HL Deb 04 February 1993 vol 542 cc349-50

3.17 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are giving further consideration to the useful service which could be provided by red mites in reducing the numbers of Highland midges, in the light of information now received by the Government from the Natural History Museum and other authoritative sources.

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

My Lords, we have received further information from the Natural History Museum and from Professor Angus Stuart, formerly Professor of Pathology at the University of Newcastle. Contrary to what I indicated on an earlier occasion, it is clear that there are indeed mites parasitic to midges; but in the current state of research, there remains doubt over their potential to control midge numbers. I understand that it is not in the interests of a parasite to weaken the host to the point of death. Accordingly, we have no present plans to try to develop a midge-control programme on this basis.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble and learned friend for his full Answer, since he cast doubt on the very existence of the red mite when I raised the subject a few weeks ago. Has he received some much enlarged photographs of the mite effectively in action? Does he agree that promising methods of suppressing this ferocious nuisance deserve encouragement? Has he seen the recent research revealing that Queen Victoria, contrary to her usual directions, permitted smoking at Balmoral in order to repel the midges?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, no, I was unaware of that last piece of research. I do not retreat entirely from what I said on an earlier occasion. We still believe that the dreaded Natterer's bat has no contribution to make toward midge control. I am chastened by the fact that the research undertaken by Professor Stuart and others was ignored when I answered this matter previously. However, I understand that on "Tomorrow's World" last night there was an item which indicated that there was a midge fossilised in clear resin with a parasite mite still attached to it from some 70 million years ago. If over that extended period that parasitic mite has been unable to bring to an end the primitive midge, I fear that it is unlikely that any success against the ferocious Highland midge will be achieved during your Lordships' lifetimes.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, while the Minister may have been forced to bowl out the bats and the mites which his noble friend has suggested may be a possible remedy for midges, perhaps I may ask this question. Will he consider congratulating his noble friend on his noble effort to cure what is one of the worst scourges of the north of Scotland? If mites will not do and bats will not do, he should by all means keep at it until we find something that will do.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, we are not idle in this matter. Projects are under way in the Department of Zoology at the University of Aberdeen and the Institute of Animal Health. The first seeks to identify the pheromones involved in the mating behaviour of midges, and the potential for their use in traps. I undertake to report any success to the House.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that he should advise his noble friend that every time he asks this Question it is costly for the Scottish economy? If it is publicised, that ensures that fewer and fewer Sassenachs will go on the Scottish salmon rivers to fish, because they will be driven away by the midges?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, we appreciate that there is a delicate balance to be achieved. Despite all that, I still enjoin the noble Lord and his noble friends to visit Scotland as tourists as often as they wish to.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, is it not a form of biological warfare?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, no.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend disagree with the comment that I recently heard that this subject has perhaps gone a mite too far?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, from where I stand, certainly!

Lord Ewing of Kirkford

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether he has ever been bitten by a Highland midge? If he never has been bitten by a Highland midge, in pursuance of his ministerial duties will he take time to go to the Highlands and let these midges have a good feed? He could then return much better informed about this important and serious subject.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, as I told the House on an earlier occasion, it is the pregnant female midge which is responsible for all the damage. I am all too familiar with her bite. I am aware that it can be extremely unpleasant. Notwithstanding that, I am still confident that those who know anything of the beauty and the scenery of the Highlands of Scotland will continue to visit them despite this pest.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Grimond, we should congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, on his persistence. The last time he asked the Question was only four months ago. From what the Minister has today said, we have made enormous strides during that four months. Leaving aside the 70 million years, if the noble Lord puts Questions down at four-monthly intervals that may speed up the process at Aberdeen and the Scottish Office.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I am not sure that I shall be able to carry out any further research into this vexed issue within a further four months. If there is any progress, I shall be happy to report it to the House.

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