Hunting Bill

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Mr. Öpik: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. He has given us a completely accurate description of the present condition of the Bill.

Setting aside the wider arguments for consideration on Report and on Third Reading, I would suggest to the Minister that—perhaps as a result of the lack of depth in our exchanges—we have now created three categories specifically in respect of rabbits and mink. Perhaps, on reflection, the Minister might accept that rabbits, mink and rodents could reasonably be managed in the same way and that to do so would not necessarily compromise the spirit of the Bill. After all, the Bill was not intended to make it difficult to control those species, which are universally regarded as vermin.

Mr. Garnier: I will be as brief as possible. I begin by taking up the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex made in relation to the brief title of the paragraph. If the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury is to make complete sense, the words ``rodent control'' will have to be altered to ``rodent, mink and rabbit control'' or specify rodents and mink or rodents and rabbits. That is simply a matter of tidying up. The same difficulty arises in relation to the brief title of paragraph 9, which refers to the retrieval of game, but really applies to the retrieval of rabbits and hares. Under the Game Act 1831 rabbits are not designated as game. That is a short technical point, but if we are trying to get the Bill right, we might as well do the best we can.

As usual, my hon. Friend and Member for Mid-Sussex hugely amused us all, irrespective of our views on the subject. He also greatly informed us. It may be that the way in which he contributes to our debates allows us to learn a great deal more, not least because his manner and tone is not threatening or aggressive. As a consequence, even those who disagree with him on the matter of principle—that is, whether or not hunting should be banned—stop to listen and reach a different, if not greater, understanding of the issues involved.

In my opinion, this group of amendments exposes the huge misunderstandings that currently exist. I am sure that they are mainly unwitting and unintended, but if the Bill passes into law without the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, great damage will be caused to those who live and work in the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mis-Sussex referred to the Agriculture Act 1947, which allows MAFF to issue notices on farmers or landowners to deal with certain species of animals that become a pest. The NFU has a policy that is based on experience and real life in the country. It says:

    ``Farmers consider it imperative that the full range of methods currently available is maintained. We have concluded that any further reduction in the range of techniques available would seriously compromise farmers' ability to control agricultural pests effectively and would jeopardise effective management of farm holdings. To this end, the NFU will exercise constant vigilance in respect of proposals for changes in either domestic or EU law.''

The NFU cannot speak in Parliament, except through those of us on the Committee. I have no shame in standing up for the farmers in my constituency who wish to be able to manage rabbit populations that affect their crops. My part of Leicestershire is most noted for beef production and for fattening young beef calves, which are bought in Wales, the north-west of England and sometimes in Scotland, and brought down to feed on the rich grassland of the Welland valley. However, thanks to the common agricultural policy and all the grants and so on, farmers on marginal and grazing land have been encouraged to move to the production of wheat and other arable crops, and farmers in Leicestershire are now suffering from an increase in the rabbit population.

We have heard talk of Railtrack, and I do not wish to labour the point, because that would be tedious. However, as a co-opted Leicestershire Member of Parliament on the Leicestershire and Rutland Country Landowners Association committee, I have been invited more than once to draw to the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food the damage caused by rabbits that live in railway embankments to farm crops planted either side of railway lines.

I accept that a ban, under the Bill, on the use of dogs to hunt rabbits would not make it wholly impossible for riparian farmers to control the rabbit populations that infest their crops. We have heard discussion on the use of gas. Farmers can use rifles to shoot rabbits at night. We have heard that described as lamping: people go out, stand on the back of Land-rovers and turn on their headlights. When they see a rabbit ahead of them, they shoot it with a .22 or other rifle or even a shotgun. Of course, one shot with a shotgun and that is it for the rabbit. None the less, it seems wholly unreasonable to block off every means currently and normally available to control rabbit populations.

Mr. O'Brien: Is the hon. and learned Gentleman suggesting that we ought to encourage people to hunt rabbits with dogs near a railway line? That would be a reasonably dangerous suggestion.

Mr. Garnier: Of course it would be dangerous if a train were coming along, but the point is that rabbits not only sit on the embankment, but move up on to the farmer's land, where they eat his crops. For example, I believe that the main railway line from London to Glasgow passes through the Minister's constituency and a little to the west of mine. If he has the time and the opportunity, I suggest that he has a word with either the farmers in Warwickshire who have farms alongside that railway or their representatives. He will find that they are as concerned as the farmers in my part of Leicestershire, where there are other railway lines, about the depredations on their corn by rabbits. They need every available method to control them.

Of course, I am not suggesting that when the express to Glasgow comes along the railway line, either the hon. Gentleman or any other sensible person should go down on to the embankment and set his dogs along the railway embankment. That would be silly, and I do not honestly think that that is what he thought I meant. If the Bill becomes law in its present form, unamended by the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, farmers will be inhibited from walking along the top of the embankment inside their own fence on their own land, with their spaniels, terriers and a shotgun or rifle, to do their best to control the increasing population.

I do not want to indulge in too many personal reminiscences, because I do not want to destroy the magic of those of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, which we enjoyed. When I was a good deal younger in the late 1950s, I used to go out with the keeper on my grandfather's land to help him to control the rabbit population. It was only 15 years or less after the second world war. During the war, the rabbit population had been encouraged as a source of food, but it became so great after the war that the Government wanted it to be controlled, so myxomatosis was reintroduced into this country, as it had been originally introduced into Australia.

7.15 pm

Mr. Banks: The hon. and learned Gentleman once again puts his finger on an issue that I have reminded the Committee about from time to time. The problems that we have identified have probably all been created by human beings--largely farmers. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the rabbit population was encouraged because it was a useful source of food. It still is a useful source of food for humans and for other predators in the countryside. That is one change that has been brought about.As the hon. and learned Gentleman said, because of the common agricultural policy, farmers in his area have moved over from fattening up livestock to crop production, which has encouraged rabbits. Any change in the balance of nature is always caused by human intervention.

I am not unsympathetic to the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument, but we have been discussing the organised hunting of foxes and other species. Rabbits have never come into it.

Mr. Garnier: I have a lot more in common with the hon. Gentleman than he perhaps realises.

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): Now my hon. Friend is worried.

Mr. Garnier: That is a hugely intelligent remark. I think it may be the hon. Lady's first intervention, for which we are extremely grateful. It shows that she is alive.

To return to the sensible point that the hon. Gentleman made, he and I, and perhaps many others on this side of the hunting issue, have more to agree about than to disagree about, once we have set aside our differences on the wider principle of whether or not to allow hunting. Members who voted in favour of the Bill did so because they disapprove of hunting foxes and red deer in an organised fashion. Some of them did so for animal welfare reasons, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is one of those. Some of them did so for various reasons that were not thought out, because they had not applied their minds in an organised way. Some of them did so because somewhere in the back of their minds they thought that it just ought not to be allowed, and anyhow it is offensive that people with plummy voices should go around on top of horses in a grand way in funny clothes. Others may have had their own reasons.

During our consideration of the Bill, we have discovered that quite a number of people, both inside the House and outside, have not really thought about the issue. We have now had an opportunity to think about the detail of the Bill. Using our own experiences and those of people who are more knowledgeable than we are, we have applied rather more thought to the detailed issues that concern real life outside Committee Room 14.

We are now dealing with the little rabbit—we have done the Fudge joke. There is a world of difference between a child owning a pet rabbit in a garden in London or Nottingham, and a farmer seeing acres of his crops being ruined by infestations of rabbits.

When I was very young, I knew a wonderful old chap called Christmas Humphrys, who retired as a gamekeeper on my grandfather's land well before the second world war. He must have been about 80 at the time, as he was born in the late 1860s or early 1870s; he had a huge beard and wore a moleskin coat and hat, and he used to take me out with his gun and dogs to get a few rabbits for the pot. He taught me a lot about the balance of nature and the need to control rabbits in the country. But he did not have the scientific understanding about poison of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex, as, fearlessly and without bother, the old fellow would take with him a little tin of cyanide and a teaspoon on a piece of string, attached to a long stick. He would dip the spoon into the cyanide tin and tip it into the rabbit holes—

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