Hunting Bill

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Mr. Leigh: Is the thinking behind Deadline 2000's viewpoint that mink hunting cannot be allowed to carry on because some people enjoy it and it is a sport? Does Deadline 2000 accept that mink are a complete pest that no one wants, but feel that they should be eradicated by other means? The hon. Lady has argued many times that that is not possible and that hunting is the most effective means of dealing with them—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. There is a rather lively and obtrusive debate going on in the Public Gallery. If people there wish to carry on conversations, I should be grateful if they did so outside the Room.

Mrs. Golding: Far be it from me to get inside the heads of Deadline 2000 supporters. I cannot think of a more uncomfortable place to be. I have no idea how they think or how they can argue that a Bill such as this aims to protect the environment, the countryside and animals. It does not. It will destroy animals, birds and fish.

Mr. O'Brien: I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend's arguments. Mink hunting takes place on or near riverbanks. It may damage riverbanks and vole habitats and prevent the recolonisation of river habitats. How does she deal with that argument?

Mrs. Golding: Mink cannot sink. The river is swept twice; if mink are seen, the hunt goes up the riverbank once, or twice at the most, and then leaves it undisturbed. Whatever the activity on riverbanks, there will be some disturbance. The proposed alternative is the use of cages, which would disturb the area every 24 hours. There will be no alternative in law to the use of cages, yet such use disturbs the riverbank much more than going up the middle of the river, moving the mink, and then shooting them or setting dogs on them. That is a far better way in which to deal with mink than tramping in and out of the area all the time checking on cages every few hundred yards along the river.

Mr. Banks: I am sure that my hon. Friend did not mean to talk about mink as a protected species, which of course they are not. She has partially answered the question by making it clear that the number of mink killed with dogs is very small. No one would argue against the need to control mink, but how many does she assess are caught and killed by dogs as opposed to traps? If human beings—venal individuals—had not imported mink into this country in order to farm the fur, there would not be a problem. We have created the problem, so a little mea culpa might be in order.

Mrs. Golding: On that last point, if it were not for the idiots who released mink in my area, we would not have the problem of 80 mink still running free and causing trouble. My hon. Friend talks of people doing things 20, 30 or 40 years ago, but others are doing things now, fully aware of the consequences of releasing thousands of mink.

Mr. Banks: I should come back on that point because my hon. Friend would want me to say that releasing mink into the wild is ridiculous, absurd and completely counter-productive. Anyone who does so has little regard for wildlife—although it is noticeable that many of the mink that are released hang around the mink farms and are relatively easily recaptured. My hon. Friend will admit, however, that the vast majority of now feral mink in this country have not been released in recent months but have escaped from mink farms over many decades.

Mrs. Golding: Absolutely; I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He asks how many mink are killed by mink packs. Given that there are only a few mink packs, that they sweep the rivers only in the season, and that they do so only twice in order to protect the riverbanks, they do rather well in attacking and getting the mink. They may not kill a vast number, but at least they keep the population down—during the season by about 90 or a 100. At least that stops the mink breeding, which is a reasonable job.

Mr. Garnier: To help the hon. Lady and the hon. Member for West Ham, paragraph 10 on page 8 of the Burns report states:

    ``The 20 minkhound packs kill somewhere between 400-1,400 mink a season.''

Mrs. Golding: The mink packs do a good job and to say that we cannot hunt mink with dogs is an absolute nonsense.

Mr. O'Brien: If my hon. Friend turns to paragraph 5.117 on page 106 of the Burns report, she will see that the report concludes:

    ``It is clear that the contribution made by mink hunts to the control of mink populations nationally is insignificant. The numbers killed are far too low to make any impact on population numbers, especially given the high fecundity of mink.''

However, locally, mink hunts may well have some impact. We are dealing with the national issue of mink, whereas my hon. Friend is pinpointing a local issue.

Mrs. Golding: The report says also:

    ``Hunting can be helpful in providing a free service to farmers and others that identifies where mink are located, enabling them to target trapping efforts more effectively.''

So dogs can be used to enable farmers to trap more effectively. I agree that, in the scheme of things, a relatively small number of mink are involved—perhaps 20,000 or so run around the islands off the coast of Scotland—but it cannot be right for the Bill to prohibit such control. The point was made earlier that because foxes attack and kill rabbits, one should leave rabbits alone and let nature take its course. Following that argument, one should also leave mink alone—yet nothing takes its course and they just keep reproducing. The cost of putting out traps to eradicate mink in just one part of the country could amount to £30 million to £40 million. If we do nothing, but prevent those who are doing something from doing so, we will have more mink and invasive species generally.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I just do not recognise the picture that my hon. Friend paints. The conclusions are there in the Burns report. She referred to the inordinate cost of baiting traps; it is clear from contract study no. 5 conducted by the people at Heslington and the University of York that mink can be caught in unbaited traps. I do not know why my hon. Friend persists in going over old ground that was thoroughly dealt with earlier.

Mrs. Golding: I am glad that my hon. Friend raised that question. Other animals can be caught in unbaited traps but the law states that one has to check every 24 hours whether an animal has been caught. If the law says that, that is what one has to do. My hon. Friend's argument does not stand up.

It has been said that foxes eliminate rabbits if one allows things to take their course, but no animal eliminates mink. People may say, ``Ah well, just let it be—perhaps someone will come along and put some traps down,'' but who? I had a letter from somebody who was anti-hunting. He wrote that there were thousands of mink traps around the country, all ready to catch mink. I wrote back and asked the simple question, ``Where?'' That was about two months ago—I am still waiting for the reply. I am sure that the traps do not exist. No one is doing anything about the problem at all.

We talk about rodent control, but we are protecting rats. It was announced today that we are becoming overrun with rats. There has been much talk about the increase in rats—partly because of the floods, they are swimming around and getting into places where they have not been before. Yet here we are worrying about the welfare of rats. It does not make any sense.

I have a good friend who goes rabbiting. He has a dog that is trained to rabbit—it lives outside in a kennel with a run and it does not go into the run. He takes it out only to rabbit. He says to me, ``If I can't take the dog out to rabbit, how can I exercise it? That is all he knows and all he has been bred for? What's going to happen? Have I got to put him down?'' What will happen to dogs that have been trained for hunting? Who will have them? It is nonsense to say that the RSPCA will have them, because it is already inundated with dogs and other animals and cannot cope.

My friend said, ``The only answer for me is to shoot my dog.'' [Hon. Members: ``Ah.''] Hon. Members may say ``Ah'', but that man feels very angry. He is an ordinary working-class member of the Labour party, who takes his dog out rabbiting to find food for him and the dog. That saves him from having to pay for the expensive and rubbishy tinned food on the shelves in shops and gives him a nice bit of rabbit instead.

6.30 pm

What will happen when we put tight controls on hunting for rabbits? Will we return to the days when myxomatosis was needed to eliminate a vast number of rabbits? Unless we stop the Bill's nonsense about mink, rats and rabbits, we face being overrun by all three. At the end of the day, it is no good the Minister saying to us that that is what Deadline 2000 wants. I say, ``Blow Deadline 2000.'' Let us use common sense for a change.

Mr. Soames: In the weeks that the Bill has been in Committee, the debates have been extremely interesting and, by and large, good natured and responsible, given the contentious nature of what we are debating. However, none of us has received a greater shock than many of us did this afternoon, when the hon. Member for Lewisham, East told us that she was wearing her pussy round her neck. [Laughter.] That came as a terrible shock to me, and I want to know what her cat did so wrong that it ended up there.

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): I have two cats, called Jimmy and Joe. I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) that both are alive and well. Jimmy is alive and kicking, although he has only three legs because one was amputated as a result of a tumour. They are 14 years old tomorrow, and I am sure that the Committee would like to wish them many happy returns—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman need not respond.

Mr. Soames: The hon. Lady can be assured that cats hunt better as a pair, even on seven legs. I am sure that the four-legged one will keep up with the three-legged one.

Before dealing with amendment No. 74, I want to support the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme by urging the Committee to pay attention to what she says. She is extremely knowledgeable and devoted to the ways of the river and the water, which she has known a great deal about for years. I remember on entering the House of Commons years ago an order on mink, and the hon. Lady was the only Member who could talk about it with any knowledge. I urge the Minister to pay attention to what she says, however inconvenient that may be, because what she says is true.

The Minister asked a perfectly fair question: what damage is done to a riverbank by mink hounds? A mink hound's appearance on the riverbank is transient. It will be there for minutes and do minuscule damage. Mink live there the whole time and do enormous damage. To give the hon. Gentleman an example, a farmer was killed in my constituency last year, when a tractor ploughing a field rolled over in a badger sett. We are not necessarily debating badgers today, but they do enormous damage to the margins of fields when they make their setts. They undermine the fields and can cause huge holes. As a result, people regularly have bad falls when they are out riding. Those subjects should not be dismissed. What the hon. Lady says about mink is true.

I understand that the hon. Member for West Ham, most honourably, feels very strongly about the farming of mink. I agree with him about that, but this is a different matter. These animals have escaped into the wild and are deeply destructive. If mink ate cormorants, I would write them a good report, but they do not, because as the Minister knows, cormorants are crafty swine and nest in trees, so the mink cannot get at them. A wise Conservative Government banned the shooting of cormorants, with the result that every fish farm and trout fishery in the land is infested with these ghastly brutes—the insolent beasts that I saw flying past here this very morning. They are all over the place.

The point that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme made is very small beer. I have been out with mink hounds on many occasions, but I have no idea how many there are in the country. They kill an insignificant number of mink compared with those that have to be killed by shooting or trapping. Much more damage is done to a riverbank by putting a trap in it and a man coming up every day to inspect it by removing all the undergrowth, or indeed by my fellow anglers.

I am an angler. I do not do much coarse fishing, which involves sitting in one place at a time; I fish for salmon and trout, and that involves moving down the river, and walking all the time. I look at the banks of the rivers on which I fish. By the end of the season, there are great trampled paths all the way down the river where people have been fishing. It is all part of river life. If people fish, that is what happens. The mink living in the bank cause damage to the bank, but it is natural damage and it is expected. Otters damage riverbanks, but who cares? We all love otters.

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