Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.13 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): I should like to make one or two brief points in support of what my hon. Friend has said. In my constituency--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Can the hon. Gentleman satisfy me that he has received the agreement of his hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and the Minister before making an intervention?

Mr. Robertson: I apologise. I have not spoken to the Minister about it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: These Adjournment debates are intended for the benefit of the Member proposing the subject. Another Member can intervene only by special arrangement. I do not know whether the Minister has any objection.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I have no objection to the hon. Gentleman making a brief contribution.

Mr. Robertson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to you and to the House.

I have been visited more than once by farmers in my area who have shown me photographic evidence of attacks on farm animals, which I do not believe could have been carried out by anything other than big cats. Lambs with their heads ripped completely off and fang marks of a width that no dog could produce are part of the evidence. One of the problems that farmers in my area have--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am not attempting to hound the hon. Gentleman, but this is a debate about big cats in Mid-Norfolk. He must speak on that subject.

Mr. Robertson: I shall end by saying that it seems that the problem--this may well be the case in Mid-Norfolk--is that people are reluctant to seek publicity because of stories such as those about the beast of Bodmin.

2 Feb 1998 : Column 821

10.15 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley): I understand the points that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has made. The possibility of one or more big cats living or breeding in the countryside is a serious issue. I listened with great interest to the hon. Gentleman's extensive knowledge of the history of sightings of big cats. As he rightly said, many allegations and comments have been made for many years and none have been substantiated.

Many sightings have turned out to involve domestic cats. I remember that not many years ago London zoo was called out to deal with an escaped lioness in north London. It turned out to be a large ginger tom cat sunbathing on a wall. I own a fairly big cat. Fortunately, he finds it too much of an exertion to go far from my house, so he does not disturb the neighbours on his perambulations.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the division of responsibility between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Home Office. The Ministry's main responsibility on big cats is confined to whether the presence of a big cat poses a threat to the safety of livestock. To make a rough and ready split, reports of big cats eating people would be a matter for the Home Office, whereas reports of big cats eating livestock are a matter for MAFF. That is a curious division of labour, but that is roughly how it is.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that where it is believed such a threat exists, MAFF will take action to investigate the case and evaluate any available evidence, as it has done in the past, particularly on the beast of Bodmin.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I should like to take this opportunity to ask the Minister to use the proper title. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred to the beast of Bodmin. It is the beast of Bodmin moor. The worthy people of Bodmin take some exception to the incorrect description because the beast has never been seen in Bodmin.

I have a serious point about the division of responsibility and am concerned that perhaps no Minister will take responsibility. I hope that the Minister will follow the precedent established by his predecessor in response to my original request for an inquiry that MAFF be the lead Ministry on such issues. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk has said, there have been no attacks on human beings, despite the many sightings, but there have been many attacks on livestock. I hope that the Minister recognises that his Ministry should have primary responsibility for investigating the beast of Bodmin moor in my part of the country and for dealing with the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk.

Mr. Morley: I can confirm that. It is particularly so when the attacks involve livestock. As MAFF has facilities to investigate such reports and no other Department does, it is logical that it takes lead responsibility--and has done so with reports that it has received.

I am aware that there have been a number of alleged sightings of big cats in the Norfolk area. None has been reported to the Ministry so far, although I have noticed reports of them in the press. A major concern is the

2 Feb 1998 : Column 822

potential threat to public safety, as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said. First, it must be ascertained whether there is a likelihood of such a cat living in the wild. Each year, there are several hundred reports of sightings of big cats throughout the country. I am sure that hon. Members agree that, however well intentioned, the vast majority of reports are not genuine sightings of big cats.

The subject generates a great deal of media interest. A reported sighting in one area is often followed by a sudden flurry in the press of reported sightings in other areas. Although reports are often made with genuine sincerity, the Ministry has to be assured that there is a genuine case to investigate. Unfortunately, it is not unknown for practical jokers to be involved--such as the one who planted the skull of a leopard in a stream near Bodmin moor. I take the point of the hon. Member for North Cornwall that, although the beast of Bodmin moor may be a tourist attraction, the beast of Bodmin is not. It turned out that the skull was from a leopard skin rug and had been planted.

Despite such reports, the Ministry takes these matters seriously. There are a number of big cats in zoos, circuses and in private ownership and it is not impossible that some of them may have escaped or been illegally released into the wild. The security of big cats held in captivity is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

The Ministry is aware that a total of 16 big cats have escaped into the wild since 1977. They include lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars and pumas, but all but two animals were at large for only one day.

I recall that at least three of the lions escaped from a circus in Grimsby. I remember it very well because one unfortunate person was quite badly savaged. He ran to the car in which his wife was sitting, but she was so terrified by the lions that she refused to open the door. I am quite sure that that was due to her fear and nothing to do with any acrimony between her and her husband.

Because there is a risk that big cats can escape into the wild and because of the threat that such animals could pose to livestock, the Ministry investigates each report in which it is alleged that livestock has been attacked. Reports to the Ministry are usually made by the farmers whose animals have been attacked. In addition, the Ministry takes note of articles in the press describing big cat incidents and will consider them if there is evidence that livestock are at risk.

Incidentally, of the 16 escaped large cats, the two that stayed at large for some time were a leopard and a puma. The leopard managed to avoid capture for seven days, after which it was cage trapped. The origin of the puma, which was captured near Inverness in 1980, is unclear, but it was quite tame and has subsequently been kept in a wildlife park. That sounds like a case of a semi-domesticated animal that was released into the wild.

On receipt of a report of a big cat, the Ministry will ask the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency, the Ministry's wildlife advisers, to contact the person who reported the sighting. The FRCA will discuss the situation with the farmer and seek to establish whether the sighting is genuine and whether any evidence can be evaluated. It will follow up all cases where there is evidence of a big cat that can be corroborated and all cases where it is alleged that livestock are being taken.

2 Feb 1998 : Column 823

The FRCA will consider all forms of evidence, including photographs given to it by members of the public and farmers, plaster casts of paw prints and video footage. In addition, it will carry out field investigations of carcases of alleged kills for field signs of the animal responsible. That will include looking for signs of how the animal was killed and of scavenging by other animals, such as badgers, foxes, dogs or other big cats. If it is thought that a big cat may be responsible, the carcases of suspicious livestock kills will be submitted for post mortem analysis to gather more information on the cause of death.

Where a reported sighting is the only evidence, the Ministry will not usually become involved; it would not be an appropriate use of public funds to investigate such reports on the very remote possibility of finding field evidence to corroborate the sighting. I am sure that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk understands that that would be a diversion of the Ministry's time and resources. When there is a very strong allegation--especially when stock are involved and the matter can be investigated--an investigation will of course be made, but I could not give an undertaking that the Ministry will investigate every report or every sighting unless there is strong evidence.

The Ministry must rely on evidence being submitted for proper consideration by the FRCA, and it may be indicative that much of the evidence reported in the press is not made available for public scrutiny and has not been made available for the Ministry to examine in depth.

2 Feb 1998 : Column 824

Evidence such as plaster casts, sheep carcases, video footage and still photographs were submitted and evaluated by MAFF as part of the Ministry's investigation in 1995 of the evidence for the presence of a large exotic cat or cats in the Bodmin moor area and their possible impact on livestock. That was the investigation that the hon. Member for North Cornwall mentioned. The subsequent report, which was published, concluded that the photographs and video footage were of domestic cats and that the footprints were those of cats and dogs. There was no field or post mortem evidence to indicate the involvement of big cats in any of the livestock deaths that were followed up during the investigation.

In fact, to date, none of the investigations that the Ministry has been involved with has provided any firm evidence of the existence of big cats living in the wild. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk asked about co-ordination between Departments. I have already said, in response to the intervention by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, that MAFF will take the lead in the investigation and that, when there is evidence that is worthy of investigation, we shall ensure that an investigation is carried out.

It is impossible to say categorically that no big cats are living wild in Britain, so it is only right and proper that the Ministry should continue to investigate serious claims of their existence--but only when there is a threat to livestock and when there is clear evidence that can be validated. I am afraid that, until we obtain stronger evidence, the reports of big cats are still in the category of the mythical creatures that the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his opening remarks.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page