Barn owl tyto alba, hunting across a field, Northumberland

Barn owls and the law

We receive many enquiries regarding captive barn owls, mostly from people who have seen one in captivity or advertised for sale.

Protecting barn owls

They are understandably concerned that owls are being kept illegally or in cruel conditions. This concern is that much greater because the barn owl is known to have declined in numbers as a wild bird in the UK.

The law

Wild barn owls are given the highest level of legal protection possible under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. Penalties that can be imposed for criminal offences in respect of a single bird, nest or egg contrary to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is an unlimited fine, up to six months imprisonment or both.

Offences include:

  • Killing or injuring a barn owl
  • Catching a barn owl
  • Taking or destroying any egg of a barn owl
  • Damaging or destroying the active nest site with eggs or young or before eggs are laid
  • Disturbing the dependent young of a barn owl
  • Possessing, offering for sale or selling a barn owl 
  • Release or allow the escape of a barn owl into the wild 

Captive barn owls

Despite their decline in the wild, barn owls breed very easily in captivity. There is a large population of legitimate captive birds.

In recognition of this, the law does not require captive barn owls to be registered. However, the law does insist that, to qualify for sale, barn owls must be captive bred and wear a close ring. This is a continuous metal ring of a size that can be slipped on to the leg of a nestling but not onto an adult. This procedure is intended to prevent wild adults being caught and sold.

The letters 'ABCR' which often appear in barn owl advertisements stand for 'Aviary Bred Close Ringed'. However, advertisements without these letters may still refer to birds that can be legally sold.

It is illegal to sell or attempt to sell any barn owl that is not both captive bred and close ringed.  The legal definition of 'captive bred' includes the proviso that the bird’s parents must themselves be captive bred.

As a result of 1997 legislation the sale of a barn owl, or commercial use of such a bird, also requires an 'Article 10' certificate to accompany the bird. Application forms for these can be obtained from the Department of Environment, Transport & the Regions (DETR), Wildlife Division, Tollgate House, Moulton Street, Bristol, BS2 9OJ.

As with other species, a proportion of the barn owls in captivity probably are taken illegally from the wild. While it is usually assumed that barn owls are held legally unless there is evidence to the contrary, it must be remembered that any person with a barn owl in their possession, whether for sale or not, close ringed or otherwise, could be called upon to prove that their possession is legal in a court of law.

Captive rear and release schemes

To help with the conservation of barn owls, some schemes have been set up to rear and release captive barn owls.

Many early schemes were unsuccessful and resulted in the death of most of the released birds. As a result, since January 1993 the release of barn owls into the wild has been illegal unless carried out under licence. 

Licence application forms may be obtainable from the DETR at Bristol. Applicants are required to comply with detailed guidelines. These procedures should help evaluate the effectiveness of captive rear and release schemes as a conservation measure.

Barn owl perched on a beam in a barn

Cruelty to barn owls

We assist the police in the enforcement of wild bird legislation and may wish to act upon any information received regarding offences involving wild barn owls.

We're principally concerned with the protection and conservation of birds in the wild and their habitats. We do receive enquiries about alleged cruelty to barn owls in captivity, but the welfare of captive birds is not an area in which we are active. 

Matters of welfare and cruelty fall within the remit of the RSPCA and SSPCA, who have an established network of inspectors experienced in these matters and backed up by the necessary veterinary expertise.

What to do

If you have evidence that law protecting wild barn owls has been broken, you should contact the local police asking for the Wildlife Liaison Officer (if available) or the RSPB Investigations Section at Sandy (01767 680551) or Edinburgh (0131 317 4100).

If you believe that captive birds are being cruelly treated, you should contact the local RSPCA branch (0870 5555 999) or SSPCA (0131 339 0222).