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Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I have three comments about the amendment and the speech of the noble Lord. I am not as optimistic about the continued rise in the raptor population because, as he pointed out, if the prey population falls--in many respects I believe that it is still falling--more will die of starvation.
However, I have some sympathy with him in regard to the matter of imprisonment. Most shoots are balanced and most keepers do not destroy protected species. If a keeper is under enormous pressure to wipe out everything that competes for the game birds, in order to secure his job he may well feel that he has to break the law. In that respect I believe it would be appropriate for the owner of a shoot to go to prison rather than his employee.
At the same time I have some sympathy. A good friend of mine and a man for whom I have a high regard is a distinguished pigeon fancier. Earlier this year I walked by his lofts with him and saw three piles of feathers close by. There was a sparrow hawk in a tree which stayed for some time and every time he let his birds out the sparrow hawk pounced. He said to me, "It is taking all my best birds and I would love to shoot it but it is protected". In any case, he is keen on conservation and he knew that the sparrow hawk was probably starving because there are few small birds left in his territory.
He did not shoot it. Fortunately a pair of magpies arrived and decided to occupy the tree and made the sparrow hawk's life miserable and it went away. Whether it will return this winter, if it has survived until now, I do not know. He is hoping that it does not, otherwise he will have no pigeons left.
I do not suggest that we should shoot all the sparrow hawks, but I would like to believe that someone will carry out some research, as the RSPB did with herons when people wanted to shoot them for emptying garden ponds. The herons had worked out various rope systems protecting ponds. It would be nice if someone could identify a humane trap in which to catch the surplus sparrow hawks before the pigeon fanciers of Britain become absolutely furious and decide that they will risk imprisonment for shooting the birds that are destroying their roosts.
Lord Monson: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, has put the argument so well and comprehensively and with such deep knowledge of the subject that there is little I can add. At this point I declare a potential interest in Parts II and III of the Bill, although I had absolutely no interest in Part I to which I occasionally spoke.
During the 1980s and to some extent during the early 1990s, the last Conservative administration were notorious for creating new offences for which individuals could be fined or sent to prison and for increasing the maximum penalties for existing offences. The way things are going, this new Labour Administration is rapidly following suit.
What is the justification for sending decent country people to prison for two years or even for two months for an honest mistake perhaps made in driving sleet or at dusk, especially when our prisons are full to bursting? Even if they are not full to bursting, the argument would still stand. I believe I know what the Minister will say. He will say that two years is a maximum penalty that courts will impose only in exceptional circumstances. Yes, but the reality is that
Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa. He probably knows more about wildlife and the countryside than anyone in the House or in the United Kingdom. What he said is true and his recent article in Country Illustrated, which covered some of what he said tonight, shows that he is on the right track. We must listen to science if the necessary changes are to be made, particularly in relation to raptors.
My title is "of Langholm"--unfortunately I have no financial interest in the Langholm moor--so naturally I know a great deal about it. It is in Scotland and in sight of England. One is bitter about the fact that a scientific report on the area has been ignored by SNH and the RSPB. What many years ago was the finest moor in Scotland now has no grouse of any significance. Little is being done, six keepers have been discharged and the economy of the area has seriously suffered. That I put firmly at the door of SNH and the RSPB. It is a disgrace that a scientific report has been ignored.
I was a constituency MP in Dumfries for many years and know of the pigeon racing from the south of England, up the Pennines to the Solway area. Owners were furious about the number of pigeons which were killed by raptors while flying up the Pennines. It is serious that so little has been done to find a fair balance. No one wants a complete attack on raptors but a fair balance must be struck in order that other wildlife, whether song birds, game birds or racing pigeons, have a fair opportunity.
My noble friend Lord Buxton was right to say that we should impose a severe penalty on anyone breaking the law in this regard and that we should seriously re-examine the issue. The fines exist but we appear not to be taking action as regards breaking the law on access. There appears to be no deterrent as regards such action, but here there is a massive deterrent of imprisonment, which I believe is going too far.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I support what has been said by my noble friend Lord Buxton and the noble Lord, Lord Monson. The difference between the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, and myself is that the sparrowhawk ate all the pigeons. As a result of their constant presence, my wife, who was trying to breed pigeons, gave up and took the remaining ones to London. She gave them to a friend in the hope that they might better survive in London than in Sussex because of the sparrowhawks.
Therefore I hope that what my noble friend said tonight will highlight the problem about raptors not only as regards imprisonment for those who shoot a sparrowhawk or a kestrel but in the wider sense--that the protection of one species of bird has gone too far at the expense of many others.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I regret that I must rise to speak against these amendments. I have a considerable degree of respect for the noble Lord, Lord Buxton, and everything that he has achieved in conservation on his wetland sites in Norfolk. I am saddened by some of the observations tonight. It is absolutely vital that this Bill contains a provision for custodial sentences. I describe a circumstance where only a custodial sentence will do. There is a roaring trade in exporting peregrine eggs and chicks from this country to the Middle East which can be sold for many thousands of pounds. The people who carry out those activities, which are crimes, regard a fine as simply a tax on their profits. Therefore, they are quite willing to pay those fines serially.
Lord Buxton of Alsa: My Lords, I apologise sincerely to the noble Baroness for intervening. I remind her that I have said twice that all of that is agreed. There is no question that it is a crime to make money from the sale of these birds. I refer only to people in the country who do a different job but who, unfortunately, may get into serious trouble. Heavy fines are available. However, they do not have to leave their wives and children in tiny cottages which are at the mercy of every kind of brigand.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, if the noble Lord allows me to continue he will hear that my thesis takes that into account. This amendment creates a loophole which allows some people--it is difficult to determine who they are--to avoid custodial sentences when they have deliberately committed crimes. I am sure that the noble Lord does not intend to signal what these amendments appear to say.
The amendments provide that an offence is not imprisonable if it is carried out in the course of lawful activity and is relevant to the pursuit of that activity. For example, if a game keeper or farmer shoots a bird of prey he will not be imprisoned, but if a bird dealer or taxidermist destroys such a bird he will be. That is a strange distinction. The shooting, poisoning and trapping of birds of prey does not happen by mistake in the course of normal game keeping or other countryside activities. It is almost uniquely a premeditated criminal activity, and a person who engages in it should not be treated differently from a person who steals eggs and birds to sell. The fact that
The noble Lord said that some populations of birds of prey had increased, which is true. However, some of our most magnificent birds of prey continue to be persecuted quite unnecessarily. Golden eagles are being shot. Those magnificent birds, which are comparatively few in number, should not be persecuted. In England we have only 20 pairs of hen harriers, which is hardly a rash of birds of prey on the landscape. The red kite reintroduction programme in this country costs approximately £15,000 per bird, but already over 60 of those birds have been illegally destroyed by shooting, trapping and poisoning, which is a disgrace. I believe that in today's society we should not regard the persecution and killing of these magnificent birds as anything other than a serious offence. To kill birds of prey is unnecessary and against the law, and I hope that the Minister will reject these amendments.
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