are planted that too much acidity does not go into the water to kill the spawn. That point is vital for good fishing in this country and particularly in Scotland.

The SSSIs entail very strict controls on owners and farmers. It is important that more detailed explanations should be given to those concerned. In the Isle of Islay (with which I am connected, as I have said) the name of the Nature Conservancy Council is far from popular because it is very difficult for a smallholder or a crofter to understand those complicated matters. I hope that the NCC, which has a difficult and all-embracing job, will ensure that those on the ground know their stuff and can explain it to all concerned. That is vital. If it is not done, it causes a great deal of bad feeling, and the procedure will not work unless the people are fully advised.

With regard to the composition of the NCC, I am sure that it is a very public-spirited body and does all that it can. However, it is rather select in comprising many people who are what I call professors with deep knowledge of their subjects who are not really countrymen. It is very important to have ordinary countrymen represented on the NCC. I would suggest, for example, that a retired keeper or hunt servant would probably know much more of nature on the ground than many of those of greater brain power who now sit on the NCC.

6.42 p.m.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, I shall not tilt with my noble friend Lord Margadale, who knows that I do not fully agree with his views. He is too big and too great a horseman to take on at this time of night.

I too thank the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for opening the debate. He was just the right man to do it. I much enjoyed the maiden speech of the noble Earl, Lord Granville—how nice to hear the views of the outer isles in your Lordships' House.

I very much welcome the newly constructed working relationship between the Nature Conservancy Council and the agricultural departments and, for that matter, the National Farmers' Union. For quite a number of years it was a polarised and unhappy dialogue. Therefore, it is a big step forward.

In contrast, I much regret the failure—perhaps we all do—of the conservation bodies, both statutory and voluntary, to see eye to eye with the Forestry Commission and the forestry industry as a whole. All too often they seem to have been at cross purposes. This is highlighted of course by the troubles in the peatlands of Sutherland and Caithness.

With respect, my noble friend Lord Rees was not right about the birds and coniferous forests. Birds like the merlin and the greenshank, which are comparatively rare, are driven right away by heavy coniferous afforestation and are replaced pretty rapidly by hooded crows, coal tits, chaffinches and all kinds of common birds.

I have been very impressed by the international work done by the Nature Conservancy Council (referred to on pages 66 to 70) through bodies such as the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and others. It is trite of course to say that the birds, the bees and the seeds know no boundaries. We all know that perfectly well. Perhaps this is best pointed up by the Arctic tern, which breeds in the Arctic and takes its summer holidays in Cape Town or Wellington. The work that is being done across the countries by the NCC is very valuable and I should like to see it extended.

Talking of birds, I should like in two or three sentences to refer to the EC birds directive of 1979, amended in 1985. I hope to have a chance to open a short debate on it before the end of the year. It really is awful that literally millions of birds, many of them very rare, from goldcrests to golden eagles literally have to run the gauntlet of traps, poison and guns and every kind of hazard that one can imagine in the countries of southern Europe. The directive is widely ignored throughout at least five countries. I think that attention should be given to that, and I hope that we shall have the chance of doing so.

It is very worrying to see the range of proposed developments that continue to threaten our estuaries and coasts. I think of tidal barrages, port extensions, marinas, fish farms and, for that matter, the Channel Tunnel. It is for me equally a matter of concern how the accepted planning procedures—accepted widely on both sides of both Houses—have been short- circuited by Private Members' Bills. I have not seen attention drawn to this recently, but I think that it needs looking at very carefully.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, I believe my noble friend means Private Bills.

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, my noble friend is always correct on these procedural matters on which I am quite hopeless; yes, Private Bills.

We have as an international duty under RAMSAR and the EC birds directive to safeguard our estuaries, which harbour huge numbers of feeding and nesting wildfowl and waders. I hope that the advice of the Nature Conservancy Council is being most carefully considered here.

Missing out some points that I would dearly have liked to raise but for which I think there is not time, I wish finally to say a word about the special protection areas and the RAMSAR convention. Here I strike a critical note. I gather that the NCC—I believe that my figures are broadly correct—has decided that some 200 or so sites are suitable for listing as SPA sites. However, of those only 24—that is, about one out of eight—have actually been designated by the Government. Where RAMSAR sites are concerned I believe that well over 100, perhaps even 150 sites, have been listed as suitable for designation by the Nature Conservancy Council and only just over one quarter have actually been designated by the Government. I should say that among the figures that I gave for RAMSAR and SPA sites, 122 sites are common to both lists.

We ought surely to be leaders in this field, but we are beginning to lag behind some of our neighbours in Europe. Therefore, I give the Government nine out of 10 for species protection and only five out of 10 for habitat protection. The Government protect the safe sites where no developments are threatened or which are already designated as conservation areas, but surely designation should be used as a recognition of site importance to protect it against undesirable developments. Unless that is done ahead of the development, very little or even no account may be taken of environmental impacts. I urge the Government to rethink this matter.

As a classic example of laggardyness in this field, perhaps I may ask the Government what happened about the designation of the Wash as a RAMSAR site. I believe that it was four years ago that the Nature Conservancy Council commended this. So far as I know, apart from a couple of rumours, nothing has happened.

It is all too easy to criticise the Nature Conservancy Council—of course it is. It makes its mistakes. I served on it for six years, but not as a boffin, as I think my noble friend Lord Margadale knows quite well. I think that it makes a few mistakes usually through over-enthusiasm. However, I judge that on the whole it has done a very good job. It is the envy of a good many foreign countries. The Government inexplicably starved the Nature Conservancy Council of essential resources for two or three years after the 1981 Act, yet it had to carry out far greater statutory obligations. However—and I end on a happy note—the Government deserve great credit and much thanks for their generous and usually imaginative approach to nature conservation. I am happy to have made a minor contribution to this debate on an excellent report.

6.50 p.m.

The Earl of Stockton

My Lords, it is a measure of the change in attitude that has taken place both in society and in Parliament over the last quarter of a century that this debate has been welcomed by your Lordships from all parts of the House. In it we have had the fine debut of the noble Earl, Lord Granville, and we are all grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for initiating the subject. I regret that the Statement made earlier has meant that I shall be unable to stay to hear the winding up speeches by the noble Baroness and my noble friend the Minister.

If one goes back just 25 years, things were very different. Farmers were grubbing up hedges in earnest, the drainage of wetlands was still being promoted as a good thing by all but a prescient few, who were frequently regarded as cranks. Gamekeepers still boasted about the number of hawks, foxes, stoats and weasels they slaughtered. In those days forestry meant great swathes of the countryside covered in rank upon rank of conifers; an evergreen army advancing inexorably over an unsuitable landscape.

However within 10 years controls had been introduced on most pesticides. DDT had been banned and the management of the countryside to achieve some compatibility between man and his environment was accepted as the reasonable philosophy.

As the 13th report of the council has shown, improvements both of attitude and policy continue to


wildlife and the environment generally, but I fear that the sands are running out. Much has been said of the problem currently facing the flow country of Caithness and Sutherland by, among others, the noble Lords, Lords Sanderson, Kimball, Renton, Blakenham, Thurso and Swinton and in particular by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who has obviously made a close study of the problem. I hope that extended to having visited the flow country himself and not just observing it through the eyes of Mr. Bellamy.

I endorse the view that the reckless afforestation of the area surely must be controlled. Perhaps I may also add that, if people want to plant trees, please will they come and do it in Sussex, Surrey and Kent? We are a little short of them at the moment, as my noble friend Lord Renton pointed out. There are good grants for broadleaved species. If they do come, I hope they do not have to blight our landscape with dark conifer woods.

I know that the proponents of forestry in the flow country will claim that by planting up to the central pool sites they are protecting wildlife to an extent. I am afraid that this will not stand up. The research at Coom Rigg Moss National Nature Reserve by Dr. Chapman of the ITE has shown that between 1956 and 1986, during which time the site has become completely surrounded by coniferous plantations, there have been, as he has said, "dramatic changes". The report adds: It seems fairly certain that they are linked to the sites' complete envelopment by afforestation. There is a certain irony in that the traditionally allegedly plutocratic pastimes of shooting, fishing and stalking now seem to be coming back into favour, as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and my noble friend Lord Swinton. I confess that, in common with one or two of your Lordships, I also enjoy shooting. A few years ago I had the pleasure of being asked to shoot at Tregaron in mid-Wales. Tregaron is a classic raised bog with flashes of open water. The weather was extremely cold and the hills around were snow-covered. I took my place in the hide on the edge of one of the flashes and waited, above my knees in water.

As the sun sank, it became colder and colder and I was a little surprised to see a scum of ice forming around my waders. The last rays of the sun had turned the mountains pink on the east side of the bog when I heard for the first time in my life the call of the red kites which still nest in the area. In the shadows on the western side of the bog a barn owl systematically worked the hedgerows like a vast predatory moth. Suddenly, out of the sky slid two, four, 10, 20 teal, the wind whistling through their feathers as they side-slipped into the flash. I am happy to say that I was unable to lift the gun. For the next 15 minutes I stood while nearly 200 wildfowl of half-a-dozen species came into my flash. I think that the pleasure of watching them was the best bag I have ever had.

To preserve such places and such moments for all of us is the work of the Nature Conservancy Council. It gives its support and grants to other conservancy groups including the county nature conservation trusts. The umbrella body of these organisations, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, under the patronage of the Prince of Wales, has been and is still running an appeal named "Tomorrow will be too late".

As a former member of that appeal I make no apology for mentioning it, for every penny donated by us as members of the public frees the resources of the Nature Conservancy Council for other vital work. If we are to retain our widlife, countryside, estuaries, sea shores and, above all, our wildernesses for tomorrow, it is not enough merely for the dedicated professionals of the council and other organisations with government funding to fight and struggle. It is for all of us, country people, town people, businessmen, industrialists and farmers, to care and to show today that we care, for, if we do not, tomorrow will be too late.

6.56 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I should like to begin by thanking the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, who tabled the Motion and enabled us to debate this excellent report. As we know, it is a very wide-ranging subject and tonight I should like to touch upon two aspects. It will not surprise your Lordships that the first of these is forestry and the other is the environmental aspects of less intensive farming and set-aside.

The forestry argument has been covered very ably by a number of speakers. I feel that the issue should not be confused by the tax relief situation. What particular individuals are doing is perfectly legal until the taxation law is changed. It will not surprise your Lordships to know that on this side of the House we feel that this aspect of taxation should be changed. However, it is wrong to pillory named individuals because of the way in which they choose to arrange their taxation affairs.

As I understand it, the acreage which is planted using the tax regime in the area in question is about 8 per cent. of the total. The actual flow area is of the order of 200,000 hectares and of that there are 34,000 hectares which have been or will be planted. That is of the order of 16 or 17 per cent. I understand that in terms of land quality—namely, land which is to be or which has been planted—it has a yield class of 12, which is about the average for most similar areas in Scotland.

I referred to 16 to 17 per cent. of the area which might be planted. There is another statistic and that is of unemployment in the counties which is 16 per cent. We have heard a most impressive speech from the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, which emphasised the importance of employment in the flow country. In the west of Scotland the timber which has been planted has produced an investment of £600 million, which is downstream in the processing plants and so on and which is providing jobs. I shall leave it there as I am afraid of a classic example of conflict which a government have to resolve between the environment, the future timber needs of the country and jobs.

I should like to spend a few moments on the environmental aspects of set-aside and of less intensive farming. I quote from the NCC report at page 7, where it says: If the ESA scheme proves successful, and we will do all we can to help towards its success, we should like to see its principles made more generally available to farmers, with sufficient financial incentives to provide the option of farming in an environmentally sensitive way and contribute in a modest way to a reduction in agricultural surpluses". The report continues: Crop diversion offers perhaps the greatest opportunity of all for increasing the wildlife value of farmland. Planting trees without careful thought or simply leaving land fallow do not by themselves achieve that goal". This intention is reinforced by a quotation from the European summit in June of last year: Preservation of the environment and the countryside should be an integral part of a more flexible agriculture policy more dynamic and better adapted to the market. The adjustment of the CAP… must also take into account the need to safeguard the social fabric in rural areas". This relates as much to the future work of the NCC as to the work which is described in the report.

The role of the NCC is to conserve the habitat, the landscape and so on. Our most important natural resource in the countryside is people. I remind your Lordships that farming has lost a total of 72,000 jobs over the past 10 years. There is a superficial analysis that we have had to close down steel mills and coalmines and that the farmers and the farmworkers will have to go through the same trauma. It is possible to close a steel mill or a coalmine with all the problems that that entails.

It is extremely hard to close down a parish and it is impossible to close down a county unless we are to see, as is now being seen in America and Canada, farms actually left void and unworked and the lands and the houses left to dereliction. The land in this country will be farmed but it is a question of the way in which it is done. The NCC has an important role in helping to answer this question.

To give an idea of the size of the problem, an increase of 0.5 per cent. per annum in agricultural productivity will render an additional 2.5 million acres of agricultural land redundant by the year 2000. That is in addition to the acreage that is required to be made redundant now to handle the current surpluses. All of this will have a substantial effect on the environment and the wildlife habitats.

I turn now to set-asides. When I speak in this House, facing the Bench of Bishops and surrounded by stained glass, I often feel that I should have a text. The text for set-aside is not unfortunately in the Bible but is in the book Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. It says: Major Major's father was a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding, rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone other than farmers was creeping socialism.… His speciality was alfalfa and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn't earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce". As the House will know, alfalfa is a funny word the Americans use for lucerne. That quotation is amusing but it has a real and a political significance. I feel that farmers will become extremely exposed politically if, to use a trite phrase, they are paid large sums of money for doing nothing. If this happens, in a few years the furore of this could be compared with the investment in the flow country and we could even see as a result substantial farmers with their names and their photographs in the colour supplements.

I should like to make it clear that set-aside is not an environmental policy. It is a part of the agricultural price policy. Its main function is to control the CAP budget. It has considerable environmental dangers. If land is set aside for fallow it will almost certainly be given the least expensive form of managment. There may be problems with the leaching of nitrates and with soil structure. There is the conflict between the rotation of fallow land for agricultural reasons and the value of permanent fallow for environmental reasons. It will almost certainly be a permanent feature of agricultural policy if the required acreage of redundant land is to be released unless alternative systems of less intensive production can be found.

Your Lordships will know that in America the first set-aside scheme was set up in 1933. Last year, 69 million acres were idle in the United States. We are told that one of the problems with set-aside is that if land is fallow farmers will intensify the production on the rest of their land to make up the difference. It is a matter of simple arithmetic that a reduction in acreage of 20 per cent. requires a yield of 25 per cent. on the acreage that is left. If we knew how to increase our yields by 25 per cent. we would be doing it now and would not be waiting for set-aside.

I turn to the subject of less intensive farming. After 30 years as an agricultural adviser, advising farmers to put on more nitrogen, to reduce their labour force, to use the larger machinery, to increase their production, to intensify their stocking and so on, the remarks I am about to make will make St. Paul on the road to Damascus sound like a beginner. An amendment was put down by the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, to the Farm Land and Rural Development Bill. It was intended to encourage systems of less intensive farming and, as he will know, we on this side of the House were pleased to support him. This subject has been mentioned in the NCC report. It is an alternative to set-aside. It is defined as a reduction in the amount produced on each acre as an alternative to a reduction in the acreage that is actually farmed. If we were able to do that, and maintain the crops, the livestock and the land in work, jobs would be preserved.

Systems of farming in this way are not easier. It is easier to reach for the spray can and the syringe than it is to farm less intensively, which requires a much higher level of technical competence. The example has been given of the grazed fallow and the use of livestock on land which is farmed less intensively. I believe that we are in a minority of one in Europe in opposing this suggestion.

We are told that less intensive farming would be hard to police. Any scheme which we introduce now will be hard to police. We have to recognise a simple point if we are to solve the problem. There are two main ways by which the supply of foodstuffs can be brought more into line with demand. Either farms and farmers can be taken out of production or, alternatively, all farmers could be encouraged to produce less efficiently than technology permits. The future of conservation in man-made landscapes in Europe depends crucially on which of these strategies, or what mix of them, is pursued under the CAP.

With all the problems of agriculture and the environment, it is a great pity that a research project which was proposed only recently for major work into the relationship between agriculture and the environment—the physical and social aspects—has been postponed if not cancelled as a result of the cuts in R&D budget for science. I believe that there is an important role for the NCC in conjunction with other bodies in advising and helping farmers to adopt these less intensive systems and to farm in an environmentally friendly way.

In conclusion, there seems now to be a political willingness to redirect agricultural policy and expenditure. This provides perhaps the last opportunity we have to reduce surplus production, to improve the environment, to keep the countryside well farmed, to maintain farm employment and to stimulate the rural economy. There is no single answer. A range of policies and schemes are needed. All of these will impinge on the work of the NCC. I refer to a reduction of the use of nitrogen, organic farming, less intensive farming and the use of graze fallow. There will be some bare fallow which I hope will be managed in an environmentally sensitive way. There is the farm woodland scheme, the reduced spraying of headlands and an increase in the acreage of spring sown cereals. These are some of the ways in which the job could be done.

Farming is a resilient and inventive industry and has responded magnificently to the post-war demands from successive governments to increase production. I am sure that as an industry it will now respond to the range of policies I have suggested, but there must be a proper level of compensation and there must be guidance from government.

7.10 p.m.

Lord Craigton

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Cranbrook for initiating this debate. As he was speaking I wished for the impossible: that his father could have been here to hear him. Many of your Lordships will remember Jock, a wonderful pioneer and fighter for conservation at a time when it was nothing like as popular as it is today.

My noble friend Lord Chelwood mentioned Private Bills. I should like to say something about them because he was worried about them and so am I. Since 1986, there has been an increase in the number of Private Bills that affect SSSIs. It is in all our interests that the NCC's comments should be as effective as possible. The Bills to which I refer are the Hampshire (Lyndhurst Bypass), Felixstowe Dock and Railway, the Falmouth Container Terminal, the Cardiff Bay Barrage, and there are others. That unusual activity has brought into prominence the justification, as my noble friend said, for taking a closer look at the Private and hybrid Bill procedure, as it is now applied.

I shall give four reasons for concern. The procedure can be and has been used—whether intentionally or not, I cannot say—as a means of short circuiting the nation's normal planning system and avoiding the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act; thus taking away the NCC's powers. Examples of such action are the Cardiff Bay Barrage Bill and the Channel Tunnel Bill. Those are examples of the setting aside of Section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

There is some conflict here between normal planning procedures and the law of the land, and private legislation. If there has been abuse, or if the mechanism of Private Bills can be used in that way, it must be for Parliament to take some action, initiated by the Minister. I cannot see how the matter can be put right except by Parliament.

Secondly, I should like to ask whether the traditional neutrality of government departments towards Private Bills is still correct in relation to an international obligation where the Government are party to a convention. Is not that issue something that should be pointed out in evidence by the Government, so that the Committee is fully aware of the situation?

My third point provides an obvious improvement for the NCC and should not give the Government any difficulty. The suggestion is that Standing Orders should be amended so that the promoters are required, where a Bill will affect an SSSI interest, to consult the NCC before the Bill is deposited in Parliament.

My last point is that certain projects, liable after July 1988 to environmental assessment when the European Commission directive comes into force, will be exempt if they are put forward in Private Bills. An example is the proposed RAMSAR and protection areas (confirmed as such in an Answer to a Written Question) which are part of the Felixstowe Dock and Harbour proposal. That exemption from an EA is necessary because projects adopted by national legislation are exempt under the terms of the European Commission directive. For that reason, unless something is done, there could be an increase in the number of projects promoted by hybrid and Private Bills.

The NCC recommends that a statement be made by government that any project prepared through a Private or hybrid Bill should, if its nature would qualify under the environmental assessment directive, be accompanied by its environmental assessment when it is tabled. That would do no more than follow the procedure which will be used for Crown developments, which are already exempt under the European Commission directive.

I had intended to talk about RAMSAR sites and special protection areas but those points have been covered by my noble friend Lord Chelwood and I agree with everything he said. Therefore, I shall continue with my last point. I should like to say something about the Government's conservation organisation in Britain. Every ministerial responsibility has, or must have, some form of conservation department. But what is the extent of the co-ordination and co-operation between them? Furthermore, should the D of E have overriding decision-making powers? Should the degree of coordination and control now being achieved by the Health and Safety Executive or the Pollution Inspectorate be applied to our conservation activities as they affect our living things and the best use of our countryside? Is the Government's conservation organization— the NCC, the Countryside Commission, the Forestry Commission and so forth—the best set-up to take the fullest advantage of the opportunities now emerging to make Britain scenically attractive, worthwhile to live in and visit and a safe refuge for the living and material things that we have here and which are our heritage as Britain and as part of Europe?

Furthermore, have we, in the Government's conservation organisation, the best set-up to take the greatest advantage of the growing skills and interests in conservation now available to us through the voluntary conservation bodies and the world of industry and commerce? The whole set-up works—in a way —partly because the various chairmen who live in one another's pockets make it work. But the whole pattern of authority and control has, like Topsy, "just growed". If we started again, the set-up would not look as it does today. How can one do the best for Britain when England, Scotland and Wales seem, in many matters, to pursue their own policy, and when we have at the very top dual control between MAFF and the D of E?

7.17 p.m.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, previous speakers have already outlined the complex and demanding role of the Nature Conservancy Council which was so well illustrated in the 13th report. The role of the NCC is seen by many as a negative force. Nothing could be further from the truth. The NCC has to face up to a number of contentious environmental issues: the future of forestry, the changes of land use and the over-abundance of interest groups competing for influence and resources.

I should like to concentrate on what I consider to be the most important of all those interest groups; that is, the voluntary sector. That sector plays a vital role in the NCC, providing (as it does) its practical conservation arm. Only last April the NCC held a conference called "Partnership in Practice", thereby demonstrating its recognition of the irreplaceable contribution of the voluntary sector.

I should like to tell your Lordships about the role of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, of which I am president, to underline the strength of that mutual co-operation. The BTCV is no airy-fairy organisation existing on the ideals of conservation; we actually get our hands dirty. Our reputation for practical conservation is second to none. For example, in the storms of last October I do not have to remind the House that we lost 15 million of our national trees. The scale of that disaster was such that without the skills and co-ordinated efforts of an experienced voluntary sector, the effects of the damage could not possibly have been contained as quickly as they were. We were able to mobilise 4,000 volunteers on 330 sites throughout the storm-battered counties. Many volunteers were on site immediately. They have continued to be on site since then, and will remain on site until our national heritage is restored. Also we are increasingly concerned about the urban environment.

Another example of our close co-operation with the NCC is the Wrens Nest Nature Reserve project in the West Midlands, managed by the Dudley borough council. Here in this urban environment the BTCV has involved local schools and unemployed volunteers from the local community in carrying out woodland management and footpath work. This not only creates an awareness of the vital nature of conservation work in a whole new generation but can also lead to permanent jobs for the unemployed.

In Merseyside the BTCV recognises the special problems of the region's unemployed. We provide transport from the local job centres and our aim is to involve unemployed volunteers in fascinating and constructive projects, in the course of which they receive expert trainng in many practical skills. The NCC's Ainsdale Sand-Dunes National Nature Reserve is an example and the objective is to halt the rapid erosion of the sand dunes along the 50 miles of Sefton coastline. This is being achieved by the planting of marram grass, the erection of chestnut paling stakes and the sea buckthorn windbreaks.

So you can see the the BTCV is working hard to put partnership into practice. We, with other organisations such as the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Royal Society for Nature Conservation and the county nature conservation trusts all make a significant contribution to nature conservation in our country. These organisations manage, on behalf of the NCC, approximately half of our national nature reserves, as well as over 1,700 of their own reserves, half of which are designated as sites of special scientific interest. To put this into perspective, we are talking about an area the size of greater Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Bristol, all put together with a few hectares to spare.

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales said at an RSPB awards luncheon last year: I know that the BTCV does a wonderful job all over the country but it is desperately undermanned and sure that masses of young people would really love to make a contribution to their country in this particular way if they were given the opportunity to do so. To reinforce that fundamental need, the chairman of the NCC made it clear in the 13th report that the voluntary movement as a whole needed to raise its sights and increase the resources at its disposal. While the NCC relies on the dynamism of the voluntary and private sector, the voluntary sector also relies on the NCC for its support, encouragement and for a proportion of its resources—in fact, the basic requirements of a true working partnership.

Therefore I ask the Minister, on behalf of all of us who care for and recognise the critical balance of our environment, to ensure that the NCC is given the necessary resources to carry out essential conservation work. Give us the money and we will do the job.

7.24 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I should like to start by congratulating my noble friend Lord Cranbrook upon putting down this debate. I should also like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Granville, on his maiden speech. My remarks will be rather dull this evening, I am afraid: I am going to talk a little about the flow country, where I have been.

I am all for employment in the Highlands, but the difficulty with planting, especially with a tree like the sitka or pinus contorta is that on very poor soil they grow slowly. It is all right if there has been planting in the area for quite a few years, but before full employment can be achieved there have to be trees of a certain height and age ready for thinning so that there is something to sell. one really cannot establish the organisation as regards the ancillary products from the sawmills unless there is a lot of timber in the area—many tens of thousands of acres. That takes a long time.

As regards employment from forestry, I have had a certain amount of practical experience of the countryside generally in Scotland and England. My experience has been that the forestry syndicates use a great deal of their own labour. They do not necessarily employ much labour from the surrounding countryside.

Another point I should like to make regarding the Forestry Commission is that, in my area of the Western Highlands, the commission is not now thinning the plantations; it is waiting to clear fell. That means that the trees end up as spindly sticks 60, 70 or 80 feet high and very susceptible to wind blow. In my area, the Isle of Mull and the Western Highlands, these are chiefly sitka spruce. The trees then go to Norway for pulping because there are no pulp mills, the one at Fort William having disappeared quite a long time ago. So the trees go to Norway as timber and come back to this country as pulp. From the economic point of view, that seems to me to be a bit mad.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, was rather critical of private people planting trees and getting these huge tax rebates, and I have some sympathy with him as regards certain syndicates. On the southern boundary of my estate I have as neighbours a pop group called Genesis, who were brought into this by Fountain Forestry. They had never seen the land but they now have about 15,000 acres there. These have been planted chiefly with sitka spruce. That has done great damage to the wildlife and it has destroyed a small but very good river—mine—as a result of the acidity of the floodwater coming down all the drains. As noble Lords know, if one plants a hill one has to plough it and plant trees in the upturned turf. As I have said before in this House, sitka spruce has a very thick canopy and kills everything under it. True enough, it produces the greatest volume of cubic feet of timber per acre, but it is not at all good for the conservation of wildlife.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, objects to the great tax handouts to private foresters, but I have some sympathy —perhaps it is not a practical sympathy—for the members of these syndicates, which are organised by chartered accountants in London. They get hold of people who have no knowledge of the land, the country or trees. They are largely entertainers. I think it would be better if private landowners received financial support. Indeed they do now, but I can now understand that it is difficult to separate them out from the big syndicates. However, there it is.

I hope that, now that we have overproduction of foods, far more planting will be carried out lower down the hills—in other words, on better ground. In that way far better trees will be grown and we shall be able to grow deciduous trees.

I feel that there is far too much planting of conifers. The woods are not thinned and we do not get mature timber. A sitka spruce standing on its own when it is mature at about 80 years old is a very fine tree. But of course today they are planted very close together and they are not thinned by the Forestry Commission. There always used to be two thinnings, but they are not thinned now and I believe that is really rather a waste. A few years ago these trees were being thinned but the first thinnings were never gathered, and that seemed extremely wasteful.

If too much forestry is carried out in an area, it ruins the fishing and is not good for wildlife. The wildlife in the Highlands produces a lot of income, especially hard currency. If there is too much planting, much of the value of the sporting rights will be destroyed.

Some time ago I was asked to address an American foundation, the chairman of which was a Mr Stoddard from Massachusetts. The majority of the people in the foundation were great naturalists. Mr. Stoddard, who, unfortunately, is no longer with us, made the undercarriages for Boeings. He wanted me to explain to the members of the foundation how it was that in this tiny little country of England, and of course Scotland, we had so much wildlife. He expained that in America there was nothing like the same amount of wildlife.

I told the group that we owe our landscape to the system of enclosures which began about 250 years ago, in the early 18th century. I told him that in those days the country was controlled to a great extent by the landowners and that they were extremely knowledgeable in their management of land. They would, for instance, plant a wood and, if they saw a damp patch somewhere inside or outside the wood, they would not plough it up or drain it but would leave it there for birds which liked that habitat. That has continued for the last couple of hundred years and therefore we have a lot of wildlife, which is not the case in many countries today.

I should like to say that I sympathised with my noble friend Lord Stockton when he said that he did not have the heart to fire a shot when he went duck shooting. I too have given up shooting, partly because my eyes are very bad now but also as the result of an experience I had a few years ago. At that time I used to shoot wild geese. One morning, a flock of barnacle geese flew over me. They were flying to the Solway, but one bird dropped out and it came down and settled in a small river by the lawn. I went up to it and saw that it was a young bird, so of course I left it alone. The next morning two geese were flying around honking and I noticed that the young bird answered them. The two geese then went and joined the young bird; they had a great conversation together and then they flew off south. Obviously, those two geese must have been the parents of the young bird. I then vowed that I would never shoot another goose.

I wish to end by saying a few words about conservation. Very few members of the public really understand what conservation is. The public think that it is a few cranks who want to conserve butterflies or certain flora and fauna. But they do not realise that if we do not get our priorities right and if we do not regard conservation as probably the most important priority there is for human beings, we shall not survive. If we neglect conservation, we shall poison the water we drink and the air we breathe and eventually, if we continue in that way, we shall disappear.

7.37 p.m

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, it was about 60 years ago when the Foresty Commission started up. We have had to live through some 50 years when blanket forestry was the order of the day. Therefore it is not surprising that there has been criticism of this tasteless planting and public antipathy to conifers in general. Of course the plantations will continue to grow in that way for another 60 years before we see any difference.

I was interested to see at Eskdale Muir— where I must declare an interest—which is a forest of about 30,000 acres, how large-scale forestry can be planted without the blanket system. In that forest there are very large rides and gaps framing all the rivers and making the most of all the delightful features. I believe that those hills in the Borders are thoroughly enhanced by forestry planted in that way. Furthermore they are far more accessible and the wildlife is much better than elsewhere because wildlife does not like open ground, nor does it like forestry; it likes the mixture between the two.

I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, that it is a great pity that so much forestry is felled for chip when the trees are all the same age and have not been thinned. Softwood would be very much more acceptable if more of it was thinned properly and was then to be taken on as high forest for 30 or 40 years when it could be appreciated. After all, people go, and I have also been, to the West Coast of America especially to see the softwoods such as the grandis, the sitka, the sequoias and all the other great trees. People go to the Black Forest to see the trees and they even go to Norfolk to see the trees there.

If the high forest is well looked after I believe that there will be just as much of an outcry and probably more when the time comes to fell it than there is now to try to stop trees being planted. We must not stop more trees being planted. We need more trees. We produce only 10 per cent. of our requirements. If we want timber for the future, we must find land to grow it on.

I think that the greatest threat to conservation for the future is the proposal put forward by the Common Land Forum for general access. I am a walker and I believe we need more access. I should like to see far more footpaths which are well marked and on circuitous routes. When one goes to a place, one wants to look at a map and see a walk of two miles or four miles which is well marked. But beyond that general access is quite disastrous and it would be particularly so to wildlife.

When a rambler or walker goes off a footpath and into the general countryside, he almost certainly does no harm at all. But if it is a legal right, that right extends not only to the rambler but to the ill-intentioned. There is already a high incidence of tree thefts, poaching gangs and people raising fires either deliberately or by mistake; there is also much vandalism. That is particularly so in areas near conurbations. At present if people are acting suspiciously they can be removed and sent off to the nearest road, for example. If the right of general access is given, such gangs will be able to hang about, doing no harm while they are being watched and doing whatever they wish when they are not. There is much right of access in Derbyshire and the results have been very had for both wildlife and the maintenance of the area.

Another matter which has been mentioned in our debate is field sports. I believe that the maintenance of field sports is not just desirable but absolutely essential. Field sports such as shooting bring business money into the countryside. They are almost entirely responsible for financing the keepering and the maintenance of the countryside.

The keepers who are employed shoot the foxes and the grey squirrels which would otherwise ruin the sycamores and beeches. They kill crows and tend to such matters as heather-burning. Without field sports, there would be no keepers, there would be a lot of vermin and there would be no wildlife. Furthermore, when we have vermin we have no sheep on the moors. A farmer cannot keep sheep if the eyes of young lambs are pecked out by crows and the carcasses are then eaten by foxes. All that results in dereliction. The amount of maintenance needed by places such as the moorlands, which look as if they look after themselves, is not appreciated by people who do not have to look after them.

Finally, perhaps I may consider tax avoidance. We see much unfavourable comment in the press on tax avoidance. There is no doubt that we need more forestry; hence the efforts of the Forestry Commission to get people to plant trees. We then see the pop stars being criticised for doing so. I think the Government ought to say whenever they see a pop star putting money into forestry how successful their policy has been in getting private money invested in the land. After all, trees are no more than a crop. One would not plant corn out of after-tax income. Corn is planted in spring and harvested, with luck, in the autumn—as long as it is not a year like the last one. One plants any crop before tax and tax is paid afterwards. Of course I appreciate the Schedule B difference where the ownership is changed. It would be totally uneconomic to plant forests with taxed income. There would simply be no forests planted and the countryside would be that much worse off.

One sees the pop stars buying farms, running them and often making losses. But that is not highlighted and of course the Government have gone to great lengths to get people to invest in the business expansion scheme, which is a much quicker way of making a lot of money and which does not produce trees for the future.

Before the debate I took advice from accountants concerning the realistic figures for returns. I was told that by the time somebody buys land, plants it and maintains it for a number of years, after five years, and even after tax relief, he will probably just about get his money hack if he sells the land with the trees on it. After 10 years he should get double his money back. Even that is not particularly good. Obviously there must be cases where the return is better. But those figures are interesting.

I was also interested to read a brief which states that a Schedule D investor who claims all available grants can get as much as a 5.8 per cent. return. Big deal! One can find investments with far less risk. Once the trees are planted, they are subject to disease and wind. We all remember the recent hurricane. Many of the trees which the hurricane blew down were investments which had been perhaps 60 or 70 years into their crop.

We have heard the policy of the Labour Party from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I was very sorry to hear it. It could do enormous damage to long-term confidence in a crop which is so long in growing. If the Schedule B option was done away with, no one would fell his timber.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. I specifically did not say that Schedule B was to be abolished but rather the Schedule D release and the opportunity to switch between schedules. If Schedule B is put to replanting, that is quite a different matter.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that clarification. If he is going to do away with Schedule D, then of course there will be no planting in the first place.

In addition to the pop star syndrome, there is a lot of serious planting in forestry estates with 100-year cycles. It is essential that the tax regime should be maintained over long periods. Great care should be taken before tinkering with the tax regime just to spite a few pop stars. Care must be taken not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I apologise to the House for not being present for a large part of the debate. However, if one belongs to committees, one must contribute to the continuity. In any case, I shall not ask the Minister any questions; I shall merely give opinions which I trust he will digest.

This is a debate on a conservancy report which seems to have concentrated largely on forestry. However, we have had far too much of a conflict between farming and the conservators. In my opinion, that is due mostly to ignorance on the part of the conservators. On the other hand, they may think the same thing about farming interests. It is very important that farming interests should go along with what the conservators are doing. Farmers live in the countryside and make it what it is. They must understand what they are doing and it must be made economic for them. It is quite impossible, with a low farming income—and it is low; at the present time it is only a third of what it was 10 years ago—to expect people to lay out money on pure conservation measures without some return. Indeed, at the present time, we have only five years of a guarantee that money will be forthcoming before the planting of trees and set-aside. Therefore in the long term we need to think a great deal more about how we are to use the surplus land.

I think that an awful lot of nonsense has been talked about forestry and the terrible green blankets that cover the hills and ruin everything. I hate to contradict my noble friend Lord Hunt, but a conifer forest interspersed with larch can look absolutely beautiful. Anybody who takes a run down Deeside in the autumn can see the staggering beauty of conifers properly planted and interlaced with larches and the appropriate proportion of broadleaved trees. It is not true to say that they ruin the countryside; but of course they need planning.

I think that it is quite extraordinary that the Government—and they must look at this aspect again—have cut down the amount of planting by the Forestry Commission just as the commission was achieving its new remit of beautifying the countryside and providing recreational facilities and everything else. And it was doing it extraordinarily well. Suddenly that remit has been cut off in favour of private planting. Private planting has been very successful; but it is going wrong now. I must declare a slight interest because I am chairman of a company of forestry advisers who are experts in the field. It is a small company; it does not do much planting, but it advises. I must say that a lot of the people who are investing their money—pop stars or anyone else—are going to be sorely disappointed with the result. That is because the forestry companies have been scratching around for land in the most unsuitable places.

There has been talk of the flow country. I fully support planting in proper places in the flow country; but I do not support covering it with trees. However, I am absolutely certain that many of the trees in Caithness and Sutherland will blow down when they reach 25 years old. I am also certain that many of the people who are investing are going to be very sorry that they did not put their money into Japanese bonds or something and pay their taxes, because a great deal of the land that is being planted now is quite unsuitable for the job. It will never make money even if the trees last 100 years and get a subsidy every year of that 100 years.

The Government clearly need to rethink their policy. The tax incentives at the moment are not achieving what they were intended to do, which was to make landowners plant land and encourage employment on their estates. What is happening at the moment is that people are putting money in and forestry groups are taking advantage and planting trees in remote places—quite extraordinary places in some cases. The fact is that the only thing that they can do is to move in contractors and pull the trees down.

One can see that going on all over the place. I doubt whether it is giving the value that is needed. The Government need to re-examine the whole situation and see whether they are getting value for the amount of tax that they are foregoing. It would be a very sensible idea for a commission to report in a reasonable space of time. Right now Ministers must admit that the policy is not producing the results that they expected.

7.54 p.m.

Lord Dulverton

My Lords, I had meant to say five-and-a-half minutes' worth of words during this interesting debate, which has turned into something of a forestry debate. If I had known that that would be the case, I should have detained your Lordships for half an hour. Perhaps at this stage of the evening I should let everyone off. There has been a certain amount of sense and a good deal of—I do not want to use unparliamentary language—less informed comment than one usually expects from your Lordships' House.

I wish to say a few words on the subject of this debate, which is the NCC. I have a strong interest in conservation on the one hand and in forestry on the other, between which two disciplines bones of contention have appeared.

I should like to spell out my commitment to conservation: I am closely involved with the World Wildlife Fund and the Flora and Fauna Preservation Society, as well as being president of the Gloucestershire Trust for Nature Conservation, among other things. I have been greatly honoured by receiving an award from Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands for contributions to conservation. For a number of years I also served on the Scottish Advisory Council of the NCC. I persuaded it not to abandon its attempts to reintroduce once native sea eagles to Scotland, a project which many members were inclined to stop. I am very pleased that I had enough influence to make it go on, as we know, to success.

This rather egotistical introduction is because some of your Lordships know of my championship of forestry, and I want the House to know the other side of the picture. Thanks be that we have an NCC to guard and guide in the valuing and protecting of our wild creatures, flora and wild places! Its report gives ample evidence as to how it is spreading its wings in pursuing the responsibilities with which it has been charged. Yet there are areas in its spheres of activity that cause me some concern—in some cases grave concern.

One of those concerns, blandly stated—and other noble Lords have touched upon this theme—is that in some cases it is antagonising landowners and professional land managers, who generally speaking have much sympathy towards it. There are constraints in pursuit of such goals of an often undeniably practical nature but of which I regret to say some NCC officers seem to be completely unaware. The intention at the top is good, and I pay tribute to the chairman of the NCC, William Wilkinson, who is having difficulty in passing this down the line of his host of junior officers. I wish that the junior officers, graduates in science or biology straight from university, could undergo perhaps a year's apprenticeship to a practical land agent or land manager on a country estate because there are problems of estate management of which, bless them, they seem to have no idea whatever.

For 20 years now I have directed the management of a Highland estate, half of which is covered by a national nature reserve agreement. I had hoped that we could work together in great sympathy and rewarding collaboration. I am afraid that those hopes have been somewhat dashed, despite genuine efforts on the part of the estate to make positive contributions to the restoration of what had become a devastated Highland area.

Other people have praised our efforts to make that contribution, but the reactions from some of the regional officers of the NCC have not been very appreciative. In some cases their thoughts, and the conditions which they try to impose upon us, are not demonstrably related to the advancement of wildlife conservation. So much for that matter. I believe I see sitting in the wings a very senior officer of the Nature Conservancy Council; indeed, I am not sure that the chairman is not there too. Perhaps I may suggest that some apprenticeship be undertaken by its junior officers with practical land managers.

I want to touch very briefly on the flow country, which concerns the very extensive boglands of Caithness about which we have heard something this afternoon. Those lands have recently acquired the designation of flow country. I enjoyed the vigorous speech made by the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, from the other side of the House, although he is not in his place now. He lives in that area and knows a jolly sight more than I do about it. However, I plodded over that country on military exercises during World War II so I know a little of it. I endorse the noble Viscount's definition. It consists of hundreds of thousands of acres with a scattered population and a few wading birds—which I for one value—but precious little else.

The afforestation of parts of what is now called the flow country has been blown into a cause célèbre. The NCC has said that we should stop any more forestry over that vast uninhabited area. The Secretary of State for Scotland has said that we should go on afforesting parts of it. That is the argument. There is masses of land for the comparatively few and charming waders which I so much appreciate. The point about forestry that is sometimes ignored or misrepresented relates to the economic and social arguments. If one builds up a viable forest estate in the flow country, in the course of time one will have a resource which will give much employment, with timber mills, hauliers and forest workers well and gainfully employed and contributing to the national economy, in an area of Britain which is very sparsely populated.

The joint opinion of the Highland Regional Council and the Highlands and Islands Development Board, which have made a study of this question, is this. If planting were to be continued on a comparatively modest scale in that huge area, in a matter of decades—because trees take a long time to grow and I wish that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, realised it and what it costs people to grow them—with a viable forest area of growing trees in various age groups, the final result would be a thousand new jobs in the woods and a thousand new jobs in sawmilling and wood processing. That is the opinion of the Highland Regional Council and the Highlands and Islands Development Board.

On the other hand, if the planting programme were stopped, it would immediately throw 120 men out of work. Worse than that, however, it would rule out the eventual establishment of timber mills in that area. Some noble Lords have referred to the fact that this country has been exporting pulp wood to Scandinavia and bringing it back as much more expensive pulp. Fortunately in other parts of Scotland that situation is being remedied and £600 million have been invested in recent years in new timber processing plants in Britain. The Forestry Commission and private planters have been building up a good resource.

I have overrun the time allotted to me to speak. However, I must just point out that, although some people say that forestry only employs men to plant trees and they then go away, that is rubbish. The after-care and subsequent thinning and felling work employs many more men than those required for the initial planting. I hope that I have made my two points and I shall not detain your Lordships further.

8.4 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, the European Year of the Environment has just 30 days to run so this debate will probably be the last on conservation that we shall have during the year. It is therefore very timely and we are grateful to the noble Earl for giving us this opportunity.

Perhaps the House should debate next the Forestry Commission's annual report, because it seems to me that forestry has taken more than its fair share of this debate. I resolved this morning not to mention forestry but it seems I must raise just one aspect of it. I am sure that the Minister will remember that he has been asked by a number of his noble friends to give the Government's present targets for forestry. I should like to go a little further and ask him if he intends to give that figure also to give the reasons for the targets.

I am told that imported timber is cheaper than home grown timber. If that is true, and home grown timber is needed to reduce imports, why is that not the argument about coal? We are told that Britain's next coal-fired power station will be sited near a port so that cheaper imported coal can be used. That may be a very good financial argument but why then does it not apply to timber? Obviously the reasons behind both decisions are not those that have been published. That is the last word that I shall utter on forestry.

I shall be as brief as I can because we have had a very long debate. There are, however, a number of other items in the report of the Nature Conservancy Council which need to be mentioned, some of which have not been touched upon today. Speaker after speaker this afternoon has illustrated that the importance of the Nature Conservancy Council is not in doubt. We have heard from the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, that grant-in-aid has increased over the past three years from £12.7 million in 1983–84 to £36.5 million in 1987–88. That reflects the growing importance of the work. The increase is encouraging but it must be viewed against the background of growing development pressures and significant changes in the agricultural scene—matters which were touched upon by my noble friend Lord Carter.

For example, as my noble friend Lord McIntosh said, since the 13th report was printed the urgency of the need to reduce agricultural surpluses has grown and the effects on the countryside could be dramatic. That matter was raised by one or two other noble Lords too. The extensification proposals of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the European proposals for set-aside which are now being discussed can have positive environmental benefits if they are handled in the right way. However, they need to be applied with conservation in mind and that will need positive government backing and encouragement. The Government and landowners will need the advice of the Nature Conservancy Council if they are to take full advantage of the opportunities.

It is essential that the Nature Conservancy Council's resources are reliable and sufficient to perform its task. The thoughtful and constructive speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, suggested that there was an even greater role for the council to play; that point was also made in the speech of the noble Lord. Lord Sanderson of Bowden, when he referred to extended provisions in the flow country. Both those proposals would require a massive increase in the Nature Conservancy Council's funding, and not just the kind of increase that there has been over the past three years but a truly massive increase. I hope that that point will be borne in mind.

The Nature Conservancy Council has the difficult task of implementing the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Other speakers have commented on that task, and the problems associated with re-notification of SSSIs have been discussed. We congratulate the Nature Conservancy Council on completing 80 per cent.—or, as some reports say, 85 per cent. —of the re-notifications, but it is disappointing to note on pages 12 and 93 of the paper that 200 sites were damaged during the period covered by the report.

I understand that the Department of the Environment is currently considering the Nature Conservancy Council's review of the Act. As my noble friend Lord McIntosh said, we hope that there will soon be new measures to make the legislation more efficient. I hope that the Minister can give us some encouragement on the possibility of new legislation or new measures.

Noble Lords will remember that the NCC cannot make an order to prevent damage or destruction of an SSSI. It can only make a request to the Secretary of State and such requests are not always acted upon. For example—and I shall give only one example—in August 1987 a request was refused by the Secretary of State concerning Llandegla Moors SSSI in Clwyd. This is an outstanding heather moorland of botanical and ornithological interest which supports a number of nationally rare and declining species. Heather moorland is now so rare that no more than 1.5 per cent. of Wales supports this habitat. An inappropriate and damaging afforestation scheme was proposed at this site, despite local objections. The Secretary of State's decision in this case holds implications for the future of all SSSIs throughout the country and may appear to be at odds with the general statement of policy and intent on conservation which Ministers have given us in the past.

We are concerned about the future of national nature reserves. Many other noble Lords have mentioned this. The proposal to privatise is not logical against the background of acquisition as a last resort. In the report before us the NCC is quite triumphant that it has acquired a reserve which it can now protect. We know that most of the existing NNRs are in private ownership. As the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, made clear at the very beginning, something like a quarter of them are owned by the NCC. In most cases those in private ownership are managed well and there is no difficulty. But the ones in the ownership of the NCC are in that ownership for very good reasons.

Are the Government now telling us that the final safeguard which we have at the moment will no longer exist? If all 55 of the sites owned by the Nature Conservancy Council are to be disposed of, to whom will they be sold? If it is to be to voluntary organisations, will there be some recognition of the need for these organisations to be supported financially in management and indeed in the initial purchase? I hope that there will be a favourable answer on that.

I should now like to raise the issue of common land, because I do not think it has been mentioned this afternoon. The future of common land is mentioned on page 27 of the report. We still await legislation and a working party is in session hopefully to resolve the remaining problems, mostly I understand associated with the moorlands and the moorland association. The wildlife value of commons is very important. The Royal Society for Nature Conservation gives as an illustration—and I am indebted to the society for the figures—that in Norfolk, excluding the Saltings, 47.6 per cent. of commons are SSSIs. In Suffolk 48.8 per cent. of commons are SSSIs. The wildlife trusts have at least 60 common land nature reserves and so the list goes on. This highlights the need for legislation. There has to be agreement between those organisations concerned to protect wildlife and those which, quite properly, wish to improve public access.

The role of the NCC in continuing discussions is crucial, as will be its advice to government in the end. But there is urgency about the exercise. Every passing year our commons are being reduced by de-registration and development. We urge the Government to give some impetus to finding a solution. I hope that the work of the working party will not be held up by unnecessary antagonisms and that a solution can be found at a very early stage.

The need for the public to have access to the countryside is well established. This has been mentioned by others. The Countryside Commission figures show that 84 per cent. of people in this country visit the countryside at least once during the year and on any given summer Sunday 18 million people go to the countryside for their recreation. The case for giving them more access is clear if only to spread the load and reduce the problems for those who enjoy—if that is the right word—the popularity of public access.

The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, mentioned the need for paths in forestry. I could not agree with him more. As one who has tried to walk through forestry paths and found them not to exist, I hope that that will be a matter that the Forestry Commission will take up—or indeed private forestry where it is responsible.

We should also remember that the whole business of nature conservation is dependent on continuing public interest and support. If the public lose interest in conservation and in the countryside, there would be a very dramatic change in attitude from everyone.

The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, in his interesting contribution, gave us a practical example of the value of public interest. The work of the BTCV has everything to commend it: practical results, education and, perhaps in the end most important of all, those who have taken part in these projects will for the rest of their lives have an interest in and an understanding of conservation work. The BTCV deserves our support.

I wish that there was time to cover more of the many areas that are mentioned in the report. Most of them fortunately have been covered by other noble Lords. I shall therefore end and leave enough time for the Minister to deal with all the questions that he has been asked. However, my final message is this. The Nature Conservancy Council is an essential part of a reasoned approach to the conservation of our natural heritage. We urge again that it is given adequate support.

8.17 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, I should first like to thank the noble Earl. Lord Cranbrook, for giving this House the opportunity to debate this important subject this afternoon, this evening and tonight.

We have had a fascinating debate which is a tribute both to the importance of this subject and to the enormous variety of experience and interest which your Lordships bring to it. I was glad to note the various tributes that have been paid to the NCC's achievements. I should like to add my own tributes and praise to the chairman who has sat gallantly throughout the debate. I very much look forward to working with him in the forthcoming months.

The major role and onerous responsibilities which the NCC has to exercise reflect in no small measure the judgment of this House during the passage of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. I have also noted, however, the concerns of some of your Lordships, in particular those of my noble friend Lord Granville, whose maiden speech I so much enjoyed, about the way in which the NCC goes about its business. Nobody—and that includes DoE sponsored bodies—is above criticism and if any complaints are made to me I shall certainly look into the details. I cannot, however, answer for the RSPB but I know that my noble friend Lord Blakenham will have noted what the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, said on that point.

More generally, however, I assure your Lordships that Ministers in my department are in no doubt about the major role which landowners and farmers have to play in managing and conserving the countryside and the extent to which it is important that statutory bodies recognise the sensitivities here. It is worth perhaps recognising the sheer volume of work with which the NCC has to deal. Negotiating with over 30,000 owners and occupiers, sometimes not the easiest of people, is a daunting task. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, and my noble friend Lord Kimball, are right in saying that it is vitally important that the NCC works effectively in partnership with farmers and landowners. I know that the chairman of the NCC is well seized of this point. I can assure noble Lords that we shall be discussing with him in a constructive way how best the NCC can improve its procedures still further.

My noble friends Lord Dulverton and Lord Margadale will be pleased to know that the NCC recognises the need for its staff to be knowledgeable about country matters and has already modified the training programmes for new recruits to familiarise them with modern agriculture and forestry systems, practices, techniques and policies.

I should just like to mention the good relationships which have been established between the NCC and the NFU. Those of us who took part in the 1981 discussions will remember what an important area of concern this was to all of us. However, I am pleased to say that this morning I have received a letter from the NFU to say how much it values that relationship and to welcome the efforts which the NCC is making in tackling the large workload created by the 1981 Act, particularly on SSSI notification and the negotiation of management agreements.

The Nature Conservancy Council has now been with us in various guises for almost 40 years. However the council only moved to the centre stage after the Wildlife and Countryside Act was passed in 1981.

The NCC has complete freedom to advise government and other statutory bodies. Indeed it is duty bound under the Nature Conservancy Council Act 1973 to provide Ministers with advice on all policies affecting nature conservation. The NCC has established close contacts with all the key departments of state, with MAFF, the Scottish office and the Welsh office, as well as my department. I hope that is of some reassurance to my noble friend Lord Cranbrook.

The 1981 Act was designed to be a flexible instrument to protect nature without preventing natural change and without stultifying agriculture, forestry and other economic activities in the countryside through the imposition of over-bureaucratic controls. The cornerstone of the Act was voluntary co-operation between government and their agencies (including the Nature Conservancy Council) on the one hand, and those who live and work in the countryside— particularly landowners and farmers—on the other. Our objective was to cut with the grain of rural life, and not against it.

We are now in the seventh year since the Act was passed. Before responding to the detailed points raised this afternoon I should like to consider how some of the key sections of the Act have worked.

First, we had to strengthen the NCC itself. In the last year before the Act was passed (1980–81) the NCC's grant from Government was £9.4 million. Since then it has almost quadrupled to £35½ million this year. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, will be pleased to know that subject to parliamentary approval, there will be a further increase next year to £38.95 million. This has allowed the NCC to improve the effectiveness of its entire operation. That includes research where the NCC has actually increased its expenditure substantially using the additional grant-in-aid that we have made available. My noble friend Lord Cranbrook will note that the research expenditure has more than doubled from £2.3 million in 1984–85 to about £5 million this year. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, can be assured that the NCC has already increased its expenditure outside designated areas in the wider environment. Expenditure this year is likely to be almost three-quarters of a million pounds more than last year.

Above all, these additional resources have allowed the NCC to push ahead with the most ambitious habitat protection programme ever undertaken in this country. Before the Act, there was widespread and justifiable concern about accelerating losses of natural habitat. The traditional warp and weft of the British countryside was under threat. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) had of course existed since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949. By 1981 the NCC had designated over 3,800 of these "old style" SSSIs, but of course they provided no protection against activities such as draining, ploughing or afforestation which are not covered by planning controls. The NCC had powers to make management agreements, but in all that time only 70 had been negotiated.

The "new-style" SSSIs created by the 1981 Act transformed the situation by providing basic protection for all designated sites, and a breathing space in which the NCC could negotiate with any owner or farmer whose activities might threaten the site's important features, and to pay compensation where necessary under a management agreement.

This new framework for the voluntary approach set an enormous challenge. As my noble friend Lord Massereene will remember from our debates in 1981, there were many voices in both the conservation and farming worlds which said that it would fail. The NCC itself was faced with a Herculean task of renotifying every existing SSSI which still merited protection, as well as designating many new ones. It had to undertake thousands of site surveys and negotiations with farmers. But the results have confounded the critics, particularly those siren voices who called for detailed planning controls which would have strangled the prosperity of the countryside on which our wildlife ultimately depends.

By March last year, the NCC had met its 1987–8 target by renotifying more than 80 per cent. of the SSSIs which had been designated prior to the 1981 Act. There are already over 5,000 "new style" SSSIs—more than the entire sum of "old style" SSSIs designated in the 32 years before the 1981 Act. By 1989 about7½ per cent. of the total land surface of England, Scotland and Wales—the cream of our natural habitats—will be protected by SSSI designation.

There will of course continue to be the need to designate new SSSIs beyond that date, for example, those in Caithness and Sutherland to which my noble friend Lord Sanderson of Bowden has already referred when he opened for the Government this afternoon. The position on management agreements has also changed radically. During 1986–7 alone, the NCC negotiated 308 agreements, more than four times the total number in March 1981. There are now over 850 agreements covering more than 48,000 hectares. Another 1,300 agreements are in the pipeline. They do, of course, cost rather more than the £39,000 which was being paid annually before the 1981 Act.

However, payments to farmers and landowners have not risen to the ruinous levels which many of the Act's opponents predicted. This year, total payments under agreements are likely to be £6.8 million, and the NCC expects that to level off in future years at about £11.5 million, when the SSSI programme is substantially complete. I would submit that this is excellent value for money. Indeed I believe it represents less than three-quarters of 1 per cent. of total expenditure on agricultural grants and subsidies in 1986–7.

Further, the SSSI programme has been carried out with the absolute minimum of compulsion and disagreement. In the six and a half years since the Act was passed, Ministers have had to make only 23 nature conservation orders, of which the government was later able to withdraw nine, because agreement was reached between the owners and the NCC. I believe this is a great tribute to landowners, farmers and crofters who have co-operated with the NCC, often in difficult circumstances. Public sector landowners are also playing their part. Last month, the NCC signed an agreement with the Ministry of Defence which will protect wildlife on 682,000 acres of defence land, including 176 SSSIs. As my noble friend Lord Ridley pointed out, it is one of the paradoxes of nature conservation that our military bases are such a haven for threatened species. Indeed one SSSI on defence land in Hampshire is the only single site in Britain where all 12 species of our native amphibians and reptiles can be found.

The SSSI programme as a whole is now proving its worth in preventing our best natural habitat from being damaged. In the year before the Act was passed, the NCC estimated that perhaps 12 per cent. of the SSSIs were damaged. In 1986–87 less than 4 per cent. of SSSIs notified under the 1981 Act suffered any form of damage, and only 1 per cent. came to any serious harm. Not a single new-style SSSI has been lost for the past two years. I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that we recognise the need for positive management and the NCC already has powers to offer payments to owners and occupiers to encourage positive conservation measures.

The success of the SSSI programme is now becoming quite well known and appreciated, even by those who were originally sceptical about the Act. The voluntary approach was also wholeheartedly endorsed by the Select Committee on the Environment in its report on Part 11 of the Act in 1985. Rather less publicity has been given to the NCC's parallel achievement in establishing a network of national nature reserves to bring added measures to conserve those SSSIs which are of national and international importance and allow them to be used for scientific research and education. Since 1981, the NCC has declared 62 new reserves, bringing the total number of NNRs to 233. As with SSSIs, the extra resources we have made available to the NCC have enabled it to step up the rate at which new reserves are established. In 1986–87 10 new reserves were declared.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Cranbrook that the future size of the reserve network is the single most important subject to be addressed in the NCC's current review. We shall expect the NCC to consider a range of options, bearing in mind that all the top-flight sites will in any event be protected by SSSI status. Indeed, most already are. We do not want to pre-empt the outcome of the NCC's review but we must guard against designation for designation's sake. SSSI status provides a basic standard of protection. It may be possible to find other ways of securing positive management as well as establishing NNRs.

Most NNRs are established in co-operation with farmers and landowners, without the need for sites to be taken into public ownership. Almost three-quarters of the total NNR network remains in the ownership of private individuals or voluntary bodies and is managed for nature conservation in agreement with the NCC. I was therefore rather perplexed by the misleading stories which appeared last month in some newspapers which should have been better informed, suggesting that the Government were to insist on privatising national nature reserves. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that it is certainly difficult to privatise sites which are already in private ownership! What we have done—and I make no apology for this'—is to ask the NCC to look at the reserves in its ownership, which are the minority, as part of a wider review of NNRs, and consider whether any could be transferred to private or voluntary ownership, under strict safeguards, to ensure the proper conservation of the sites. I hope that that will quell the fears of the noble Lords opposite. At this point, perhaps I may commend to your Lordships a brand-new NCC publication called Site Management Plans, which gives practical guidance on how to look after nature reserves and is particularly intended to help voluntary bodies manage their reserves as effectively as possible. The work was very well explained by my noble friend Lord Norrie, and I am grateful to him for bringing that matter to the attention of the House.

A number of NNRs and other reserves are, of course, already managed successfully by voluntary bodies. I am pleased to be able to announce one particularly important project today. I hope that it will please in particular my noble friends Lord Blakenham and Lord Chelwood. I have today authorised the NCC to offer the RSPB a grant of up to £500,000 for the purchase of one of our last remaining tracts of native pinewood at Abernethy Forest in the Cairngorms. The RSPB will meet £800,000 of the cost. The National Heritage Memorial Fund is to make a substantial contribution, and there is also the prospect of obtaining funds from the European Community—

Lord Chelwood

My Lords, as a former president of the RSPB and with a former chairman—my noble friend Lord Blakenham— sitting beside me, perhaps the Minister will allow me to take the opportunity to say how immensely grateful the society will be for the generous grant in aid towards the purchase of a wonderful area of mountain, moorland and ancient pines.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. He is right to say that this is an exciting project. It will lead to the creation of the largest national nature reserve owned and managed by a voluntary body. It will also help to secure the future of our only endemic bird species; the Scottish crossbill.

I turn from the subject of land to that of water. There is a common link between the two; that is, business sponsorship. I am surprised that none of your Lordships have mentioned that. I wholeheartedly endorse the sentiments of the NCC's chairman, who stated in the report that: the future of nature conservation will largely depend on the dynamism of the private sector". Esso is already supporting NCC's Inventories of Ancient Woodland. RTZ Cement is co-operating with the NCC to establish an arable weed research centre in the Chilterns to cultivate rare wild flowers for research. Last November the NCC published two major reports on seabirds at sea sponsored by BP, Shell and Esso, which will help oil companies working in the North Sea to protect birds such as guillemots, razorbills and puffins. Those are the birds which one may possibily find on marine nature reserves. That was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady White and by my noble friend Lord Cranbrook. We remain committed to the voluntary approach. I consider that the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady White served only to confirm our belief that marine nature reserves could not operate successfully without the co-operation and assistance of all interests.

We are aware that progress is slow. Consultations are often protracted, but consensus is important. Time spent achieving that is not wasted. Indeed. the success of Lundy indicates that procedures can be made to work. We must not overlook the detailed survey started last year on marine habitats and species. The work is expected to take 10 years to complete and one of the results is expected to be that there will be further identification of potential marine nature reserves.

I turn from the sea to inland waters, a subject raised by my noble friend Lord Renton. I assure him that the growing problems from agricultural pollution and discharges from sewage treatment works are being tackled. Over £700 million is to be spent over the next four years on correcting that problem. Just outside this palace is the River Thames, which is a major success story. Over 100 species of fish are now to be found in the river and it is the cleanest metropolitan river in the world.

I should like now to deal briefly with some of the points raised by your Lordships. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, raised the important point of environmentally sensitive areas. I agree that the 18 areas in the United Kingodm are off to a good start and the take-up by farmers of land considered to be suitable in the first tranche has been as high as 78 per cent. The Forestry Commission has undertaken not to approve any forestry proposals that are incompatible with those features of an area which led to its designation as an ESA.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, raised the subject of agricultural diversification by set-aside and extensification. The consultation document on extensification, issued by the agriculture departments in December, makes it clear that the scheme in the United Kingdom will be designed to fulfil environmental objectives. My department is considering with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food ways in which this can be achieved. The advice of the NCC and the Countryside Commission will be valuable. We are particularly interested in the research that the NCC is carrying out into the management and benefit of conservation headlands. I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, that there is no easy answer.

I turn to deal briefly with forestry because the subject was covered earlier in the day by my noble friend. With regard to the flow country, I believe that the debate today has done a great deal to redress the balance, and I am grateful to the noble Lords who have taken part. In particular I thought that the points raised by my noble kinsman Lord Thurso were relevant to our discussions on the subject. I know the flow country well and have walked over it many times. It is important to note that the balanced approach being taken by the Government in tackling the problem is right.

My noble friend Lord Kimball stressed an important point. In addition to what the Government are doing, there is increasing scope for the NCC to build up partnerships with others as a way forward, even in such a difficult environment as the flow country. My noble friend Lord Rees stressed the importance of forestry as a crop in the countryside and he underlined that sympathetic planting can improve the environment. I am sure that he is right, and that contention was supported by my noble friend Lord Gisborough. I confirm that the target figure of 33,000 hectares per annum, as set out in the farming and rural enterprise package in March 1987, is still our target figure. We shall continue to monitor the situation and if necessary we shall revise the figure.

I turn briefly to the subject of forestry tax. I shall not say anything about tax; it is the close season in view of the forthcoming Budget. However, I was interested to note the comments of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. When I was in opposition, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Jacques, who was replying for the Government, about the present system. He said that it was a sound financial system. Any party can change its mind.

I totally agreed with my noble friend Lord Swinton when he drew to the attention of the House the need to conserve heather moorland. We regret that loss and we are concerned to find ways of reversing the process. We have welcomed the preliminary steps that the NCC has taken in that direction.

Following on logically from moorland are the traditional country pursuits. I agree with my noble friend and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and my noble friend Lord Gisborough, who raised the same points. Traditional country pursuits are eminently compatible with conservation, provided that they are practised sensibly. A great majority of country sportsmen are also the most active conservationists, and I want to see the successful symbiosis continuing. There may be some of your Lordships who will not believe my noble friends and myself, and I should like to commend the book, The Fox and the Orchid, by Robin Page, who highlights the necessity for country sports when it comes to conservation.

I turn to an important point raised by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, which was picked up by my noble friends Lord Chelwood and Lord Craigton; that is, our obligation to international conventions. I was lucky enough the other day to designate a further site as a RAMSAR site. It was the the site at Slimbridge. I was able to designate the Upper Severn estuary, which includes the Slimbridge site, as a wetland of international importance under the convention. That brings the UK total of RAMSAR sites to 33. Only one of the 46 contracting parties to the convention has designated more sites. We are anything but failing in coming forward to comply with the international convention. Indeed, when it comes to special protection areas under the EC directive—and I look forward to the debate which I hope I shall take part in in the future—we have designated 22 sites so far. Needless to say, our record compares very favourably with other EC countries.

I quickly turn to common land to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that it remains the Government's intention to promote comprehensive commons legislation at an early opportunity.

I apologise to those of your Lordships to whom I have not replied, but I will of course write to your Lordships.

Perhaps I may conclude by reaffirming our commitment to a balanced and voluntary approach in conserving our wildlife. Indeed I believe we must check any tendency to increase the complexity of the legislation, and guard against devaluing the currency of conservation designations such as NNRs and SSSIs by seeking to use them too widely. We are completely opposed to making a museum out of our countryside. We must continue to march in step with country people who need to make a living—whether from traditional pursuits such as agriculture, forestry and country sports or from new technology and tourism. Now that there is a framework for protection of our wildlife treasures, we must look to individuals, voluntary bodies and commercial sponsorship each to play their full part in supporting the conservation ethic. Success will come through each and every one of us applying that ethic in our deeds, not merely our words.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, I should like to thank all those who have spoken this afternoon for their support in a long and very productive debate. I congratulate the Minister on his usual brilliant treatment of so many issues that arose from so many directions. His reply was concentrated on the Nature Conservancy Council's success in site protection and in safeguards for habitats. I should just like to reiterate that I do not consider that I am being alarmist when I stress that there is now hard scientific evidence of the vulnerability of the environment in air, land, coastal and marine waters which in many cases is reaching the limit of its capacity to absorb chemical inputs: the impact of current human activity. There are places where no compromise can be reached and where some development can no longer proceed careless of the environmental impact.

I shall also mark today in my diary as being the first time that I heard from my noble friend Lord Craigton mention of the idea that, while the NCC is so ably and effectively occupied with site and habitat protection, nonetheless, and despite the regard for the environment among Ministers and departments which he mentioned, we need an overall environment protection commission which should be modelled perhaps on the Health and Safety Commission. As I say, I mark this day in my diary as the first occasion within Parliament that I have heard this idea, which is being fairly widely mooted outside these walls. Until we reach that day, the Nature Conservancy Council is the sole agency charged with the overall protection and safeguarding of the natural environment. The voice of conservation must be heard —not interpreted as opposition to development but also not in weak compromise, if this is what balance means. This voice must be heard to safeguard a healthy and robust natural environment that can sustain reasonable demands put upon it so that conservation and development go hand in hand.

The chairman of the NCC, Mr. Wilkinson, has fairly recently been re-appointed but the director-general, Mr. Dick Steele, will retire in May. I do not yet know who will take his place. However, I am sure your Lordships would like Mr. Steele to take from us all our warm congratulations on the healthy and vigorous state of the NCC and our recollection of the firm assurances of continuing government support that we have heard from the Minister.

On Question, Motion agreed to.