Hunting Bill

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Mr. Banks: Most terriers are, of course, colour blind. That being so, there is a great likelihood that a terrier would confuse a red squirrel with a grey squirrel, and kill a protected species. What answer does he have to that particular scenario?

10.30 am

Mr. Lidington: My answer is that the Government have created this mess by proposing this daft Bill. We in the Committee are trying to minimise the damage that the Bill will undoubtedly cause if it passes into law in its present form, plagued as it is with ambiguities and uncertainties.

My final point on rodents refers to the other limb of paragraph 8, which we will be able to discuss in greater detail later. That provides that the exception shall apply only if the person who is hunting owns the land on which the rodent hunting takes places or has the permission of the person who owns that land. That raises further ambiguities. What happens on a field margin if a dog crosses into another property owner's domain, possibly a property owner whose views oppose hunting with dogs? What happens if a dog roams on to public open space? The Bill must be amended to deal with those inherent ambiguities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument carefully. The Conservative party has traditionally supported private ownership of property. Is he suggesting that people who do not want hunting on their property should none the less be obliged to allow it to take place? I want to be sure of his argument.

Mr. Lidington: No, I am certainly not making that argument. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for giving me an opportunity to clarify that. The civil law of trespass already provides remedies in such cases. I would not condone the action of someone who deliberately sets out to hunt across the property of another without permission. I am talking about the practical dilemmas faced by people such as farmers and gamekeepers who have to control rodents. Under the legislation, they would be faced with considerable uncertainty as to when they would be at risk of criminal prosecution for allowing their dogs to chase and kill rats.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): Paragraph 8(3)(b) states:

    which he had been permitted to use for that purpose by someone to whom the land belonged.

I cannot get my head around the phrase ``to whom the land belonged''. I have rats in my garden. If my dog went through my gate and out on to the road, which belongs to the county council, would I apply to the county council for permission? Can I assume the road belongs to me because I pay my rates? Do I have to apply to the council for access to a field it owns, or do I assume that I am a part-owner because I have paid my rates?

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Lady makes a telling point. I cannot give her an answer. We must both look to the Government for an adequate explanation of paragraph 22, in which the answer lies. That is yet another paragraph that contains considerable uncertainty and ambiguity.

I turn briefly from rodents to rabbits. Surely, much the same argument applies to rabbits as to rodents. Members of the Committee would generally accept that rabbits cause enormous damage to crops and to the bark of young trees. Why have the Government decided not to include an exception for rabbits? I cannot understand why the damage done by rabbits is considered to be more acceptable than that done by rodents. Why is there a provision in paragraph 8 for rodent control yet no provision in the schedule for rabbit control?

Amendment No. 3 deals with mink. I know that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) has strong views on the matter, and she may wish to speak later. All the evidence that I have seen indicates that, in this country, mink are vermin. Speaking personally—I am not stating my party's policy—I think that there is a strong case for treating mink as successive Governments treated coypu. That would involve a well-planned programme, including a bounty to try to eradicate the species, which is not native to these islands.

The report by Lord Burns records the damage that is done by mink. They kill domestic poultry, ducks and geese; the rise in the mink population has been linked to a decline in the population of moorhens, coots and grebes; mink have come close to eradicating colonies of some ground-nesting seabirds; and, although they are not completely responsible for the precipitate fall in the country's water vole population, the report concluded that there is no doubt that the rise in mink population has aggravated that problem.

Mr. Banks: I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point. It is a telling fact that mink were introduced into this country to provide the rich bourgeoisie—such as the family of the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—with mink coats. That shows the folly of such an introduction. Will the hon. Gentleman congratulate the Government on legislating to ban fur farming?

Mr. Lidington: I would be more inclined to take the hon. Gentleman's point seriously if he had been prepared to condemn the irresponsible animal rights activists who released mink from mink farms. That allowed the mink to exterminate native birds and wild mammals, which had a very damaging effect on the local fauna.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): At what point would the hon. Gentleman say that mink could become naturalised and able to get a passport?

Mr. Lidington: Today, of all days, is an unwise time for the hon. Gentleman to touch upon that subject.

Mr. Maples: Does my hon. Friend think that the hon. Gentleman would be able to train the mink to make a phone call to the Under-Secretary?

Mr. Lidington: I would be interested to see the transcript of such a call.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Following yesterday's events, when Downing street shot the fox so quickly and ruthlessly, I now know why the Government are against the hunting of vermin; they think that it is much easier to shoot them.

Mr. Lidington: I think that it would be better if I concentrated on mink.

The study that was submitted to the Burns inquiry by Professor Macdonald and other scientists showed that, in the Thames catchment area in 1990, mink were uncommon and water voles were found on about three quarters of the sites that they had previously occupied. However, by 1995, only five years later, there had been a rapid increase in mink numbers, along with a catastrophic decline in the water vole population. The scientists pointed out that there were no sites in that catchment area where the two species co-existed.

I accept the Burns report's conclusion that far fewer mink are killed by hunting than by shooting or trapping, but the report also found that hunting mink with hounds could have a significant impact on local mink populations. Before we outlaw mink hunting, we should reflect—as Burns advised us to do with regard to all species—on the cruelty of hunting compared with other methods of control.

In his research report that is published on the CD-Rom accompanying the Burns report, Professor Macdonald commented that:

    Trapping is the main method of mink control in Britain, and is widely recommended.

He added that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recommended trapping, and stated:

    Traps must be checked daily, ideally first thing in the morning. Live-caught mink must be killed, as it is illegal to release them back into the wild.

For humane killing, the relevant authorities recommend using a rifle, shot-pistol, or shotgun. However, Professor Macdonald also noted that,

    in practice it is not always easy to shoot a small, moving, target within a cage, and some practitioners simply drown the animals; this is particularly cruel.

Even if live traps were inspected every day, a wild animal could be caged for up to 24 hours. Therefore, in considering the relative cruelty of different methods of control, it is necessary to weigh carefully whether hunting mink with hounds is less humane than a greater use of traps—or, possibly, snares—which involve, at best, the incarceration of wild mammals in small boxes where they become very distressed over many hours before finally being dispatched by an uncertain method. Between 400 and 1,400 mink are killed each year by hunting with hounds. On its own, that is not sufficient as a means of control, but it does contribute significantly to controlling this pest species.

Mr. O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman has said that hunting with hounds contributes to controlling mink, but paragraph 5.121 of the Burns report states that:

    hunting does not have any significant effect on the mink population at a national or regional level.

Burns is clear on that point. Does the hon. Gentleman disagree with it?

Mr. Lidington: I accept the Burns report's conclusion. The Under-Secretary should read the sentence after the one that he has quoted, which states that:

    It can, however, lead to temporary reductions in the mink population in specific localities.

I think that that conclusion was largely based on the report by Professor Macdonald and his colleagues, which says that hunting with mink hounds has enabled the mink population to be brought under a measure of control in areas where they are particularly damaging pests.

If the objective is to exterminate mink, following a reduction in the population by hunting, other methods of control such as trapping will also come into play. However, the scientists and Burns himself say that it would be very difficult to entirely eradicate mink.

I have tabled amendments Nos. 41 and 42 to offer the Government an alternative to the three earlier amendments, which seek to introduce exceptions for single species. However, having tabled those two amendments, I and other colleagues received a letter from the National Gamekeepers Organisation that drew my attention to something of which I was unaware: gamekeepers' use of dogs to control other species.

10.45 am

The writer of the letter, Mr. Nodder, refers in particular to stoats. He says that, in upland areas of Britain, up to a quarter of the stoats that gamekeepers kill are hunted with, and caught by, dogs. He describes stoat control using dogs as an essential measure for the conservation of wild birds. Paragraph 1 of schedule 3 would ban it. Stoats are Mustelids, and so are not subject to the rodent exception in paragraph 8. Mr. Nodder points out that, in some areas, grouse management—essential to upland conservation, yet already subject to severe pressures—would cease to be economically viable if stoat control became more difficult than at present.

I hope that the Government, having heard what hon. Members say, will reflect on the all-embracing nature of the offence described in paragraph 1. There is a strong case for them to consider either amendments Nos.1 to 3, which offer exemptions for certain categories of species, or amendments Nos. 41 and 42, which propose a scheme for the designation of excepted species. If the Government are unwilling to reconsider their current approach, I fear that those rural people for whose work in pest control is essential will be exposed to ambiguity and uncertainty over their risk of criminal prosecution. They might also be deprived of the means of carrying out pest control, which is essential for the successful continuation of rural enterprises such as those mentioned in the letter from the National Gamekeepers Organisation.

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Prepared 25 January 2001