Naturenet: Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) is the principle mechanism
for the legislative protection of wildlife in Great Britain. It does not
extend to Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. This
legislation is the means by which the Convention on the Conservation of European
Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the 'Bern Convention') and the European Union
Directives on the Conservation of Wild Birds (79/409/EEC) and Natural Habitats
and Wild Fauna and Flora (92/43/FFC) are implemented in Great Britain. Similar
legislation is enacted to fulfil these obligations elsewhere in the United
Kingdom. The Wildlife and Countryside Act is divided into four parts.
- Part I is concerned with the protection of wildlife,
- Part II relates to the countryside and national parks (and the designation
of protected areas),
- Part III covers public rights of way,
- Part IV deals with miscellaneous provisions of the Act.
This document deals only with Part I.
The provisions relating to animals in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
only apply to 'wild animals'; these are defined as those that are living wild
or were living wild before being captured or killed. It does not apply to captive
bred animals being held in captivity. There are often situations where it might
be hard to say whether an animal is wild or not. However, animals in gardens
(e.g. newts in garden ponds) and captive bred animals that have been released
to the wild are likely to be included in this definition.
The Wildlife and Countryside also prohibits the release of non-native species
into the wild (Section 14). This is to prevent the release of exotic species
that could threaten our native wildlife. Some populations of non-native species,
such as the marsh frog Rana ridibunda, alpine newt Triturus alpestris and wall
lizard Podarcis muralis have become established in the wild in Britain. The
legislation does not prohibit capturing and keeping these animals but it makes
re-releasing them an offence.
There are 'defences' provided by the legislation. These are cases where acts
that would otherwise be prohibited by the legislation are permitted. Notably
these allow things to happen that are reasonable, unpredictable and unavoidable,
such as running over a badger on the road.
Licensing: everything prohibited by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
can be made legal by licensing by the proper authority. For example scientific
study that requires capturing protected animals can be allowed by obtaining
a license. Trade in the more widespread species is also permitted if licensed.
Other legislation provides protection for wildlife, or
specific groups of wildlife. For example:
- The Ground Game Act 1880.
- The Protection of Animals Act 1911.
- The Whaling Industry (Regulation) Act 1934.
- The Conservation of Seals Act 1970.
- The Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975.
- The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976.
- The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986.
- The Deer Act 1991.
- The Protection of Badgers Act 1992.
Some of these Acts have parallel legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Two major pieces of legislation protecting wildlife in Britain pre-dated, and
were repealed by the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. These
were The Protection of Birds Acts of 1954, 1964 and 1967 and the Conservation
of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975.
Although passed in 1981, the majority Of Part I of the Wildlife and Countryside
Act (all except Section 12) was not brought into effect until 28 September
1982. The Statutory Instrument bringing the legislation into effect was SI
1982 No. 1217 (C 39) 'The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (commencement no.
5) Order 1982'.
Since the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 there have been
amendments to the text of the Act, through Amendment Acts and other legislation,
(e.g. Local Government Act 1985, Water Act 1989, Environmental Protection Act
1990), and to the lists of protected species, through Variations to the Schedules
Orders. There is a statutory five yearly review of Schedules 5 and 8 (protected
animals other than birds and protected plants) undertaken by the statutory
conservation agencies and coordinated through the Joint Nature Conservation
Committee. Changes can be made by the Secretary of State at any time, following
representation if it is considered necessary because of a threat of extinction
or in response to international obligations. Amendments up to January 1994
are shown below.
(List may not be up to date)
(List may not be up to date)
- Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985.
- Wildlife and Countryside (Service of Notices) Act 1985.
- Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1991.
There are 27 Sections in Part I, summarised below. However, reference should
always be made to the full text of the legislation to determine the exact
provisions that relate to protection of species.
- SI 1988 No. 288 - amended Schedule 5 and 8
- SI 1989 No. 906 - amended Schedule 5
- SI 1991 No. 367 - amended Schedule 5
- SI 1992 No. 320 - amended Schedule 9
- SI 1992 No. 2350 - amended Schedule 5 and 8
- SI 1992 No. 2674 - amended Schedule 9
- SI 1992 No. 3010 - amended Schedule
2 and 3
- SI 1998 No. 878 - amended schedules 5 and 8
- Sections 1 to 8 relate to protection of birds. Section 1 prohibits the
intentional killing, injuring or taking of any wild bird and the taking,
damaging or destroying of the nest (whilst being built or in use) or eggs.
It prohibits possession of wild birds (dead or alive) or their eggs. There
are additional penalties for offences relating to birds on Schedule
in addition, it is an offence to disturb Schedule
1 birds at nest or the
dependent young of Schedule
- Section 2 outlines exceptions to Section 1, notably it identifies two lists
of birds that may be killed:
2 part I: quarry species which may be killed outside the close
2 part II (now deleted) species which may be killed at all times
(formerly known as 'pest species').
2 part II was deleted in 1993; there are no longer any 'pest species',
but killing of certain species is allowed under certain circumstances - see
here for details.
- Section 2 also defines 'close seasons' for the Schedule
2 part I species
- Section 3 allows the Secretary of State to designate areas of special protection
(sanctuaries) to provide further protection to birds (except those on Schedule
2 Part II) and even prohibit disturbance or restrict access.
- Section 4 identifies exceptions to Section 3, e.g. provision to allow nursing
of or humane destruction of injured birds; provision to cover incidental
actions that are an unavoidable result of an otherwise lawful activity.
- Section 5 prohibits the use of certain types of trap, poison, bird-lime,
etc, for catching or injuring birds and outlaws the use of certain methods
of killing or taking them (e.g. bows, automatic weapons, gas, explosives)
or the use of certain types of decoys.
- Section 6 restricts sales or other form of trade of live wild birds on
Part I of Schedule 3, or birds eggs, or the sale of dead wild birds not listed
on Parts II or III of Schedule
3. It also restricts exhibition of birds.
- Section 7 restricts the possession of birds of certain species
unless registered and ringed (Schedule
- Section 8 sets standards for keeping birds in captivity.
See also European Law
- Section 9 prohibits the intentional killing, injuring or
taking, the possession and the trade in wild animals listed in Schedule
In addition, places used for shelter and protection are safeguarded against
intentional damage, destruction and obstruction and animals protected under
the relevant part of Section 9 must not intentionally be disturbed whilst
occupying those places.
- Section 10 identifies certain exceptions to Section
9, e.g. provision to allow nursing of or humane destruction of injured animals;
provision to cover incidental actions that are an unavoidable result of an
otherwise lawful activity.
- Section 11 prohibits the use of self-locking snares,
bows, explosives or use of live mammals or birds as decoys, for capture and
killing of any wild animal. It also prohibits the use of traps, snares, nets,
poisons, electrical devices, dazzling devices, and automatic weapons, night
shooting devices, gas or smoke for killing, injuring or taking animals listed
The use of sound recordings as decoys and pursuit with mechanically propelled
vehicles are also prohibited for animals on Schedule 6.
- Section 12 relates
to Schedule 7; this Schedule amends other legislation relating to the protection
- Section 13 identifies measures for the protection of wild plants. It prohibits
the unauthorised intentional uprooting of any wild plant species and forbids
any picking, uprooting or destruction of plants listed on Schedule 8. It
also prohibits the sale, etc, or possession for the purpose of sale of any
plants on Schedule 8 or parts or derivatives of Schedule 8 plants . It provides
certain defences, e.g. provision to cover incidental actions that are an
unavoidable result of an otherwise lawful activity.
Note: it is not normally an offence to pick the 'Four
Fs'; fruit, foliage, fungi or flowers - assuming that none of them are protected
specifically - which are growing wild if they are for personal use and not
for sale. See Theft for more on this.
Protection for bryophytes
- Section 14 prohibits the release to the wild of
animals "not ordinarily
resident" or that are not regular visitors to Great Britain and other
animals listed on Part I of Schedule 9. It also prohibits planting in the
wild of plants listed in Part II of Schedule
otherwise causing to them grow there. These provisions are necessary
to prevent the establishment of non-native species which may be detrimental
to our native wildlife.
- Section 15 amended the Endangered Species
(Import and Export) Act 1976 via Schedule 10.
- Section 16 provides a mechanism for licensing actions that would otherwise
be unlawful; different statutory agencies are responsible for licensing activities
depending on the reason for doing them. For example (in England, and in general)
Natural England is responsible for licensing most activities done for scientific
study, educational reasons or for photography or conservation, and DEFRA
issues licenses for public health and protection of property, sales, certain
aspects of keeping birds and releases under Section 14. These responsibilities
do change quite regularly, as governmental departments are reorganised, but
there will always be some government agency which has the responsibility.
- Section 17 comments further on licensing.
- Sections 18 and 19 are connected with offences and enforcement.
- Section 20 relates to prosecutions and Section 21 penalties. Section 22,
23 and 24 relate to the roles of the Secretary of State and advisory bodies
and to variations of schedules, Section 25 describes the role of local authorities.
Section 26 relates to the mechanisms by which Orders and Regulations, etc,
should be produced. Interpretation and definition of terms used in Part I
of the Act is given in Section 27.
- DEPARTMENT OF THE ENVIRONMENT, 1992. Protecting Britain's Wildlife; Leaflet
- HMSO, 1981. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Chapter 69. HMSO, London
Acknowledgements: text based on material produced by Tony Gent of Species
Conservation Branch, Natural England and Margaret Palmer of Species Conservation
Branch, Joint Nature Conservation Committee
The original list of Schedule 5 and Schedule 8 species was compiled by Species
Conservation Branch, Joint Nature Conservation Committee.