Column Number: 821
Standing Committee F
Thursday 6 February 2003
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
The Chairman: First, I must advise colleagues that there is an error in the marshalling of the amendments on the printed amendment paper. We will begin on page 427 with amendment No. 212 and continue to amendment No. 342 on page 430. Having arrived there—no doubt exhausted—we will then go back to the first page and deal with amendments Nos. 347, 295 and 351. Once we have done that, I shall put the Question on the schedule. Is that reasonably clear? [Interruption.] I shall repeat it.
We will begin on page 427 with amendment No. 212 and then go to amendment No. 342 on page 430.
Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): Amendment No. 342 has apparently not been selected.
The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman need not worry about that. My Dad told me ''Never worry. Get concerned.'' I think I am getting concerned. I am told that that is not a problem. We need to look at the amendment paper, not the selection list.
The Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life (Alun Michael): On which page is it, Mr. Stevenson?
The Chairman: We begin on page 427 with amendment No. 212. Then we shall make our way through the amendments to amendment No. 342 on page 430. Once we have reached that juncture, we shall go back to the first page and deal with amendments Nos. 347, 295 and 351. I knew I should not have done this.
Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. Just to clarify, will we take amendments Nos. 347, 295 and 351 together or individually?
The Chairman: We shall do it according to the Chairman's selection list.
Mr. Luff: There is confusion in my mind. You are talking in the same breath, Mr. Stevenson, about amendments that have already been debated and amendments that are due to be debated today. That is confusing.
The Chairman: Some amendments will have to be called formally.
I apologise to the Committee. I am assured—you can take my assurance that I am assured—and I hope that I can offer further assurance that I understand why I am assured and that everything is in order, subject to the amendments that I have announced.
Alun Michael: On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson. I tend to be a little slow at this time of the morning, so I hope that I have understood it correctly. Am I right in
Column Number: 822
thinking that the amendments and their order are correct on the selection list?
The Chairman: Yes.
Alun Michael: And we will find them in a slightly different order if we look at the list of marshalled amendments. If that is the case, I think that I understand the position.
The Chairman: That is the case. If I have over-complicated what I am advised is a simple matter, I apologise.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Further to that point of order, Mr. Stevenson. It would be helpful to the Committee if a new sheet were printed for this afternoon's sitting, so that we know where we are.
The Chairman: That may be helpful, but I am an eternal optimist. By this afternoon, I hope that we shall have jumped this particular hedge—[Hon. Members: ''Oh!''] If that is not too controversial. May I now, with the permission of the Committee, begin the proceedings? If hon. Members find other areas of confusion as we proceed, please do not hesitate to raise them.
Mr. Gray: I beg to move amendment No. 212, in
schedule 1, page 21, line 39, at end insert—
(1A) The hunting of mink is exempt if it takes place on land—
(a) which belongs to the hunter, or
(b) which he has been given permission to use for the purpose by the occupier or, in the case of unoccupied land, by a person to whom it belongs.'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 207, in
schedule 1, page 22, line 2, after 'rats', insert 'mink and stoats'.
Mr. Gray: May I say first, Mr. Stevenson, how nice it is to be back in Room 14, although it is a little on the warm side? I regret to hear that it will be necessary to go back to Room 11 later on today.
Tuesday felt like a long day's hunting. I was a bit tired out by the end of it. However, Mr. Stevenson, you say that we will be over the hedge by this afternoon. I think that we have unboxed and are on the way to the meet, but there are a lot of discussions about hunting ahead of us in this place and in the other place for many months and, I hope, years ahead; if I have my way and can possibly arrange that.
Amendment No. 212 would correct a strange omission from the Bill. There is no mention of, nor has there so far been any discussion about, mink hunting. The amendment would broaden the class of exempt hunting to include mink, and amendment No. 207 would exempt stoats. Stoats and weasels are classified as pests under the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 and should be included in the exemptions. It is bizarre that rats and rabbits are exempted, but not stoats and weasels. Gamekeepers use dogs to a significant extent to deal with stoats and weasels. I shall not deal much with stoats and weasels; I mention them in passing. I hope
Column Number: 823
that their inclusion under the exemptions will be attractive to the Government. The main purpose of amendment No. 212 is to discuss the important issue of mink and the way in which they can be kept under control.
The Bill could act as a significant disincentive for the control of mink, but the argument for their control or, even better, their eradication is extremely strong. The Burns inquiry recognised the need to control the mink population and the contribution that hunting with dogs could make to the process. At paragraph 43 on page 13 Lord Burns says:
''Mink can cause localised damage to poultry, gamebirds, fishing and wildlife interests.''
Fishing is particularly important, but so is some of our native wildlife, as mink have a bad effect on a number of native species. I shall come to that in a moment.
In paragraph 5.105 Lord Burns 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.''
Surplus killing is the killing for fun, which the mink takes part in; killing things that it does not want to eat or because it likes the killing. Surplus killing is also a common aspect of what foxes do. Lord Burns goes on in paragraph 5.106:
''Mink have been held to be responsible for a major decline in water vole numbers''.
We are concerned about water voles in particular. Lord Burns concludes by saying in paragraph 67:
''There is a lack of firm scientific evidence about the welfare implications of hunting mink.''
I shall return to the scientific evidence in a moment.
The National Gamekeepers Organisation is most important in this context. We are dealing not with sport but with pest control, which should cheer up the Government somewhat. Mink hunting is primarily a matter of pest control, albeit the pest controllers may enjoy their job while they do it. The National Gamekeepers Organisation, which will be most affected, stated:
''Mink are non-native to the UK and have spread practically countrywide since their accidental introduction in the late 1950's, aided since by deliberate and illegal release''
from mink farms. That is disgraceful.
''Many gamekeepers 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 wildlife conservation.''
I shall discuss later an interesting study that has been done in the Hebrides. I have some results from it for the benefit of the Committee.
''Gamekeepers regard mink on their patch as seriously as they regard foxes. They are universally trapped and shot. Dogs are often
Column Number: 824
used by gamekeepers to hunt them or to flush them from cover or from underground so they can be shot.''
That is the position of the National Gamekeepers Organisation. It is absolutely plain that gamekeepers would not be able to protect game birds and fish without seeking to eradicate mink and that the use of dogs is extremely important in doing that.
In his evidence to the Burns inquiry, Professor Macdonald stated:
''The water vole has declined by an estimated 88 per cent. of its total population between 1989/90 and 1998 . . . there is increasingly powerful evidence that predation by mink, in association with habitat degradation and fragmentation, is a causal factor in the vole's decline''.
The water vole has almost disappeared from Britain's waters, and strong evidence shows that to be a direct result of the activities of mink. The National Farmers Union says something similar.
There is no question in anyone's mind that mink are dreadful creatures and that it would be good to eradicate them. If they cannot be eradicated, they must be controlled. Therefore, the question is not whether we should control them but the means by which we do so.
As I mentioned earlier, Lord Burns said that there was insufficient scientific evidence on mink to come to a clear conclusion. However, since he produced his report, instructive scientific evidence has been produced that the Committee should consider carefully. Results are beginning to emerge from an experiment that has been carried out over several years in the Outer Hebrides.
According to the report, which is called ''The Mink Eradication Scottish Hebrides (MESH) Project'', it is most unlikely that American mink will ever be eradicated from Britain and Ireland, but it may be feasible to do so on the smaller islands. The principal aim of the project is to prevent mink from colonising North Uist. They are currently on the isles of Lewis and Harris. An attempt to use traps to stop them moving onto North Uist is failing.
MESH is Government-funded. It is a European Life project funded by LIFE-Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Central Science Laboratory. For those who do not know, the CSL is a UK Government Executive agency that provides a range of scientific services. It was founded and funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and is now part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The project is also funded by other organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Western Isles Enterprise and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar—I hope that Gaelic speakers will forgive me—which is the Scottish Gaelic wildlife organisation.
The MESH project has been doing very good work for seven or eight years, looking into the means by which mink can be controlled in the Outer Hebrides and, in particular, prevented from moving from Lewis and Harris down to North Uist and Benbecula. To date, in 35,450 trap nights—involving an awful lot of traps, spread all over the islands—124 mink have been caught. That is equivalent to one female mink
Column Number: 825
captured per 553 trap nights. That is wildly inadequate. It does not matter where the traps are put; the point is that mink cannot be found on rivers. If traps are put in one place, the mink will go round a different way and it is very hard to find out where they move. Foxes and badgers tend to move along the same track every night, so it is relatively easy to set a snare for them. It is extremely difficult, however, to set a trap for a mink.
MESH has therefore discovered the important use for dogs in determining where to put traps. The report says:
''Some of the trappers have been using their own dogs to help locate dens, and then set traps in the immediate vicinity. Early indications are that this approach has led to increased catch rates, and it is possible that using dogs to increase trapping efficiency may become part of the broader trapping strategy''.
In the modest approach used so far, dogs have been moderately helpful to scientists in working out where to put their traps. So far, so good.
Looking in more detail at the report, one sees that the Icelandic Government, who have been refining their mink control methodology for more than 30 years, have advised MESH. They probably have the greatest expertise on the globe in mink control. The Icelandic Government have concluded that they must rely on dogs as their primary weapon to locate mink prior to despatch by shotgun. In Iceland, 6,500 mink a year are culled, compared with 124 in the enormous number of traps set on North Uist, a similar sort of island to Iceland. Even so, full eradication is considered unfeasible in Iceland because of the widespread existence of mink farms and the size of the country.