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Regulatory Reform (Deer) (England and Wales) Order 2007

Volume 694: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2007

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Regulatory Reform (Deer) (England and Wales) Order 2007.

The noble Lord said: This draft order will amend the Deer Act to improve the management and welfare of deer. The deer population has increased significantly, doubling in size over the past 25 years, we believe. The population rises have resulted in increased conflict with conservation, agriculture and other human activities. This order will help those who need to manage wild deer to do so in a proportionate manner, while maintaining appropriate welfare safeguards.

I am always wary of saying this when one has not been deeply involved in a matter, but the words on the brief in front of me are as follows: I understand that the draft order is not controversial—I sincerely hope that that is the case—and that it has been welcomed by deer stalkers, managers, land owners, conservation agencies and those concerned with the welfare of our wild deer.

Full and proper consultation on this draft order was carried out in 2006. Respondents strongly supported the proposals that will facilitate improved management of the wild deer populations. There was also overwhelming support for the proposals that will enhance the welfare of deer. I remind noble Lords that the draft order applies to England and Wales only and that consent of Welsh Ministers has been obtained for it.

The order will facilitate improved management of deer by increasing the range of tools available to those responsible for managing wild deer populations and reducing associated burdens. I will briefly remind noble Lords of the key changes made by the draft order. It will make it permissible to use .22 centre-fire rifles for shooting the non-native muntjac and Chinese water deer; it will introduce licensing provisions for the killing or taking of deer during the close season to prevent deterioration of the natural heritage or to preserve public health and safety; it will introduce licensing provisions for the killing or taking of deer at night to prevent deterioration of the natural heritage, to preserve public health and safety or to prevent serious damage to property; it will shorten the close season for all female deer to allow better management of population levels by moving the commencement date to 1 April; and it will amend the meaning of “mechanically propelled vehicle” in the Deer Act to permit the shooting of deer, provided that the vehicle is stationary and the engine is switched off. This will provide a stable platform.

Alongside these changes to deer management, the order will also enhance the welfare of deer by removing restrictions on the mercy killing of sick and injured deer by allowing any reasonable means of humanely dispatching deer that are suffering due to illness or disease; allowing dependent deer to be taken or killed if they have been, or are about to be, deprived of their mother at any time of the year; and introducing a close season for Chinese water deer and hybrid species from 1 April to 31 October inclusive.

The amendments in the order will have a positive impact on the management of deer through the provision of an increased range of tools for those involved in the management of these species. The order will increase the time available to managers to carry out their work by shortening the close season. The introduction of licensed control will provide an opportunity for deer managers to mitigate the problems caused by deer when other methods have been shown to be ineffective.

The order also provides positive benefits for the welfare of deer through allowing quicker alleviation of suffering where they are found injured. It will align the protection afforded to female deer through the introduction of a close season for Chinese water deer and red hybrids. The draft order will ensure that necessary protection will remain. Licences to kill deer during the close season will be issued only if there is no other satisfactory solution and the control will not affect the conservation status of native deer.

I said at the beginning that the wild deer population had probably doubled in the past 25 years. We are not exactly clear, but I have figures that show there are about 1 million now, a very large number. The order is not designed to wipe them out—far from it; no one wants to do that—it is to improve the management of the wild deer population. Those who manage them do a good job on behalf of society and the conservation of wildlife, but they need the tools to do it given the circumstances they are now working under, which are not the same as when the Deer Act was passed. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Regulatory Reform (Deer) (England and Wales) Order 2007. 12th report from the Regulatory Reform Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)

I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the order. He is right; it is not contentious. We welcome the changes, too. Anything that enables the necessary culling of deer to be done in the most humane and up-to-date way makes good sense.

I want to put on record my thanks to the Minister. This time last week, when he was taking through the animal welfare order and I could not be here because it was my grandson’s speech day, he was very generous in his comments following the announcement of my retirement from the Front Bench. I thank him most warmly. It is nearly 10 years since I took the first of many Bills through the House; it set up the Food Standards Agency. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, then the MAFF Minister, met me and said, “And how are you doing with this particular one?”, to which I said, “It’s the first one I’ve taken through on my own”. What the noble Lord brings to the House, as he did to the other House, is that he tries to help those who are on Benches opposite to him to succeed in getting legislation through in the proper manner.

The order, interestingly enough, has been laid under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. Only last Session the House debated at great length the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, which gave the Government enormous powers to amend primary legislation by secondary legislation. I find it surprising that, so far as I am aware, no order has yet been moved under that Act. Why are we still moving orders under the 2001 Act? That seems very strange.

I thank the Minister for acknowledging that Defra reconsidered the close season. It was originally proposed by the specialists that it should be shortened by four weeks, but at that stage Defra was recommending only two weeks. I am grateful to the department for accepting the longer period. As the Minister has said, the deer population is rapidly on the increase, and anything that helps to reduce the number without causing suffering seems to make great sense.

The crux of the legislation as it stands is to protect the health of the deer and of humans, conserving natural heritage and trying to prevent damage to property. When we took the CROW Act through in 2000, some 28 days had been set aside for the management of wildlife. We need to ensure—and the House of Commons Regulatory Reform Committee has picked up on this—that good warning is given to people that night-time culling will be happening on a particular section of property at a particular time. My fear at the time was that people do not always listen to advice about what will be happening and consequently could be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am sure the department has taken that on board, and I am grateful to it for that.

As we know, there are no real natural predators. The estimated damage caused by road accidents is £41 million to £181 million a year. That is a huge cost, which is not commonly known.

On the estimated costs, based on 60 applications a year, if broken down that might work out at around £5,000 covering costs for each licence. Does the department control those costs when they come in or will that be for Natural England? The Minister will be acutely aware of an issue that I have raised consistently, on the IPPC charges for pigs and poultry. Those charges are set by the Environment Agency, and I do not think that the department has any control over them, but the amounts and hourly rates set do not seem to be reviewed in any meaningful way. Will the Minister touch on that?

Disease is one of the reasons culling is allowed. Some deer may be infected with bovine TB, and I was not sure from reading the paperwork that I received whether that was considered.

On the subject of bovine TB, I place on record my dismay at the overnight news that Shambo the Hindu cow is being reprieved. It is not that I have anything against it, but it is an infected cow carrying infective diseases. It seems extraordinary, as it must to the many farmers who farm close by, that one known disease-carrying cow is being permitted to live when 28,000 to 30,000 cows troubled with bovine TB are killed annually. Can the department raise this matter again or is that the end of the matter, now that the judge has given his judgment? One could say that, because this is happening in Wales, it is a devolved matter, but the judge was sitting in the High Court; therefore, I presume that it was a UK judgment, but I am not clear on that.

I thank the Minister for introducing this measure as he did and for the work that has gone into it. Basically, we need to be able to control the deer population in the most humane way possible. I am pleased to see that one is allowed to use a vehicle when shooting deer but that it must be stationary at the time.

I welcome this important order. I am glad of this opportunity to pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. She and I have worked on the Defra brief for almost the same length of time. Perhaps the most memorable occasion that we shared was when we sat through the night and worked together on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. We very often did not work on things completely together, because there were many occasions when we could not vote on the same side; however, the triumph that emerged from our working together on that Bill was with Part 3, which will probably remain in my mind as one of our biggest joint successes in this Chamber.

Probably nobody will equal the noble Baroness’s ability, for which she has been noted, to fire off questions to Ministers. As was recorded in Hansard not long ago, she is known as “Mrs UK Agriculture”. I am sure that she will be able to retire with great honour and with that title well in place.

I have a few questions for the Minister on the order. First, as he said, there has been a significant increase—a doubling—in the deer population in the past 20 years. One significant outcome of that, which has not been mentioned at all so far this afternoon, is the incidence of Lyme disease. Julia Goldsworthy, my colleague in another place, has put a number of Questions to the Department of Health and Defra on this issue. This order covers public health aspects. The question is very serious; I wonder whether the Minister has any comments on it. I presume that Lyme disease is covered by the reference to preserving public health. Is the department making any analysis, with the Department of Health or separately, of the incidence of Lyme disease and how exactly it relates to the density of deer?

My second question relates to conserving the national heritage, in terms of interpretation and especially given the different pressures on areas that may have had stock removed following CAP reform but which need grazing and are subject to deer grazing, as opposed to new tree growth. Those are areas of potential conflict. I presume that the Minister will tell me that Natural England will decide the priorities there, but is there actually a definition of natural heritage? Will it be a grazed landscape or a treed landscape, and so on?

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, raised the issue of bovine TB, so I shall await the Minister’s answers on that.

Finally, on the matter of serious damage to property, presumably with regard to deer that means damage to crops. What would constitute serious damage? Would it be 10 per cent of the crop or more than that? Is that being considered by Defra?

I am most grateful to the noble Baronesses, and in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. As I said last week, she has brought elegance and charm to the Front Bench, which I suspect her successor will not be able to do. That is a very sexist remark for which I make no apology.

The noble Baroness mentioned the cost attributed to road accidents, which is a very serious issue. I have been astonished to see the range of figures; there seems to be a minimum of £14 million. I freely admit, as I told officials this morning, that occasionally I see the signs warning drivers to beware deer, but I pay very little attention because I do not expect any deer to come out on the road. However, they clearly do, and the accidents are very serious. I understand that work is taking place to look at signage around the country, because there is a cost in all kinds of ways, as one can imagine.

There must be good warning of night-time culling so that there is no confusion among people about what is happening in their locality.

On the noble Baroness’s first point, the process brought about by the Regulatory Reform Act 2001, inside government, is incredibly lengthy. It takes the best part of two to three years to put a reform order through the Whitehall and parliamentary process, and I suspect that, as it started that way under the 2001 Act, that is how it would complete. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 came into effect in January 2007. The process of this order was well under way, and consultation and everything else under the rules that applied then had started. It came into Parliament in December 2006, so that is why it is covered.

The costs for licences are high. Night-time licences require site visits and follow-up for safety. At this time there are no plans from Natural England to charge applicants, but I have no better information on that. One thing for sure is that, if and when charges are made for licences, they will be purely for cost recovery. It will not be allowed to be used for an income generator—nor is the Environment Agency supposed to be using it as income generator, although people have different views about that from time to time.

In what I thought was an incredibly unfair question, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, raised the issue of bovine TB. I have not come equipped with the answer but, as everyone knows, Ministers are considering the report on the matter by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle. In addition, a Question to Defra will be asked in your Lordships’ House next week. The Government’s own scientists—that is, the scientists in Defra and the government chief scientists across Whitehall—are assessing the scientific aspects of the report. It went beyond some of the science, but I am not in a position to say anything about it.

Shambo is currently a matter exclusively for the Welsh Assembly. I understand that the Assembly will appeal the decision, but there is no question but that it comes under Welsh jurisdiction. Defra is not involved, but the idea that we are not interested does not stand up. Simply, the case concerns a disease in an animal that in general is used for food production, and this is a matter of controlling disease in food production animals. Whether or not the animal goes into the food chain does not really matter. One might argue about the scientific report that we have just had from Professor Bourne’s group, which was set up 10 years ago, and about what it found out. Ten years ago, Ministers were told, “Do this trial and you will find out the transmission route of TB, cattle to cattle and badger to badger”, but we do not know what the route is, and the report does not tell us. Frankly, how much the judge in Wales read into that, we do not know.

The cow was diagnosed as having TB on the basis of one test. Everyone knows that the test is not perfect, but it does not matter whether it is an isolated case; the fact is that scientists cannot tell Ministers the transmission route of the disease. If you know that the disease is there but you do not know the transmission route, it is fairly obvious that you have to take a certain course of action. However, the matter will go to appeal; therefore, I have probably said more than I should have done. I am not in a position to criticise judges; Ministers should never do that. Public health, public safety, animal health and animal safety are our responsibility. However, I understand that the Welsh Assembly is appealing the issue.

With regard to Lyme disease, ticks are thought to be the most significant vectors of human and livestock diseases in the UK. Many reports suggest that ticks have become more abundant recently, coinciding with increased densities of deer. We are not currently funding research specifically into Lyme disease but we are funding one project at Oxford University—reference SE 4105—that is taking a broader look at tick-borne zoonosis in deer. The project will define how the UK tick fauna has changed and how it may change in the future under the influence of changing environmental factors, including climate, land use and the host—that is, the availability of deer—taking the following progressive steps. The first is statistical modelling to create predictive risk maps for resident tick species and potential invaders from Europe; the second is retrospective analysis of the precise factors that are identified as being critically limiting to assess whether they have changed appropriately; and the third is biological modelling to investigate the relative impact of abiotic and biotic factors on tick distribution, abundance and seasonal patterns of activity. I read that out without having read it before. If I have pronounced anything wrong, I apologise.

I see from my notes that I have not been briefed about Shambo, so I should not have said anything.

Natural England already assesses serious damage to the environment under other legislation. A loss of £100,000 to a large enterprise may not be considered serious but, to a small holding, naturally it would be very large, so one has to look at the present circumstances. Natural England advisers will assist landowners in identifying methods of alleviating the damage.

The natural heritage, for the purposes of Section 8, is defined in new subsection (6) of Section 8 as meaning,

“flora and fauna, geological or physiological features or natural beauty and amenity of the countryside”.

Some of that is scientific, while some of it sounds a bit subjective to me. See Article 4(6) of the order.

The Central Science Laboratory, Defra’s key body, is undertaking research into the role of bovine TB in deer and the transmission to cattle. This is a huge enterprise, which is costing a fortune. That is why we have to deal with it seriously. Stalkers will receive training—10,000 have already done so—including training on disease identification. That is an important aspect—it is not just the mechanics of stalking.

If I have missed anything, I will come back with a note, but I hope that what I have said has been helpful.

On Question, Motion agreed to.