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Mr. Kynoch : If the hon. Gentleman had been present on that occasion, he might understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) raised valuable points about the problems related to ownership of the tractors and leasing commitments. He raised valid points about which there was concern and he contributed significantly to highlighting the importance of the details of the Bill.
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester) : My hon. Friend will no doubt recall that the only reason that the Bill failed to complete its Committee stage on that day was that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) called an unnecessary Division, which meant that the Bill was lost.
I do not believe that all land-based dredging need necessarily be prohibited, but it must be controlled. That will ensure a proper balance between it and other types of fishing. The powers in the Bill will be used to ensure an overall balance between fishing activities generally and the flora and fauna that would be affected by any activity.
Land-based dredging techniques are in their infancy and I do not believe that anyone can say at this stage that that activity must be curtailed for ever more throughout Scotland and at all times of the year. It is important,
Column 1312however, to ensure that the Minister has flexible powers available to use in whatever way is necessary in the circumstances that face him. In this case, he should have the power to address the anomaly whereby conservation measures affect those who fish from vessels, while, unfortunately, they must watch as tractors on the beach continue to deplete the stocks of cockles.
The Bill has, therefore, been carefully drafted to allow seasonal controls and for those controls to apply to certain parts of the coastline only--for example, in areas of particular sensitivity to bird life. That flexibility is similar to the powers already available in the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984 in relation to vessels. Those powers have worked well in the past 10 years and it can only be right that, when the Act is extended, similar flexibility should exist in its revised coverage.
The Bill has support from both sides of the House and from all fishing organisations. I was speaking to Bob Allan, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, just last night and he reconfirmed his support for the Bill. I therefore believe that it should reach the statute book and pass into law as quickly as possible.
Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester) : The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) once again raised the canard about why a number of Conservative Members are keen to speak about the Bill. I will not weary him once again with an account of those reasons ; I simply refer him to column 1039 of the Official Report of 20 May, which gives a full and adequate account of our concerns about the Bill.
Mr. Salmond : I am sure that the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) did not realise what he was saying when he referred to my non-attendance on 20 May. I am sure that, on reflection, he will recall that that was the day of John Smith's funeral and will want to withdraw his imputation.
Mr. Kynoch : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. If the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) had been here on that day, he would have realised that we were sympathetic about the fact that Opposition Members were not present. I was not implying anything about his absence, but he was suggesting that that sensible debate had been totally unnecessary. If he had read Hansard fully, he would have appreciated that the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) were valid. I do not want to imply that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was absent through lack of interest and if that is what I did imply, I do not want it to be on the record.
The two basic themes behind the Bill are environmental and economic. One deals with protecting birds and the other with protecting the activities of responsible fishermen. Both those needs are extremely urgent. It is my
Column 1313great regret that we were unable to give the Bill its Third Reading on 20 May, so that it could reach the statute book. Conservative Members, at least, know the reason for that.
There is an urgent need to act. I should like to quote from a leaflet entitled "The Solway Firth" produced by English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage. It states :
"Today the Solway's highly productive and largely unchanged environment continues to play a key role in many people's lives. With careful management, some of the more traditional means of earning a living such as those in the fishing industry may contribute to the local economy for a long time to come. At the same time the relatively unspoilt coastline with its combination of mudflat, rocky shore, sea cliff and sandy beach is attracting new commercial activities that include tourism, bird-watching and industrial development.
To manage all the Solway's rich resources wisely so that they are still there for future generations to enjoy and use, will require a careful balancing of all present and future needs."
That sums up the purpose that lies behind the Bill.
About 19 months ago, the Scottish Office announced enhanced protection for the upper Solway firth. On 10 December 1992, the Galloway News quoted the Dalry-based RSPB conservation officer for Dumfries and Galloway, Chris Rollie, as saying :
"The RSPB are delighted that the Government has at last recognised the international importance of the Solway and we hope that this will increase the impetus for proper regulation of the cockle industry, for example, to take account of the internationally important birds and other wildlife."
On 5 May, The Herald contained a long report on concerns about marine pollution and human activities, particularly as they affect bird life. It reported David Dick, the RSPB's species protection officer as saying,
"points to 75,000 seabird deaths along Scotland's East coast in February. Scientists are fairly sure the birds died from starvation. They suspect bad weather played a part. But the scale of the deaths has confounded them.
Mr. Dick is also concerned at the increases of some bird populations and the decreases of others. It all points to further signs of an eco-system tilting out of balance.
It shows just how little we know about how the sea works' he says."
I underline those points. I am sure that hon. Members will have noted Mr. Dick's observation that starvation on the other side of Scotland may have played a part in the deaths of those sea birds. The Bill is aimed at preventing that fate.
In the same article, Bob Allan, chief executive of the Scottish Fishermen's Federation, is reported as saying :
"fishermen are all in favour of participating in campaigns to sustain a healthy marine population, but he warns that they are being locked into a straitjacket of bureaucracy'--of regulations and directives from Brussels.
The last thing we want is a whole new set of rules,' he says. If they are coming to talk to us as fishermen about ways we can help them to sustain bird population and other forms of marine life, fine. But they have to appreciate that the industry is in many ways fighting for survival.'"
Against that background, the federation's support for the Bill is all the more admirable.
Controls are urgently required to protect not just birds but, as the quote from The Herald suggests, fishermen. Fish Trader of 5 to 18 March states :
"Cockle beds in the Solway have also been closed and new by-laws are proposed for the Dee. Fortunately cockle stocks in the Burry Inlet, South Wales have been protected by a strict quota system and the fishery, centred on Penclawdd, remains productive.
Ups and downs in stock levels are typical in this fishery and cockle beds can regenerate quickly after a good spatfall'." That was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside. The article continues :
Column 1314"But many fishermen fear the cockle bonanza will be over unless stricter controls are introduced soon to protect the declining stocks."
In other words, this is a problem not just for the Solway firth and for Scotland but for the entire United Kingdom. That is why I am here, representing an English constituency.
My first question to the Minister is the same as that posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside. How soon after the Bill receives Royal Assent will its provisions be enacted ? The need for action is urgent. In a recent letter to me, the Minister with responsibility for fisheries in Scotland said that, because we had lost the Bill more than a month ago, part of this season's stock has already been lost to effective protection. How quickly does he intend to introduce the measures in the Bill ?
I have also received a series of specific questions from the RSPB, some of which I have written to the Minister about. He has been kind enough to reply in writing. As part of the RSPB's new and welcome marine life campaign, it published a document earlier this year, entitled, "Recommendations for the Protection of Seabirds' Marine Habitats", in which it spoke about the need to establish protected sea areas under United Kingdom law. It states :
"Biological targets should be established to judge the success or failure of management. Depending upon the objectives in protecting a site, targets could be in terms of richness of the seabed invertebrate community, fish stock characteristics or wildlife populations.
There must be a basis in law for managing all activities, even existing rights which are not compatible with site management objectives. Fisheries authorities must have proactive powers to manage fishing activities, both in the interest of the fishery and for ensuring fishing in an area is compatible with other uses of the site.
The Government is being called upon to protect marine wildlife and fisheries from various threats, such as tankers, offshore development etc. A coherent programme for identifying sites needing protection and controlling threats must be established by the Government, rather than the current ad hoc site protection measures."
The Bill is welcome--I hope that it will receive the approval of the House- -but it is an ad hoc measure in respect of the RSPB's overall marine life campaign. Under the new European habitats and species directive, the Government are obliged to designate and protect coastal and marine areas, including the Solway, Cromarty firth and the Severn estuary, rather nearer to my constituency of Worcester. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would say whether a decision has been made on which coastal and marine areas should be designated under the habitats and species directive and what new measures will be introduced to control fishing in such areas. The Association of District Councils in England and Wales and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities have asked repeatedly for certain activities below low-water mark, including fish farming, to be brought within the jurisdiction of local authorities. I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister would repeat what he said to me in his letter about the intention of legislation to extend the jurisdiction of local authorities below the low-water mark. The regulatory mechanism for fisheries in Scotland is determined by my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for fisheries, and in England and Wales fisheries regulations are determined at local level by sea
Column 1315fisheries committees. Will my hon. Friend comment on an intention to introduce sea fisheries committees in Scotland ?
I also press my hon. Friend the Minister about the levels of fine in the original 1984 legislation which are not addressed in the Bill. The levels are referred to in section 4(2), which states : "Any person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £5,000 or, on conviction on indictment, to a fine."
Does my hon. Friend regard those fines as truly adequate 10 years after the original Bill ? Was consideration given, in advising my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside, to the need to uprate those fines to provide an effective deterrent ?
Several amendments that I have tabled have not been selected for debate. I do not challenge your decision on that point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope that the Minister will be able to give some assurances about the issues that those amendments address, particularly the advice that is given to fisheries officers. The unselected amendments deal with reasonableness in enforcement. I seek a simple assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that fisheries officers are advised to act reasonably at all times.
We know that the federation supports the Bill--hon. Members heard me quote the article in The Herald --and we heard of the federation's concern about the straitjacket of regulation and bureaucracy that it considers that it suffers from and the fight for survival that it is engaged in. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would agree that we must not harass fishermen unnecessarily. Fisheries protection vessels--one of my family has served as a fisheries protection officer, so I know something of the subject--can engage in fairly intimidating tactics to stop illegal fishing. They can fire blanks, they can call up a frigate, they can buzz a vessel with a helicopter, and so on. Long chases can be quite exciting experiences. I hope that, at the end of a chase, there is no temptation to vindictiveness on the part of fisheries officers.
What would constitute unreasonableness ? An intimidatory approach to searching individuals or cabins, excessive intrusions into privacy and so on all need to be considered. The Bill confers remarkable powers on fisheries officers--powers which I am sure that officers use with discretion. The House will be a little surprised to know that--I say this with no sense of flippancy--this is the only legislation that confers on fisheries protection officers, and sometimes naval officers, an absolute right to ask a pretty girl to submit to a strip search without giving any reason whatsoever. That might be a fanciful example of the powers in the Bill, but my hon. Friend the Minister will have to concede that it is factually correct. I hope that he will be able to assure me that the guidance given to fisheries protection officers deals fully with that point.
This is an important Bill for Scotland ; the issues that it raises are important for the whole of the United Kingdom. I commend it to the House.
Mrs. Angela Knight (Erewash) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) on introducing this subject. It is obviously greatly important to him and to other Scottish Members. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has raised the matter throughout the country. My eight-year-old son, who is a member of the RSPB, has brought the matter to my
Column 1316attention in the way in which only small children can, and he will no doubt do so in respect of other environmental subjects. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff), who obviously has an in-depth knowledge of the subject. I should be interested to learn the answer to his question about strip searching and whether it is true or nothing more than a fishy tale. I represent a land- locked constituency, but my constituents are not land locked ; they travel widely--for example, to Scotland and to other parts of the country. I am conscious from their comments on this and many other environmental subjects just how such issues are becoming increasingly important to everybody, wherever they may live. There is a need for conservation. There is also a need for people to be able to go about their normal course of business and earn their livelihoods. Often, there is considerable tension between those two requirements, but I suspect that that is not the case in respect of the Bill, as the intention is to do in Scotland what has already been done in England and Wales. Often, Scottish Members complain that legislation is introduced first in Scotland and then later in England and Wales. This legislation mirrors what already exists in England and Wales or can be implemented in England and Wales.
There has been an advance in cockle fishing techniques since the introduction of the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984. I suspect that it was not visualised then that cockle fishing could take place in other ways- -for example, tractor dredging, which can be very destructive not only for cockle fisheries but for estuaries generally. I have always understood cockling to be a traditional activity in many estuaries in Scotland, England and Ireland. We all recall the song that we learned at school--[ Hon. Members :-- "Sing it."] I will not sing it, but it goes something like, "In Dublin's fair city, where the maids are so pretty". I am sure that hon. Members can finish the first verse for me.
The tensions and difficulties arise not in the traditional activity of cockling but in the suction dredging technique, which the Bill would control. An extremely disturbing survey undertaken by the university of Aberdeen showed that heavy exploitation by whatever technique of such fishing would result in, perhaps, a short-lived, high-yielding fishery but then periods when stocks were too low to support a viable fishery. Those who indulge in such techniques ruin the livelihoods of others.
The problem occurs elsewhere. Disturbing reports have been brought to my attention, in particular one in The Independent in June 1993. It was reported that more than 20 men were travelling the country in search of cockles and were using two articulated trucks, tractors and an all-terrain vehicle, and that they were attempting to take cockles from an estuary in Wales. The problem is more widespread than has been mentioned so far. The report goes on :
"a local cockle picker said of incoming gatherers : They have no right to come here. We want to gather cockles here for the next 40 years and not just for a couple of weeks'."
That demonstrates succinctly exactly what the Bill seeks to achieve. An article that appeared in a newspaper a few months earlier said that fast- moving pirates from the south of England are going to a bay in Scotland, which is rich in shellfish, to take the shellfish in a short period, thereby destroying the fishing there for the future.
Column 1317Clearly, tractor dredging is causing great disturbance. It is not only destroying normal fishing but causing many difficulties for other wildlife, particularly birds. Hon. Members will agree that it is much easier to destroy than to conserve, but it is essential for the future that measures be available so that conservation can be dealt with in a sympathetic, clear and coherent manner. I support the Bill.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) : It is surprising that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who criticised hon. Members who wanted to speak in this debate for filibustering to keep out another Bill, has vanished now that the discussion is under way.
It is a pleasure to discuss a Bill on conservation, as we rarely have an opportunity to discuss conservation relating to a matter that commands widespread support from both sides of the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) said, this is an important Bill. As an English Member, I step into this debate somewhat reluctantly as I want to discuss the Solway firth, which the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), knows like the back of his hand. If I make an incorrect statement about it, I am sure that he will correct me immediately. I know the Solway because it is near my constituency. It is a wonderful part of the country and its estuary is of unique value to the landscape and wildlife of the British Isles, so it needs careful protection.
The area is also popular among tourists who go there to see the wildlife and landscape. I know of only one tourist who did not like the area. He was a local man called Paul Jones, who went on to become the commander-in-chief of the Confederate Navy during the American civil war and was responsible for the last invasion of these islands. Funnily enough, the area that he chose to invade was Kircudbright which is on the Solway, and he bombarded the town. So that tourist went back to the area with an evil intention.
The protection of wildlife in the area through the control of the cockle fisheries is essential. Hon. Members may not know that the other side of the Solway is England, where cockle fishing has been controlled for many years. The English have a much better record on conservation than the Scots. For instance, we took off the salmon nets in about 1865, whereas the Scots still have the right to take salmon with nets on their side of the Solway. I believe that the Scots refused to take off their nets in the 19th century because they were frightened that Englishmen would come and steal their fish. So rather than have Englishmen steal their fish, they would fish it themselves, regardless of the conservation consequences. That is a typical Scottish attitude.
The Scots had a fascinating way of catching salmon. I realise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that a salmon is a little larger than a cockle, but it is linked by fishing. The Scots used to ride on horseback and spear the salmon in the shallow waters of the Solway, so there is a long history of fishing in that area.
One of the problems faced by the Solway cockle is the change in status of the humble cockle. We have had a good discussion on the cockle this morning, although I was hoping to hear a little about its sex life. I read up on that
Column 1318interesting subject, but my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside rightly spared the House the intimate details. Whereas the cockle used to be eaten by Cockneys when they went to Southend-on-Sea, it has now moved up a scale and become a shellfish delicacy, particularly on the continent. Because the Dutch closed their cockle beds, the price of cockles has been forced up to such an extent that it has caused a bonanza for tractor dredgers on the Solway and other areas.
I have visited the Solway at night [Hon. Members :-- "What for ?"] I confess that I went there for wildfowl.
Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding) : Will my hon. Friend pursue a little further the interesting question of why the Dutch had to close their cockle beds ? Was it because of the overfishing, which the Bill is designed to prevent in this country ? Or was it for some other reason, such as disease, environmental damage or pollution, from which we could learn a useful lesson to safeguard the future of our cockle industry ?
Mr. Atkinson : I understand that it was because of pressure from environmentalists. Overfishing and the knock-on effect on bird life caused the Dutch Government to introduce regulations to ban cockle fishing in a substantial number of traditional cockle beds. The Dutch have a passion for fish and shellfish and are determined to buy it everywhere. Interestingly, Dutchmen are behind the tractor dredging industry on the Solway. Locals will confirm that, although the tractor dredgers are locals or southerners who come up to fish, they sell their cockles to Dutch merchants who wait in the area and pay large sums of cash for bags of cockles, which are rapidly moved overseas to Holland. There are also reports of Dutchmen using British -licensed boats to fish cockles in the sea. So the high prices and the increasing demand for cockles are problems faced by the poor mollusc.
The effect on bird life has differed according to the species of bird. I am grateful to the RSPB, which has been helpful on this matter. Curiously, although the overfishing of cockles is causing a decline in most species, particularly wading birds, the population of the pintail seems to be going up, perhaps because it feeds on smaller cockles which sea fishermen are putting back into the water. I hope that, during the period of consultation that will follow the Bill's enactment, we can examine that phenomenon so that that problem can be dealt with.
I welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside on piloting it through the House. I wish it a speedy passage today and hope that it will be enacted as soon as possible so that the wildlife and traditions of the Solway firth may be preserved.
Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds) : I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make a few comments. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) on promoting the Bill so effectively. It seeks to amend the Inshore Fishing (Scotland) Act 1984 to make provision for the control of fishing in Scottish inshore waters by vehicles or equipment. As my hon. Friend said, it brings the law in Scotland in line with that in England and Wales.
Many threads in the Bill are being examined today. One thread involves the livelihoods of those affected by cockling and the decline in cockling stocks in the Solway
Column 1319firth area, the good husbandry of stocks for the future and the closing of loopholes that destroy those stocks. There is a broader environmental picture. We are talking about wildlife conservation, fisheries development, business and leisure, all of which have conflicting demands.
The problem is not unique to Scotland. My hon. Friend referred to the experience of the Netherlands. Such was the decline of cockle stocks in the Waddensea, in the North sea in the Netherlands that a closure was made. That action was taken because birds in the area were consuming 13,500 tonnes of cockles per annum--more than the stock. That shows the importance of the cockle stocks, not only to individuals who wish to consume them, but to bird life.
The Solway firth is an extremely important natural habitat, particularly for oyster catchers, knots and sea ducks, which eat cockles. The Solway firth is a natural habitat for many species of bird life. We must balance the needs of the bird life with the needs of fishermen who make their livelihoods in the area.
I believe that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were in the Chair when I initiated an Adjournment debate on a landlocked subject--metal detecting, which causes big problems in my constituency. Due to that experience I empathise with those in the Solway firth area. Illegal metal detecting destroyed crops in my region--a phenomenon that is not dissimilar to the destruction of fishermen's livelihoods and the depletion of cockle stocks in areas such as the Solway firth. The environmental damage caused is similar and parallels can be made between the two--the spirit of the Bill is the same as the spirit behind that Adjournment debate.
In 1985 and 1989, orders were introduced to make necessary adjustments to the 1984 Act. They stressed that fishermen should voluntarily restrict their actions. The Scottish Office displayed a willingness to be flexible. We now know that the cockle fisheries were closed and the ban has been further extended.
Research was done in the "Netherlands Journal of Sea Research" in 1990 and it was found that considerable damage could be done and recovery could be quick. But it was found that if the action was repeated regularly, it caused irreparable ecological damage. Suction tractors are a new innovation and cause extensive damage when used on an unsustainable basis. The aim at the heart of the Bill is to prevent the terribly damaging effect of tractor dredging that undermines fishermen's livelihoods.
Cockles landed in 1991 in the United Kingdom totalled 40,000 tonnes ; by 1993, it was down to 20,000 tonnes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) said, cockles have ceased to be the staple food of cockneys and have become designer food in fashionable restaurants. It is not only the birds that have suffered from the lack of cockles, but people's wallets.
The RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage have pressed for the measure. The Solway firth is the largest continuous area of inter-tidal habitat in the United Kingdom and is a vital resting place for migratory birds. It is the winter home to many waders and wild fowl. Oyster catchers are particularly keen on eating cockles and 34,000 of them live in the Solway firth. In addition, there are many barnacle geese from Spitsbergen, as well as pink- footed geese. Some 120,000 different birds live in the Solway firth at different times and the ecological balance of that vital area of the United Kingdom is under threat from tractor
Column 1320dredging. The RSPB has pressed for the Bill, which has been introduced so successfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside.
There is considerable resentment among local people at the activity of individuals who appear to own or operate the tractor dredgers. They are called dolers by some local people because they appear to operate in some sort of grey economy with their bull-nosed motor cycle tractors and they are regarded by traditional fishermen as fly-by-night operators with no sense of feeling or love for the sea and its bounty.
The statistics are frightening. The tractors can collect 1.5 tonnes of cockles per hour. We know from research into rates of depletion how damaging that can be. The Bill exposes that unwelcome activity. It highlights the importance of a balance in marine life. Cockle stocks on the Solway firth dropped by about 80 per cent. between 1990 and 1992. That drop must be halted. The Bill will control tractor dredging and, in helping to ensure that cockle stocks are replenished, will play a vital part in the ecological balance in one of the most beautiful parts of these islands.
Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) : The Solway firth is well known to me--I often take family holidays there--and I have had the opportunity to see tractor dredgers in operation. Such a sight would destroy any romantic idea that one had as a child of shrimping or cockling. It looks more like opencast mining.
The tractor dredgers are very efficient and quite ruthless in the way in which they take cockles from the surface and nothing much is left behind. My hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) mentioned that cockles that do not meet the necessary size requirement are cast aside. That is different from what happens on boats. Cockles are cast aside onto the beach. Whether the molluscs survive depends to a great extent on the state of the tide. In observing the tractors in operation, I did not take the view that I was watching an operation involving biodiversity or recycling in the sea.
Given a good season, cockle beds quickly regenerate, but there must be an optimum level at which they cannot form. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmonds (Mr. Spring) talked about the Dutch experience. My hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) asked whether it was a question of disease or fishing. Therein lies one of the principal dangers of not passing the Bill. The nature of over fishing means that if a disease is introduced into cockle beds--which one hopes will not happen--the constitution of those cockle beds will make them less able to survive.
We live in a constantly changing world. Cockle beds in the Wash in East Anglia, an area which I represent, have been out of action for a whole season, but fishing is about to restart. Cockling has been taking place in the Solway firth for generations and fishermen have adapted. They, too, operate a dredging system. We should not lose sight of the fact that sustainable communities in the Solway firth rely on fishing. Our fishing industry has diminished, but communities can survive, and we can look forward to their being there for the next 40 or 50 years. Communities rely on fishing and enjoy untold benefits from it which extend across the region.
Column 1321I do not take the xenophobic attitude that was perhaps displayed by some of my hon. Friends. I do not mind who eats the cockles, whether it is Scots, the Welsh, the English or even the Belgians--if I could differentiate between Belgians and an oyster-catcher. The importance point is that if the Belgians are paying for cockles, that money is coming back into the local economy. That is part of the process of ensuring that such economies can be sustained. It is right to try to influence control at the source rather than seeking to control the vessels or tractors that extract the cockles.
Mr. Quentin Davies : My hon. Friend has not mentioned what appear from the debate to be important consumers--the birds. What are we to do about them ? We have heard that birds ate more of the Dutch stocks than the annual replenishment rate. Over-consumption by birds and not over-fishing by humans destroyed the Dutch stocks. Surely no conservation measure applied to this cockle fishery will be effective unless we can cope with the problem of birds. What does my hon. Friend suggest ?
Mr. Pickles : On that matter, I must defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds who has great knowledge of the subject. It is a matter of common sense that if vehicles are removing molluscs at the rate at which my hon. Friend the Bury St. Edmunds referred, stocks for birds will be diminished. For birds to take cockles is natural. Long before dredgers entered the Solway firth and before my hon. Friend became a Member of the House birds were taking cockles there, but nature has a way of sorting out populations. Dredgers are artificial and destroy the balance of nature. That is the reason for fishery conservation.
Some 100 or 200 years ago, there was cockelling along the Solway firth, but the way in which the cockles were taken from the sea was quite different and not as efficient as current methods. If old methods were still used, the balance of nature would be preserved. The central theme is that this practice is an important part of the economy of the Solway firth. Communities rely on it and we must do our best to ensure that the balance of nature is maintained. That is why the measure is important.
I am delighted to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) has returned to the Chamber. She spoke about problems on some of our beaches caused by gangs taking cockles and other molluscs from local communities. That has led to a degree of tension and there has been some violence on our beaches, which I deprecate. By controlling the extraction of molluscs, the measure makes it less likely that cowboys will engage in raids and take from communities a commodity on which they rely as a major source of income. I commend the Bill to the House and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside on introducing it.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro) : I have many points to answer from my hon. Friends in this important debate. As many hon. Members have said, I have a personal interest in the Bill, because I live within sight of the Solway firth and I know its shoreline particularly well.
Column 1322The Bill has had all-party support and it made speedy progress when it had a chance to do so. I will not repeat what happened on 20 May : perhaps hon. Members know the sad reason why I was not able personally to promote the Bill that day.
The general agreement in this useful debate is that it is a worthy Bill. I pay a warm tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) for guiding it through the House. I think that it is the first Bill that he has taken through the House under the private Members' Bill procedure, and I am glad to say that it looks as if it will be successful.
I thank Lord Campbell of Croy, who has great Scottish knowledge and interest, for guiding the Bill through the other place. We have had satisfactory progress on a Bill which will be of tremendous benefit to the Solway.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Luff) referred to the ecological and economic importance of cockling on the Solway. Many of my hon. Friends highlighted the importance to the whole shoreline of bird life on the Solway. The major areas are the Caerlaverock nature reserve and the East Park centre, which many thousands of people visit each year to see barnacle geese in particular, but also the large numbers of grey and pink- footed geese on the Solway in winter and the many other species of wild fowl.
The numbers of barnacle geese had dropped to a dangerous level 20 or 30 years ago, but now 15,000 to 20,000 of them come to the Solway each winter. There appears no reason to be too concerned about their long-term future, which is good news for all those interested in bird life. However, that raises questions among the large farming population in my constituency about how many geese are sustainable in the winter months. The farmers look longingly at the large financial assistance for the farmers on Isla, who have a similar, although bigger, problem with barnacle geese.
Many hon. Members have referred to the tremendous support for the Bill from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I commend it for its support and for the information it has supplied to Members of Parliament. I am pleased to have a close relationship with RSPB officials in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom on any matter that relates to Scotland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester referred to the position of fishery protection officers. I am sure that they would always behave reasonably in carrying out their duties under the Bill. They have immense experience around our coast, both in fishery protection vessels and in aircraft, which are also important. The Scottish Fishery Protection Agency has a code of practice on enforcement procedures. My officials go into great detail on the law as it applies to fishing activities on the shoreline and out to sea. I was glad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) that her children are interested in wildlife. She was right to suggest that we should encourage children to take an interest as early in life as possible. England is, perhaps, fortunate in having slightly stronger legislation on tractors than Scotland. However, Scotland should soon catch up on that. My only disappointment was that my hon. Friend did not burst into song.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester raised two points about the habitat directive. Scotland is closely following through issues related to the marine environment. Under the Natura 2000 sites, we will fulfil all