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Viscount Bledisloe: It is a pity that the first amendment in this group, which deals with the important question of weekend access, should deal specifically with shooting which although important is by no means the whole of the matter. However, I should perhaps declare an interest as an enthusiastic participant in the sport of shooting who is likely to shoot on moorland on Saturdays. I hope that any noble Lord who owns a grouse moor and is present in the Chamber will take note of that!

The general problem of weekend access is much more important. I shall concentrate my remarks on Amendment No. 248 which seeks to remove subsection (6) of Clause 21. Clause 21 provides that a landowner may exclude access to land on certain days. It is obviously intended that he should do so at critical times such as lambing time or when birds are hatching. If we assume that that is the main purpose of the closure provision, it must be utterly illogical, and indeed destructive of that whole purpose, if weekends are excluded from the 28 days when closure is permitted.

I suggest to the Government that they take a little advice from King Canute and recognise that nature's rules do not bend to the wishes of human rulers. It is unfortunate but true that sheep and nesting birds and their eggs do not read Hansard or even the statutes at large and do not carry with them calendars which enable them to identify when weekends occur. Therefore, unfortunately, they will not refrain from lambing or hatching over a weekend. If those processes are to be protected on Fridays, they also need to be protected on Saturdays and Sundays. Even New Labour cannot persuade sheep not to lamb over a weekend because the former would like to allow people on to the land.

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An exemption for weekends at such critical times renders the power to exclude utterly illogical. As many of us have sought to suggest, countrymen consider many of the Bill's provisions unreasonable and unfair. The concept of a Monday to Friday period of closure to protect lambs, birds and so on at critical periods demonstrates to those who know about the countryside that the Bill was drafted in Whitehall by persons with no tittle of understanding of what happens in the countryside. If the Government truly intend that landowners or tenants should be able to close their land at critical times, such as lambing or hatching, they must concede that it must also be closed at weekends and allow nature to take precedence over the vagaries of the calendar.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: Amendments Nos. 244 and 245, which are grouped with Amendment No. 237, stand in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer. These amendments have the purpose of extending the period of closure. The amendments propose that four weekends should be added to the period of statutory closure as laid down in Clause 21(4). In arithmetic terms this would increase statutory closure from 28 days to 36 days.

Amendment No. 244 adds four weekends to the relevant maximum; and Amendment No. 245 spells out how the weekend should be interpreted. It seems to me that the presumption behind the Bill is that closure is for maintenance purposes and also for the pleasure of those who do not have to work. This seems to be unfair to those who wish to shoot or stalk--which are particularly dangerous activities if you are not taking part in them--but can do so only on Saturday. It seems also to be unhelpful to those estates--this has been mentioned--whose income is derived from selling shooting days. As the Bill is presumably not intended to disadvantage the rural economy, I hope that these amendments can be incorporated into the Bill.

Earl Peel: I support what the noble Earl has just said. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, I should hate these discussions to concern only shooting. However, I shall return to that matter in a moment. How owners, occupiers and tenants will utilise their 28 closure days remains to be seen. I cannot speak for them. However, I believe that a number of people will use their 28 closure days during the breeding season in May. That is my hunch. If that is the case, the noble Viscount's comments were absolutely right and proper because clearly birds will not cease nesting during weekends or bank holidays. This is an important issue which I hope the Government will take extremely seriously.

I turn to shooting. The noble Earl is absolutely right to say that shooting--we are talking here principally of grouse shooting--is of enormous economic importance to certain country areas. I venture to suggest--this is an extremely important point--that most of the money that is generated by shooting is used to support the management of those areas. I go so far as to say that if it was not for the shooting interests a great number of sites of special scientific interest--

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many of which will now be designated as SPAs and SACs under the European habitats and birds directive--would not exist in the first place. Therefore it would be disingenuous of the Government to ignore the goose which lays the golden egg. That is a most important point.

As regards shooting, difficulties would arise for many people if they could not participate in that sport on a Saturday. I am not talking about people with vast sums of money. Many members of shooting clubs enjoy their weekend shooting and have no other opportunity to do so. It is important to note that this matter affects people across the whole social spectrum. The income generated from shooting is of enormous importance not just in terms of the maintenance of hills or the wildlife benefits; it has a considerable knock-on effect in other industries such as the hotel industry and the transport industry. The Government need to bear in mind all those points when considering this matter. I very much welcome the opportunity to increase the number of weekends where access can be closed for whatever reason, not just shooting.

I go back to what I said at the beginning. We must not forget that some people may use these days to try to close these areas for the benefit of nesting birds. These are not just game birds but also Schedule 1 birds.

7.30 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: Perhaps I may ask two questions. If someone wanders through a drive on a foggy day while shooting is in operation and is shot, whose responsibility will it be? Will there be conflict between owners of land and tenant farmers? For example, will a tenant farmer be able to have 28 days for his lambing while a landowner has a different 28 days for his shooting?

Baroness Young of Old Scone: Perhaps the Minister will consider a degree of flexibility as regards weekend closures. It is not that I hate to think that upland landowners with shooting interests would be financially embarrassed by being unable to sell shooting days at the weekends, particularly on a Saturday. It is the more serious point made by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, about the ecology of the uplands being heavily dependent on the income that shooting brings to those areas. It is a point that we need to emphasise.

I am less convinced by the arguments based on sheep or nesting birds. Birds set up territories. They nest; they hatch; and they breed and raise young over quite extensive periods. The odd Saturday or 28-day closure will not make much difference to nesting birds. Closures in order to protect nesting birds should be on the ground of conservation rather than discretionary.

On the sheep question, I am not convinced that there is evidence that walkers and lambing do not mix. As an ex-shepherd of 600 sheep, a horse and a dog, my ewes were concentrating on something else when lambing on the hill rather than whether walkers were close by. The odd Saturday closure will not help if the sheep are lambing on the open hill.

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Nevertheless, perhaps we can prevail upon the Minister to be flexible. The points made about the economics of shooting are fundamental to our upland areas. I suggest that we should consider giving landowners more discretion about weekend closures within the proposed 28 discretionary days.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Let us consider the reason that the Government introduced the 28 day period. It was so that landowners would have a period in which to undertake those activities vital to their landholding without having to go through the difficulties of applying for closures to quangos which might argue the case. It does not seem unreasonable that they should have a block of time which is not broken up by these three or four weekends.

In Standing Committee B, at cols. 474 and 475 of the Official Report of 2nd May, Mr Meacher said:

    "I am not sure that we can justify providing in the Bill for shutting open countryside to the public for a whole month without giving any reason".

He continued:

    "My problem is to find a way of reconciling the two views that does not severely or drastically undermine the purpose of the Bill".

I suggest that closing for that useful 28-day block period does not,

    "severely or drastically undermine the purpose of the Bill".

The Government have said that people may abuse the provision and close the area for all the most popular weekends. On the other hand, landowners may say, "We can apply for closure orders in order to undertake those activities we have not had time to do and the quangos will make our lives difficult". If we approach the issue on the basis of scepticism, we shall not get far.

It is common sense for this to occur. At col. 475, Mr Meacher said:

    "I accept that the 28-days' discretion gives landowners a simple way to close their land for any reason, without seeking approval".

That non-bureaucratic route is important. That time should not be broken into because there might be possible abuse. It is a weak case. It is time the Government admitted it.

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