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Coypus (Keeping) Order 1977

Volume 387: debated on Thursday 1 December 1977

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4.41 p.m.

rose to move, That the Coypus (Keeping) Order 1977, laid before the House on 3rd November, be approved. The noble Lord said: I should also like, if I may with your Lordships' permission, to speak to the Mink (Keeping) Order 1977 which follows in the Order Paper under my name which was laid before the House on the 3rd November, and move this formally at the end of the discussion.

My Lords, the orders before your Lordships' House tonight are made under the Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932, a measure originally enacted to cope with the musk rat but which provided powers for the agricultural Ministers to use against any species of non-indigenous mammal with destructive habits. These orders renew for a further five years powers expiring on 31st December this year to prohibit the keeping of mink and coypu in Great Britain except under a licence granted by the relevant agricultural Department. These powers were first taken in 1962 and were renewed in 1967 and 1972. The orders also apply to mink and coypus certain provisions of the Destructive Imported Animals Act apart from the requirement to obtain a keeping licence. For example, occupiers of land must give notice of mink and coypu known to be at large and departmental officials may enter and inspect land and may destroy mink or coypu found thereon.

Furthermore, it is an offence under the orders to turn loose any mink or coypu or wilfully to allow it to escape. The objective of the licensing requirement is to prevent escape into the wild from premises where these animals are kept. Experience has shown that their presence in the wild can be highly destructive. This experience has come as a result of earlier escapes from fur farms which led to the establishment of feral populations. For mink, despite strenuous and expensive efforts against them some years ago, the species is now present in most parts of Great Britain, particularly along rivers. As noble Lords are aware, they are voracious predators particularly of poultry and fish. With feral mink the Government's reluctant conclusion has been that there is no prospect of eradication and that the best help they can give to occupiers and others concerned lies, first, by providing specialist advice on control techniques; secondly, by loaning traps free of charge, and, thirdly, by continuing, with the approval of Parliament, to exercise the powers to regulate mink-keeping premises and thus prevent any avoidable increase in feral population through further escapes.

For coypu the situation is markedly different in that the species is currently at large only in the eastern part of England and largely within specific areas. This species can damage drainage systems by tunnelling under embankment walls and also crops like sugar beet and cereals. Over the years, sustained efforts have been made to contain the area within which the coypu survives and progressively to reduce the population. Latterly, and thanks to special scientific studies, we have been able to direct the trapping campaign so as to deploy the limited resources to maximum advantage.

I am sure that noble Lords will be interested to have details of the number of licences at present in force for the keeping of mink and coypu. Escapes leading to the establishment of the wild population originally took place when both animals were farmed for fur. Mink continues to be a fur production animal and of the 84 licensed premises in Great Britain, 80 are commercial fur farms as distinct from research or similar establishments. On the other hand, coypus are not now kept in this country for fur production. There are only 19 coypu licences, all of which are for keeping the species in research establishments, zoos and the like. As noble Lords are aware fur from the coypu, called nutria, is not now apparently acceptable to the market.

The agricultural Department insists on special security precautions, notably to ensure that adequate fencing is installed and maintained and these are enforced by regular inspection. This monitoring is in addition to the animal welfare inspection of commercial fur farms undertaken by the state veterinary service. I commend these orders to the House as a means of continuing policies which successive Administrations have pursued and which, with our build-up of experience of the damage which can be caused by feral populations, need to be maintained if we are not to compound our difficulties by permitting further escapes. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Coypus (Keeping) Order 1977, laid before the House on 3rd November, be approved.—( Lord Strabolgi.)

4.48 p.m.

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, for explaining to us these two short orders with which Peers on all sides of the House will agree. I should like to ask him two questions to which he may or may not have the answer. He mentioned that there were inspections to see that when licences were given these animals, which are destructive, are kept within their limits. I was glad to hear that there are regular inspections. What experience has the Government of animals escaping, either from mink or coypus farms? My second question is: What is the penalty for an escape? I do not mean one single incident but rather the case of continual reports from local keepers or farmers. Is there any information on that subject?

The coypu is a most destructive animal. I heard from a relative in Yorkshire only a week ago on the subject we will be dealing with next week. An otter at a certain place has been destroyed by a coypu. We cannot do better than encourage the Government to continue as the noble Lord has indicated. One other thing springs to my mind. On small islands—and I am thinking of some in the northern part of this kingdom—bird sanctuaries have been established for some time. I believe that permission has been given for mink farms in the Orkneys. Is this a wise thing? I hope the regulations about fencing will be very strictly enforced and that the Government are watching very carefully any extensions in areas like that where an escaped mink could do endless damage. However, I should like to thank the noble Lord and recommend these measures to the House.

4.50 p.m.

My Lords, I also would like to thank the noble Lord for moving that these orders be approved. There are one or two questions I would ask him, if I may. He did not make it clear to me who in fact licenses these mink and coypu farms. I would be most grateful if he could tell me whether, when they are licensed, there is a standard size of cage which is laid down for the keeping of these animals. I should also be most grateful to have an answer to this question. Is there a requirement under these orders that somebody should be notified if a mink escapes, or does the owner of the mink farm merely look on it as a piece of bad luck if he has lost a mink? The noble Lord said that when people know there are mink on their land they are required to notify the Ministry. I assume it is the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It appears that they have reached the state where they have abandoned all hope of controlling this animal; it is spreading at a tremendous rate and it is doing tremendous damage. Could not a little more effort be made, perhaps, to assist owners of properties where these animals are known to be, to eradicate them?

There is another alarming aspect, particularly to the British Veterinary Association. Are any guidelines laid down for the humane destruction of these animals? They are very difficult animals to handle. Not long ago photographs appeared in one Sunday paper. Although rather ancient, they did give an indication that perhaps things were not all that they should be. Finally, before this order appears again, in however many years it is, would it not be simpler to add the mink, at least, to the Schedule of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976?

My Lords, before the Minister replies, perhaps it might help if I can say to noble Lords that I did on one occasion question the way the mink were treated. In fact, before I purchased some mink I asked whether they had met a cruel death. I said, "Did you hit them on the head?" The furrier said, "No; it would spoil the skins". I said, "Well, you have given me the right answer for the wrong reason". But he assured me that they had a painless death, that they were in fact gassed. He added, "They have all they want to eat and an unlimited sex life—and what more could anybody desire?" As he himself was responsible for a mink farm I was not quite sure whether he was prejudiced, but T did at least get the assurance of the painless death of these animals, which I feel sure the Minister will be able to confirm.

4.53 p.m.

My Lords, I am grateful to the two noble Lords opposite and to my noble friend for the welcome they have given to this order. We are very glad to be continuing the excellent work of the previous Government. In fact I think these orders probably stem from the 1932 Act, which was probably a product of the National Government.

The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, asked me a number of questions. First, he asked about the number of escapes. We must put this into perspective. There are no coypu farms at present at all, except for one or two for zoological purposes. The mink farms have decreased considerably; in 1962 there were 600 and now, in 1977, there are only 80. The records of the numbers of escapes are not kept centrally, but the numbers are understood to be insignificant. The mink are always recaptured with the help of Ministry staff. Of course, in connection with the coypu this is a very different matter. Since this semi-aquatic rodent, which originated in Latin America, was introduced in the early 1930s there have been an estimated 200,000 at large. But these have been reduced, I am glad to say, through the intensified methods of control, to about 4,000 only, which are now mainly in East Anglia.

The noble Lord also asked me about penalties. The penalties for allowing mink to escape, and so on, are contained in the 1932 Act under Section 6. For keeping a mink or coypu without a licence the penalty is £20, or, if the offence is committed in respect of more than four animals, £5 for each animal. Acting in contravention of or failure to comply with any term of a licence or any regulation made under the Act is £10, and a further penalty of £2 for every day on which the offence continues after conviction. That is the kind of pattern. Failure to report is £5.

I must admit that these penalties did concern me rather when I began to study this matter before introducing these orders. They have not been revised since they were first laid down in the Destructive Animals Act 1932. I admit that they are very much in need of revision, if only to take account of inflation since that time. I am seeing that steps are taken to remedy this as soon as a suitable opportunity arises. But we have found from experience that the licence conditions are complied with without the need to resort to prosecutions.

The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, also asked me a question about the Scottish Islands. There are two farms already on the Shetland Islands but I gather that no problems have been reported. The applicant on Westray is said to have agreed to make security arrangements which go beyond the regulations—double fencing, concrete bases, and sinking of protective mesh further into the ground. With regard to Orkney, of course, this is a difficult matter. There is a proposal for establishing a mink farm on Westray and this has caused considerable concern, rightly, to the Nature Conservancy Council, because of the large and very important seabird breeding colonies off the island.

Following approaches by the NCC, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has suggested to the local planning authority a way in which the issues involved could be publicly debated. The local planning authority have replied is to the Secretary of State's letter, and this at present being considered. Without prejudicing the issue in any way, I think I can say that the Secretary of State is considering making a revocation order as a means of ensuring public debate.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford,—I am glad that he took part in this debate, as he usually does in debates devoted to animals and flora and fauna—asked me a number of questions. The licensing authority for mink and coypu is the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for England and Wales, and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland. The manner of keeping mink and coypu and precautions against their escape are prescribed in the regulations which flow from the 1932 Act. These are kept up to date by ministerial order and they are called the Mink Keeping Regulations.

The noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, also asked me about methods of killing. That matter was referred to by my noble friend Lady Phillips whom I am also glad took part in the debate. I am happy to be able to say that the methods are painless. The methods of painless killing include gassing, injection, electric shocks and dislocation of the neck after stunning. The Fur Breeders Association has been examining methods of humane killing and proposes in due course to issue recommendations. Of course, I need hardly remind the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, that the Animals Act 1911 makes illegal the causing of undue suffering, pain or distress to animals, including mink on fur farms. Moreover, I can also say as regards the welfare of mink, that animals farmed commercially for fur come within the scope of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1968 under which it is also an offence to cause unnecessary pain or distress.

The noble Lord also asked about procedures for reporting escapes from licensed premises. Under the terms of a licence to keep mink or coypu, licence holders are required to notify the agricultural department concerned of any escape from their premises. When they are reported at large or an escape is known to have taken place in the area, efforts are made to restore the animals to their owner. If there is no reason to suppose that they have escaped from local premises, arrangements are made for their destruction in the most humane manner.

As regards mink and coypus in the wild, Ministry policy is that the responsibility for destroying mink and coypus in the wild rests with the occupier of the land where they are found, who is considered to be in the best position to undertake this responsibility. The keeping orders require occupiers to report the presence of any mink or coypu known to be on their land and which are not, of course, being kept under licence, to the agricultural department concerned which will give advice and lend traps for their control. I hope that I have answered all the questions that have been put to me.

My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, sits down I apologise to him for talking to my noble friend, but I was not aware that he was taking the two orders together. I merely wish to reinforce what he obviously did—namely, to express the anxiety in Scotland about the proposed mink farm at Westray. The conditions there are so difficult in terms of the countryside that feral mink would be almost impossible to recapture or control. The BBC produced a very interesting programme on it in "Wild Life" yesterday.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier. I saw the programme to which he refers. As I have said in my speech, this is now at Secretary of State level.

On Question, Motion agreed to.