HL Deb 26 January 1999 vol 596 cc871-5

2.46 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they support the use of Warfarin for the control of squirrels where there is no suitable alternative.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, grey squirrels cause extensive damage to broadleaved trees in Britain and have to be controlled in some areas. At present, Warfarin is recommended as the most cost-effective way of controlling them. However, Warfarin cannot be used where there are red squirrels. In those areas, trapping is recommended.

Warfarin's use in grey squirrel control is currently authorised under pesticides legislation designed to protect people and the environment. However, the compound is under review in the European Union as part of a programme which puts the onus on companies to provide safety data.

Despite several opportunities, we understand that no company has yet provided the necessary data for Warfarin. Unless this can be put right very quickly, the European Commission is likely to propose the removal of plant protection uses of Warfarin.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Is he aware of the importance of Warfarin in the control of grey squirrels? Is he further aware that in the Forest of Wychwood, an SSSI in the Cotswolds, the Forestry Commission has recorded a large area where every beech tree less than 30 years old has been destroyed by grey squirrels? What alternative chemicals or control measures will the Government come forward with if we are not allowed to use Warfarin?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the noble Lord is right in saying that the grey squirrel is a major pest which causes massive damage, especially to broadleaved woodlands. Warfarin is the most cost-effective way of dealing with the grey squirrel. Trapping is very labour intensive and shooting is not intensively effective—

Noble Lords


Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am sure that if noble Lords opposite went in massed ranks to the Forestry Commission land with their guns they would have a major impact—if only because the squirrels would drop dead from fright! Those are the alternative methods, but Warfarin is the best. It is most important that the companies producing the chemical provide the European Union with the data it requires in order to authorise its use, otherwise we have a major problem.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, does my noble friend not think that this is a matter with which the British Government should be able to deal without obtaining the permission of the European Commission? It is ridiculous.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I sense that my noble friend has views on that aspect. It is a matter which the Government have dealt with, although only as the regulator because it is more a matter for the Forestry Commission. But the European Union has rights and powers in relation to pesticides. The Commission has been very reasonable. It wishes to authorise the use of such a pesticide and it has shown great patience in waiting for something like five years for the companies to produce the necessary data.

Lord Marsh

My Lords—

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, it is my turn, you grey squirrel, you! Was the Minister as surprised as I was that my noble friend Lord Rotherwick did not include the word "grey" in his original Question? Is he aware that red squirrels are being decimated where there are grey squirrels in the same vicinity? Will he enlarge on the food houses which red squirrels can use but which grey squirrels cannot get into? I am told that that is one way in which to protect the red squirrels.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am delighted to see the noble Baroness as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as usual. She is quite right. The Forestry Commission is developing a kind of hopper that is red squirrel friendly; in other words, it cannot get in to be poisoned in the way that the grey squirrel can. However, a little longer is needed to develop that. We try to protect the red squirrels, and Warfarin is allowed to be used only in areas where there are no red squirrels.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, I return to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shore. I recognise the rights and powers of the Commission, however regrettable. If this problem arises from the inability of the Commission to obtain certain information from the manufacturers, is it not possible for the Government to take powers to obtain that information and pass it to the Commission?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, we are doing all we can. The manufacturers concerned German and Swedish, not British. The British company manufactures the product. The Forestry Commission has certainly offered all the help it can give to companies as regards collecting data and has supported also the proposal to extend further that already long-delayed process. The problem is that it is a minor product of the companies and they do not appear to be interested in spending a great deal of time and money in order to produce the data required. But we are doing all we can to maintain Warfarin as an authorised product.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that probably half the Members of this House are taking Warfarin. Will he explain why it is beneficial for some but bad for grey squirrels?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the noble Lord looks the better for it. I advise him to keep taking the Warfarin. It has beneficial uses, especially as an anti-coagulant. However, the noble Lord should not go into any hoppers and have a meal.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the proposed trapping of the grey squirrel has been under review by the Forestry Commission for a number of years? Will the Minister give an indication as to when that new device, which has been examined over the years, is likely to be put into operation? Is he aware also that 50 per cent. of all new planting in this country is now broadleaf but the squirrels have no impact whatever on conifer planting? Will he give an assurance that action will be taken with the Forestry Commission to deal with the control of squirrels? Could the grey squirrel be described as a rat instead of a squirrel to make it less acceptable?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I believe that, technically, the grey squirrel is a tree rodent and that the rat is a form of rodent. We shall certainly do all we can to promote effective means of control because grey squirrels are pests and should be got rid of.

The Forestry Commission has been developing the new system for some time. It is felt that it is now ready but it must be tested and the Pesticides Safety Directorate must be convinced that it is a suitable mechanism.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, until very recently, dispensing Warfarin for squirrels in Scotland was against Scots law, but it was not illegal for the medical profession to dispense Warfarin to Scottish Peers? I must declare an interest because I have had to take a daily dose of Warfarin for several years now as a result of being a casualty of World War II.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the Scots have always had very clear priorities. As I said, Warfarin can be used on humans. That is not under consideration for restriction at this moment. It was forbidden by law to poison squirrels under the Protection of Animals Act 1911. The 1973 Warfarin Order introduced an exemption solely for grey squirrels, but only in certain circumstances. One of those circumstances is that it cannot be used in areas where red squirrels survive, and Scotland has been one of those areas.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, will the Minister say whether the Government are having any success in preventing the spread of grey squirrels in England? I must declare an interest because I live in Northumberland where we still have red squirrels and I have some in my woodland. But the grey squirrel is moving north at a rate of about five miles per year. Will that advance be stopped?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I should be reluctant to claim that success. The grey squirrel came here only 100 years ago and there are now 2 million of them. The Government and the Forestry Commission are doing all that is possible but I cannot claim that it has been a highly successful programme so far.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, is the Minister aware that local authority pest officers trap grey squirrels which get into houses, where they cause a considerable amount of damage, in particular dangerous damage to wiring? The officers then very often release those grey squirrels into rural areas rather than destroying them painlessly. Will he ensure that that practice ceases and that, as pests, the squirrels are destroyed painlessly?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, that is an extremely practical point which the noble Lord raises. Of course, often the householder finds that the damage is not covered by insurance in those circumstances.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minster agree that we are in a ridiculous situation, as the noble Lord, Lord Shore, said? We have an EC directive which allows the use of Warfarin for use by humans and for the control of rats, mice and horses but not of grey squirrels. The noble Lord referred earlier to the data which must be provided by the two companies: one in Sweden and one in Germany. I understand that the British manufacturer is willing to act as a go-between, working through a German associate. Would it not be sensible to give the companies longer to produce the necessary data so that we can control the grey squirrels in the only way possible?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, this is the longest that I have ever discussed squirrels in my entire life. It is not true that the European Union is banning the use of Warfarin. It is following the necessary procedure to license it as appropriate. That merely requires the data from the companies. That is a different situation.

It is more a job for the Forestry Commission than the Government but there is a positive attitude towards those companies and the commission is prepared to assist them in the data collection. The Forestry Commission is supporting a further extension of the consideration of that matter, but it has been considered for about five years. It arose at a working group of DGVI in December which then agreed to delay the matter again until next month. It has been delayed and it is our position that we support a further delay until July in the hope that the matter will then be resolved.