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Clause 1—(Protection Of Wild Birds, Their Nests And Eggs)

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 1, line 5, leave out from beginning to "any" and insert:

"If, save as permitted by or under this Act."

11.5 a.m.

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House if we discussed with this Amendment the following Amendment to line 11.

Before I give the reasons why I hope that the House will accept the Amendment, I take the opportunity to say that though the House may consider that there are a large number of Amendments on the Order Paper, 48 in all, I should encourage hon. Members by saying that 13 are consequential, three are only drafting Amendments and that none alters the principles of the Bill. While none of the points now raised have been discussed before in the House there is, nevertheless, only one new one of substance on which hon. Members may wish to express their views.

The Amendment which I am now moving deals with an important point which has been raised by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Hon. Members may have noticed that there was a letter in "The Times" on the subject towards the end of April and perhaps I should give in some detail the reasons why it is considered desirable that the Amendment should be agreed to. Section 3 of the Wild Birds Protection Act, 1880 makes it an offence, among other things, for a person to
"… have in his control or possession after the fifteenth day of March, any wild bird recently killed or taken …"
but it is a defence to prove that it was legally killed or taken.

The Act of 1880, apart from local orders, only protects wild birds between 1st March and 1st August, and even then only scheduled birds are protected against owners and occupiers. Thus, all birds could be legally taken at some times of the year, and most at all times. Consequently, apart from the words that I have quoted, it would not be possible to prove the offence unless the person was actually seen to be taking or killing a bird. Therefore, a provision placing upon the person concerned the burden of proof that it was legally taken or killed is dearly necessary.

Under the Bill, however, most birds will be protected at all times and, therefore, I thought that the need for such a provision was less evident in this case. That was why it was not included in the Bill when it was first drafted, but the R.S.P.C.A. says that the absence of the provision would seriously hamper enforcement. The Society has been responsible for the great majority of prosecutions under the Wild Birds Protection Act in England and Wales and most of the prosecutions have always been for the offence of being in control or possession of a wild bird recently killed or taken. The Society points out that even when all birds are protected at all times it will often be impossible to bring home to a person found in possession of a dead bird the offence of having killed it himself, and under the Bill there is no other offence for which a person in those circumstances could be prosecuted.

This also applies to people found with birds which had obviously recently been taken, in cages. In all these cases it will be obvious to hon. Members that an offence has been committed and it seems reasonable that a person found in possession of the bird should be made liable even though it is impossible to prove that he actually took or killed the bird. These Amendments will provide accordingly.

Question put, and agreed to.

Further Lords Amendment agreed to: In line 11, at end insert:

"or if any person has in his possession or control any wild bird recently killed or taken which is not shown to have been killed or taken otherwise than in contravention of this Act or any order made thereunder."

Lords Amendment: In line 16, after "Except" insert:

"in Scotland on Sundays and on Christmas Day or."

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

If convenient, we could discuss the following three Lords Amendments, in line 22, page 2, line 1 and line 8, with this Amendment.

The effect of these Amendments is to extend to Christmas Day the prohibition already in the Bill of killing or taking birds mentioned in the Second and Third Schedules and there is a consequential Amendment, to leave out line 24. At present, in Scotland, there is no prohibition against shooting on Christmas Day. For that reason it was thought at first that it would be perhaps wiser not to include the provision in the Bill. I have, however, given a great deal of thought to this matter and I do not think that these Amendments are open to objection for the following reasons.

First, I am not aware that it is the custom to shoot on Christmas Day in Scotland. After all, it is a religious festival just as the Sabbath is and, in regard to game, we can take guidance from Section 3 of the Game Act, 1831, by which the killing of game is prohibited on Christmas Day in England and Wales. Although that is not the case in Scotland, it is the generally recognised custom not to shoot game on Christmas Day North of the Border. As that is the recognised custom, I suggest that the same should apply to birds covered by this Bill.

The two following Amendments make it an offence to do on a Sunday or Christmas Day any of the things permitted under paragraphs (a) and (b) of subsection (4). The intention is to give nest and eggs further protection. Taking or destroying all wildfowl birds is prohibited by order in 28 Scottish counties and is only allowed in Berwick, Bute, Caithness, Roxburgh and Selkirk. I must confess that I did not know that, but it is very interesting to know that the law wisely prohibits taking and killing on a Sunday, a wild bird which it is prohibited to take or kill under Clause 2, except I believe that in Perth-shire a nest may be taken, although birds may not be killed. Therefore, there seems a good ground for conceding this additional degree of protection to eggs and nests.

Question put, and agreed to.

Further Lords Amendments agreed to: In line 22, after "Except," insert:

"in Scotland on Sundays and on Christmas Day or"

In page 2, line 1, at beginning insert:

"Except in Scotland on Sundays and on Christmas Day"

In line 8, at beginning insert:

"Except in Scotland on Sundays and on Christmas Day"

Lords Amendment: In line 21, at end. insert:

(c) by reason of the taking or destruction of an egg of a lapwing before the fifteenth day of April in any year."

I beg to move, "That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment."

Would it be convenient, Mr. Speaker, to consider this Amendment with the five Amendments to page 3, lines 23, 24, 28, 29 and 33?

I think that would be convenient, but the Amendment to line 23, to leave out "(i)", and the next three Amendments all appear to me to be merely printing matters which would be dealt with automatically by amendments made by the Clerks to the printers and no Motion is necessary in respect of them.

This Amendment is the only one of real substance that we have before us today. It is an interesting one and I look forward very much to hearing the views of hon. Members upon it. I have given a great deal of thought before deciding to ask the House to agree with the Amendment because this is a new departure.

11.15 a.m.

The Amendment makes it legal to take lapwings' eggs before 15th April and subsequent Amendments allow the eggs to be sold and imported up to that date. I considered whether the sale or import could be separated from the taking of eggs, but found that was virtually impossible because we would create a black market if we allowed the taking of eggs not for sale or import. It would not be fair to say in legislation that only people who owned private land could take plover's eggs while the general public could not have that advantage. The reason why the new departure is provided is that, as everyone will agree, lapwings have decreased all over the British Isles.

The question we have to answer is whether anything can be done to arrest their decline. In 1928, the Protection of Lapwings Act stopped the sale of lapwings' eggs and local orders stopped the taking of them in most of the country. Despite that, lapwings do not increase, they have seriously declined. It is a striking fact that since the passing of the 1928 Act their numbers have steadily decreased.

It is maintained that the cause and effect of that Act was as follows. The first clutch of eggs was laid towards the end of March at a time of bad weather and thin pasture and had little chance of hatching and being reared with success. But, if the eggs are taken up to 15th April, the peewits will lay again and a later brood has a far greater chance of hatching successfully and surviving, not only because of better weather conditions, but of longer pasture.

If the peewit hatches such eggs she will not lay another clutch, but. if her eggs are taken, she will certainly lay two, three, or more clutches. The taking of the early eggs is the practice in Holland although there the dates are a little later—up to 19th April—and the sale can go on until 21st April. After that date protection given to the eggs is rigidly enforced. The interesting fact is that there are far larger numbers of lapwings in Holland than in this country.

The idea behind the Amendment is interesting. When it was proposed in another place the statement was made on behalf of the Government that this should be an experimental trial only for five years. Later Amendments on the Order Paper to page 9, line 13, give the Secretary of State power to stop this practice after the first year, if it is suspected that harm and not good is the result of the first trial. I confess that when I first heard of the Amendment I was rather uneasy because it is a major departure from what has happened in the past. But we have to face the facts as they are. It seems to me that when we have the opportunity in this House on a Bill such as this to try to do something to see if it is possible in any way to increase the numbers of plover we should do so.

The present trend of decline of lapwings raises the fear that we may see the same situation in regard to them as to the passenger pigeons in America. I suspect that the major cause of the decline of the lapwing can be found in two important facts. Although the bird is protected in this country it is widely shot, for instance, in France.

In Holland thousands of lapwings can be seen all over the country from July onwards, and they are protected there as they are here—I am talking of the bird—not the egg. But many of these birds appear to be of Danish, Scandinavian, or Russian origin and, when hard frost comes, they fly to England and France and in France they are widely shot.

The other reason is because of the agricultural revolution. It takes about seven days to make a clutch and 24 days for incubation—or 28 if much disturbed. In former years there was a considerable amount of permanent pasture in Britain, but now with the rotation of crops and mechanisation these birds have little security in their breeding places. I know that at my own home in the North of Scotland there used to be thousands of lapwings at a time when one was allowed to take the eggs and when the green plover was allowed to be shot. The fact remains, however, that in parts of the world where the pasture has not been greatly disturbed there is still this extraordinary decline in the number of lapwings.

In such a case one cannot rely on scientific evidence to give the exact reasons for the decline. While one might say, logically that it is probably due to the agricultural revolution, on the other hand, in places such as Suffolk, where certain areas have not been disturbed, the lapwings are still declining. I think that there is a strong element of doubt, if we look at both sides of the argument. I suggest, therefore, that we should try the experiment of taking the eggs of the lapwing up to 15th April. This should be regarded as a definite experiment and there should be imposed the safeguards which I have described.

If the idea behind this important theory is right I believe that there will follow two results. First, where there is permanent pasture there will be a good chance that the plovers will return. Where there are intensive agricultural methods the plover will not return unless we do something else which I consider even more important than anything we have suggested today. I believe that the only lasting encouragement which can be given to lapwings to increase their breeding is to undertake in this country what is the practice in many parts of Holland.

There, they have a bird society whose members are most active. I believe that there are 75 branches of the society and 4,000 members, and they have managed to enlist the help of farmers. Members of the society go out into the fields which are due to be ploughed or sown and mark the nests of the plovers. Then they enlist the help of the farmers to ensure that these nests are spared. I believe that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds could render a fine service in this country if members were encouraged to do the same here.

It is an interesting fact that, despite all this protection, the lapwing is still declining in numbers in Holland, and it may well be that we are facing one of those phenomena of nature which no human being can control. I should like the House to agree to this Amendment because if we continue under present conditions the situation will worsen. I suggest that we can do three things. First, I hope we may be able to enlist the help of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in getting wherever possible voluntary agreement to spare the nests of the lapwing. We can also try this experiment, and encourage lapwings to lay a second clutch by taking the eggs of the first clutch, so that we may ensure better breeding conditions. Thirdly, we ought as a Government—I do not know whether the Joint Under-Secretary will be able to say anything about this today —to make representations to other countries such as France, regarding the conservation of the lapwing and its eggs.

This will be a very limited experiment, because in subsequent Amendments great safeguards are incorporated, and so I hope that the House will agree to it. I shall, of course, listen with great interest to any arguments which hon. Members may advance, but I think that when we are faced with a serious situation we should never be afraid to be bold.

It would be a hard decision for the House if it had to choose between the hon. Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) and the lapwing. I hope that we shall not have to make it. Her arguments have convinced me to some extent, particularly as this will be an experiment and she will impress upon the Government that if it shows any sign of failure the experiment shall be stopped. I hope also that what the hon. Lady has said about France and Holland will be noted and that it will be possible to make representations to societies in those countries—if not through the Government—to see if something can be done to encourage this very attractive bird.

The lapwing is a very attractive and unique bird. It has a flight unlike any other bird, and is of the greatest beauty. I am sure that if this bird were rare people would come far to see it. I am glad to say that in my part of the world there are still a good many of them. Whether their number is decreasing or increasing I do not know, but I am sure that the hon. Lady is right in saying that the fundamental difficulty arises because of the new methods of agriculture and the decline of permanent pasture and long grass. Exactly the same has happened in regard to the corncrake, which is cut up every year by the early reaping.

While it may be laudable to take the early clutch of eggs, I am doubtful if that is the only reason for allowing it to be done. The fact is that human beings like to eat the egg of the plover. I believe that among the greatest enemies of many nice birds are the big gulls and the grey crows. I hope that human beings may be persuaded to eat the eggs of the gull as a change from devouring the eggs of the lapwing. I am sure that if we could reduce the number of gulls in some places many other birds would be able to hatch out their young and rear them.

I am doubtful about this Amendment because I think that it may have the effect of confusing matters. There are many people in this country, who, surprising though it may be, are anxious to keep the law. But too often they are not certain what is the law, and, therefore, so far as possible Parliament should pass simple and straightforward laws. People will ask, "Is it legal to take the eggs of the lapwing? Can we buy them and eat them? "I do not think that many people will remember that it is legal to do so up to 15th April, but that on 16th April it becomes illegal.

I am afraid that people will continue to take the eggs beyond that date. If we could stop it on a particular date little harm might be done, but it will be extremely difficult, I think, to get people to do so. If it is so good a thing that they should take the eggs of this bird, surely we might take some positive step to get that done. Members of societies might be encouraged to go out and destroy the nests of the lapwing, and the eggs, up to 15th April. Is that really what we mean? Is the hon. Lady convinced that if she found that schoolchildren were being encouraged to destroy the nests of the lapwing up to 15th April that that would be a good thing?

I cannot believe that we should encourage small boys— which I think is the argument being advanced by the hon. Member—to go out and put their foot on every lapwing's nest they find. We are trying to ensure, not the destruction of the nest, but that the eggs of the first clutch should be taken. In any case, the lapwing will make another nest, which is not a very elaborate affair, and will lay another clutch of eggs. It has been proved over and over again that the maximum the lapwing can lay is up to five clutches.

Poor bird. I feel more and more for the lapwing. But if the noble Lady is right, this is a logical thing to do and we ought to encourage people to take the first clutch. Nevertheless I do not think the noble Lady would want to do that. This, I consider, is a dangerous Amendment and at the back of it is the desire of human being to eat the eggs of the lapwing. But the noble Lady has been so persuasive, that, as a backer of this Bill and therefore anxious to see it on the Statute Book as soon as possible, I think we should be well advised to take her advice and agree to accept this Amendment; so long as we insist that this is an experiment and that she will impress upon the Government that should it prove a failure a change should be made immediately.

11.30 a.m.

I am very sorry that the Amendment has been brought before us today, and if I were not so passionately anxious to see the Bill on the Statute Book I should ask the House not to agree to it. The arguments put forward so persuasively by the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) are open to grave doubt. One might also say that, coincident with the passing of the Act to which she referred, in 1928, there has been an increase in motor cars and because of the increase in motor car fumes and their deleterious effect the lapwing has decided not to lay eggs.

The plain fact is that modern agricultural methods have led to a decrease in the number of lapwing nests and there has obviously been a great decline in the number of breeding lapwings in the country. That has to some extent been the case in Holland. We ought to take note of what the Ministry of Agriculture says about the bird. In a leaflet which is widely issued to the farming community, the Ministry describes the lapwing as "the farmer's friend," and says:
"It is also of benefit to the sheep-rearer, as it eats water-snails that harbour the immature form of the liver-fluke."
The Bill was very carefully considered during four sittings of the Standing Committee, and this question did not then arise. I suggest that it is due to the obstinacy of one Member of another place that we have the Amendment before us today. When the Bill left this House I hoped that the inhabitants of another place would take heed of what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), that this House had given long, careful and sympathetic consideration to the Bill and that, after all, we are the elected representatives of the people.

However, this has made me more than ever convinced that we need single chamber government in this country, because there has been an inordinate waste of time and duplication of effort during the passage of the Bill. I have carefully read the whole of the OFFICIAL REPORT of the proceedings in another place, and I speak with some feeling on this subject. I hope that when the other place goes to yet another place its toes will never lose warmth.

I want to see the Bill on the Statute Book and, therefore, I do not propose to divide the House upon the Amendment.

I am very glad that the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) and Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman), though obviously not wholeheartedly in favour of the Amendment, are prepared to accept it so that the Bill may be passed. On Report we had no Divisions, and I very much hope that there will not be any today. I admire the attitude of those hon. Members.

What is being done to the green plover might be compared with what is sometimes done to human beings who suffer from long and wasting illnesses. The doctors decide that drastic operations are necessary, hoping by that means to cure their patients. The Amendment is doing something better than that. If a drastic operation is unsuccessful, the patient dies; but in this case if, after a period, the Home Secretary receives information that the operation is obviously not being successful, the treatment can cease.

I find myself in a dilemma. If we were sure that sufficient hon. Members were present, I think that some of us would divide the House. It is a most dangerous Amendment if the arguments which have been advanced prove not to represent the reasons for the decrease in the lapwing population. It will mean that, whatever the reason is, the decrease will continue, and, in addition, there will be destruction of eggs up to 15th April, which will mean an even greater decrease in the bird population.

Has the noble Lady the Member for Aberdeen, South (Lady Tweedsmuir) any information about the position of the lapwing between 1928 and 1938? I understand that the Act of 1928, which entirely safeguarded the lapwing, is said to be the cause of the decrease. Was there a decrease between 1928 and 1938? We can understand why there should have been a decrease after that time, because during the war a lot of permanent pasture was ploughed up and there was intensified use of mechanised methods of agriculture.

In addition, there has been a great increase in stock on permanent pasture. Our cattle and sheep populations are increasing, and, because of ley production, there is a greater concentration of stock upon the permanent pastures, and that means that more lapwing eggs and nests are destroyed by stock.

If we accept the Amendment, we shall be embarking upon a very dangerous procedure. I note that it is to apply for five years only and that information about what is happening is to be gathered each year. Who will be responsible for collecting the information about what is happening to the lapwing? Conditions vary greatly in different parts of the country. For instance, I am not aware that the lapwing hatches eggs before 15th April in East Lancashire. Indeed, last year I saw lapwing chicks there in July. I do not know whether the earlier nests were destroyed by stock, but I have certainly never found a lapwing nest there before 15th April. Therefore, this provision would not apply to East Lancashire.

I am rather afraid of the effects of this Amendment, and I have read very carefully the arguments used in another place. The noble Lord who spoke so strongly on this point made the statement that he did not know the difference between a snipe's egg and a lapwing's egg, and that makes me more uncertain than ever, because anyone who cannot tell the difference between the eggs of a snipe and a lapwing does not know very much about birds. I am afraid that we are in a very difficult position.

I am not at all happy about this Amendment, the effect of which has been likened to a serious surgical operation, about which I know something. I would remind the noble Lady that sometimes a serious surgical operation results, not in the cure of the disease, but in the death of the patient; and I am a little unhappy about the effect of this Bill on the fate of lapwings in this country, and whether this suggestion may not result in the increased destruction of these birds.

I have no doubt that the cure has been suggested in all good faith, but one cannot help remembering that some people who like to eat plovers' eggs will obviously benefit. Nature is very complex, and one cannot help remembering the story about the farmer who asked Darwin why his clover crop had failed. Darwin replied that they wanted more old maids in the village, and, when asked to explain that, he said that old maids kept cats, the cats ate field mice, field mice rifled the nests of the bumble bees, and the bumble bees fertilised the red clover.

I think that is typical of nature, and one could give numerous other examples. I have very serious doubts whether a simple thing like this—the destruction of these early eggs—will result in what is intended, and, of course, while one does not wish to endanger the fate of this very valuable Bill, I feel very much inclined to agree with those who express a wish to divide the House.

Several hon. Members, and in particular my noble Friend, have put the arguments on this matter fairly thoroughly. The only point I would make about what has been said already is that perhaps the noble Lady was unfortunate in saying that these birds were widely shot in France. I think she meant to say that they were too accurately shot in France.

This is a scientific question. The arguments have been put forward, and it is now open to any hon. Member to make up his mind as to which side is right. I cannot give any advice to the House. All I can say is that, as far as the Government are concerned, this is an open question. In another place, Lord Jowitt, who, at all events, is a good judge, was in favour of the Amendment. If the House sees fit to agree with the Amendment, I can say, on behalf of the Government, that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and also my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will regard this Amendment as being in the nature of an experiment, and that the Government will certainly keep the position carefully under review.

The proposal is that the experiment should continue for a period of five years, though such a period is not specifically mentioned in the Bill. The reason for that is that we want to leave it open to the Government, if need be, to bring in an order to put an end to these proposals earlier, if it is clear that they are having an adverse effect.

11.45 a.m.

Does that mean that, before the end of the five years, an application could be made to the Home Secretary if it was felt that the result of the experiment was harmful?

The machinery of Clause 13 would apply, and hon. Members will see what the procedure would be if it was thought necessary to bring the experiment to an end earlier.

As was said by my noble Friend in another place, the Government contemplate, if it is decided that this experiment should be made, that it ought to last for some such period as five years. If successful, no doubt it will continue, but we shall keep the position under review, and, if it is quite clear that the experiment is producing disastrous results, it will be open to the Government to take action earlier.

I was rather shocked by the last sentence of the speech of the Joint Under-Secretary. Let us assume that the result of the experiment is not disastrous, but adverse. What then will be the attitude of the Government? This matter is cumulative year after year, and, if we compare one year with the year before, it may show an adverse result of this legislation, though it might take several years before cumulative adverse results could be properly described as disastrous.

I regret very much that my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) is not going to divide the House on this question, because I think there is a strong feeling that we ought not to give way to another place. I am also rather discouraged by the attitude of the noble Lady, but I would not say much about that, because I did not hear the whole of her speech. I have heard enough since, however, to convince me that the sense of the House is against the Amendment, and it is a great pity that this Amendment is going to be made, because none of us want to kill the Bill by calling a Division with the number of hon. Members likely at present to come into the Chamber if a Division is called.

The noble Lady has no right of reply, except by leave of the House. If the leave of the House is given, she may do so, but there is no automatic right of reply.

May I ask for the leave of the House to reply to the points raised? I am much obliged. I was asked a specific question by the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon), and, as hon. Members seemed rather disturbed about accepting this Amendment, perhaps I should say a few words in reply.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether, between 1928 and 1938, there was any evidence of any decrease in lapwings' eggs. That is exactly the point. From 1928, lapwings did begin to decrease, and there is the difficulty. There is. of course, in all these matters, a very great element of doubt as to the real cause, and it is because we are faced with the fact that the lapwing is continuing to decline that I put it to the House that we should try to encourage the lapwing in this country. I did not only suggest that we should accept this Amendment. I also put forward a view which, since the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) may not have heard it, because he said he was not here during part of my speech, I may be allowed to repeat to him.

There are three things we could do. The first is to ask the bird societies to try to enlist the help of farmers in marking the nests of lapwings. The second is that the Government should make representations through the international committee to countries such as France not to allow the killing of a lapwing. The third is to proceed with this limited experiment, which is without doubt a very interesting idea.

We are not in danger of exterminating the lapwing by trying this experiment. The Secretary of State will have power to end the experiment after the first year. If necessary, he will ask for evidence to be collected and put before the various bird societies. There will also be a statutory advisory committee on which the bird societies will be represented. The Secretary of State will consult the advisory committee before he makes an Order, and the advisory committee will always be there to give him any information at all times.

I have not accepted the Amendment lightly but have given a great deal of thought to it. Although my noble relative was in charge of the Bill in another place, I am quite prepared, if necessary, to disagree with him. The main point to remember is that there is an increasing decline in the number of lapwings, and that no harm can be done by the experiment because of the safeguards that are written into the Bill. If we undertake this experiment, together with the other suggestions which I have made, it will show that this House is prepared to experiment. I hope that the House will agree to accept the Amendment, which would be of great value to the country. It will show that, while there are disagreements on it, the Bill is considered generally to be a useful and necessary Measure.

Question put, and agreed to.

Further Lords Amendment agreed to: Leave out line 24.