UK wildlife law

UK wildlife law


© Katrina Martin/2020VISION

Reporting a wildlife crime

If you witness a suspected wildlife crime in action call 999 immediately. 

In all other instances, call 101 for the non-emergency service and ask to speak to your local Wildlife Crime Officer. To remain anonymous, call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.

What is a wildlife crime?

A wildlife crime is any action which contravenes current legislation governing the protection of the UK’s wild animals and plants.

Theft or disturbance of wild birds, their eggs and/or nests

All British birds, their nests and eggs are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, however some 'pest species' can be controlled under certain conditions by authorised people, such as crows or pigeons.

It is illegal to disturb birds during nesting season or to take wild eggs from a nest, for sale or as part of private collections.

Cutting hedges and trees

The cutting and pruning hedges should always take place outside of the main breeding period (between September and February). It can be a criminal offence if a nest or bird is harmed.

Theft or disturbance of wild animals, plants or habitats

It is an offence to kill or injure any wild animal listed in Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, and it is also an offence to intentionally or recklessly damage or obstruct any place used for their shelter or protection. Some of the species protected under this are red squirrels, bats, water voles, sand lizards and natterjack toads.

The Act also makes it an offence to intentionally uproot any wild plant without the permission of the land owner and sell on the plants. 

Poaching and coursing

Hare coursing is one of the most common examples of illegal poaching, with dogs used to flush out hares. Signs to look out for if you suspect individuals of deer, hare or badger poaching, are a group of vehicles parked at night in a rural area (by a gateway to a farmland, on a grass verge, on a farm track) which may show evidence of dogs inside. Other indications are suspicious looking road kill or the discovery of bait, traps and snares. 

It's not just game that are covered under this. Fishing without a license in private fisheries or rivers is also a poaching offence. 

Illegal wildlife sport

As a result of the Hunting Act, 2004 it is now illegal to hunt for a wild mammal with a dog, unless the hunting is exempt. The hunting of rats and rabbits is also illegal unless it is carried out by the landowner or with his written permission. 

Some activities which may appear to be hunting, but are not in breach of the Act, include trail hunting, hound exercising and flushing to guns.

Animal cruelty

All British wild mammals are protected from deliberate acts of cruelty under The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996. Police will often liaise with the RSPCA and RSPB to aid prosecution of animal and bird offences. 

Lethal control is only permitted under a general license and it is advisable to check with DEFRA for advice on dealing with 'pest' species. If you suspect illegal use of pest control measures then please report to the police, or anonymously with Crimestoppers.

Raptor persecution

Birds of prey can be targeted due to the perception that they are pests, interfering with crops, farm animals and the breeding of game. They're often targeted and killed illegally with traps, poison or by shooting. 

It is an offence for any person to intentionally kill, injure or take any wild birds, however not all traps are illegal so it can be difficult to tell if you find one. Interference with legally set traps or snares is an offence so do not touch them.

Badgers and the law

Despite being protected under The Protection of Badgers Act (1992), badgers still suffer persecution from those using dogs to dig them from their setts. If you are aware or suspicious that an active sett has been disturbed, please report it. Signs to look for are recently moved earth, human/dog footprints, blood or fur around the sett or objects blocking the entrances to the sett.

Bats and the law

For all bats, their breeding sites and resting places are specially protected by the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 and the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. If bats are roosting in roof spaces it is unlawful to disturb or move them. Natural England can provide advice on bat mitigation licences if you need to disturb a bat roost. 

Wildlife Laws and protection in the UK

Below are some of the Acts and legislation that protects wildlife and wild places in the UK - scroll to the bottom of the page for a more comprehensive list.

The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981

This is the primary mechanism for wildlife protection in Britain. This legislation covers four areas:

  1. Wildlife protection, including protection of wild birds, their eggs and nests, protection of other animal and protection of plants

  2. Nature Conservation, Countryside & National Parks

  3. Public Rights of Way

  4. Miscellaneous provisions

National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act 1949

This Act allowed the creation of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England and Wales. 

Hedgerows Regulations 1997

These regulations fall under the local authority and are intended to protect important hedgerows from removal. Owners and managers must request permission from their local authority before removing a hedgerow, and permission may not be granted if it supports a diverse range or protected species. 

Protection of Badgers 1992

This animal welfare legislation protects badgers and their setts, and makes it illegal to:

  • Wilfully capture, injure or kill a wild badger
  • Be in possession of of a live or dead badger
  • Destroy or obstruct access to an active badger sett

The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010

These regulations came into effect to combine the various amendments made to the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 with regards to England and Wales. They cover the designation and protection of European sites and the protection of European protected species.

Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000

The protection of SSSIs (Site of Special Scientific Interest), already established in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, is strengthened in this legislation. The Act also allows for prosecution of third parties that damage or destroy a SSSI. 

Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996

This Act offers protects a form of protection to all wild species of mammals and is more of an animal welfare than conservation Act. 

Natural Environment & Rural Communities Act 2006

This legislation enabled the amalgamation of English Nature with the Countryside Agency and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs' Rural Development Service to form a new agency called 'Natural England', which came into existence in October 2006.

The importance of biodiversity conservation was given a legal basis, requiring government departments to have regard for biodiversity in carrying out their functions, and to take positive steps to further the conservation of listed species and habitats. Local government was given a statutory duty to further the conservation and enhancement of SSSIs, both in carrying out operations, and in exercising decision-making functions.