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Bats and the law

Pipistrelle in flight at night

Image: Barracuda1983

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA) protects bats and their roosts in England, Scotland and Wales. Some parts have been amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW) which applies only in England and Wales.

The Conservation (Natural Habitats,&c.) Regulations 1994, better known as the Habitats Regulations, implements the Council Directive on the Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora – better known as the Habitats Directive. All bats are listed as ‘European protected species of animals’.

Bats may also be protected by site safeguard measures, for example if their roost site or feeding grounds are notified as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC)or a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Bat protection

It is an offence for any person to:

  • intentionally kill, injure or take a bat. Under the Habitats Regulations it is an offence to deliberately capture or kill a bat.
  • possess or control a live or dead bat, any part of a bat, or anything derived from a bat. This is an offence of strict liability, in other words, the onus of proof is on the person in possession of the bat to show, on a balance of probabilities, that they have it lawfully. An offence is not committed if the bat was not killed, captured, or sold to them or anyone else illegally.
  • intentionally or recklessly* damage, destroy or obstruct access to any place that a bat uses for shelter or protection (*reckless applies in England and Wales only). This is taken to mean all bat roosts whether bats are present or not. There is a defence that this is not illegal in a dwelling house, but the defence can only be relied on (other than in the living area of a dwelling house) if the Statutory Nature Conservation Organisation (SNCO), i.e. Natural England, the Countryside Council for Wales, or Scottish Natural Heritage was notified about the proposed action and allowed reasonable time to advise as to whether it should be carried out, and if so, how. Under the Habitats Regulations it is an offence to damage or destroy a breeding site or resting place of any bat. This is an absolute offence – in other words, intent or recklessness does not have to be proved. 
  • intentionally or recklessly* disturb a bat while it is occupying a structure or place that it uses for shelter or protection (*reckless applies in England and Wales only). There is a defence that this is not illegal in a dwelling house, but the defence can only be relied on (other than in the living area of a dwelling house) if the Statutory Nature Conservation Organisation (SNCO), i.e. Natural England, the Countryside Council for Wales, or Scottish Natural Heritage was notified about the proposed action and allowed reasonable time to advise as to whether it should be carried out, and if so, how. Under the Habitats Regulations it is an offence to deliberately disturb a bat (this applies anywhere, not just at its roost).
  • sell, offer or expose for sale, or possess or transport for the purpose of sale, any live or dead bat, any part of a bat, or anything derived from a bat. It is also an offence to publish, or cause to be published, any advertisement likely to be understood as conveying that they buy or sell, or intend to buy or sell, any live or dead bat, part of a bat or anything derived from a bat. Sale includes hire, barter and exchange. 
  • set and use articles capable of catching, injuring or killing a bat (for example a trap or poison),or knowingly cause or permit such an action. This includes sticky traps intended for animals other than bats. 
  • make a false statement to obtain a licence for bat work.
  • possess articles capable of being used to commit an offence, or to attempt to commit an offence. These are punishable in a like manner as for the actual offence.  

It is not illegal:

  • to take a disabled bat, for the sole purpose of tending it and releasing it when no longer disabled, as long as that person can show that it was not disabled unlawfully by them. 
  • to kill a bat, as long as that person can show that the bat was so seriously disabled, other than by their own unlawful act, that there was no reasonable chance of it recovering. 
  • if the otherwise illegal act was the incidental result of a lawful operation and could not reasonably have been avoided. However, this defence can only be relied on (other than in the living area of a dwelling house) if the Statutory Nature Conservation Organisation (SNCO), i.e. Natural England, the Countryside Council for Wales or Scottish Natural Heritage, was notified about the proposed action, and allowed reasonable time to advise as to whether it should be carried out, and if so, how.

Police and court powers

A police officer who suspects with reasonable cause that a person is committing – or has committed – an offence can stop and search them, search or examine any relevant thing in their possession, and seize it. They can also enter land other than a dwelling house without a warrant, or enter and search a dwelling house (with or without other persons) with a warrant. In England and Wales, the CRoW Act makes bat offences arrestable. 

The potential fine for each offence is £5,000. If more than one bat is involved, the fine is £5,000 per bat. In England and Wales an offender can also be imprisoned for six months. The forfeiture of any bat or other thing by the court is mandatory on conviction, and items used to commit the offence – vehicles, for example – may be forfeited.

Local authorities

The WCA requires every Local Authority to bring the Act to the attention of the public and schoolchildren, and allows the Local Authority to take prosecutions in its area.

IMPORTANT: if you find a sick or ailing bat, you should not approach or handle the animal but seek advice from the Bat Conservation Trust.