Wild Birds and the Law

© Amy Lewis

Britain is home to a wide range of wild bird species, from the colourful goldfinch to the soaring buzzard. Some of these birds are rare and many are common, though all are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).

A wild bird is defined as any bird of a species which is a resident or visitor to the European territory of any member state in a wild state. Game birds are not included within this definition, although they are covered by the Game Acts, which fully protect them in the close season.

The act makes it an offence to intentionally or recklessly kill, injure, or take any wild bird. Importantly, it also protects wild bird’s nests while they are in use or being built, and makes illegal the taking, selling or destroying of wild bird eggs.

These measures are important as many British birds are in decline. Nest disturbance can be a major problem for many bird species, for example house martins, and the act seeks to prevent this disturbance. Bird egg and chick collectors had been detrimental to bird populations for many decades, and the act made those activities illegal. However, this part of the act also affects bird watchers and bird photographers, as these activities can sometimes recklessly disturb birds while they are on, in, or near a nest containing eggs or young.

There are some exceptions to the act. If a bird is sick or injured, it can be taken to be treated. If too badly injured, it can then be destroyed. Under general license an authorised person may kill or take certain birds, or destroy their nests or eggs, if this is to prevent serious damage to agriculture, preserve public health or air safety, or to conserve wild birds. This exception allows farmers and councils for example to deal with potential problem birds such as woodpigeons, crows, and roof-nesting herring gulls etc. As mentioned above, game birds and some wildfowl are permitted to be shot in season.

A bird may be killed or taken if it is the accidental result of a lawful operation, e.g. being accidentally hit by a car. Birds can also be killed or taken under license from the appropriate authority, such as Natural England or the Countryside Council for Wales.

The maximum penalties under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 are up to a £5,000 fine and/or six months imprisonment. These penalties can be levied per bird, egg, or nest, so can potentially lead to large punishment.

For more information on the act, see the Joint Nature Conservation Committee website.

Photo: Bill Doherty