Hunting Bill

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The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is always extremely entertaining, but we have had more than one discussion about what lurchers do naturally. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the subject of the amendment is rodent control.

Mr. Soames: I am sorry, Mr. O'Hara. I was doing it naturally. I am merely trying to show that bringing rabbits into the law is not as simple as it seems. It is clear that the Committee is swayed by what I said, and we will have to change rodent control in the schedule because rabbits are not rodents. I propose a fundamental change to the Bill, but that may be too much for the Government to follow.

Ferreting is an effective way to control rabbits, and many people do it. I do not know how many members of the Committee had the pleasure of reading an article in the excellent review section of The Sunday Telegraph last weekend about those who follow hunts on foot. They are people from every walk of life, who do not ride, and have no part in the field; they go hunting because they love it. At the end of a good day's hunting, they go ferreting. It was an interesting and fascinating article and I highly recommend it to hon. Members.

The Minister wants to take away from tens of thousands of people the ability to control vermin in the countryside, which they do legitimately, providing an excellent service in keeping the countryside clean. The hon. Member for West Ham got excited about cyanide-gassing by Railtrack contractors to eradicate rabbit populations, which often thrive alongside railway lines. Gassing is a horrible thing; I hate it and I have never done it as I can imagine how vile it must be, but it has to be done because of the damage that rabbits do to railway embankments—

Mr. Öpik: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There will be a clear and present danger to safety on the railways if work is not done to control rabbits. Rabbits are unequivocally a pest in the countryside and along the railways.

Mr. Soames: That is correct. It is not as if Railtrack does not have enough problems. Collapsing embankments from the damage done by rabbits is a serious matter. If they collapse, further inconvenience will be caused to the travelling public. None of us likes that. It has nothing to do with what my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said about Railtrack losing brownie points because it is gassing small Fudge look-alikes. Railtrack is gassing rabbits for reasons of proper order and safety. It has to do it.

Mr. Banks: I would have thought that there was far more danger to the travelling public through cracked rails and faulty junctions than through rabbits. However, that is another matter. Does the hon. Gentleman think that there is no alternative? We keep being told that, if the ban is passed and dogs cannot hunt rabbits, alternative methods will be used that are pretty unpleasant. However, I would not have thought that Railtrack was in a position to use dogs along the side of railways. Does he support the gassing of rabbits? He has said that he does not like it, so what are the alternatives to gassing rabbits along the railway embankment?

Mr. Soames: There are no alternatives. Railtrack has to use gas. It is essential for Railtrack to kill rabbits, which is so repugnant to the hon. Gentleman, in order to keep embankments in reasonable order. Rabbits inflict frightful damage.

Mr. Garnier: The rabbits are gassed to protect not only embankments from collapse, but Railtrack from being sued by owners of the farmland either side of the railway. I have had representations from farmers in Leicestershire who see their grain crops decimated by the activities of rabbits that are breeding within the embankments and then coming up to feed on the cornfields either side of the railways. Railtrack is in danger of having to pay huge sums in compensation for damage to crops. It is a question not just of the breakdown of the land, but of the degradation of crops themselves.

Mr. Soames: It is. That is the point. I ask the Minister to pay particular attention to the fact that failure to control pests, as in the case cited by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough, can lead to a notice being served by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under sections 98 and 99 of the Agriculture Act 1947. The notice served can require any person having the responsibility to do so to take, destroy or prevent the escape of certain species on his land—rabbits, hares, rats, mice, other rodents, deer, foxes, moles and non-protected birds. Failure to comply with the notice may result in the pest being destroyed by the Ministry at the occupier's expense.

The Committee will not pay any attention to any representations that are made by Opposition Members, however sensible, over the question of dealing with rabbits because of the Labour party's fundamental lack of understanding of anything to do with the issue. Labour Members simply do not get it.

I conclude by reading what Burns said about mink. Paragraph 43 of the report says:

    ``Mink can cause localised damage to poultry, gamebirds, fishing and wildlife interests.''

Paragraph 5.105 says:

    ``Mink can be very troublesome in the case of ground-nesting seabirds, especially in Scotland and on small islands. Their activities, including surplus killing, have been linked to almost complete breeding failure amongst some colonies of terns and gulls, including some rare species.''

Paragraph 5.106 says:

    ``Mink have been held to be responsible for a major decline in water vole numbers''

The National Gamekeepers Organisation represents professionals who are highly skilled in the job that they do, which is important not only to them, but to the people who employ them. They really know what they are doing. However, their opinions are swept aside as if they are worth nothing. The NGO said to the Burns inquiry:

    ``Many keepers have been unlucky enough to experience the wanton carnage that a single mink can do to penned gamebirds in one night. Kills of over 100 birds are not uncommon. Nor should we forget the unseen damage that mink also inflict on wild gamebirds and ducks.

    There is no doubt that mink have to be controlled. Until their spread got out of hand, UK Government policy was for eradication. Even today, eradication in the Hebrides is regarded as essential to wild life conservation. Gamekeepers regard mink on their patch as seriously as they regard foxes. They are universally trapped and shot. Dogs are often used by gamekeepers to hunt them or flush them from cover or from underground so that they can be shot.''

7 pm

It is not a sweet, charming, cuddly little person, but a remarkable killing machine. It is a phenomenal animal and does terrible damage. The Government should know that, if they do not accept the argument on rabbits, they will stand condemned of a total lack of understanding and appreciation of the realities, which are a long way from an overheated Committee Room in the Palace of Westminster in the heart of the British political village. It is totally divorced from the realities of the countryside and what goes on.

Mr. Öpik: I need to restate a few points because of the Government's apparent unwillingness to think about the exclusions.

We need to remember that the debate is about not whether these animals are killed, but how they are killed. Everyone seems to accept that they are pests, certainly in certain circumstances. Rabbit and mink are clearly in that category. We are not asking whether they should be dispatched or not, but what the most effective way to dispatch them is in paying regard to animal welfare.

Members will remember that Lord Burns was equivocal about hunting with dogs. More important, however, he did not say that controlling the species was necessarily more cruel than the alternatives. He suggested that, in areas such as upland Wales, killing a fox with dogs was perhaps acceptable as an effective means of control. If it is potentially acceptable to control the fox population with dogs, in principle, there is no reason to think that the same logic does not apply to killing a rabbit or mink in that way.

It is necessary to go back to the fundamental reason why we are all here: animal welfare. The question that one must answer in order to introduce the prohibition is whether, on the basis of the evidence that we have, the welfare of those animals would necessarily be improved as a result of a ban on hunting with dogs? Given that the Government themselves sponsored the Burns report—by and large, we have all agreed that it is quite an authoritative work—it is incumbent on the Minster to explain why he feels that rabbits and mink, which are in the same category as rats and other rodents, should have special status and be protected from being killed with dogs.

There is no point my repeating all the reasons why killing a rabbit or mink with dogs is no more cruel than the alternatives. We should listen to all the arguments and take into account the fact that rabbits and mink are smaller than foxes. As Burns thought that foxes might not be killed in an unreasonably cruel way with dogs, we might conclude that it was less cruel still to kill a rabbit or mink with a dog.

What is the rationale is for giving rabbits and mink a special status, which rodents do not enjoy? It seems to me that including rabbits and mink in another category, such as the rodent category, would not be what Deadline 2000 is trying to achieve, especially as the Minister and others accept that mink is a pernicious species on our riverbanks and that previous Governments sought to provide a cash incentive to reduce the rabbit population.

Mr. Maples: I completely agree with the hon. Member, but he has referred to two categories. One includes rats, which can be hunted and killed with dogs and the other includes mink and rabbits, which cannot. However, there is another distinction between mink and rabbits. Under paragraph 7, rabbits can be flushed out by a dog and then shot or have their necks wrung, but mink are protected even from that. So there are three distinctions. All these animals are pests, if not vermin, so what is the moral or practical justification for those distinctions?

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Prepared 13 February 2001