Hunting Bill

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Mrs. Golding: Is my hon. Friend saying that below is under?

Jane Kennedy: I hope that I will have explained that question by the end of my comments. I hope that my later comments will help hon. Members.

Last but certainly not least, I turn to amendments Nos. 118 and 125, which relate to the rodent control exception in paragraph 8. They reflect previous discussions that we have had in Committee about the use of rats in cellars. As the Committee knows—although some members of the Committee do not acknowledge that—the Government have a responsibility, which they take seriously, to ensure that the Bill is workable and properly reflects the policy that the Committee has decided. As part of that responsibility I always consider carefully, as does my hon. Friend the Minister, questions raised in Committee and whether the drafting of the Bill reflects those points.

I have sought the views of parliamentary counsel on the question of the use of rats in cellars. Parliamentary counsel is of the view that a court could interpret the Bill as drafted in such a way as to prohibit the use of dogs to hunt for rodents in cellars. That is undesirable, and does not reflect the intention of the House, nor, I suspect, of the Committee, although that will be for the Committee to decide. Accordingly, we intend to amend the Bill to put beyond doubt that it should be lawful to hunt for rodents with dogs in cellars and other buildings below ground. We will introduce a Government amendment on Report. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Berwick-Upon-Tweed and others for raising the issue.

Mr. Beith: I am grateful for what is, I think, the first specific promise of an amendment to the Bill, and to the Government for examining the point and agreeing to amend the Bill accordingly.

Jane Kennedy: The right hon. Gentleman was absent when we accepted an amendment in Committee a few moments ago. However, I respectfully suggest to him that amendment No. 118 is technically deficient. I hope that, on the firm understanding that there will be a Government amendment on Report to achieve the same purpose, he may see fit not to press the amendment.

I am afraid that I am less sympathetic to amendment No. 125, which would allow rodent hunting in caves and potholes. The Committee may accept that there is a need for dogs to hunt rats for the purpose of pest control. It may also accept that a case cannot be made for prohibiting their use in cellars for that purpose. That is for the Committee to decide. In the minds of members of the Committee, there may be an exception to the issue of dogs going under ground that is not related to being below ground per se. Hon. Members may consider that there is a loss of control over a dog that goes down a hole or tunnel such as a fox earth that is inaccessible to the handler.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred to a letter from the Home Office to the Countryside Alliance. I will put that letter in context. It was written in response to a letter from the Countryside Alliance, in which it was suggested that, in the context of the schedule 1 option, certain statutory exceptions should apply to hunting rodents for the purposes of pest control. As pointed out in the Home Office letter—which was from officials, not Ministers—rats are not only a health hazard, but a pest. Accordingly, the suggested restriction was thought to be inappropriate.

The conditions relating to rodent hunting in the context of this schedule are entirely different. When the dog is under ground and inaccessible to the handler, the problem is that the handler does not know what is happening. There is a danger that the dog may encounter a mammal other than a rodent—such as a fox—with welfare implications for both mammal and dog.

Welfare considerations are at the heart of worries about the use of terriers. Terriers have a tendency, however well trained—and in my experience of terriers they would need an extremely good handler to train them in the manner that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire described—to dig deeper and get stuck. Clearly, that has welfare implications for the dog. Those difficulties do not arise when the dog is above ground, nor when dogs are sent into cellars, but clearly do so in caves and in potholes, which may be extremely confined spaces.

If the opportunity arises, members of the Committee will need to decide whether they wish to support those amendments, and the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire and for Aylesbury will have to decide whether they wish to press them to a Division.

Mr. Leigh: I listened carefully to the Parliamentary Secretary, and wanted to hear her points. In trying to make up my mind about such matters, I have often worried about terrier work and questioned its necessity. I strongly support hunting, but those who do so could have made the issue of terrier work a concession to those who oppose hunting. My feeling was that terrier work was a bit unsporting. While above ground, a fox that is pursued by hounds, which are helped by huntsmen, has a fair chance of getting away. To use terriers when a fox had gone to earth was, I believed, a bit unfair. Now, however, I feel that I was wrong to view the use of terriers simply in sporting terms. It should be considered in the context of practical pest control.

None of us—I believe—likes the idea of terrier work. Those who oppose hunting, no doubt acknowledge that although terrier work is traditional and many people support it, few would go to the stake over it. There is something unpleasant about sending a dog under ground after a wild animal. However, having had a chance to look at all the evidence that has been provided, I now believe that, sadly, it probably is necessary.

My central point is that, because of the will of the House, the Bill will—presumably—become law. Putting all other considerations aside, one must assume that the House has decided to ban organised hunts. What the House has not done, and obviously does not want to do, is to effect sensible pest control by sensible country people, such as gamekeepers and others, who are trying to control a very large fox population. When one reads all the submissions from people who use the countryside, not as a playground for their own sport but as a working place, the evidence is overwhelming.

For example, gamekeepers kill about 75,000 foxes a year in pest control. That is a lot. Hunts, on the other hand, account for 10,000 or 20,000 a year—I cannot remember which. Apparently, 46 per cent. of gamekeepers use terriers to control and kill those 75,000 foxes a year. That suggests that about 37,500 foxes are killed each year with the help of terriers to flush them out or to hold them at bay in their earths.

Presumably, gamekeepers will now have to find other ways of killing those foxes, and they will have to do so efficiently, humanely and quickly. If shooting is suggested, that will mean that another 37,500 bullets flying around the countryside and an enormous increase in woundings. I cannot believe that that would be good for either animal welfare or safety in the countryside. We must lay aside the view of hunting as a sport; we must accept that that will be abolished. The Committee must take a practical, almost hard-hearted, view of what occurs in the countryside, which is not pleasant. None of us likes the idea of 75,000 foxes being killed each year; none of us likes the idea of 37,500 of them being killed each year with the use of dogs, perhaps underground, but that is the practical reality.

Let us consider some of the evidence. The Central Committee of Fell Packs told the Burns inquiry:

    ``The use of terriers is essential. A fell Huntsman has 2 or 4 coupled terriers constantly with him. One is used at a time. The purpose is to find the fox, generally to encourage it to bolt (i.e. leave the hole or borran, or, at least, locate it so that it can be dug to. The terrier has a bleeper attached to a collar. A hand-held receiver enables the huntsman to pin-point the position and depth of the terrier.''

The National Working Terrier Federation said:

    ``The role of the terrier is to locate the quarry below ground and to bark at it continuously, either causing it to leave the earth, or alternatively to indicate where in the earth the quarry is located, in order that it can be dug to and dispatched. Terriers are also used to locate and flush quarry above ground and in dense cover.''

The National Gamekeepers Organisation tells us:

    ``Gamekeepers use terriers to locate and/or bolt foxes, and sometimes mink, from underground. Terriers are normally used in conjunction with nets, guns and/or other dogs. Terriers are the only legal''—

a point it underlines—

    ``means of dealing with foxes that have taken refuge underground. The Bill . . . would ban this. The ability to kill foxes at their underground earths is very important because, as in all wildlife culling, locating the animal is the initial difficulty. Moorland gamekeepers in particular rely on terrier work at earths because locating, let alone shooting or trapping, a fox on the open moor is extremely difficult.''

The National Farmers Union tells us:

    ``This restriction would seriously compromise effective fox control. Although the explanatory notes to the Bill suggest that a person would not be guilty of an offence `if his dog has other ideas and acts outside the scope of the exception', any value in the stalking and flushing out exception would be rendered useless by a fox going to ground.''

Those people are not sportsmen, the people whom those who want to ban hunting have primarily in their sights; they are gamekeepers, working farmers, and people working in difficult upland areas.

Terrier work is not particularly pleasant; we all read reports of fights underground, although Burns dealt with that point, and said at paragraph 6.51:

    ``there is no firm evidence about the frequency with which fights occur or the severity of injuries . . . terrier work is better regulated than it used to be and . . . some of the reports of fights and injuries pre-date those changes.''

Although we may not like the thought of pest control—it is not a particularly romantic activity—it is just something that unfortunately, in the real world in the country, must go on. If we are to reject the amendments, and because of our romantic distaste for terrier work to ban it, we must ask how essential pest control will be carried out. Most people are carrying it out not as a sport but as part of their working life.

6.30 pm

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Prepared 8 February 2001