§ VISCOUNT BLEDISLOE has given Notice that he would ask His Majesty's Government whether, and if so, why, the New Forest Pastoral Development Scheme, which under the direction of the Hampshire War Agricultural Executive Committee initiated, with prospects of considerable success, the reclamation of 1,000 acres of relatively unproductive land in the New Forest, is being closed down, to the detriment alike of the nation's food supply and of the efficiency, as stock-owners, of the forest commoners.
§ The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I am not a Hampshire man, as I know are 1023 some of the noble Lords now sitting upon these Benches, but I have a three-fold excuse for raising this question. First of all I naturally desire, under existing conditions, to see a maximum output from a potentially fertile area in the south of England; secondly, several of those who are connected with the scheme to which my question refers were old constituents of mine living on the borders of the New Forest, and, thirdly, for what it may be worth, I am myself the senior verderer of the other old Royal Forest—namely, the Forest of Dean. I have therefore a natural desire to discover what is the attitude of the Government in regard to the administration of such areas.
§ In the winter of 1940 a scheme was launched for reclaiming a part of the pastoral area of the New Forest. The land belongs to the Crown. I may say in passing that the term "forest," as all Scotsmen know, does not necessarily imply trees. The area of the New Forest is roughly 64,000 acres, of which 40,000 are not under timber. This untimbered area is no great credit to the nation, and is certainly not pulling its weight in adding to the nation's food supplies. The forest grazings have suffered continuous retrogression and deterioration for the last forty years, ever since the motor car killed the trade in forest ponies. They kept in check, to a large extent, the scrub, the bramble and the heather which are spreading and have for a long time past been spreading over land which formerly maintained not merely horseflesh but a much larger herd of bovine stock. Most of this land is unsuitable for ploughing out and such new arable cultivation as has recently taken place in this area has resulted in decreasing the number of cattle which are mostly owned, I am informed, by the forest commoners. Partly owing to shortage of pasture, and partly owing to the tempting meat prices that have obtained during the last two years, there has been an increasing slaughter of in-calf cows and of the calves which would in time have replaced them.
§ Quite shortly, the scheme was in effect, by burning the surface, careful liming and cheap surface tillage by tractor implements, to recreate a large area of rich, sweet grass on which a very considerable number of young stock could be grazed with little, or no need of purchased concentrates for increasing the production of 1024 milk. The bulk of the cattle owners are very small holders who are in the exercise of the commoners' rights, grazing cattle within the forest boundaries. These commoners raise a very good type of dairy cow. I believe most of them are a cross of the Jersey or the Guernsey breed. Their cattle are noted for their comparative freedom from tuberculosis, and for that reason they have commanded a relatively high value in the local markets. Their owners have not the necessary implements, labour or knowledge and experience for arable cultivation. Under proper supervision and guidance, which I am told they are quite prepared to welcome, it is thought their pastoral methods could be immensely improved and render this wasted area of national land—which, by the way, is no great advertisement for land nationalization—a source of greatly augmented human food, especially milk.
§ The proposal was to reclaim every year from one thousand to two thousand acres of this scrub and heather land on a seven-year or eight-year rotation. Thus there should be at the completion of the cycle some 7,000 or 8,000 acres of sweet open grass range on which increased herds of female calves, yearlings or two-year-olds could be pastured for nine to ten months of the year. The only disease problem which needs to be seriously considered is contagious abortion, but as your Lord-ships are aware this is no worse in the New Forest than elsewhere throughout the country. This unfortunate disease is to be found now in every part of the world and a really effective way of dealing with it has not, so far as I know, yet been discovered. Calf raising is largely a woman's work and this of course would be the natural task of the commoners' womenfolk not only after the war but during the war. This scheme was formulated in November, 1940. After consulting the Court of Verderers and the deputy surveyor of the New Forest, it was submitted by its promoters to the Hampshire War Agricultural Executive Committee in February, 1941. In March of 1941 it was submitted and explained in great detail, I am told, to the Minister of Agriculture. In the same month it was approved by the County War Agricultural Executive Committee and its district subcommittee.
§ In June, 1941, Dr. Kenchington, a scientific expert, was appointed a fulltime 1025 officer to administer the scheme. In September, 1941, permission was granted to start the reclamation scheme with an experimental area—and emphasis was laid on the fact that it would be an experiment—of one thousand acres, and a grant of £5,000 was made towards the cost. In October, 1941, the New Forest Pastoral Development Sub-Committee was formed and it has had the handling of this development scheme ever since. In the same month work started, two tractors being used for reclamation purposes. The projected scheme evoked the good will and keenness of the commoners and the endorsement and encouragement of the Forest Verderers. I would draw attention to the use of the word "experiment" because it seemed to connote an expansion of the scheme if it proved successful. What has actually been done to carry out the scheme is as follows: One thousand acres were selected after agreement with the local interests affected, and the surface was burned over where practicable. That, of course, is to remove the scrub and the heather and the other rubbish that was growing upon it obstructing the growth of grass. Of those thousand acres, 600 have already been cleared of scrub and other rubbish and 500 out of the 600 were prepared for sowing. Of this area 320 acres were sown with a good and appropriate pasture mixture and I am told the grass is now up and growing quite well. The remaining 180 acres of these 500 acres were to be sown this month, weather permitting.
§ I do not know what has recently happened because when I put down this question about six weeks ago the answer which was expected to be given in your Lordships' House was necessarily postponed owing to more important public business. About six weeks or two months ago the New Forest Pastoral Development Sub-Committee was instructed by the executive officer of the County War Agricultural Executive to break no more ground and to sow with grass no more land when the sowing of the first 500 acres was completed. It has not been possible to ascertain from whom those instructions emanated, but in view of the fact that local authority was given both by the War Agricultural Executive Committee and by the Verderers and by the deputy surveyor, I can only assume that the interruption of the scheme has emanated from the Ministry of Agriculture. I am 1026 putting this question in order to ascertain the reason for the discontinuance or curtailment of this seemingly hopeful scheme of pastoral development as originally planned.
§ Officially it would appear that the scheme has not been altogether abandoned but has been curtailed and halted. The suspension of its development would seem to be unfortunate for many reasons. Cattle and their milk are badly needed from a food standpoint. The response of the commoners when the scheme was initiated was remarkable, and many increased their dairy cattle on the understanding that it was going to be a long-term policy which would be continued not merely during the war but after the war. Its retardation or temporary suspension will, in the opinion of the Pastoral Development Sub-Committee, fatally prejudice any effective resumption and result in the loss of confidence and good will on the part of the forest commoners. From a national standpoint, to discourage the rearing of heifer calves at the present crisis must surely aggravate the admitted risk of a serious milk shortage during the next few years and make replacement of stock more difficult. Moreover, the Committee's deprivation of the skilled services of their expert, Dr. Kenchington, specifically allocated to them for the prosecution and development of the scheme, renders its continued execution, if indeed still contemplated, more difficult and its ultimate success less certain. I must apologize to your Lordships for having explained the scheme at such length. But I thought it might well be that, although the scheme has been made public through the agricultural newspapers, it might not be fully known to many of your Lordships. Therefore I deemed it necessary to explain it in detail. I beg to ask my question.
THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY OF THE MINISTRY OF AGRICULTURE AND FISHERIES (THE DUKE OF NORFOLK)
My Lords, the noble Viscount has gone very fully into the reasons why the scheme was first considered and why it was finally adopted on a rather reduced scale. I would like to make it quite clear that one word he used in describing it plays an important part throughout the whole scheme. What I mean is that it was essentially an experiment. It is true to say that when you 1027 enter into experimental works the results may or may not be satisfactory and on how satisfactory they are the continuance of them must depend. I need not run over the whole of the scheme as outlined by the noble Viscount. But it was decided, as he said, by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture last year to allow the Hampshire War Agricultural Executive Committee to plough up and re-seed various areas comprising a total of 1,000 acres. Two sites comprising 321 acres have been dealt with and 160 acres has been partly re-seeded. The whole question as to the future came up before the Executive Committee this summer and they were then in the position of knowing full details of the food production campaign of 1943. They felt that in view of the extra burden which they have been called upon to carry and the amount of machinery, fertilizers and tractors needed for this scheme, it was not possible to allow the scheme to be further continued and that it must, for the time being, be slowed down.
My right honourable friend, however, feels that it is only right to leave these matters to his county committees and he has done so on this occasion. They are at the moment meeting the Pastural Development Sub-Committee which they appointed. Further suggestions which are being put forward by that sub-committee are under consideration by the Hampshire War Agricultural Executive Committee.