Hunting Bill

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Mr. Banks: The otter used to be hunted.

Mr. Soames: It is no longer hunted. It is now quite rightly a protected animal.

The mink is a highly destructive animal. It eats wildfowl, it destroys the riverbanks and is a thorough nuisance. It causes considerable damage to fisheries and to the general good order of a river. To prevent it from being dealt with in this way is a cardinal act of foolishness. I am not being impertinent to the Minister, but it is a very silly thing to do, and it will not help. Everyone in the countryside who takes an interest in these matters knows that what is proposed is absolutely absurd.

Mr. Gummer: I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen some of today's announcements about the Governments' plans to tighten up the asylum rules, but we now seem to be approaching the curious position in which human beings who have no basis to be in this country will be treated in a much tougher way than these animals, which are not part of our flora and fauna, but damage it. It is difficult to understand why the Government seem to be so tough on people whom they consider would not contribute to our society, but very untough about animals which are manifestly undermining the animal society.

Mr. Soames: My right hon. Friend makes a very good point: it is a matter of pure ignorance. How would those in a party that is based in Islington, whose thoughts are entirely of the town, have any clue about what the proposal means to people who live in and manage the countryside? They do not have clue. How otherwise could ferreting be allowed to continue? Has anyone ever seen what a ferret does to a rabbit? It is absolutely appalling. I love ferreting—one stands and watches the rabbit bolt and then one shoots the rabbit. It is a terrific sport, but if the ferret gets hold of the rabbit, the welfare of the rabbit is seriously compromised. Why do the Government do nothing about it? They do nothing because someone will have said, ``Oh God, we can't do that. There are a lot of fellows up in the north country with flat hats, good working-class chaps who love their ferrets and their dogs.'' They are quite right; there are thousands of them. Ferrets are used to help destroy and to keep the countryside free of an agricultural pest—the rabbit.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal was a distinguished Minister of Agriculture. My father was Minister of Agriculture before him. I remember very clearly when my father was Minister of Agriculture in the 1960s that the bounty for rabbits was 6p a tail. People were paid for killing the little sods— [Interruption.]—I am sorry, Mr. O'Hara. I withdraw the word ``sod'' and insert the word ``swine''. Now people no longer get paid for it. However, any farmer with an infestation of rabbits would be pleased to have Harry Soames with a .22 rifle and a good dog for the evening to clear them up. It is absolute madness that the Government do not understand the matter.

I appreciate that the Minister listens, but I want him to do something about it. I want to tell him a story of the countryside, which is very important. I assume that the members of the Committee are interested in the environment and conservation—I know that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme is truly interested in those issues. If a person has a grouse moor and keeps the ground as free of vermin as possible in order to encourage grouse, thereby providing employment in keepering and ancillary work in places where there is no other employment, and if rabbits are allowed to get out of control in the low ground, they will attract foxes, which can be dealt with quite easily, and stoats, which are harder to deal with. Stoats are attracted by the rabbits, but when they have dealt with the rabbits, they will move on to the grouse. That starts a cycle: inadequate keepering leads to too many rabbits, the rabbits attract stoats and the stoats invade the grouse nests and eat the grouse chicks. I have seen it happen often.

The Game Conservancy—I declare an interest as a trustee of the Game Conservancy, whose work is admired across the UK and is regarded as totally impartial and above reproach—has demonstrated that in such circumstances it is absolutely essential to kill the rabbits in order to keep the stoats away. Tidying up the stoats gives the grouse a reasonable chance, apart from the hen harriers, the peregrine falcons, the golden eagles and the rest. By and large, however, the grouse has a better chance than it would otherwise.

I have described the circle of conservation. While the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme was bringing the Minister up to date on his way back from the Division, I mentioned to him—my right hon. Friend would confirm this were he present—that, to MAFF, the rabbit is a prime enemy. Rabbits do terrible damage to agricultural crops, trees and the general environment. I have seen ground destroyed by rabbits.

From that rabbit story, I exonerate Fudge, the magnificent bunny that is the property of Hattie Hitchcock, the step-daughter of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South. I am sure that Fudge is an admirable rabbit in every way, but he is a house rabbit, a respectable garden rabbit; he is not roaming around eating the Duke of Buccleugh's saplings, or indeed the municipal grass in the borough of Islington. He is in a lovely, caring, warm home in Nottingham, South—the lucky, spoiled beast. I bet he has lovely long ears, a lovely silky coat and is an absolutely charming rabbit, but his country cousin is not the same sort of thing at all. He is an awful rough thing like the hon. Member for West Ham. He has many of those same qualities, which make him an altogether endearing, but very dangerous animal—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman might consider withdrawing that remark.

6.45 pm

Mr. Soames: Mr. O'Hara, you know that I love the hon. Gentleman. Nothing that I say to him is intended to do anything other than pull his sweet tail.

Rabbits are a nuisance; they are absolutely intolerable. The Government know not what they do as their proposals seem to be going against the entire doctrine of the Ministry of Agriculture for the past 50 years. The rabbit explosion that took place after the war was so great that myxomatosis was brought from Australia to kill them. Myxomatosis is a horrible disease. The rabbit suffers dreadfully. It is very sick and looks absolutely ghastly and then it dies. It is extremely vulnerable and gets run over on the roads. It is a disgusting thing. Whenever I see a myxo rabbit I hit it on the head with a stick. It is pathetic. So awful is the damage that rabbits do that a disease had to be imported to deal with them.

Rabbit control falls into a number of different and entirely legal means. One can lamp at night. One gets a rabbit in the light, sees its eyes and shoots it. One knocks it over with a .22. One can flush with ferrets. One puts a ferret into a rabbit burrow and nets the other exits. A good ferret, preferably a female, because as ever the female is more deadly than the male, will push the rabbits out into the nets. If they get out of the nets one can shoot them or a lurcher will run and catch them.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and I both received a letter from a lady in Essex who runs her lurchers as a service to local farmers to clear the rabbit population. She does not do it for sport. She does it as a service. She will be lucky if she is not had for committing an offence. The Minister says that it is not intended to catch people like that, but it will.

Mr. O'Brien: Just so we are clear: if the lady in Essex intends to hunt rabbits with her lurchers, she will certainly be caught by the Bill.

Mr. Soames: Exactly. She is providing a service to the local farmers. She takes her lurchers out on to the farms. She is not hunting them in the conventional sense. She takes them out to walk out with people with guns who will shoot and if they miss the lurchers will roll the rabbits over. That is not hunting.

Mrs. Golding: What will happen if she is banned and she takes her dogs out for a walk? She knows that they will chase rabbits because that is what they are trained to do. How will she prevent them from running after rabbits and how will she avoid being accused of knowingly taking them for a walk?

Mr. Soames: I listened with amazement to the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence) whose terrier is so admirably trained in these matters. A lurcher does not have to be trained to course a hare or a rabbit. It will just do it naturally. When a pointer is taken out for the first time in its life and it smells game, it will come up to the point immediately. All one has to do with a pointer is stop it running after game when it moves and stand it still so that the spoilt red-faced toffs behind it with guns will be able to deal with the game in a sporting manner. That is nature; you cannot stop lurchers behaving like that, so they will have to be kept on leads. Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Newbury, who represents the lurcher capital of the western world, is deeply unpopular with lurcher owners in his constituency—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying—

Mr. Soames: Only down the M4. There are approximately 113,000 lurcher owners in the United Kingdom and that does not include dogs that are kept as pets. I have many friends who keep lurchers, which are charming animals. The Parliamentary Secretary, who is a tremendous dog fancier, will know that lurchers are the most beautiful and elegant dogs. They are absolutely wonderful. However, a lurcher—even one that has led a spoilt, indolent life, like the hon. Member for West Ham, always pampered and surrounded by goodies and luxuries—that is taken out for a walk on a cold, wet, day will, when faced with a rabbit, be off like a lamplighter after it, because that is its nature. Do we really intend to charge the lurcher's owner? The Minister will say no; but he wants to charge the lady from Essex because she is setting out to hunt. She is hunting no more than the man who goes ferreting, who bolts a rabbit and whose lurcher goes for it. He is hunting no more than the lady in Essex, nor the tens of thousands—

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Prepared 13 February 2001