HL Deb 23 May 1988 vol 497 cc635-6

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they are taking to help to identify the pollution which is causing the deaths of sea birds in the Thames estuary.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy may be referring to deaths of seagulls over recent years. The symptoms reported are indicative of avian botulism being the cause of death. Scavengers such as gulls are particularly susceptible to the toxin. There is no evidence to link the deaths with either disposal of waste at sea or the use of pesticides.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, which indicates that some progress is being made. However, is she aware that thousands of birds have been killed and injured in the most distressing circumstances, suffering from blindness, paralysis and dehydration, while hitherto the cause has not yet been identified?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the Nature Conservancy Council and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food veterinary service advise that avian botulism periodically attacks gulls. These reported symptoms are consistent with this condition. Hot summers may promote the availability of the toxin at their feeding sites.

Lord Mellish

My Lords, will the noble Baroness say something about the general state of pollution in the River Thames since the Question mentions that river and pollution? Can she also say something about the present and the future, because the past has not been all that good?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I have explained the reason these gulls are dying. Sewage sludge is dumped in the outer Thames estuary under strict MAFF controls. There has been intensive monitoring by the Ministry of the hydrography of the area and of the distribution of bacteria from the dump site. The results show that the dumping has no effect on the levels of bacteria along the estuary shores.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, to be fair to those who at present manage the River Thames and those who managed it in the past, a great deal of work has been done to clean up the river? Its condition now is remarkably good—so good that a salmon run up the river is now beginning to become possible. That is a fair indication of the improvement made.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I am most grateful for the remarks of my noble friend.

Lord McNair

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us whether a gull suffering from avian botulism is capable of laying an egg which might later be consumed in your Lordships' House?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the type of botulism that these birds have does not affect humans. Avian botulism is caused by the type C toxin of clostridium botulinum. Humans are affected by type A, so noble Lords should feel free to eat any eggs.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, in support of my noble friend Lord Campbell, perhaps I may ask whether the noble Baroness is aware that a few years ago the state of the Thames was so had that if a vessel was painted and it remained in the lower Thames for 48 hours, the paint turned black.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords. I am not sure that anything like that happens to the gulls. The position may have been different in the 1950s, because MAFF licensing controls began in 1974.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, my noble friend referred to the dumping of sewage sludge some miles out to sea and suggested that that was not the cause. Does she agree that the facts indicate that it is unlikely to be from sources going down the River Thames, which has been cleaned in recent years? Can she also tell us more about industrial and domestic waste coming from the coastline of the estuary?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, Thames Water monitors all varieties of material, including pesticides. From that point of view, only minute traces are permitted in sludge, but the symptoms of the birds are consistent with botulism and have nothing to do with what is in the water.

Back to