Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Lembit Öpik: In fairness to the hon. Member for West Ham, I should correct what I said. He referred to passion and subjectivity and not to passion and prejudice. However, if one adds passion and subjectivity, one gets prejudice.

Mr. Atkinson: The hon. Gentleman has slightly lost me on that one, but I shall read the record.

One of the points about new clause 13 are the words that the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality said at the start of his speech. I wrote them down and I hope that I have got them more or less right. He said that, in some circumstances, hunting causes significantly less suffering than other methods of control. If that is what he believes, why is he saying that one cannot hunt between 1 August and 1 November? Where is the logic to introducing a close season when he accepts that, in certain circumstances, it is necessary to control foxes by the use of hounds because that causes less suffering?

30 Jun 2003 : Column 112

Imposing a close season is done for no other reason than to protect a species, but new clause 13 will not protect a species. It will simply stop an activity—hunting—during that time. This ludicrous and illogical new clause is the result of a shabby deal with the RSPCA and says that one can snare foxes between 1 August and 1 November, but not hunt them. Where is the logic in that? The research carried out by hunting organisations shows that the foxes killed in the period of what is now known as autumn hunting are not necessarily young foxes. Up to nearly half of them are adult foxes. Any land manager or gamekeeper will say that is when they put pheasants in release pens and that it is an important time for fox control. To close off a useful method of control in that time is utterly illogical.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Does he not agree that one of the oddest aspects of new clause 13 is that it will still make it theoretically strictly legal to kill newly born foxes in May, June and July but that it will make it illegal to kill them in August, September and October when they are grown up?

Mr. Atkinson: That is right. Although it might not be pleasant, if I were a gamekeeper or farmer, I would say that the only way to control fox numbers is to shoot lactating vixens. In that way, the cubs die. That is the way to reduce fox numbers. I would deplore that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend would. However, if we leave fox control to inexperienced people, such activities will happen.

I tell the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) that farmers do not have lamps and high-power rifles. Some have shotguns and some do not. I have an upland constituency in which there are sheep farms. In one area, all the tenant farmers of the Ministry of Defence elect the local hunt as their pest controller. If the hunt did not exist, the farmers would have to control foxes despite having little time or expertise. The methods used would vastly increase foxes' suffering compared with that caused by traditional hunting methods.

Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there are few high-power rifles in the community. In my part of East Sussex, the general population would be absolutely horrified by the thought of a proliferation of high-power rifles, especially because no settlement, road, village, farmhouse or livestock are more than a short distance from anywhere that could be a vantage point for the firing of such a rifle. The prospect is grotesque.

Mr. Atkinson: My hon. Friend makes a good point that brings me on to deer control on Exmoor. Bodmin moor has been mentioned and it has a completely different landscape to Exmoor. Exmoor is a small patchwork of land with high hedges and many wooded areas. It would be extremely dangerous to use a rifle in such an area. Over the years, small patches of land have been created, often with different owners, which is a different type of land ownership to that in Scotland, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray).

30 Jun 2003 : Column 113

If a deer were shot and wounded in a field in Exmoor, it would move to another field in no time at all. That field would not necessarily belong to the same person as that in which the deer was shot, so anyone who tried to shoot it again would be guilty of an offence. That is why the overarching control carried out by the three packs of deer hounds in the south-west has resulted in an extremely healthy deer population.

Mr. Swire: My hon. Friend makes a good point that is substantiated by the situation on Dartmoor. The military has to be extremely careful when firing weapons because of the rightful proliferation of those who wish to walk in Dartmoor and experience its natural beauty. Can he imagine a whole lot of farmers being released on to Dartmoor and loosing off against foxes while ramblers were all over the place? The idea beggars belief.

Mr. Atkinson: I can predict what would happen on Exmoor without staghounds. Farmers would have to get together to operate a system of deer control. A red deer is a hungry animal but it has another characteristic: it is valuable. The venison from a red deer is worth much more than most of the livestock that Exmoor farmers rear commercially. The temptation to organise deer drives to convert a pest into the valuable commodity of venison would be overwhelming. I assure hon. Members that within a year or two of the end of deer hunting on Exmoor, there would be a decline in the number and quality of deer and a change to methods of deer management.

Many of my hon. Friends and I put our names to an amendment that the Government have taken from us relating to hares and coursing. It is disappointing—and also wrong—that an argument cannot be made to show that utility is attached to coursing. If we are to have a licensing system, the registrar should consider coursing and deer hunting in the same light as fox hunting. A strong argument for why coursing has utility is that it preserves many hares. Some hon. Members and, I fear, many people in the country think that a hare is simply let out of a box during organised coursing. The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) will know that that is not the case. All hares at a coursing meeting are wild. Between 600 and 700 healthy hares are required to hold a coursing meeting on such a scale as the Waterloo cup. Much game management is required to encourage hares to live on an estate of such a size wildly and freely. If the activity were banned, the impetus for that would be gone.

There are parts of East Anglia in which hares are usually numerous. However, one will hardly see a hare on estates in which coursing no longer takes place, but there are masses on estates in which coursing occurs, such as those in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). That represents a good argument to support the utility of coursing.

30 Jun 2003 : Column 114


Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend is right. The Swaffham coursing club courses more than 10,000 acres of my constituency, and there are a large number of hares on those acres. On the other side of the River Ouse, in fen country, one hardly sees a hare.

Mr. Atkinson: That is right. One hardly sees hares in areas where coursing used to take place, like parts of Northumberland and Durham, which used to have the famous Durham union club. That is a great pity.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries): Hare coursing has taken place in my constituency for many years. Hares are brought in from Yorkshire because of the shortage.

Mr. Atkinson: That is not the case. I know the estate where that coursing meeting occurs. The historical reason for moving hares is as part of game management. It is possible to improve the breeding stock by introducing new blood into it. That is what the coursing world has done for many years. In my view, that is good game management and something to be proud of, not something to condemn.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): Is it not also the case that, from time to time, hares are specifically brought into coursing areas where there is a shortage in order to be coursed, not to improve bloodstock? It is not possible to improve bloodstock if the hare has been coursed and killed.

Mr. Atkinson: The hon. Gentleman has attended the Waterloo cup for a few years, at least at a distance, because I have seen him. He should know that that is not the case. If a hare is put down in a place with which it is unfamiliar, it will be uncourseable. It will run around in circles and be completely lost. It will not test the dogs properly, which is what people who like coursing want it to do. The object of coursing is to test greyhounds, not to kill hares. If a hare does not know where it is, it will be an unsatisfactory hare. Hare coursers do not do what the hon. Gentleman suggests, but they do introduce hares for breeding purposes.

I do not want to get into a long discourse on the nuances of coursing, although I would be happy to do so. It is shame that hare coursers cannot make the same case of utility. Whether the registrar agrees with their case is neither here nor there, but they should at least have the opportunity to make that case.

We have come to a sad moment for Conservative Members. There are two choices: new clause 13, which is death by 1,000 cuts for the countryside, or new clause 11, which is an outright and total ban. I hope that their lordships give the Bill the savaging it richly deserves.

Next Section

IndexHome Page