Hunting Bill

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Mr. Pickthall: I am sorry; climb like a monkey. That is rather less elegant. She presents, therefore, a picture of a mammal, with which, as I said, I am not personally familiar in my part of the world, that is very difficult to hunt with dogs. If pursued by dogs, they are pursued along waterways. They are mainly hunted in spring and summer, when other creatures inhabiting the same territory are busy breeding and flourishing and will be disturbed by the hunt.

Mrs. Golding: They are disturbed by the mink.

Mr. Pickthall: They are disturbed by the mink, too. The mink is a solitary animal and has a territory of about a mile or so.

The report ``Managing British Mammals'', which was produced at the behest of Burns, points out that the different countryside interests want mink control for different reasons. The farmers believe that it is a predator of poultry and the fisheries believe that is a predator of fish; no doubt it is. Those with forestry interests, however, believe that no controls are needed.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): My hon. Friend referred to contract 5, produced by the university of York at Heslington, on the management of the mink population. That tells us that there has been only one study on the effectiveness of hunting with dogs as a means of controlling mink. However, the study ran for five years. It revealed that two-thirds of the mink located by the hounds managed to escape, because they hid away in secure refuges—in rocks or under trees—where the dogs could not get at them. That demonstrates again that hunting mink with dogs is an ineffective method of control.

2.15 pm

Mr. Pickthall: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; I had not seen that before. I know that when mink hide in banks, the banks are dug out and stripped and tremendous damage is done to the riverside. It is not an effective method, and alternatives must be looked at.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): Is my hon. Friend aware that research now shows that where otter numbers have recovered because of a ban on hunting with dogs, they have re-claimed their natural aquatic territory and have moved the mink out, and that therefore mink numbers have fallen? That ban has been much more effective than hunting with dogs.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): We used to hunt otters.

Mr. Pickthall: I have to tell my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham that it was otter hunting that first interested me in this issue. As a boy in the Lake district, I was horrified by the activity and participated in non-violent protests against it. At the time, it was argued that if otters were protected from the hunt, the next step would be—and so on and so on. That was in 1968; a long time ago.

Mrs. Golding: Mink tend to disappear when otters are present, but they do not disappear into thin air. They go on to fresh territories and do even more damage. Mink hunts report sightings of otters, in order that the otters can be protected. Hunts protect the environment as well as get rid of the mink.

Mr. Pickthall: I am in danger of getting into a circular argument. We are likely to have more otters if the hunt does not keep charging up and down their territory ostensibly looking for something else. Otters might be a more effective alternative control than anything else we have had so far.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I want to underline my hon. Friend's point, which was missed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. The academic study that I referred to earlier referred to the concern that hunting with dogs in areas where otters and mink co-exist will disturb the otters and prevent them from re-colonising areas where they are scarce. We have not hunted otters since 1975, and it is presence of the dogs that will cause the otters to flee from their natural habitat.

Mr. Pickthall: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for correcting me about the date. I thought we had succeeded in ending the practice earlier than that.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): Does my hon. Friend agree that our hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Lyme is right to say that mink do not disappear into thin air? Nevertheless, paragraph 5.97 on page 102 of the Burns report states:

    Following an initial rapid increase in the population, there is now evidence that mink numbers have reduced substantially in the last ten years. This seems to have coincided with a resurgence in the otter population.

That seems to underline the point made by my hon. Friend.

Mr. Pickthall: I agree. That saves me quoting paragraph 5.97, as I intended to.

Mr. Cawsey: Displaced mink will move away, but the countryside is not full of homeless mink selling copies of The Big Issue. Research shows that their breeding regime has changed because they have moved out of their natural habitat. As a consequence, their numbers have fallen. I am sure that if my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme went to the Library, the staff would be able to give her information on that.

Mr. Pickthall: I thank my hon. Friend for his information.

Mrs. Golding: Two thousand mink were released from a fur farm in Onneley, and they tramped all over my constituency, damaging wildlife, cats, ducks and everything else around. The endangered species charity Tusk Force warned that 94 per cent. of water vole nesting sites would have disappeared by 2000 due to habitat degeneration and predators. There can be academic theories, but people who study endangered species day after day have entirely different findings. The water vole is certainly an endangered species.

Mr. Pickthall: The water vole may be an endangered species, and I have no doubt that the average mink would relish as many water voles as it could get hold of. I have no time for the people who let the mink loose from that farm and on to the countryside, as I imagine that no Labour Member does. It was an appalling and stupid act, from all points of view. Of course, one reason for it was the existence of the mink farm; the animals had to be there to be let out in the first place. That is another reason why we should ban mink farming.

I have been led astray—it is not unusual—but I shall return to the report by Dr. Macdonald's group from Oxford university, which was used, if not commissioned, by Burns. I tried to paraphrase from memory what it said about mink and could not, so I shall clarify the matter. The report gives reasons from the various interest groups for the control of mink by one means or another. Farmers say that they predate poultry and game managers say that they predate game. Foresters say that there is no reason to control mink, but fisheries managers say that they predate fish. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme said, conservationists say that they predate the water vole and wild birds. Either the groups concerned cannot make up their minds why the animal is a pest, or together they present a picture of an omnivorous animal that is infinitely adaptable, which suggests the difficulty of hunting it with dogs.

The amendments would render much of paragraph 8 redundant, which may be a good thing. It may be what the hon. Member for Aylesbury wants to do. Paragraph 8 contains nothing that would prevent an offence of ostensibly pursuing a rodent, rabbit or mink as a cover for killing another animal that is included in the Bill. Paragraph 1 seems to go much further towards doing so. Admittedly, it would be hard to imagine deer being included in that argument, but smaller mammals certainly are. The hon. Gentleman seeks to drive a coach and horses through the Bill with this and later amendments. For instance, amendment No. 49 converts a defence against such an offence into a permission. The amendments would result in a substantial recreation of the Bill.

Mr. Öpik: I cannot speculate about the motives of the hon. Member for Aylesbury, although I agree that some later amendments would contradict what the House has agreed. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme and others of us genuinely feel—even in the spirit of a ban on hunting with dogs—that some of the mammals listed in the amendments could justifiably be hunted with dogs if, for the reasons already stated, we allowed rodents to be hunted with dogs?

Mr. Pickthall: I can see that there might be justifiable reasons for hunting them, pursuing them or putting them down, but I do not agree that it would be justifiable to hunt them with dogs for pleasure or sport and not simply for the control of pests.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Is the hon. Gentleman saying that regardless of whether it is immoral, it is all right to control such pests as long as the people doing it do not enjoy themselves? That is what many of us suspect. It seems that opposition to hunting is not about animal welfare but about the motives of those doing it.

Mr. Pickthall: They may well enjoy the pest control aspect—who knows?—but that is not their primary purpose. Their purpose is to get rid of a pest. It is human nature to enjoy being a good shot, or to practise it and get better; the primary purpose of pursuing a mammal for the pleasure of killing it leads us to legislate. The purpose of the Bill is to prevent the unnecessary cruelty that takes place when destroying animals. If it is necessary to destroy pests, we do it. I hope that it is done in the most efficient and least cruel manner. The amendments would create anomalies that might render the Bill impossible to implement. I hope that my hon. Friends will resist them.

Mr. Garnier: I ask the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) whether she can help us. Yesterday, in exchanges with the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), there seemed to be some confusion about the status of Mr. Sirl of the League Against of Cruel Sports, who was described in the Western Daily Press as the west country operations executive. The hon. Member for West Ham suggested that simply because that league official was quoted in the newspaper and was described by the office that he holds did not necessarily represent the policy or views of the league itself. From 1983 to 1995, the hon. Member for Basildon was employed by the League Against Cruel Sports as its political and public relations officer.

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