HL Deb 16 April 1991 vol 527 cc1410-23

Lord Kimball rose to move, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order [SI 1991/367] be annulled.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Motion deals with the protection afforded to the adder and the freshwater pearl mussel by the quinquennial review of the degrees of protection which are necessary under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981. It would not be appropriate—and I should make it clear that it was not my intention—to divide the House on either of those issues tonight; but I hope that at the end of our discussions the House will make it clear that we shall no longer tolerate blanket protection orders which are not linked to proposals for the culling and proper management of any protected species.

In the part of the country where I have a hill farm, there is no shortage of adders. Nor have I seen any publicity saying, "Adders are scarce. Please do not kill them unless you have to". The Nature Conservancy Council is never slow to gear up its publicity machine. We saw the almost hysterical publicity that it generated about the future of the flow country. Why have we not seen some publicity about the shortage of and dangers to the adder population? I had one suckle calf bitten by an adder and one ram which died last year as a result of an adder bite. The suckle calf nearly died because it was bitten on the nose and all its jaw swelled up so that it could not eat. The House should realise that cattle are particularly vulnerable to adders. Many noble Lords will know that, if you have a myxie rabbit in a field and it cannot get away, all the cattle gather round it and mob it. Cattle are nosey beasts and, if there is an adder in the middle of the field, they will gather round it and mob it and it will bite and strike them for its own protection. No good stockman will leave an adder in a field of cows and calves.

I press my noble friend who is to reply to the debate to make it clear, because the NCC has certainly not made it clear in any publicity, that it is in order for a stockman, a herdsman, a shepherd or anyone who is in charge of livestock, to kill an adder if he feels that that adder endangers his livestock. I am not quite certain—perhaps my noble friend will clear up this point—who constitutes a person authorised under the order to kill an adder. Perhaps he will confirm that it is the farmer or the occupier or his shepherd or herdsman. We must face the fact that, whatever the law may say, most countrymen who feel that an adder is a danger to livestock, dogs or children will kill it. I do not see why we should make that a criminal offence. It worries me that an authorised person may find himself in the same position in which we find ourselves over the killing of sawbill ducks—that is, goosanders and mergansers—where you have to obtain a licence. Every time you obtain a licence, the period during which you can kill them and the number that you can kill is reduced and there is always an argy-bargy. On the scale on which it is necessary to control adders, certainly in the part of Scotland that I know, no form of licensing and authorisation would be an acceptable solution.

Adders are not scarce, but in England the suitable habitat in which they might want to live is becoming scarce. That is why they are scarce. There is nowhere that is particularly suitable for adders, particularly in the south of England. Noble Lords will know that the population of adders varies very much and follows the cycle for voles and small mammals. After a peak in the population of voles and small mammals, there is a peak in the adder population. I contend that it is wrong to make a criminal offence out of something which any sensible countryman will do only when it is absolutely necessary.

I turn now to the other item on the protection order dealing with the question of the freshwater pearl mussel. On this question, I am particularly indebted to the farm of the noble Lord, Lord Cranbrook, which produced a considerable amount of information which was taken up by the Department of Zoology at Aberdeen University. In its 1983 survey that department estimated that in England and Wales there were 56 rivers and in Scotland 118 rivers which contained pearl mussels and that over-fishing by pearl fishers had contributed to a serious decline in 39 of those rivers. Pollution had contributed to a decline in a further 12 rivers, and disturbance from the building of bridges and new roads and the taking of gravel out of rivers had affected a further six.

The mussel is in the same category as the tick and the cuckoo. It is a creature which needs another in order to survive. Following spawning it spends its first year living in the gills of a salmon parr. At the end of its first year it leaves the salmon parr when the smolt goes to the sea. For the purposes of reproduction it is dependent on a healthy population of salmon parr. That is a major indication of the health and purity of our rivers.

I am certain your Lordships realise that the freshwater mussel is extremely long-lived. It can live to between 70 to 100 years. It cannot produce a pearl until it is nine years old and that pearl will not be mature until it reaches the age of 15 years. Only about 1 per cent. of all freshwater mussels in England and Scotland produce pearls.

The problem facing mussels is posed by the vast number of people who have bought wet suits and diving gear and rushed out in the hope of finding the odd pearl. They go into the rivers wearing this marvellous kit and fill sacks full of these wretched mussels. I have seen it. They take off their diving gear, open up the mussels and hope to find a pearl. The mussels are then thrown aside. The destruction those people do is enormous. There is no question of applying a size limit and no thought is given to those mussels which might or might not have pearls in them. Such a treasure hunt has become all the more popular with access to the countryside and invasion by the motor car.

I am particularly indebted to Mr. Martin Brooks, a well-known pearl fisher from Scone on Tayside, for the help and advice he has given me on the management of mussels in the River Naver watershed in Sutherland. Mr. Brooks is a remarkable man. He can pick a mussel out of the river, open it with a set of tongs and see if there is a pearl in it. If it contains a pearl he can extract it without killing the mussel. If there is a tiny start of a pearl, he can put the mussel back until the pearl matures, marking the shell of the mussel so he does not disturb it again for another 10 or 15 years. As chairman of a fisheries board I would want to license Mr. Brooks to manage the mussels in the watershed. I understand from the Association of District Fishery Boards in Scotland arid the National Rivers Authority in England that they would like to do the same thing.

There are at present about 40 well-known, reliable pearl fishers in this country. I believe that those responsible people, who do not kill the mussels, should be given the opportunity to develop our fisheries. I support the order but object most strongly to the fact that like so much of our conservation legislation at the moment it has not been thought through. To conserve a species you must have a proper policy of conservation and culling. All that the order does is to make it an offence to kill a mussel. No water bailiff has power to stop a pearl fisher. The police have to be sent for. All one can do is stop the person from actually killing a mussel. One cannot say to the person concerned, "This particular pearl mussel fishery is being managed by the person I have licensed to manage it". We have a hopeless situation in which we rush in to preserve something without thinking of the consequences or how we will manage it.

I should like an assurance tonight from the Government that they will take a benign look (which is all they can do) at the possibility of a Private Member's Bill being brought forward in this House or in another place which would allow the district fishery boards in Scotland and the river boards in England to license the respectable mussel fishers. I also believe that most of the people in the district fishery boards would like to put some restriction on the amount of effort put into pearl fishing. We do not want people in wet suits diving into deep pools. I believe the activity should be limited to people in thigh-waders with glass boxes and forked sticks, because the deep pools are the reservoir from which most of the mussels come and should not be fished.

I am afraid that many farmers and people in the countryside today are beginning to feel that the Nature Conservancy Council is developing a certain scientific arrogance which is divorced from the practical realities of the countryside. In this debate on the adder and the mussel the House is presented with an opportunity to say quite clearly that it is not going to tolerate an ill-conceived and not properly thought out piece of protective legislation. On the basis of the order before us tonight, one protection (for the mussel) is necessary but has not been thought through and the other (for the adder) is unnecessary and has been brought forward without proper consultation and publicity. I beg to move.

Moved, That a humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Order [S.I. 1991/367] be annulled—. (Lord Kimball.)

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, first I must apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey who has been unavoidably delayed and I fear is unlikely to get here before the end of the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, waxed eloquent about the Nature Conservancy Council. Perhaps he has forgotten that it ceased to exist on the last day of March and was replaced by a Scottish body, by English Nature in England and by a different council in Wales. We are fortunate in having with us this evening the chairman of the English body and no doubt he will take in everything that is said. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, will find communication with the Scottish body a little easier in the future.

In the meantime, all of us have to rely on the evidence provided to us by English Nature. The first piece of evidence from it— which I have to accept— is difficult to reconcile with the statement by the noble Lord, Lord Kimball. English Nature says that adders are becoming scarce and endangered; Lord Kimball says that he is overrun with them. Somewhere along the way there must be a truth which we will have to discover. In the meantime, if the noble Lord will forgive me, I will accept the stand taken by English Nature that we have to add the adder to our protected list. On that basis, we welcome the order. However, I have to say that I am sorry the opportunity was not taken to add to Schedule 9 of the Act the barn owl and the chuff. The release of those birds from captivity into the wild is causing problems which we will need to deal with in future. Perhaps I can put down that marker for the attention of the Government.

The Government accept the philosophy of sustainable development. That philosophy must be underpinned by the management of natural resources, not least by protecting biodiversity. A species extinct is lost for ever, as is its potential in terms of genetic resources. The case for the protection of endangered species as far as this country is concerned was made and accepted in the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Since then, the need to protect the biodiversity of the planet has become even more widely accepted.

The adder may not be as appealing as the giant panda but it has its place in the scheme of things. The case against it is much overstated. In fact it is a timid creature which bites only when it feels threatened. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals points out that in the past 100 years fewer than 10 deaths have been caused by bites from adders and that in at least some of those cases it was the attempted cure that killed rather than the bite. It was the practice to give a large dose of horse serum, which proved fatal more often than the bite that it was meant to cure. The last known death from an adder bite was in 1975. Adders are fully protected in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Hungary and Norway. It is time that Britain joined the list in line with our obligations under the Berne convention.

The pearl mussel is vulnerable throughout Britain and highly vulnerable in England. English Nature is again concerned. The present mussel population profiles indicate a low proportion of juveniles which is a sure sign of decline. I completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, that the activities of amateur collectors must be restrained. His suggestion of a licence is well worth following up. The decline is already taking place because of water pollution, especially in England, and we must do everything that we can to preserve the species.

As the noble Lord said, commercial collectors have a more responsible attitude. They collect over a wider area and leave a reserve for future stocks. The pearls are removed by special tongs which leave the mussel alive and it can be returned to the water. Commercial fishermen will not be prevented by this order from pursuing their activities. I hope that the Government will look kindly on the suggestion that we should license fishing for pearl mussels and that it will not be necessary to go through the hassle of a Private Member's Bill. I have no remarks to make about the shad, which appears to be not controversial. I have not heard anyone grumble about putting it on the list.

I hope that the noble Lord will not press his Motion —I believe he said that he would not—and that this useful amendment to the wildlife Act is carried with all speed. I hope that we can meet the objections and that someone who knows more about the present position of the adder will be able to enlarge on what he said. It seems to me that we have here a direct contradiction: either there are plenty of them or there are not. I hope that when the Minister comes to reply he will be able to sort out that point.

Lord Addington

My Lords, I find myself in the position of not knowing a great deal about the habitat of adders and where they happen to be living or about their numbers in various parts of the country. I totally accept that the destruction of habitat is usually the best way to wipe out any species. I should be surprised if there is not a great element of truth in what the noble Lord said and that in certain parts of the country the species will be abundant and not in other areas.

The fact remains that if we are to have left a small eco-system on a natural level we have to put up with what at least to our way of thinking are unpleasant things that we do not like. For instance, everyone likes the cuddly panda so we say that we shall keep those. Generally and culturally we do not like snakes, so adders get a bad press. I have often wondered why. Most poisonous snakes are comparatively small creatures and most wild animals will bite only if they want to eat you or if you threaten them. If an adder were to want to eat you, I suggest that he would have to learn to use a knife and fork to get the bits down. I see that the noble Lord laughs. There is a great danger of ridicule here. He pointed out that these creatures were only dangerous because cows come up and nose them. If I were an adder and a cow came up to me and put her nose in my face I too should probably bite. We have to accept that the creatures which do not have general public appeal and may occasionally cause some damage to farming processes are nonetheless entitled to a degree of protection. That must he universally accepted.

The noble Lord mentioned that the mild winters have led to the expansion of certain types of wildlife such as small rodents. Those which are pests find also an expansion of those creatures which prey upon them, in this instance the snakes. It might be a case of trying to hold a balance between the amount of damage done by small rodents and the occasional loss of cattle through the adder which is trying to protect itself from them. Once again these are problems that we must bear in mind; but if we are serious about conservation, we must evenly conserve all things.

I found nothing to disagree with on the question of the freshwater mussel. People who go on a small glory hunt looking for an occasional pearl and destroy an entire bed of mussels deserve everything they get coming to them in terms of the law. I hope that the House will forgive me for using such non-exact terminology.

Everyone seems to agree with regard to the allis shad. In a discussion in the Bishops' Bar between myself and other noble Lords we were rather convinced that it was a bird and not a relative of the herring family. Everyone agrees that it should be protected. As I discovered, it is threatened by pollution.

We should look at the whole of the natural surroundings and at the regional situation. I suggest that this Prayer, which the noble Lord said he would not press, would be somewhat destructive.

7.56 p.m.

Lord Moran

My Lords, the noble Lord's Prayer seems to me to call in question the procedure for dealing with problems of this kind. In this case the Government have acted wholly correctly. The statutory instrument deposited by the Secretary of State for the Environment shows that the Government received a representation from the Nature Conservancy Council, as it then was. They then gave local authorities and other persons opportunities to submit objections or representations and formed the opinion that the species referred to were in danger of extinction in Great Britain or likely to be so endangered unless conservation measures were taken.

Therefore the Government decided to bring in the order. As I understand it, they announced their intentions at the standing committee of the Berne convention in terms of UK compliance with our obligations for such declining and persecuted reptiles under the provisions of the pan-European wildlife convention. It seems to me that they proceeded in a careful, considered way and that is certainly what should happen. I believe that they are quite right to propose this order. I should be very sorry indeed if we were to object to it.

Of the three species in question my personal concern is mostly with the allis shad. I had occasion to talk about its related species, the twaite shad, at the Second Reading of the River Usk Barrage Bill recently. I am less familiar with the allis shad because it is a much rarer species. I understand that everyone who has spoken so far agreed that it s appropriate that it should be given further protection. I am sure that that is right.

I was interested in what the noble Lord said about freshwater mussels. He explained the situation very clearly. I fully agree with him that the threat to the species appears to come from amateurs in wet suits, diving particularly into deep pools, rather than from the commercial fishermen. However, it is my understanding from the information we have received that, as this further protection proposed in the order relates only to the killing and injuring of freshwater pearl mussels, the commercial fishermen who have now found this technique of extracting the pearl with a pair of tongs and returning the mussel alive to the water would not be affected by the order. However, the amateurs who take them out in sackfuls, as the noble Lord said, and kill them would be stopped. That seems to be what the noble Lord seeks to achieve. It is what we should seek to achieve. But if the measure were reinforced by a licensing procedure, I hope that the Government will consider it.

The most controversial species is the adder. We have to rely not only on our personal and limited experience but on the advice that we receive from the statutory bodies set up to consider the matter. The Nature Conservancy Council and English Nature—which has now succeeded to one part of its responsibilities—say that the decline of the species in Britain is well documented. Most of the very limited number of people who have been killed or injured by adders have interfered with or picked up the adder. We want to persuade people to leave them alone. To give them the measure of protection proposed in the order would do precisely that. We wish to have the greatest number of species of all kinds in our country. Those in danger of extinction or of greatly reduced numbers should be given protection, whatever they are. We should not seek to preserve only the cuddly and attractive species. All species deserve to be protected if they are in danger of extinction.

I therefore hope that we shall agree with the order which seems responsible and sensible, and we shall allow it to be passed.

8.4 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I apologise for not having put my name down to speak. I never dreamt that the protection of the adder and other species in the draft order would attract so much attention. But in your Lordships' House we are used to the moving experience of passing from high matters of state to the protection of the last remaining species of snake and believe that that is a normal course of the business of the House. We lower the lights just to show that it is a somewhat mournful occasion. The television people go home and we are left to talk in private about the grief that might occur if the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, had his way.

I knew that there were likely to be a few snakes in the grass in this debate, but I never dreamt that one would be the noble Lord, Lord Kimball. After all, I recall that when the Wildlife and Countryside Act was under consideration in your Lordships' House the noble Lord was still a Member of another place. But his shadow fell across that Bill from beginning to end because he obtained from the Government a firm assurance that they would not allow the wildlife section of that Bill to be used by such people as me as an attack on blood sports and other laudable activities that those who live in the country (as I do) wish to enjoy. I never dreamt that the noble Lord would be in the grass in this debate. I had associated him with being on a horse. I thought that the only time I had to be in fear of him was if a debate on horses were about to be deferred and he thought that it ought not to be. That is the last time that I saw him roused over proceedings in your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord should also have some regard to the reputation of this country abroad. I visited Canada shortly after the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. I held Canadians spellbound when describing how we had protected the natterjack toad and partially protected the adder. When I said that anyone who wilfully trod on a natterjack toad was liable to prosecution because that had become an offence in Britain, their eyes opened and admiration welled into their faces; and I felt very proud of Britain at that moment. Yet here is the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, trying to rob us of the moral quality of British politics. He states that further protection of the adder has not been properly thought out.

Can we hear a little less about what the farmers think every time we wish to undertake a little conservation? They have had it their way pretty well all the time. We have conceded a great deal to them. We must try to preserve what is left of our indigenous species. They are few enough. I should like to see a few wolves brought back. That might make the countryside more interesting than at present. They might even get into Parliament and do some scouring in the place.

I do not believe that the noble Lord really wishes to press the matter at this hour of the day in your Lordships' House. Just think of all the other noble Lords eating their suppers in peace and harmony and talking to their wives, comrades and guests, and here we are about to expose the adder to the venom of its enemies and allow it to become extinct. The noble Lord knows full well from his close contact with the passing of the Bill in 1981 how difficult it was to secure protection under the endangered species clauses. Emotionally speaking, there would be much public opinion in favour of putting the badger on the danger list. But, no, it is not an endangered species; there are still too many of them to qualify. The adder needs protection, as does the grass snake—a lovely little creature. It is not suitable that we should be asked to pass this measure.

I admire the number of noble Lords on the Benches opposite who have turned up for the debate. I wish there were time for them all to declare for or against the adder so that the noble Lord might know whether his own colleagues are in favour of what he wishes to do. Anyway, I have had my say.

8.8 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, after that characteristically trenchant and amusing speech by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, I must rise to the defence of my noble friend Lord Kimball for a moment. The burden of my noble friend's remarks were directed towards the fact that this is a blanket order covering both England and Scotland. It is an order relating to Great Britain. I apologise to my noble friend on the Front Bench for not having given him notice of my questions, and indeed for not having put my name down to speak.

Which Secretary of State was satisfied under Article (3) of the early parts of the order in relation to adders? What indeed, if any, has been the reaction of the Scottish Office to the proposal? Has the Secretary of State for Scotland been consulted? What was the evidence upon which the decision was taken with regard to Scotland? Who collected that evidence? What has been the nature of the representations made against the proposal?

I am surprised, like my noble friend Lord Kimball, that because of the parentage (if that is the proper word) of the order, the narrow proposal that it contains must extend as widely as it does. Like my noble friend Lord Kimball, not only can I give many examples to show that there are many adders in the East Grampians—my noble friend referred to another part of Scotland—I can also give instances of cattle being killed and dogs certainly being injured if not killed.

The order is wide, but Section 22(3) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act appears to provide opportunities for the Secretary of State to make provisions in relation to particular areas of the country in regard to Schedule 5. Can my noble friend say why it has not been possible to make such provisions in this case? I know that he will be able to tell the House that a licence may be granted to enable people who need to kill adders that are putting at risk either human beings or animals. However, that is a cumbersome performance and it cannot easily be obtained. It is unusual in that, although the arbiter will be the agriculture Minister in Scotland or in England, the advisers will be the successor bodies to the Nature Conservancy Council, yet the council or its successor bodies are proposing the blanket order.

While we wish to see a proper number of adders— preserved I entirely share the view held by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton—there is no shortage in certain parts of the country where they are becoming a menace. Their habitat has been maintained because during the past few years the winter weather has not allowed their demise. The whole issue begs the question of whether the Nature Conservancy Council or its successor bodies, well meaning and thorough as they are, fully understand the implications of the advice that they are giving to the Secretary of State.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend, to whom I gave notice that I had an interest in the order. I do not live too far away from my noble friend Lord Glenarthur but a considerable distance from my noble friend Lord Kimball. Perhaps noble Lords do not appreciate a particular issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, made a moving speech in favour of the adder—luckily not today the natterjack toad. The adder is one of the most obvious creatures capable of causing death to humans. The noble Baroness said that there have been only 10 deaths since the mid-19th century. I recall the death in 1970 of a shepherd in the west of Scotland. On a hot day the shepherd put down his jacket, and perhaps he was not particularly cautious in putting it on. An adder bit him in the armpit. Scotland is a large area and the nearest facility capable of administering serum was about 50 miles away over difficult roads. As a result the shepherd died.

My noble friends Lord Glenarthur and Lord Kimball have pointed out the risk to livestock and to small animals such as dogs. They do not have a large body area to assimilate the adder's toxin. In 1955 within half an hour I saw three incidents of adult adders causing danger to dogs. That was a warm summer in the glens of Angus, which is 30 miles from the nearest source of anti-adder toxin. We must strike a balance with the need to protect animals and humans. The noble Baroness or my noble friends Lord Kimball and Lord Astor might know of an authority which can assess the adder population in Scotland and in England. I too wonder whether we have achieved the right balance as regards the only poisonous snake in the United Kingdom which can cause death to man.

I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I wondered whether we should hear of the need to bring back wolves. In Scotland we can well do without them in a harsh winter. If the noble Lord would care to take an evening off he might see a film currently being shown in the West End about wolves and— perhaps he might direct a film about adders. Tonight I leave the case to my noble friend.

8.16 p.m.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, I was delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, should mention the barn owl. I too am concerned about additional protection for the species. During the progress last year of the Environmental Protection Bill I made a case for reviewing the schedules relating to the protection of birds as part of the quinquennial review. That review deals only with plants and animals. Although we are debating Schedule 5 and in particular the protection of the allis shad, the freshwater pearl mussel and the adder, this is a perfect opportunity to make the case for providing additional legal protection to the barn owl. I strongly suggest that there is now a need to add the barn owl to Schedule 9 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is concerned about the damaging effect of releasing captive-bred barn owls into the wild. is estimated that more than 3,000 barn owls are released each year in England and Wales from a captive stock of between 20,000 and 30,000 birds. The RSPB believes that it is inappropriate to introduce genetic complications to release birds without addressing their habitat requirements. The survival of captive-bred and released birds is generally poor. Studies carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology indicate that the mortality rate of captive-bred and released barn owls is two to three times higher than of wild barn owls. Therefore the society is opposed to the captive breeding and release of barn owls except in cases where releases are undertaken as part or a structured conservation project.

In consequence the RSPB recommends that barn owls should be added to Schedule 9 to the Wildlife and Countryside Act making it an offence to release or allow to escape into the wild barn owls except under and in accordance with the terms of a licence granted by the appropriate authority. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that the quinquennial review will include a review of the schedules relating to birds as well as those relating to plants and animals.

8.19 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate on the Motion put forward by my noble friend Lord Kimball. He made a most interesting speech on the statutory instrument giving new or additional protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to three of our native species the allis shad, the freshwater pearl mussel and the adder.

The Government's scientific advisers on wildlife have a statutory duty under the 1981 Act to recommend protection for species which are endanered or under threat in Great Britain. Before making these recommendations they undertake wide-ranging scientific investigation and research. Included within that general duty is a specific requirement to undertake a review every five years of all the animals and plants protected by Schedules 5 and 8 of the 1981 Act—the process known as the quinquennial review. Until the beginning of this month, this duty was vested in the Nature Conservancy Council. Under the provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, it passed on 1st April to the new country agencies in England, Scotland and Wales acting through their joint nature conservation committee.

The proposals contained in the instrument before your Lordships this evening were first put forward by the NCC in 1986 as part of the first quinquennial review of species covered by the 1981 Act.

The Secretary of State for the Environment has to be satisfied that the level of protection proposed is appropriate and all the relevant Government departments were consulted.

My noble friend Lord Kimball has mentioned the freshwater pearl mussel and I am advised that this is a species which is in decline throughout most of its European range. It is in decline in England and Wales although it seems that in most of its range in Scotland the species is not under as much threat as elsewhere.

The level of protection proposed is aimed to deter irresponsible and indiscriminate fishing for pearls. The professional fisherman is able to use his skill to identify mussels likely to contain pearls and remove the pearls without killing the mussels, as described by my noble friend Lord Kimball. It is also in the interests of these responsible fishermen to attempt to maintain stocks of the mussel at as healthy a level as possible—the principle of sustainable utilisation. The Government believes that they have struck a balance between conservation and the livelihood of the profession.

The powers which the Government have available under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 relate only to the conservation of endangered species. It would not be appropriate to use the Act to introduce measures such as those which my noble friend has suggested for the pearl mussel this evening. Indeed, my noble friend recognises that because he is considering putting forward a Private Members' Bill as an alternative. If such a Bill comes before us, the House will examine it on its merits. As the House will know, the Government's starting point on such matters is traditionally neutral. We should only stand in its way if we thought that the proposals were incompatible with government policy.

The allis shad mentioned by some noble Lords is a species of fish. Indeed it is a grey rather than a red herring. It was once probably formerly present in many of the larger rivers in the British Isles. The protection proposed in the order before your Lordships against killing, injuring and taking the shad will lead to an enhanced conservation effort and the protection of remaining spawning grounds. The species is not actively fished for and fishing interests are safeguarded in that accidental taking and sale are excepted under the provisions of the 1981 Act.

Out of the water and on to the land, I turn to what I believe the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, described as the lovely little creature—the adder. The Government have been aware from the outset that there were three critical issues surrounding the extension of the protection afforded to this species. First, that additional protection for the adder, as Britain's only venomous snake, could only be justified on the basis of sound scientific evidence. Secondly, we had to take careful account of anxieties about safety for members of the public, for livestock and for domestic animals. Thirdly, we had to take account of our international responsibilities, particularly those under the Berne convention, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol.

On the first point, the NCC put the results of wide-ranging scientific investigation and research before the Government. This demonstrates that adder populations in Great Britain as a whole are in decline and that human persecution, as well as habitat loss, is a cause of that decline. A 10 year survey of the commoner amphibians and reptiles for the NCC showed marked declines in certain core areas for the adder throughout Great Britain, and the adder has become extinct in some areas.

Over and above that evidence of the adder's decline, was the knowledge that the three other species of reptile found in Great Britain—the grass snake, the smooth snake and the slow worm—were regularly being killed or injured in the mistaken belief that they were adders. These species are also in decline. The smooth snake is the rarest, and has been fully protected against killing, injuring or unauthorised sale since the 1981 Act came into force. The grass snake and the slow worm received additional protection against killing or injuring under the Government's initial response to the quinquennial review, via the Wildlife and Countryside Act (Variation of Schedule) Order 1988.

The second, and to some extent counter-balancing, issue is public and animal safety. The Government were extremely concerned about this issue, so much so, that we conducted a long and careful review of the original NCC proposal submitted to us in 1986. During the period between 1986 and the announcement made by my honourable friend the Minister of State in January this year, we considered all the arguments put forward objecting to the extra protection for the adder. There is no doubt that adder bites are painful. Before the development of effective anti-venins they could, of course, be rather more than just painful; but there have been no recorded deaths caused by adders in this country since 1975. Deaths from bee or wasp stings are statistically a much higher risk, yet still one that most people would regard as acceptable.

None of this implies that the Government have overlooked safety in these provisions. In fact we have quite intentionally ensured that it will remain legal to take—that is, capture—adders so that individual snakes, or colonies, presenting a threat to humans or animals can be moved to a more appropriate site. The local offices of the conservation agencies will provide advice to anyone who is concerned about adders. Furthermore, after taking account of advice from the relevant country conservation agency, my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is empowered to issue licences to kill adders under Section 16 of the 1981 Act for the express purpose of "preserving public health or public safety" or "preventing serious damage to livestock". Licences to kill adders would of course be issued only in cases where there was no alternative solution. Under Section 10(4) of the 1981 Act, an authorised person shall not be guilty of the offence of killing or injuring an adder if he shows that his action was necessary for the purpose of preventing damage to livestock. Many noble Lords were interested in who is an authorised person. An authorised person in this instance is defined as the owner or occupier, or any person authorised by the owner or occupier, of the land on which the action was taken. One can of course envisage emergencies in which the person concerned does not have a licence. Depending on the circumstances, where there is a threat of death or serious bodily harm, the defence of necessity or self-defence may be available. Therefore, the powers are there if they are ever needed.

The third and final key issue centres on the UK's international responsibilities. The adder is protected under Appendix III of the Berne Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats, to which the UK is a party.

My noble friend Lord Glenarthur asked why there should not be protection i n specific areas. The adder is in general decline. Where it survives, it needs to be preserved. It would be very confusing for the public if we had to specify areas where there was or was not protection. That would be a muddle. In the Government's view, it is much better to give clear guidance to the public on the statutory protection for adders throughout the whole of the country.

My noble friend Lord Norrie made an interesting point which I do not believe was entirely relevant to this evening's debate. We are not discussing the owl and the pussy cat but the adder, the allis shad and the pearl mussel. However, I shall look into the point which he raised and I shall write to my noble friend.

Those are the main reasons why we have accepted the case for giving extra protection to those species. Therefore, I invite my noble friend to withdraw the Motion before us this evening.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.29 p.m. to 8.35 p.m.]