HL Deb 31 July 1997 vol 582 cc305-7
Lord Campbell of Croy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will encourage experiments in the use of eagle owls to control numbers of pigeons, grey squirrels and vermin in appropriate selected areas.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the eagle owl is not native to Great Britain, despite its recent appearance on St. Paul's Cathedral. The last confirmed sighting of a wild eagle owl was in 1883 in Argyll. Encouraging the use of non-native species for vermin control would be inappropriate because of the risk of escape into the wider environment.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply, which was not unexpected. Does she agree that the eagle owl based on St. Paul's Cathedral did a very good job in culling the hordes of pigeons in that area, although he was an alien and an escaped prisoner? Is she aware that the owls would not be expected to discriminate between grey and red squirrels because where there are greys there are no longer any reds. It would not matter if the owl were colour blind.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I had not thought of the eagle owl in question as an asylum seeker. Certainly, we should take no lessons from the party opposite on the treatment of asylum seekers. Birds of prey can be and have been used for scaring pigeons in some urban areas. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 does not prohibit such action. But the birds of prey in question sometimes do not limit themselves to scaring. They have been known to consume some of the vermin concerned. Nor are they good at discriminating between either red or grey squirrels and domestic pets. So there are some dangers in taking that course of action.

Lord Gainford

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned the eagle owl in Argyll. As someone with Argyllshire interests, may I ask whether it would be possible for the eagle owl to be returned to Argyllshire? Possibly it could keep down one of the biggest pests there; namely, the hooded crow.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I know there are concerns about birds of prey keeping down vermin. Birds of prey also prey on other birds, such as racing pigeons. Indeed, we should also bear in mind the conservation of grouse. I should also point out that eagle owls are extremely undiscriminating predators. I am told that they are known as the rottweilers of the avian world. We should not wish to get into the position of having to have a dangerous owls Act.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, is the Minister aware that Members of your Lordships' House visited a landfill site in Sutton Courtenay fairly recently? We were impressed that the birds, which would otherwise have caused nuisance to a nearby aerodrome, were controlled by falcons. But they were in the hands of a trained falconer. There is a serious point behind the noble Lord's Question, which we should pursue instead of always resorting to chemicals.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I know that there is concern about the use of chemicals to deal with vermin of various kinds. It would be better if we could have more ecologically acceptable ways of doing it. There are dangers when birds of prey are not properly controlled. The department is examining less environmentally destructive ways of dealing with vermin populations.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the County of Angus there are still red squirrels and we want to keep them? Is the description of the grey squirrel as vermin, given by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, correct? Would campaigns to eliminate them by more conventional means be acceptable to the Government?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, indeed, the description of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is correct. The grey squirrel is not protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and various measures are being taken. The Government are committed to preventing the further spread of grey squirrels, although it is not practical to reduce their number over the whole of Great Britain. The onus rests with landowners and occupiers of land to control grey squirrels in their locality. As I said, research is being sponsored at the moment into methods of controlling grey squirrels, including making them sterile by use of a vaccine in food.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, can the Minister say what answers she offers in terms of central London? I have a beautiful apricot tree which has hundreds of apricots on it. I find it very distressing every day to see a magnificent grey squirrel come down, rip open anything up to 50 apricots, throw the fruit on the ground and eat the nuts—the kernels—from the inside. Various Members of this House have suggested that I could shoot him. But I do not feel that that would be at all appropriate in central London. Does she have any answers about what could be done?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, deprivation of food is the advice that my department gives but I can see that there would be difficulties in the particular case highlighted by the noble Baroness. On a lighter note, I wonder whether she might care to consult the two gentlemen in Newton Abbot who spent a long time at the bottom of their gardens hooting at each other in the belief that they were owls. Perhaps we could go in for some virtual owls to protect apricots.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, if an experiment were to be undertaken, can it be borne in mind that the owls should be installed in pairs? That would be more congenial for them and make it unnecessary for human beings to hoot at them or at each other by mistake. There are rumours that, with a five foot wingspan, eagle owls attack small dogs. Would they be able to discourage dog ownership in the selected areas and so perform an additional service by helping to keep our pavements clean?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord is trying to lead me down highways and byways in terms of the dog population where perhaps I should not follow. There would be some danger to the owls concerned were they to feed on the pigeon population in central London. A post-mortem was carried out on the owl from St. Paul's Cathedral because it was believed that it might have been poisoned by eating the contents of the pigeon that it had attacked.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that if the recipe of my noble friend Lord Campbell for dealing with these vermin was tried on a wide scale it might be necessary, in turn, to control the owl population? As cats mouse and terriers rat, does she think that 'ounds could be persuaded to owl?

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