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Second Schedule—(Wild Birds Which May Be Killed Or Taken At Any Time By Authorised Persons)

Volume 527: debated on Friday 21 May 1954

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Lords Amendment: In page 15, line 13, column 1, after "Jay" insert "Little Owl."

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

As some of us feared when the Bill was before the House and before it went to another place, the little owl has now got back on to the condemned list. This is rather a pity. I have read carefully what was said in another place and, as any of us who studied equally carefully what was said upstairs and in our House knows, not a single jot or tittle of evidence that this bird is as dangerous as it is said to be has been produced. All the evidence written in the reports of at least a half a dozen European countries and of America, and from our own British Trust for Ornithology, is that, on balance, the little owl does considerably more good than harm.

It seems to me a pity that the return of the little owl to the condemned list is based simply on prejudice. None of those who wanted the bird put back in that list has produced any positive evidence that it does harm. I must express sincere regret that on such flimsy ground the little owl has been added to the condemned list, and I hope that other hon. Members will support me.

The hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Major Beamish), whose absence we all regret and whose interest in the Bill everybody knows, was against the little owl when we came to it. He then examined all the evidence on its behalf, and the classic statement in defence of the little owl is the speech by the hon. and gallant Member himself in Committee.

We spent a lot of time on the Schedules; we did not do our work idly, and I hope that one by one, particularly with the list in the Schedule, we shall urge the noble Lady, now that the main work of the morning is over, to dig her heels in and to resist the noble Lords in what they propose.

I support What my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. King) has just said and also what was said by the hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. F. M. Bennett). We gave a lot of consideration to the little owl in Committee, and I am inclined to think, as I said earlier about another bird, that there is a good deal of prejudice in regard to it.

The little owl was introduced into this country some years ago and then it developed habits which were unusual. But there seems to be no doubt, from tests which have been carried out, that it is not the harmful bird that it was thought to be. I do not want to repeat all that other hon. Members have said, but if I quote from a leaflet issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in December, 1951, perhaps that is all I need to say. The leaflet says:
"Its food consists of rodents, small birds, worms, insects, frogs, etc. It hunts by day as well as by night."
At the end it says:
"At the present time the little owl must be regarded as a useful bird and, like all other British owls, well worthy of protection."

I know that the little owl has always excited controversy as to whether it does more good than harm, but I should be doubtful whether it is really proved that on the whole it does less harm. I should have thought it was in very appropriate company in the Second Schedule. We must also allow that these Schedules cannot be so logical that they will satisfy us all.

In Part I of the First Schedule we have just inserted the peregrine, which, I should have thought, did a great deal more harm than the little owl. We have given it the maximum protection, and we are putting—

Does the hon. Member not agree that there are comparatively few peregrines in this country?

There are comparatively few. It would be a pity if there were as many peregrines as little owls. By and large, I should have thought that the little owl would be quite happy where it is proposed to put it.

The position seems to have arisen that one often encounters with inquiries. On the one hand, there is the evidence of the expert witness, and on the other hand, the evidence of the ordinary man in the street of what he see and hears. The expert witness—the British Trust for Ornithology—can produce a long and well-documented piece of evidence, but if we were to talk to any working man or farmer in the country we would get a completely different story. I am inclined to support the man who describes what he has seen and experienced himself.

There is no doubt that the little owls are increasing very much in number, as, I think, all expert witnesses would agree. It is not one of our native birds. It was introduced into this country, and perhaps I feel a little differently about it for that reason.

The Bill is for the protection of birds, and I suggest that it is not only for the protection of birds against human beings. Birds have lots of other enemies also, and the little owl is one of them. Out of consideration for the other birds we should, therefore, support the Amendment, which will allow some control throughout the year over the numbers of the little owl.

I hope that the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) will not feel obliged on this occasion to carry out the obligation she entered into with a particular Lord to obey, and that we may have proof today that, after all, inside a marriage there are still two individuals.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman). I think it is proved that this bird is not a criminal; he is eccentric. I should have thought that that would have appealed to another place, and I believe that that is the most flattering thing that I have ever said about the other place.

1.0 p.m.

As I told the House on the Report stage, I once had to sit in the chair at a county council meeting while the debate ranged over an hour into the character of this bird. While I feel that probably the right verdict might have been "Not guilty but do not do it again," I came to the conclusion that what was read out by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) from the Ministry of Agriculture leaflet probably represents a true picture of the bird's character. I should have thought that on the whole he does not deserve to be put in the rogues' gallery. I do not feel quite as strongly about him as I do about the moorhen which is mentioned in the next Amendment, but I feel that he is a nice looking bird.

After all, all questions of beauty are matters of opinion and taste and I give my opinion. He has a very impudent air which I like to see encouraged in the country where feudalism is still too often rampant. I hope that the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South will feel that she can advise us to resist the Amendment. If she does not, we ought to take our own course.

I want to say a few words in favour of the little owl. I know that his claws are very sharp, because they went into my hand once when I put it in a hollow tree. I had great difficulty in withdrawing my hand and the scars are on it still. Nevertheless, I am very fond of this little bird. Its queer character interests me and I believe much more the report of the Ministry of Agriculture than the opinion of certain gamekeepers who are very keen on killing everything they see, whether it is of value or not.

I hope that we shall not allow the little owl to appear in this list of criminals. It has led to a good deal of good in the country and I do not believe that it is increasing rapidly, at any rate in some parts of the country. In the Chilterns we see the little owl comparatively rarely, although it may be increasing in abundance in some parts. In saying these words in favour of the little owl I hope that we shall show our independence in this matter by disagreeing, on one occasion at any rate, with Members of another place.

Needless to say, I am in great difficulty over this matter. The debate has gone as I expected it in this House, whereas in another place it was equally strongly in favour of putting the little owl back into the Second Schedule. Therefore, I am in the position, as promoter of the Bill, of having to try to make up my mind, since there is an evident dispute between the two Houses, what is the correct thing to do in examining the case of the little owl on its merits.

I am in a particular difficulty because, as hon. Members know, the little owl was in the Second Schedule to the Bill as presented to the House, and it was owing to a speech made by the seconder of my Bill, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Major Beamish), who quoted the British Trust for Ornithology, that it was moved out. Therefore, I feel an added responsibility to him because he is not present.

I should like to put three considerations before hon. Members. The point has been made that from a scientific examination of the little owl's stomach contents it cannot be found that it does have animal contents. I have made researches since the Committee stage to find out whether this is the case. I found that it is true, but I was interested to find that it is true for quite different reasons from those which I originally accepted. Toe habit of the little owl—and this is why it is always so constantly in dispute— is to take the young fledglings and kill them, leave them and go away for an appropriate time, and then return to eat the grubs which by that time have eaten the carcases of the fledglings. In the course of carrying out what he considers to be a quite innocent pursuit the little owl is in fact causing a great deal of depredation among his colleagues in the bird world.

As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) said, we must remember that birds do not always suffer from the cruelty of human beings but suffer far more from the cruelty of their own kind. In addition, there is the most important point of all that the little owl is without doubt increasing by leaps and bounds. That is the main fact that we have to consider. It has been shown that he is well able to look after himself and when we put a bird in the Second Schedule we are not suggesting that the bird should be indiscriminately slaughtered.

The birds cannot be killed or taken except by authorised people and that gives them more protection than is given as the law now stands. I submit to the House, therefore, that we should leave the bird where it originally was in the Bill as I presented it to the House—in the Second Schedule.

Was it originally in the Second Schedule in the Bill as introduced in another place?

It was not in the Second Schedule in the Bill as introduced in another place, but I submit that that does not affect the Bill which we are considering now. I have to take the responsibility as the promoter of this Bill and therefore, for three reasons which I give to the House, I submit that we should agree to the Amendment. Firstly, as promoter of the Bill, I put the bird in the Second Schedule because, and as has been shown by the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), I knew that if there is one bird that causes controversy in local councils it is the little owl. Secondly, I recommend the House to agree to the Amendment because of the harm that the little owl does inadvertently when it kills fledglings in order to eat the grubs which feed on the fledglings, and thirdly because the bird is increasing by leaps and bounds. I feel that it would be wise to leave it to authorised persons to keep it within limits if they can.

This is a difficult question on which clearly there is a very sharp division indeed within the House. If one were to take a cross-section of opinion in the House one would find that there are parts of the country where the view is held that the little owl is an enemy and other parts where that view is not held. It would be very unfortunate if the House were to be divided on this Question.

It need not be on any Question, but it seems fairly clear that hon. Members on each side of the House feel sufficiently strongly to take the matter to a Division. I understood that to be the effect of what the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) said and I think that it would be unfortunate, for various reasons.

There is a consideration which I think it right to put before the House. In fact, the little owl will normally meet those who are its enemies in places where there are not many people to see it. Not only gamekeepers are concerned here; the farming community as a whole certainly entertains the view, very strongly indeed, that the little owl is an enemy.

I think it right to say that whatever is provided for in an Act, if it does not reflect the general opinion of those concerned, there will be a tendency for the Act to be ignored, with all the evil consequences which follow.

I suggest to my noble Friend that the best way to deal with this matter would be to leave the Bill as it was without this Amendment, in other words, to disagree with the Lords. But I also wish to make it absolutely plain that if we took that course there are parts of the country where it would be necessary to make local orders to put the birds into the Second Schedule.

I do not mean it offensively, but I want to make that clear to those who have disagreed with the Amendment on rather sentimental grounds. It would be essential to do that over large areas, principally in the South. If that commends itself, as I hope it will, to both sides of the House it may be that the best action would be to disagree with the Lords on the clear understanding that orders would be made to the effect I have suggested.

May I speak again by leave of the House? I have made my position quite clear. I very much welcome what the Joint Under-Secretary said and, if I can have a definite assurance that it is possible to do this by order, 1 hope he will make quite certain to ensure that the little owl is included in the Second Schedule in respect of those areas where it is shown to be particularly harmful. I would be quite content to abide by what I think is the majority feeling in this House at present.

Question put, and negatived.

Lords Amendment: In page 15, line 14, column, 1, after "Magpie," insert "Moorhen."

1.15 p.m.

The noble Lady having gone some of the way with us in regard to the little owl, I hope that we shall not have a struggle over the far more worthy case of the moorhen. Towards the end of her remarks about the little owl, in justifying that it should go into the Second Schedule, she said that it was not such a bad Schedule to be in, anyway. If that is so, it should apply to a wide range of birds. I do not think that many could deny that the moorhen does not really rank with the carrion crow or the magpie as a definitely harmful bird.

If it were said that the moorhen should be included because it sometimes eats certain crops, we should put blackbirds and thrushes into the Second Schedule because they certainly do more harm to fruit in orchards than the moorhen does to any crops. But none of us would suggest putting the blackbird or the thrush into that Schedule. The only other argument I can recollect to remove protection from the moorhen was that an hon. Friend pointed out that it ate the food of other birds because it got there rather more quickly. That shows a little more initiative and enterprise which I thought that at least those on these benches were keen upon—and seems anyway a singularly poor reason for condemning it to death under this Schedule.

As I say, I cannot recollect any other reason advanced except that it is what is called a coarse feeder and because of that might drive away aristocratic members of the duck family. I do not think that is a very valid argument because the moorhen is an ordinary little bird, seen mostly on farm ponds and streams and does not do very much harm to other birds by reason of its coarse feeding habits.

I should think it could be amply controlled if it could be shot all the year round except during the breeding season. Surely there is no suggestion that it cannot be kept under control by shooting or other means of destruction during the greater part of the year. That applies already if the contention is that in a particular area it is necessary to get rid of moorhens. All we are asking is that it should not be included as a complete criminal which could be killed at any time of the year. I appeal to the noble Lady to make this, only the second, concession and deal with the moorhen in the same way as the little owl.

Mr. Speaker ruled that all these Amendments should be read over. The noble Lady was to move their acceptance, and I was to second them. Then they were to be called out as we came to them.

I have not, in fact, yet moved a Motion. I wondered if it was possible to hear the discussion and move a Motion at the end of it.

We cannot talk about something when there is no Motion before the House.

Your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, did say that these Amendments would be read over one by one and hon. Members would speak on them as they were read out. They could be formally moved afterwards. I think I am correct in saying that that is what Mr. Speaker said. That is why I rose to speak on this Amendment, as we have done that on earlier Amendments.

I was under the impression that Mr. Speaker indicated that most of these Amendments would perhaps go through without debate and it would be enough if the Clerk at the Table formally read the page and line number so that we knew with which Amendment we were dealing. If there was no opposition the Amendment would be agreed to on a mere formal moving by the noble Lady, but where there was opposition obviously the Motion must be moved by someone. Most of us have looked to the noble Lady to move the Motion in the formal way and the hon. and gallant Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) to second formally.

Thank you very much. Therefore, as there seems to be some objection, perhaps the noble Lady will move to agree with the Lords.

The difficulty in which I find myself at this stage of our discussions is that I have to move a Motion one way or the other before hearing the arguments advanced by hon. Members. Because of the earlier discussion, I beg to move, "That this House doth disagree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

While I do not intend to press the matter to a Division, I think it should be emphasised that this Amendment from another place was inserted only after consideration by certain noble Lords. I do not think I should be out of order in mentioning their names; there was Lord Hurcomb and Lord Temple-more. They know a great deal about birds and they agreed that this Amendment should be made. I feel that the reasons which led them to take that view—because of the real objection which exists against the moorhen—should be developed shortly.

I believe the moorhen to be an antisocial bird. [Laughter.] I am not trying to be funny. We have been discussing birds as creatures for which we have to do our best. Moorhens worry other waterfowl, and keep them moving round. Very often the moorhen will drive other waterfowl away completely. Moorhens have been known to kill young ducks. A very good case about that was made out in another place. This Bill is designed to protect birds not only from men, but from each other. The moorhen does a great amount of harm to fish and fish spawn, and, therefore, to fishing interests. Its numbers are increasing and it can do a lot of damage to corn and other crops around the area where it lives.

There has been some talk about a "rogues' gallery." I do not look upon the Second Schedule as a rogues' gallery or as a list of birds which should be totally destroyed. I should be sorry to see the last rook destroyed. I look upon it as a schedule of birds which should be considered as being under probation, birds which are tolerated so long as they do not do too much harm. But if they exceed their licence they are liable to immediate control, without the necessity of writing to the Home Office for permission, which may be granted three months later.

I consider that the moorhen should be included in the category of birds which are tolerated, despite the fact that it does a considerable amount of harm, not only to human interests but to its fellow birds. It should be put in a position where its eggs may be taken—in any case, they are good to eat—instead of protecting the eggs throughout the year and giving permission to shoot the birds only in the winter.

I wish to congratulate the noble Lady on the course she has taken over this Amendment. In spite of what has been said by the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) I consider that this bird is a great favourite with large numbers of children. The hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead wishes to put it on probation. The trouble is that I for one do not know how we can convey to the moorhen the terms of the probation order which the hon. and gallant Gentleman proposes to make.

I am reminded of the story of the lady who went to buy a drinking dish for her dog. The salesman apologised because he had not a dish with the word "dog" upon it. The lady said, "That does not matter, the dog cannot read and my husband does not drink water." I stand by everything I said on the last occasion. I know from practical experience that children watch the moorhen with great pleasure and derive delight from its manœuvres. It is one of the birds that town-dwelling children in particular are delighted to see in its natural habitat. It is an attraction towards nature study and we should not pass lightly over those considerations.

The hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead says that the moorhen eats fish and fish spawn; but after all, if the hon. and gallant Gentleman had to follow the same mode of life as the moorhen, he might eat a great deal more fish than he does now. We must not blame the bird because it eats its natural food.

The rescue of this bird would appear to be occurring almost at the eleventh hour of our discussions and it seems a pity that all our efforts should be jeopardised by what has happened in another place. We should remind ourselves that for some of us the putting of a bird of any kind into any of the prescribed lists means that we are indicting the bird because it is a killer. No one can argue that the moorhen is a killer, although I understand that a noble Lord in another place had a very distressing experience with an old moorhen and some young birds which he prized.

We must guard against putting a bird on the list because we regard it as a nuisance. During the brief debate on the moorhen in another place—which consisted mostly of dogmatic statements from judicial gentlemen—we were told that the purpose was to include on this list birds which were a nuisance or which might be a nuisance. That is a new crime which some people wish to introduce. They argue that a bird should be included not because it has done something, but because it might do something, and that is contrary to all the cannons of British law. I hope we shall dig in our heels over this matter and I am delighted that the noble Lady has moved that we disagree with the Lords' Amendment.

1.30 p.m.

I, too, should like to thank the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) for standing up against another place on behalf of the moorhen. I am sure she is right to rescue it. I suspect that the Members of another place were looking forward to orgies of plovers' eggs and moorhens.

We all have a great many moorhens among our constituents, and, as the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) said, our human constituents very much enjoy watching them. The moorhen has everything to commend it. It is of unquestionable British parentage, which ought to commend it to the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke). It is mildly eccentric and very democratic, which commends it to the right hon. Member for South Shields. Also, it will not bite anyone, not even the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Hastings). I do not think that there is any objection to the bird.

Nor do I think it can possibly be argued that in this Bill we are protecting birds from one another. In Part I of the First Schedule we include the goshawk, the hen-harrier, all eagles and the marsh-harrier. I doubt whether, at the next annual general meeting of the birds in his constituency, the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead will be thanked for obtaining total protection for these birds.

However, there may be parts of the country in which the moorhen becomes too prolific. If it does, no doubt the same step can be taken as is proposed in the case of the little owl, and an order made which will allow the killing of the moorhen at all times of the year. I should regret that, but I personally should also regret the killing of the goosander and the red-breasted merganser at all times of the year, though they are included in the Second Schedule.

I also thank the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) for the attitude which she has adopted towards the Amendment. The proposal was put forward with feeling by hon. Members from both sides of the House during the Report stage. We assure the noble Lady that if she gets any trouble from a Member of another place, she will have the whole House behind her.

Question put, and agreed to.