HL Deb 17 December 1992 vol 541 cc658-61

11.56 a.m.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 25th November be approved [13th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move the order on behalf of my noble friend Lord Howe. The order is made under the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932. That Act is concerned with the control of animals which are not native to this country and which pose a threat to the countryside because of their destructive habits. Powers under the Act allow for either an absolute prohibition on the keeping of such animals or for licensed keeping. The Act is not concerned with welfare and does not allow for a prohibition on keeping for any reason other than the destructive nature of the species.

However, welfare is a subject of public concern and, no doubt, is also of concern to many noble Lords. I should therefore make the Government's position on welfare quite clear. There is a recommendation from the Council of Europe which advises on the welfare standards for the keeping of fur animals. The Government wish to see that standard improved upon and adopted on a Community basis.

The Mink Keeping Order 1987 prohibits absolutely the keeping of mink on all offshore islands of Great Britain where there are neither wild mink populations nor mink farms and in the Scottish Highlands where wild mink have not spread. Elsewhere mink can be kept under licence issued at the discretion of agriculture departments. The new order, which continues the policy of successive governments, renews the existing powers to control mink for five years. Mink farmers will continue to be required to meet the detailed and specific requirements of the Mink Keeping Regulations 1975, as amended, in order to obtain a licence from agriculture departments. They will also be visited at least annually to ensure they are still complying with all of their licence conditions. The maintenance of these arrangements will serve the interests of this small sector of farming and the interests of both other farmers with small livestock, which could be at risk from mink escaping from mink farms, and wildlife.

Licensing with an annual inspection will ensure mink farmers give sufficient priority to physical security of their animals. The Government are not complacent about the standards of inspections and intend to review the current arrangements as a matter of urgency. Changes will be made if any areas of weakness are identified.

There is one change in the new order covering the isle of Harris and Lewis. This isle is to be included as an area of the country where there is a total prohibition on mink keeping. Attempts, supported by Scottish Natural Heritage, are to be made to eradicate mink on the island. I understand that if successful this may be extended to other islands. The change was put to us by Scottish Heritage and has been supported by the RSPB. It therefore seems right to introduce a prohibition on mink keeping on the isle of Harris and Lewis.

If there are real problems in ensuring that mink can be kept securely these will be addressed either by additional security requirements on the licence, or, if that is not possible, the licence will be refused. Equally, if the annual inspection finds that security does not meet the required standard the licence will not be renewed unless the defect is remedied. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 25th November be approved [13th Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.)

12 noon

Lord Carter

My Lords, the House is extremely grateful to the Minister for explaining the order. As he said, the order is concerned solely with the security aspects of the keeping of mink and not with whether mink should be farmed or the welfare aspect. While the keeping of mink remains legal obviously the security aspect is extremely important.

I am sure we all agree that if mink are to be kept and farmed they should be kept under conditions which are properly secure and humane. The Minister knows the views of the Farm Animal Welfare Council on that aspect. I noted that Mr. Nicholas Soames, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the department, (at col. 798 of Commons Hansard) on 8th December in another place described the British mink as "a crafty little varmint". I suggest that it is also a particularly vicious animal which, if it escapes, can do a great deal of damage to both wild and domestic species.

As I said, the order is not concerned with the welfare aspects of the keeping of mink or whether they should be farmed for their fur. However, I should make it clear that it is my party's policy that mink farming should be ended at the earliest opportunity. I should like to ask why the Government did not take the opportunity when considering the renewal of the order to ban mink farming completely. There is no need for us to wait for the European legislation on this matter. There is the question of subsidiarity and this is the type of decision that we should be able to take for ourselves.

Since the Government decided against a ban we have to concern ourselves with the effectiveness of the order in front of us. If mink are to be kept in captivity they must be kept securely. Is the Minister concerned by the disparity between the very few reported incidents of mink escaping and the anecdotal evidence which suggests that there are a large number of escapes which are not reported by mink farmers, for understandable reasons? Do the Government have a view on the difference between the number of reported incidents and the anecdotal evidence on escapes?

Finally, we have heard about the arrangements regarding the Scottish islands. Why are mink allowed to be kept on the Isle of Arran but not on the other Scottish islands?

Lord Addington

My Lords, this order, though it is restricted to the keeping of mink, raises the question of the welfare of animals. Mink are predators and normally live a solitary life. As a result of farming to make money out of them a large number of mink are kept in a restricted space. Factory farming methods will be even more stressful for an animal whose natural predilection is for a solitary life than for the herbivores which are traditionally kept as farm animals, possibly because they are far easier to keep. I have no particular objection to the farming of any animal, but the welfare of the animals concerned should be taken into consideration.

I would not necessarily agree as a matter of principle that if one is prepared to wear the skin of a cow in the form of shoes the wearing of the fur of another animal in the form of a coat is acceptable. However, the fact is that many animals, especially carnivores, find it particularly stressful to be kept in such circumstances. The question of the keeping of an animal which will suffer even more stress from the factory farming technique is one which I feel the Government should he addressing. The choice between keeping carnivores domestically or trapping wild animals is another question. A whole array of questions arise.

The order is concerned with security. Mink are far too efficient as hunters and killers to be let loose in our environment. There have been cases of mink wiping out almost the entire population of water voles in a particular stretch of waterway. That means that not only do they wipe out an indigenous species but they also break the food chain for all other species in the chain. Also, once they have wiped out the water voles in the area they will turn to other prey. Ultimately, if they wipe out an entire species their only other source of prey will be domestic animals.

Therefore, I suggest that we take very strong measures to control this animal, for the simple reason that it does not fit into our wildlife, such as it is. We have very little wild countryside left. Indeed, there is a strong case for saying that we have none and that it is all man made. We should take the strongest possible measures to ensure that where mink are kept they stay within the farms. We should also seriously consider eradicating the population of feral mink.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked me about a ban. In a statement made in April 1989 the Farm Animal Welfare Council expressed its disapproval of fur farming but it did not recommend that the practice be stopped. At about that time the Council of Europe was working on its welfare recommendation, which was adopted a year later. We expect that recommendation to be used as the basis for a Community standard. The Government's policy towards the welfare of fur animals is that we shall press for the highest standards to be adopted on a Community basis.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about sightings of mink. Reports of sightings have been made by individuals and organisations. These have been investigated but have failed to confirm the origin of the mink or to highlight any deficiencies in the security of mink farms that need to be addressed. It is extremely difficult for the lay person to distinguish between a wild or a farmed mink.

The noble Lord's final point concerned the Isle of Arran. There has been some concern as to why the Isle of Arran has not been included as an area in which the keeping of mink is prohibited. Feral mink are present on that isle and there are no mink farms currently licensed. Therefore, the situation is similar to that on the Isles of Harris and Lewis. However, there is one difference in the situation in that, so far as I am aware, no plans have been put forward by those with an interest in mink control on the isle to mount a campaign to eradicate the animal from the area. Scottish Natural Heritage will obviously wish to see the results of the attempts on Harris and Lewis before considering future plans. Should such a scheme be proposed the Government would be happy to look again at the possibility of banning mink-keeping on the Isle of Arran.

As regards the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I can only agree with the majority of what he said.

I hope that I have answered the points made by noble Lords. I commend the order to the House. On Question, Motion agreed to.