HL Deb 24 October 2002 vol 639 cc1432-4

3.16 p.m.

Lord Newby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What advice they will give to people living in urban areas whose gardens are overrun by foxes.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government recognise that urban foxes can present problems for people with gardens. Responsibility for fox control rests with property owners and occupiers, who may, of course, engage pest-control contractors to undertake the work. DEFRA's leaflet, Urban Foxes, provides advice to householders. It concentrates on preventing and reducing problems by, for example, housing pets securely, storing rubbish properly, the use of repellents and physical exclusion. As a last resort, foxes may legally be trapped in humane cages and humanely dispatched.

Lord Newby

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the current situation borders on the farcical? Foxes are being trapped in north London and released in south London. The DEFRA advice to which the noble Lord referred encompasses the building of electrified fences and detailed Boy's Own-type instructions for building elaborate cages. DEFRA has an ongoing dispute with the RSPCA about whether foxes should be trapped and released in the wild. Will the Government now sort out this muddle by issuing clear guidelines to local authorities in order to provide effective management of foxes in areas where local residents demand it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, prime responsibility for the control of all vermin, both rural and urban, rests with the occupier, householder or landowner. That is the case in relation to urban gardens and foxes. As to whether foxes are being transported against their will from north to south London, I am not sure. I believe that if I were a fox in north London, the leafy plains and delicious food in Dulwich would probably attract me without the need for me to be put into a cage.

Earl Peel

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that foxes are being transported—

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend does not call in the hunt as that would cause the damage, upset and tremendous distress that is caused in rural areas when 50 hounds and their followers invade rural gardens in pursuit of their quarry.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, when leaving my office late the other night I observed an urban fox in Smith Square outside the headquarters of DEFRA. I do not know whether it thought it was safe there. It struck me that the burghers of Westminster and Kensington probably would not favour the hunt coming across their pleasant gardens in order to destroy such vermin. The problem needs to be taken seriously, but is a question of pest control rather than legislation or government action.

Earl Peel

My Lords, is the Minister aware that foxes are being transported from urban areas to rural areas in considerable quantities? I believe that that is an illegal activity and would ask the Minister to condemn it here and now to your Lordships' House. It is not only unfair to the urban fox finding itself in circumstances in which it cannot cope; it is also unfair to those managers of the countryside who have to deal with it and who, I can assure the House, have enough problems already.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is not our advice that foxes should be transported from one area to another, whether from urban to rural areas or from north to south London. That is not a sensible way of trying to control foxes. As regards whether the problem is greater in rural or urban areas, statistics do not bear that out. However, the general indications are that urban fox populations are growing faster than rural fox populations, principally because they know where they can have access to food. It is important that we recognise that we are now dealing with foxes which are used to different kinds of habitat.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, unwisely, my wife left a pair of shoes outside our house last night? An urban fox in SW14, possibly released from north London, decided to chew them and they are now totally destroyed. That may suggest one word of advice for people living in urban areas.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I hesitate to ask why the noble Lord's wife left her shoes outside in the first place. That seems to me most unwise in south London.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is there any reason why a householder should not shoot foxes in his garden?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I suspect that depends on whether one has a gun licence and on whether one can do so without causing danger or discomfort or seriously alarming one's neighbours. I referred to foxes being humanely dispatched. Normally that would mean shooting but carried out away from a suburban garden and not near other people.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will the Government bear in mind that if hunting is abolished, the number of foxes in the countryside and in most urban areas will increase and that foxes will then suffer terribly because other methods of killing them will cause more cruelty than hunting?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, so far both I and other noble Lords have not dealt more generally with the issue of the regulation or banning of hunting. The evidence in that respect indicates that whatever one thinks of hunting, it results in the killing of only a small proportion of rural foxes.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, does the Minister accept—he has done so already—that the number of urban foxes is increasing rapidly? My noble friend is right; they are being taken into the countryside and that has become a welfare problem because they cannot survive there. Does not the Minister think it is about time that his department instigated a method of controlling foxes in urban areas rather than leaving that to property owners, who cannot chase foxes round their gardens?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is a government responsibility too far. We can give advice, support and information. However, I do not believe that a vigilante squad of DEFRA officials trying to find urban foxes would meet with the noble Baroness's approval.