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Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that full reply. I am sure that he knows me too well even to contemplate the idea that I might seek to wreck his Bill. For the reasons he gives, I accept that this is not the proper solution. However, I suggest that the debate in Committee on what is or is not downland will need resolving. I hope that he will give that point further thought and return to it at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
On many occasions in another place and in this House the Government have said often that they do not wish to include in the definition, land that is used for the making of hay and silage: but that point is not clear in the Bill. The amendment seeks to clarify the position so that what has been said by Ministers is on the face of the Bill.
Like my noble friend Lord Caithness, I believe that to be inadequate, as it may not cover improved or semi-improved grassland that produces hay, silage or haylage--a new word. That is clearly an essential part of farmers' livelihoods.
I am sure that it will not be the express intention of the access authorities to include such land within access provisions. I take issue with the Minister's suggestion that the Conservatives have an inherent mistrust of the Countryside Agency. That was a little blunt. As my noble friend has already said, we are trying to define the areas in question in a way that will not lead to confusion.
I accept that Amendment No. 7 is not dissimilar to Amendment No. 3, tabled by my noble friend Lord Caithness. However, the definition in my amendment has been adopted previously in legislation, appearing in Sections 42 and 52 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, so it has a sound precedent.
Furthermore, on Report in another place, at column 809, Mr Meacher, the Minister there, expressed sympathy with the idea that such land should be excepted. If the Minister in another place feels that it should be excepted, I expect the Minister in this House to adhere to that.
From a purely practical farming point of view, the Government are missing an important trick. They seem to forget that grassland or meadow land, particularly on hill farms, is often a link between the nearest access road and the open hill. During the summer growing months of June, July and August, it is very important that such land should not be disturbed if the farmer intends to take a crop of hay or silage from it.
The Government have said that cultivated land will be excepted, but hill grassland is not normally in any form of rotation. It would normally be broken perhaps only once every 10 years, or perhaps not at all if constant improvement was possible with lime and fertiliser. In those circumstances, it could not possibly come under the regular cultivation exception. In any
Another important reason for not disturbing the fields in the summer is to protect certain ground-nesting birds. When I was the Minister for Rural Affairs in Scotland, I visited SSSIs in the Outer Hebrides--that may be a long way from England, but the issues are the same--where the farmers received management agreements provided that they did not cut the hay until 1st August. That enabled corncrakes and other ground-nesting birds such as curlews to nest in the hay. The birds would be fledged by the end of July or the beginning of August. There was therefore a double reason why the ground should not be disturbed by people using it for access to open hills.
There are good reasons to support the amendments. Winter keep is essential for hill farms. If it can be taken only from a few meadows or grassland fields around the farm that are likely to be used by the general public for access to open hills, those fields should be kept clear of footsloggers during the hay period, from the end of May until well into August. That would enable the hay to grow to best advantage and would avoid disturbance of ground-nesting birds, which is often a problem on such land. We should give the amendments a fair wind, even if we have to come back to the issue at Third Reading.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, the amendments are important. To put the issue in a slightly different way, the House should realise that grass is an important crop. In many parts of the country, particularly in Wales, it is increasingly important, because the low price of cereals makes it worth growing grass wherever it grows best. It is grown not just permanently as rough grazing, but for intensive grazing. Sometimes it is even divided into compartments so that stock can feed on one part and then on another, or for hay, silage or haylage, as the amendments specify.
I do not know whether we have come up with the right definition. I suspect that my noble friend Lord Peel has come up with the best solution, because his amendment specifies everything that is not rough grazing. It embraces all the different ways that grass may be grown in potential access areas and does not limit it only to hay, silage and haylage. The Minister may have a view on that.
I hope that this matter is being considered because it is a problem that may lead to the type of confrontation in the countryside that we want to avoid. We need clarity in relation to the definitions.
The reason for my anxiety concerns not only the absolute necessity of having a hay supply, but also lambing. Over the past 30 or 40 years the practice of lambing on hills has been less and less popular. Sheep are now brought into in-bye fields for lambing or into lambing sheds. Building lambing sheds represents an extremely expensive capital project which many hill farmers would not be able to undertake. It is absolutely essential that fields should be available for lambing and that they should be undisturbed. I believe that this is another important argument for accepting the amendment tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, rather than the others.
Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, without entering into an argument about the merits of a particular amendment, perhaps I may express sympathy with the approach. It is essential that we encourage farmers to grow rather than buy in feed. The BSE tragedy provides evidence of that desirability. If they are to be encouraged to grow feed, I believe that consideration must be given to this approach. It would, of course, be helpful to ground-nesting birds as well. I hope that my noble friend will be able to give careful thought to this matter.
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