Hunting Bill

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Mr. Lidington: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that information.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): We should be breeding foxes.

Mr. Lidington: It is interesting that we now know the new test that may lie behind the Deadline 2000 motives: legislation must now pass not just the Ewan test but the Fudge test before it can be debated in Parliament. I say in all seriousness to the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) that if a fox got hold of Fudge or any other domestic pet—I would not wish that on any family—it might change a few minds about the attractiveness of the fox, which is a determined and skilful killer.

The hon. Gentleman argued that it is in farmers' interests to allow foxes to flourish, so that they keep down the rabbit population, and that scrapping the hunting of rabbits would allow the natural balance to reassert itself. Apart from the fact that his argument could apply equally to rats—I would not say that the hunting of rats should be banned because natural predators will surely keep their numbers down—my fundamental objection to his point is that it is up to the farmers, gamekeepers or foresters to make a cost-benefit analysis of their own business and to decide what sort of vermin control they need to ensure that their business flourishes.

Mr. Leigh: I thought that the argument of the Bill's promoters was that organised hunts kill such a small proportion of foxes that getting rid of such hunts would make no appreciable difference to overall pest control. The hon. Member for Nottingham, South would get rid of organised hunts, but would still have the foxes. So what is his argument?

Mr. Lidington: Consistency is not something that we expect from those who argue in support of a ban.

Mr. Simpson: The answer is that the hunters—the predators—would organise themselves with greater competence and cause less damage to the countryside than organised hunts.

Mr. Lidington: It is up to farmers and landowners to decide how many rabbits they need to rid from their property and what method they should use, which they should be entitled to use, subject of course to normal animal welfare legislation, such as the Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I do not want to make a cheap point, but does the hon. Gentleman's general attack on all those who favour a ban for lacking consistency apply also to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)?

Mr. Lidington: My right hon. Friend is entirely consistent in her views and, sadly, she has been consistently wrong on this subject. As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said on Second Reading, it is the one issue on which our right hon. Friend has fallen victim to political correctness.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Even some Liberal Democrats are wrong on the subject.

Mr. Lidington: At least one knows that the asteroid is selective about whom it strikes.

Mr. Garnier: It may be of assistance to the Minister to learn, although he will find out shortly, as doubtless he will receive an invitation to lunch or dinner with our right hon. Friend, that fox pate will be on the menu—

The Chairman: I cannot wait to hear what the hon. and learned Gentleman is about to say.

Mr. Garnier: I am sure that the Minister will receive, in the usual way, a telephone call from our right hon. Friend inviting him to lunch or dinner. If he accepts, he will see that she has not only hunting scenes on her curtains, as she confessed on Second Reading of the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), but hunt maps on her wall. She did not confess to the latter, but I found out. I cannot believe that they are a simple decoration. They may have some useful purpose.

Mr. Lidington: I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. Whether my right hon. Friend will be so grateful, I am not so certain.

The alternative methods of rabbit control available include lamping, stalking and flushing out as provided in paragraph 7, shooting without the use of a dog, flushing out or killing a rabbit down a hole by a ferret, netting rabbits and dispatching them, or even gassing them. I understand that Railtrack's contractors use Cymag gas to eradicate rabbit colonies that live alongside railway lines. That involves the use of sodium cyanide. It is difficult to argue with any conviction that to allow a rabbit to be pursued and killed by a lurcher or another dog is somehow intrinsically more cruel than any of those alternative methods of control that will continue to be lawful.

Mr. Banks: I am interested in the fact about Railtrack; I would like to follow that up. I am sure that it could do with the advantageous publicity from people knowing that it is exterminating furry objects alongside the railway line. The hon. Gentleman's argument is nonsense because one would be a maniac to let one's dog—a lurcher or otherwise—run alongside railway tracks hunting rabbits. So the rabbits in that case should be safe. It appears that Railtrack is no more careful in preserving rabbits than it is in preserving passengers.

Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman inadvertently puts his finger on the point on which I wish to conclude: there are a great number of available methods for controlling such pests. The method chosen by an individual, farmer, gamekeeper or other person will depend on the type of landscape in which that person is operating. It will depend on the terrain, on the season, on the time of day that the rabbits are hunted. I have not yet heard any persuasive argument that the use of dogs to pursue and kill rabbits is evil or cruel. Everyone in this Committee acknowledges that rabbits are vermin and a pest. Such control should not therefore be subject to criminal penalties that are not to be applied to other methods of rabbit control, or in a way that distinguishes the rabbit from the rat, which is not justified by the verminous nuisance that both species cause to farmers and others.

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): Unlike the hon. Member for Aylesbury, I am wedded to amendment No. 73. I am in favour of anything that can bring mink under control—even if in this Bill it is limited. What has the mink done to become such a protected species? Why should we not allow any hunting of mink? Mink take mammals, birds, fish. They attack cats, and even small dogs, and guinea pigs. They will attack virtually anything.

Mr. Soames: Would it attack Fudge?

Mrs. Golding: It would definitely attack Fudge. The mink that were let out in my part of the world attacked pet rabbits and guinea pigs.

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Lady asked what the mink has done. The mink is a furry animal and, in that sense, unfortunately, seems to be preferred over any other animal that it might chase. Insofar as one may apply such a word to an animal that cannot have a moral content, it is very nasty indeed. It does things to other animals that most of us would prefer it did not. It would be much better to get rid of the mink, which is not indigenous to this country.

Mrs. Golding: I agree with everything that the right hon. Gentleman says. If those in Deadline 2000 want to cuddle a cuddly animal, I offer them the mink. I cannot think of anything nicer for them to cuddle. It looks beautiful as a fur collar, although I understand that what my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) is wearing is not mink.

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Lady is the expert and I am seeking information; the briefing notes that I have read have not explained the following point. Those who support the Bill say that mink hunts do not kill many mink—there are so few hunts that they are not effective as pest control. The hon. Lady has made some good speeches on the matter and I have read how expensive the traps are, that they must be attended every day and that that is quite difficult. Will she please explain to me, therefore, who is killing mink at the moment? What is happening on the ground?

Mrs. Golding: There are few mink packs at the moment. I have a letter from gamekeepers on the River Avon saying that they use the services of the mink hunts and would positively consider using them in future. They only wish that there were more of them to use. Certainly in my part of the world, where mink do enormous damage, I am asked where the nearest mink pack is.

6 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

6.15 pm

On resuming—

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair.]

I was just getting into my stride when I was interrupted by Jimmy the cat who had just gone out for the night.

Mink are the main predators of the water vole. When we look at the control of animals and the environment, we must look at how we protect our indigenous species. If we do nothing to control mink, some of our indigenous species will disappear. It is no good anyone in Deadline 2000 saying that the water vole will be all right if we let mink run rampant. Of course it will not. The mink is a nasty, vicious creature and it has no natural enemies. In fact, Deadline 2000 is not its enemy but its friend. It encourages the mink and wants it to continue to breed.

Mr. Soames: We are following the hon. Lady's remarks with great care; we know of her great knowledge of the subject. Deadline 2000 is not necessarily a friend of the mink, but as with many of its arguments, it is driven on the subject of mink by pure ignorance. It knows nothing about the mink or about the harm that it does to indigenous species. If it did, it would not grant it exemptions.

Mrs. Golding: I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. If Deadline 2000 read the scientific research into the mink and the damage that it does, it would not say that it wanted to protect the mink. What has the mink done to deserve protection? I cannot see any reason for protecting it. Why cannot it be classed as a rodent, which it is?

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