Hunting Bill

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Mr. Lidington: I beg to move amendment No. 73, in page 21, line 12, after `rodents' insert `or mink'.

The Chairman: With this we may take amendment No. 74, in page 21, line 12, after `rodents' insert `or rabbits'.

Mr. Lidington: As members of the Committee will know, paragraph 8 provides the statutory defence to an offence under paragraph 1 that the conduct to which the charge relates consisted of hunting rodents. Amendments Nos. 73 and 74 would add mink and rabbits respectively to that exception. There are strong arguments for adding both species to the rodent control defence, but as the arguments are slightly different, I propose to treat them briefly in sequence.

I shall deal first with mink. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is the acknowledged expert on the Committee on this subject, so she may seek to catch your eye later, Mrs. Roe. Even hon. Members who have been ardent supporters of a prohibition on hunting with dogs have been willing to accept that the mink is a voracious and dangerous pest. There is ample evidence, from the Burns committee's conclusions and from the scientific and conservationist evidence presented to the inquiry, that the mink is a predator which has depleted stocks in this country of domestic fowl, raids farm and wild fish stocks, is responsible for depredations on poultry and has a damaging impact on indigenous fauna, especially in coastal areas. Attempts to control or eradicate mink in coastal areas or islands where they might prey on ground-nesting seabirds and waders would be more difficult, if not impossible, were the Bill to proceed without amendment to allow the use of dogs for the control of mink.

5.30 pm

To include mink in the defence in paragraph 8 would create a major exception to the general offence in paragraph 1. Organised hunting of that species alone, and of the gamekeeping activities to which I alluded earlier, would be permitted. It might be possible, if the Government were persuaded of the need to allow dogs to be used for mink control, to frame an amendment to ban organised mink hunting with packs but to allow the necessary use of dogs by gamekeepers and other conservators.

I am not wedded to the precise wording of the amendment, but there is a big gap in the schedule's arrangements for the effective control of mink. To allow such an exception, even for the organised hunting of mink with packs of hounds, would be justifiable on the grounds of the damage done by mink to livestock and wildlife. An amendment to paragraph 8 rather than to a previous part of the schedule would protect those who support a ban on hunting against the risk of undermining such principal support. If the amendment were accepted, the person concerned would have to comply with the conditions in paragraph 8, including the ban on the use of dogs below ground, and be able to show that the hunting took place

    ``entirely on land—

    (a) which the person doing the hunting, or

    (b) which he had been permitted to use for that purpose''.

Thus there would be a safeguard because mink hunting with dogs could take place only where those owning or handling the dogs had been specifically invited by the landowner who wanted to eradicate or at least to reduce the numbers of mink on his land.

Before I leave the subject of mink for that of rabbits, I want to respond to hon. Members who said that they were worried that, if mink hunting were allowed, it would harm the return to waterways of the otter, which is beginning to repopulate after its near extinction in much of England over the past few decades. The Burns report, page 209, states that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

    ``makes the otter a protected animal and thereby indirectly restricts mink hunting in areas of otter habitation and prohibits their further pursuit if they take temporary refuge in an otter holt''.

That Act restricts all forms of hunting with dogs where they may disturb protected animals.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): My hon. Friend should be aware that in the context of otter versus mink, the otter wins in spades. Any mink colonising an otter holt would do so only for a very limited time.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend has considerable knowledge of these matters; conservationists' submissions to the Burns inquiry showed that, where the otter was returning to English rivers, the mink population was in decline. However, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, coupled with the requirement that if mink hunting were to be legal for pest control it could take place only with the permission—in effect, the invitation—of the landowner, means that there would be sufficient legislative protection for otters, about which several hon. Members understandably expressed disquiet.

Amendment No. 74 would add rabbits to the statutory defence which in the Bill as drafted relates only to rodents. Why does the schedule distinguish between rodents and rabbits? When we talk about the use of dogs to hunt rodents we really mean rats. No one seriously thinks that farmers will use dogs deliberately to hunt mice, voles or squirrels—dogs have a limited use once a squirrel climbs a tree—although paragraph 8 may come in useful if the coypu population, which I hope has been exterminated in East Anglia, ever recovers.

Why are rabbits not included in the proposal? They do a tremendous amount of damage to arable crops and vegetables growing in open fields and immense harm to young saplings by ripping the bark from those infant trees. To any reasonable, rational farmer or landowner, rabbits are pests. Adding the word ``rabbits'' to paragraph 8 would not blow a great hole in the principles of the Bill or its intention, which, I say yet again, is to ban the organised hunting of wild mammals with dogs.

In an earlier debate, we heard about the organised pursuit of rats in a far-flung British territory overseas, but I am not aware of any organised rabbit packs in this country. I have yet to hear voices raised in anger against red-faced toffs in hard hats, and funny coloured coats, who pursue rabbits on horses behind packs of hounds in the English countryside on a Saturday afternoon.

We are talking about the right of a farmer or a gamekeeper, or a plantation owner, to control an animal species which is a real pest, and which can wreak real damage to the crops for which that man or woman is responsible. It is plain common sense that rabbits—which do as much damage as rats and are the same sort of size—should be included in a paragraph that provides an exception for pest control from the offences detailed in the schedule. The only justification for excluding rabbits is that, somehow, killing them with dogs is more cruel than other methods of control. Another argument, although I have never heard it put, is that animal welfare would be harmed if we allowed dogs to pursue and kill rabbits, in a way that it would not be if we allowed rabbits to pursue and kill rats, as is provided for in paragraph 8.

Mr. Soames: May I clarify something for my hon. Friend and for the Parliamentary Secretary, who I know will want to reply in detail to the points? No one hunts rabbits for fun. Rabbit is very poor sport; it disappears down its hole immediately. I hunted rabbits like anything when I was younger, and doing so simply does not work. They are sporting to shoot, but they are no fun to hunt, so no one is going to hunt them for fun. Rabbits are dealt with purely because they are a pest, and they must be controlled.

I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies she will be able to confirm for my hon. Friend that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is content with the proposed policy, because it will put at risk a cardinal act of British agricultural policy that has gone on for generations: the extermination of every living rabbit—if one can get hold of them.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. It will be interesting to hear whether the Parliamentary Secretary is able to provide the Committee with information on MAFF's views about this aspect of the Bill.

Mr. Leigh: If, as indeed it must be true, hunting rabbits is no more sport than hunting rats, why does Deadline 2000, to which we must be obedient, as it is our master in this Committee, believe that rats can be hunted with dogs but rabbits cannot? What is the justification behind that? Is it because rabbits are considered by Deadline 2000 to be more cuddly than rats? Is it not the truth that rabbits are a pest to a hard-headed farmer?

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is right to say that, for farmers, rabbits are pests. He is also right to draw attention to the irrationality of trying to make a distinction in the schedule between rats and rabbits. I have not heard any persuasive argument, in terms either of animal welfare or of good farming and gamekeeping practice, for applying separate legal arrangements to those two species.

Turning to other methods of rabbit control, many are shot, either by someone lamping, or after they have been flushed out by a dog, as would be possible in the specific circumstances provided for under paragraph 7. Rabbits are sometimes pursued down holes by ferrets, and that will remain lawful. Deadline 2000 presumably considers that sending a ferret down a hole after a rabbit does not involve cruelty as does sending a terrier.

Mr. Leigh: Why?

Mr. Lidington: I do not know.

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Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I am on slightly difficult ground on this question. I should declare an interest in that I have promised my step-daughter Pattie that her pet rabbit Fudge will not be covered by any concessions. I will therefore be talking about other rabbits.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the research commissioned by the RSPCA as part of the Burns report, based on work carried out by David Macdonald of Oxford university, on the potential contribution of foxes through their predation of rabbits? The final report appears to have overlooked that work. It concluded that there was a case for a plausible cost-benefit analysis which would reveal that killing foxes was counter-productive for farmers who were concerned about mammalian herbivores causing crop damage. It was estimated that, given that half of the fox diet is rabbit, each fox may prevent between £26 and £145 worth of damage a year overall, and that, due to growth of the rabbit population, that would have the knock-on effect of preventing damage worth between £49 and £608 per fox a year. In addition, a follow-up study by Roger Trout and colleagues, which was written up in the ``Journal of Zoology'', pointed out that the total saving to farmers may be in the region of £100 million a year. The concession that the hon. Gentleman seeks may occur in nature—if we allow it to take its course.

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