Naturenet: Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
Species Protection


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.

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

Other legislation provides protection for wildlife, or specific groups of wildlife. For example:

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.

Amendments to the Act

(List may not be up to date)

Variations to the Schedules

(List may not be up to date)

Protection under Part I of the Act

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.

Protection of birds

Protection of other animals

See also European LawPages marked with this symbol are exclusively written for Naturenet

Protection of plants

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

Miscellaneous provisions

Supplemental provisions


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.