HL Deb 10 November 1992 vol 540 cc81-3

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will encourage the introduction and distribution in the West Highlands of the red mite and natterer's bat, in order to reduce the numbers of the Highland midge.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)

My Lords, regrettably it is doubtful if such a measure would have the desired effect. Claims last summer of a new mite, parasitic to midges, have not been substantiated so far as we are aware. We do not propose to initiate or encourage releases of natterer's bats which already occur in the wild in Scotland. It is likely that this species of bat would already have increased its range and numbers in the West Highlands if the midge was a good food source for it.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for that Answer. Highland midges bite ferociously and repeatedly, bringing human activity to a halt, as many noble Lords may be painfully aware. Should not their natural enemies—more effective than those suggested—be put to work to assist residents and local tourism?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, yes. The misfortune is that although it was thought that both of these enemies might be real ones, it has so far proved difficult to establish that. I fear that the natterer's bat would probably have to consume a considerable number of midges before it had a substantial high tea. Nevertheless, it is appreciated that this is a problem that afflicts tourism, and I should like to reassure my noble friend that the Government are not standing idly by. Through funding from the Agricultural and Food Research Council, Aberdeen University and the Institute of Animal Health are seeking to identify ways whereby the midges might be attacked and diminished.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, can my noble and learned friend say whether the natterer's bat and the red mite might be able to help us in Dorset to eliminate the Blandford fly?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, regrettably, the red mite is proving a mite elusive. We are not sure whether it exists. There were accounts last summer that the red mite had been identified. But perhaps I may make a plea on behalf of the Department of Zoology at Aberdeen University: if anybody knows anything about the red mite, would they please advise the department? If it is of any assistance with regard to the Blandford fly, I have no doubt that that information will also be communicated.

Lord Macaulay of Bragar

My Lords, may I ask the Minister to define the Highland midge? Is it called the Highland midge because it comes from the Highlands or because it has settled in the Highlands?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, no. It is certainly no white settler. It is known colloquially as the Highland midge. My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy was somewhat unfair to it. Not all midges bite—only the female when she is pregnant.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, anyone who has been involved in the question of the West Highland midge will be aware that almost the same answers as those that have been given today by the noble and learned Lord—but perhaps he has put a bit more science on it—were given by Tom Johnston way back in the mid 1940s. I wonder whether all our science cannot do something about this. A great deal of effort has been put into it. I understand that one of the problems with natterer's bats is that the midges are around for only part of the year and that the bats would therefore find it difficult to acquire food during the other part of the year. This probably happens with all ecological attempts to get rid of the midges. However, I hope that serious research is still being conducted. The Minister's comments about the Department of Zoology at Aberdeen University certainly seem a wee bit more hopeful.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I appreciate that the "nattering bat" sounds something like a refugee from a mother-in-law joke. From what is known of what it eats, the trouble is that it tends to eat rather larger insects than the Highland midge. The work that is taking place follows the work at Edinburgh University as far back as 1952, which is perhaps the matter to which the noble Lord refers. Work is going on at the University of Aberdeen to identify the pheromones involved in the mating behaviour of the Highland midge. The potential for their use in traps is the matter under research and study.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that there are hazards with biological control—witness the rabbits in Australia which were controlled eventually by myxomatosis? What are the red mite and the natterer's bat going to eat when they are not eating midges?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, maybe the red mite does not eat anything because it does not exist. That is the scientific matter that must be established before there is any prospect of any serious research. However, I take the noble Earl's more serious point. The natterer's bat has a fairly natural range. It is to be found in the Highlands of Scotland; but one would not want to introduce it artificially if there were not to be an ample food supply for it throughout the year.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, since doubt has been thrown upon the existence of the red mite, will my noble and learned friend or his office get in touch with Professor Angus Stuart, who is reported not only to have discovered it but to have determined that it has the useful ability of being able to kill the midge?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving a name and a possible source of information. I conclude this deeply serious matter by telling the House that we would love to campaign for tourists in Scotland with the saying, "The red mite at night is the tourist's delight".

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, has the Minister had consultations on this matter with the conservation bodies in Scotland? Will he accept from me that my efforts to find out something about these creatures in the past week have met with no success at all? Scottish Natural Heritage seemed to know very little about it. Therefore, the Minister has my greatest sympathy if he was looking for briefing on this subject.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I understand that a pair of natterer's bats were found in a loft in a house in Lochaber. Because of their presence, there was a throwaway line at the time that perhaps the natterer's bat might assist in the reduction of the midge population of Scotland. I do not think that that assertion was made with any scientific basis; but, if it can be established, we shall do so.

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