HL Deb 15 October 1991 vol 531 cc1003-4

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Nicol asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to reduce the number of imported wild birds kept in each quarantine premises.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, on 1st April this year, my department reduced the maximum permissible number of imported non-psittacines per consignment from 6,000 to 4,000. My department has also been reviewing the optimum stocking densities for the various species of captive birds in quarantine. On the basis of that review, limits on the maximum number of birds in individual quarantine premises are being established as appropriate.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that encouraging reply. Does she feel that the measures she has outlined will meet our two main worries about birds in quarantine, the first of which is that those carrying the psittacosis virus should be properly monitored? We are also concerned about the vulnerability of certain species, many of which die when they are in quarantine. Would it not be possible to lengthen the period of quarantine to meet both those problems?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the purpose of post-import quarantine is not to control psittacosis. It is required to minimise the risk of certain avian diseases, particularly Newcastle disease and avian influenza, being introduced into the country through imported captive birds. I am assured that the period of quarantine is adequate for this purpose. When the noble Baroness and I spoke about this matter yesterday she mentioned her particular concern about humming birds. I am assured that the disgracefully high mortality rate among imported humming birds is probably associated with adapting to an artificial feeding regime and not to incubating illness in the quarantine itself.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her helpful reply. Is she aware that the reports that we have read in the press over recent weeks and the harrowing pictures that we have seen on television of these birds have caused widespread concern in the country? While the measures she has described will obviously be constructive and helpful, is she satisfied that they will remove the cruel treatment of these birds?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the whole trade is so disgusting that I do not like to dwell on it. The best we can do is to impose the strictest conditions on the importation of such birds from their country of origin. The mortality figures in the various countries of origin are worse than those incurred in transportation. Our vets visit those countries where there are any doubts and in one case we have stopped all importation of birds.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, apart from straightforward smuggling, the main problem is the making of false declarations by importers? They say that a bird is of a common species when in fact it is of a rare species. There are not enough experts to detect this practice. Would not the simplest and most sensible measure to take be to restrict the number of ports of entry with quarantine facilities? We could then concentrate our expertise in order to stop this illegal substitution.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, perhaps I may set out the actual grounds. The import of captive birds is prohibited except under the authority of an import licence issued in advance by my department. All such birds must be accompanied by an official health certificate signed by an official veterinarian of the exporting country and must undergo a period of at least 35 days post-import quarantine in previously approved premises. Furthermore, IATA has issued very strict rules. British Airways, among other airlines, is not importing birds from certain countries.

Lord Moran

My Lords, is it not the case that every year there are thousands of seizures by Customs of illegal consignments of wild birds but only a handful of prosecutions? Moreover, if, as I believe, the Joint Nature Conservancy Council has recently advised the Government to make enforcement more effective, what steps do they propose to take to stamp out this illegal trade which is doing untold harm to some of the rarest and most beautiful of the world's birds?

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, if the noble Lord refers to yesterday's Hansard he will find the answers to most of the questions that he has asked contained in a Written Answer from me to a Question put forward by the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland. It sets out the figures. DoE and MAFF Ministers have written jointly to the EC following the report of the JNCC proposing that the Community should strengthen measures to prevent any illegal trade in endangered species and to ensure that specimens of those species are used to bring conservation benefits. As regards the rest of the noble Lord's question, perhaps I may write to him in order to save time at the Dispatch Box.