Hunting Bill

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Mr. Garnier: I thank the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) for the lucid way in which he presented the amendments. They are tabled by him and by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, together with, in some cases, the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. One or two are also co-signed by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who, like those other two hon. Members, is a member of the Middle Way Group. Although I am not a member of that group, I am pleased that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has set out his case so clearly. It is one with which I am able largely to agree.

As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said a moment ago, the purpose of the amendments is to allow the use of a dog below ground in the circumstances of the exceptions to the general offence. Alternatively, amendments Nos. 61, 86, 96 and 100 forbid only the deliberate use of a dog below ground. Amendment No. 118 would permit the use of a dog below ground where that consisted of a man-made underground structure or space. The hon. Gentleman mentioned things such as railways tunnels and I presume that would also cover his example of the cellar, drains in ditches in fields and so forth and under bridges. The general effect of the amendment is to recognise that there are circumstances where it is not reasonable, practicable or in the interests of animal welfare for it not to be permissible to use a dog below ground.

I shall briefly deal with some of the points fit for discussion under the amendments. To set the scene, I shall quote paragraph 2.31 of the Burns report. It states:

    ``Terrierwork is the most widespread. It is practised by some individual farmers and gamekeepers as a means of pest control, and by individual or `gangs' of terriermen, as a sport, or in response to a request for help in pest control. The National Working Terrier Federation (NWTF) consists of 26 clubs and has about 3,000-4,000 individual members. It has drawn up regulations and a code of conduct. However, much terrierwork is carried out by non-members. There is no accurate estimate of the numbers of foxes killed with the use of terriers outside registered hunting.''

We have talked about the organised fox hunts, with which those of us on the Opposition Benches might be most familiar. Most of my constituents are interested in terrier work in that context. It is worth noting that terrier work is not peculiar to our islands. [Hon. Members: ``Tristan de Cunha.''] Perhaps I should mention Tristan de Cunha, which we had fun with on Tuesday. How time flies when one is enjoying oneself. I am merely sad that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) is not here to tell us about his trips. Perhaps he has gone to Tristan de Cunha to further interest in rat-catching.

I shall bring us back to mainland Europe and Scandinavia. The Burns report acknowledged that the widespread use of terriers was accepted in other European countries, including some countries in which other forms of hunting with dogs was banned. Burns cites Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Germany, stating that, in those countries,

    ``Hunting in various forms is widespread and highly regulated'',

and that,

    ``There is a substantial amount of welfare legislation''.

The report goes on to acknowledge that

    ``Underground terrierwork is very widespread''.

I do not think that that is a controversial statement.

Terrier work is increasingly used as a method of fox control not necessarily by hunts, but by gamekeepers, members of the National Working Terrier Federation and others. You were not here this morning, Mr. O'Hara, but I mentioned the telephone call that I received from Mr. Nodder, the representative of the gamekeepers' association. He was concerned that the Bill would catch out gamekeepers in their legitimate activity.

Among the reasons for the increased use of terriers are the decrease in the use of snares, the restrictions to shooting for safety reasons and legislation that makes gun ownership difficult. I represent the south-eastern quarter of Leicestershire. It is largely rural and there are three packs of foxhounds and two foot packs in the constituency of Harborough. Despite that, the increase in residential housing would make it unthinkable to use a high-powered rifle to shoot foxes in every circumstance. To do so would be mad.

The A6 runs from Market Harborough to Leicester. The Fernie hunt meets either side of the A6. If it were banned and foxes had to be controlled by the use of high-powered rifles, I imagine that travelling from Market Harborough to Leicester would become altogether less comfortable than at present. I had the joy and thrill of travelling on the mainline railway to Leicester and back today, and I have seen the Fernie at work from the railway, but I do not want to see gamekeepers with high-powered rifles doing the same job from there.

Following the Phelps report, hunting took a major step forward in allowing digging to take place only at the request of the landowner. We note that the Burns report acknowledges the requirement of farmers, landowners and gamekeepers that foxes be controlled, and also the unique and important role of terrier work and other forms of hunting with dogs. We note also that Burns acknowledges the complex nature of fox control, the welfare and practical limitations of other control methods and the possible adverse welfare effect on foxes in upland areas of banning hunting with dogs. That is not to gainsay the point made by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire when he cited the evidence of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about abandoned or orphaned fox cubs.

I am concerned to note that, despite the assertion that there is no firm scientific evidence, the report should conclude:

    ``we are satisfied that the activity of digging out and shooting a fox involves a serious compromise of its welfare''.

The expression ``compromise of welfare'' has found its way into modern jargon; it is almost akin to the expression ``being economic with the actualite''. People have forgotten what it meant.

That conclusion ignores and contradicts the evidence of the ``Vets for Hunting'' submission, which was supported by 208 vets, recent research by the Swedish Veterinary Institute, which was submitted to the inquiry by the Countryside Alliance and the comments of the Burns inquiries researcher, Mr. MacDonald. That gentleman stated

    ``even if a rifle is used to kill adult foxes at the earth, there is a case to be made on welfare grounds that terriers should be used subsequently to ensure that cubs are not left without parental care.''

At paragraph 6.52, Burns reported:

    ``Although there is no firm scientific evidence, we are satisfied that the activity of digging out and shooting a fox involves a serious compromise of its welfare, bearing in mind the often protracted nature of the process and the fact that the fox is prevented from escaping.''

I do not want to speak again about compromise to welfare. Death is fatal. A fatality is obviously deeply compromising to the welfare of the animal or mammal that is killed. However, it is fair to express our concern at the reliance placed upon anecdotal and unsubstantiated claims of terrier injuries, the apparent disregard of the infrequency or nature of any such injuries and of the veterinary survey of terrier injuries submitted to the inquiry by the Countryside Alliance.

I am particularly disappointed at the Burns report's lack of attention to terrier work as a pest control activity in its own right—that is, outside the ambit of fox hunting—as practised by farmers, gamekeepers and other independent pest controllers, and the significant differences that occur in such a situation. I refer the Committee to the Burns inquiry's comments on terrier work, particularly as some of the concerns expressed do not apply outside of hunting. At paragraph 94 of the summary, Burns said

    ``There is concern about terrierwork. It is felt that a fox, once it has gone to ground, should not be dug out. There are also reports of injuries caused in fights between terriers and foxes underground. On the other hand, it is argued that terrierwork is important in controlling fox numbers, especially in upland sheep-rearing and game management areas.''

Paragraph 95 of the summary states:

    ``Digging-out and bolting foxes is a complex issue because of the perceived needs in different parts of England and Wales. In the absence of a ban, serious consideration could be given as to whether this practice should be allowed to continue and, if so, under what conditions. Possible options would be to ban it altogether; confine it to those areas where it is considered necessary as a means of controlling fox numbers or in the interests of animal welfare; make the practice subject to the general legislation on cruelty by removing the present exemptions for hunting; or improve monitoring by the hunts and by any independent monitors.''

The report's comments on licensing and regulation in other countries are worthy of study. Other members of the Committee may have had the chance to remind themselves of them. The report comments on the strengthening of supervision of all forms of hunting. Those who, like me, are deeply saddened by the passage of the Bill would welcome any opportunity to participate in rational discussion on the matter. I am a little disappointed that the report does not give full credit to the hunting associations for their own efforts in implementing and extending voluntary self-regulation.

The other point that I wish to draw to the Committee's attention is more to do with the practical consequences of a ban, and particularly of the provisions of schedule 3 not benefiting from the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury.

6 pm

Mrs. Golding: I have a problem with ``below'' in the Bill. It is obvious that underground is underground, but in legal terms below means below the normal level of the ground—for instance, as in a ditch. The top of a ditch is at the normal level of the ground. Is the bottom of the ditch below ground? It is not underground, but it is below the normal level. Has the hon. and learned Gentleman, with his legal experience, come across that problem before?

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Prepared 8 February 2001