Wildlife and the law


Wildlife and the law

Urban fox. Image by: Terry Whittaker/2020VISION.

Wild birds and the law

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.

Wild mammals and the law

Many of Britain's wild plants and animals are protected by The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW Act), and protected wild animals are listed on Schedule 5 of the act (wild birds are covered separately).

Examples of protected species include:

  • Otter
  • All British bat species
  • Smooth snake
  • Common dormice                                                     
  • Large blue butterfly
  • Wild cat
  • Natterjack toad
  • Red squirrel

Common animals such as foxes and deer are not protected by Schedule 5 but some methods of killing them are prohibited, such as self-locking snares and poison bait.

Other acts also help protect the UK’s wildlife, and the major ones are discussed below. For all the acts, ignorance is no defence.

Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended)

The act was brought into law in 1981 and has been amended several times since. Schedule 5 is reviewed every five years. Together with the CRoW Act, it provides the strongest protection for UK wildlife.

The act:

  • Prohibits certain methods of killing and taking wild animals (e.g. using bows)
  • Protects animals that are listed on Schedule five from being taken from the wild, killed or injured, either intentionally or recklessly
  • Makes it an offence to either intentionally or recklessly damage, destroy, obstruct, or disturb the places the animals on Schedule 5 use for shelter and protection
  • Prohibits the possession or control of any animal, live or dead, listed on Schedule 5, unless it is disabled and the intention is to re-release it
  • Makes it an offence to allow the release or escape of a non-native animal (including those already established such as grey squirrel or mink)
  • Replaces and amends previous wildlife legislation

If the damage to or disturbance of a protected animal or its place of shelter can be shown to be “an incidental result of a lawful operation and could not reasonably have been avoided”, the person who did the damage is not guilty of an offence. Other possible exemptions include carrying out scientific investigations or acting in the interests of public safety.

Any person found guilty of an offence under this act could receive a fine of up to £5,000 and/or six month imprisonment per offence.

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

Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996

This act aims to protect wild mammals from acts of cruelty. An offence is committed if any person mutilates, kicks, beats, nails, or otherwise impales, stabs, burns, stones, crushes, drowns, drags, or asphyxiates any wild mammal with intent to inflict unnecessary suffering.

Hunting Act 2004

The hunting act bans the hunting of wild mammals with dogs and all hare coursing. The controversial and contentious act intended to bring to an end practices which many people feel causes unnecessary suffering to wild mammals. There are some exemptions to the act, which allows hunting activities to take place within limited circumstances. Using dogs to hunt rabbits and rats, stalking and flushing out with up to two dogs, and using a single dog to flush out wild mammals (such as a fox) from below ground in order to protect birds kept for shooting, are all still legal.
Maximum penalties are a £5,000 fine and/or having any articles used in the hunting (e.g. vehicles and dogs) confiscated.

Protection of Badgers Act 1992

The act makes it an offence to kill, injure, or take, or attempt to kill, injure, or take a badger, and carries heavier punishment than the Wildlife and Countryside Act: an unlimited fine and/or 3 years imprisonment. The act was originally intended to protect wild badgers from cruelty, but is increasingly used to protect them and their setts from adverse developments.

The Deer Act 1991

The Deer Act makes it an offence to enter land without the consent of the landowner in the pursuit of a deer in order to kill, injure, or take it. It is also illegal to hunt deer in the close season.

Police Powers

A police officer who suspects that a person has committed or is committing an offence under any of these acts may, without warrant;

  • Arrest that person
  • Search that person, and/or search any associated vehicle, animal, or article if it is believed that it will yield evidence
  • Seize that evidence, including a vehicle or animal
  • Enter land, other than a dwelling, to exercise the power to search

Reporting a wildlife crime

When reporting the event of a wildlife crime it is best to think through the event. Using a simple checklist you can help the necessary authority stamp out these problems throughout the country. Such information will aid the authorities in searching the area and better focus their investigations.

When reporting the event of a wildlife crime:


  • Report any suspicious activity to your local police as soon as possible and ask to speak with their wildlife crime officer.
  • Take notes of date, time and weather conditions.
  • If possible, try to identify the map reference of the location (either by normal or GPS means) by reading both the scene of the incident and the location that the incident was witnessed from.
  • Make notes of a description of the person(s) involved in the incident, including the gender, age, height, clothing, etc.
  • Make note of any vehicle registration numbers, makes and models, as well as colours of vehicles that may be involved in the incident.
  • Try to identify other witnesses present to the incident and gather their name and contact details.
  • If possible, photograph or video the scene, or if unable to do this make a rough sketch of the area.
  • Cover any suspected poisoned baits or victims in order to prevent any other contact by animals or people.
  • Report the incident, even if you are unsure of the event. The evidence of wildlife crimes are not always obvious to see.


  • Disturb the scene by moving items or walking about unnecessarily.
  • Touch the dead animals or birds, especially if you suspect poisons to be involved in the incident.
  • Interfere with legal countryside practices, such as the legal use of traps, snares, hides, high seats and shooting butts.


  • Approach suspects or intervene if you suspect someone is committing a wildlife crime. Such actions may put you in unnecessary danger.