What Does the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 do?

Learn about the main law that protects wild birds in the UK. How the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 protects birds

Little Grebe in summer plumage with their chicks in a nest.
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Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

This act offers protection to wild birds, their eggs and nests in England, Scotland and Wales. Note that certain parts of the Act apply differently to Scotland. Follow this link to find out more. Generally, subject to certain exceptions, it makes it illegal to do any of the following:

  • Intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird.
  • Intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built.
  • Intentionally take or destroy the egg of any wild bird.
  • Possess wild birds (dead or alive) and their eggs
  • Use traps, poison or similar items to kill, injure or take wild birds.

Intentionally or recklessly disturb any wild bird listed on Schedule 1 while it is nest building, or at a nest containing eggs or young, or disturb the dependent young of such a bird. To find out more about schedules, follow this link.

To intentionally or recklessly disturb Capercaillie at their leks in Scotland.

Apart from Scotland, game birds are mainly covered by the Game Acts, which fully protect them during the closed (breeding) season.

The Wildlife Northern Ireland Order 1985

In Northern Ireland birds are protected under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. For further information please follow this link.   

What happens if you disturb a bird’s nest?

It is illegal to disturb Schedule 1 species when actively nesting or with dependent young, but disturbance of any nesting bird should be avoided at all costs. Maintenance works, such as hedge trimming, and building work should ideally be completed outside of the main nesting season during autumn and winter to avoid disturbance. Thorough checks should be made prior to any work carried out during the nesting season to ensure there are no birds present at the time.

A Wood Pigeon broods in its nest covered by ivy and twigs.

Laws around the keeping, sale & killing of birds

The sale of live & dead wild birds and their eggs

Unless specifically allowed under the Act, or appropriately licensed, it is illegal to sell, offer for sale, possess, or transport for sale or exchange any live or dead wild birds or their eggs. Exceptions include:

  • A live bird listed on Schedule 3, Part 1 of the Act if it has been bred in captivity and close ringed with an approved ring as defined in the regulations
  • Other live birds if covered by a General Licence (see Licences)
  • At certain times the sale of some dead birds (quarry species) listed on Schedule 3 of the Act
  • The sale of some dead wild birds (including taxidermy specimens) if covered by a General Licence.
  • Sale of gamebirds in Scotland as regulated under the Act.

Note that sales and commercial use of most birds of prey, owls and a few other species are also covered by additional legislation relating to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  General Licences refer to this where relevant.

A Tawny Owl asleep in it's hollow in an oak tree during autumn with orange leaves surrounding the bird.

The exhibition of wild birds

It is illegal to show at any competition, or in premises in which a competition is being held, any live wild birds unless listed on Schedule 3, Part I and which are captive bred and ringed in accordance with the regulations or covered by a General Licence (see Licences).

The killing and taking of birds

Section 5 of the WCA 1981 prohibits the use of certain methods of killing or taking wild birds in England, Scotland and Wales, and under the Wildlife Northern Ireland Order 1985 Part 2(6). These include the use of illegal traps, poisons, particular decoy methods and the use of certain weapons. It is also against the law to cause or permit such methods to be used.

Birds in captivity

It is legal to keep native birds in captivity if they have been bred in captivity from lawfully captive parents, but the responsibility rests with the owner to prove this if challenged. Additionally, some species listed on Schedule 4 of the Act have to be ringed and registered with Defra (see Schedules).

It is illegal to keep any bird, excluding poultry, in a cage or other enclosure which is not large enough to allow the bird to stretch its wings freely. Exceptions to this are if the bird is undergoing veterinary treatment, is being transported, or is being exhibited. In the case of exhibition, the bird should not be confined in this way for more than 72 hours.

Close portrait of a Barn Owl, with tilted head, staring into the lens.

Exceptions to the Wildlife & Countryside Act

The most notable exceptions to the Wildlife and Countryside Act include:

  • An authorised person (eg a landowner or occupier) may kill or take, in certain situations and by certain methods, so called 'pest species' and destroy or take the nest or eggs of such a bird. This is allowed under the terms of General Licences issues by government departments (see Licences).
  • It is not illegal to destroy a nest, egg or bird if it can be shown that the act was the incidental result of a legal operation which could not reasonably have been avoided.
  • A person may kill or injure a wild bird, other than one included on Schedule 1, if they can show, subject to a number of specific conditions, that their action was necessary to preserve public health or air safety, prevent spread of disease, or prevent serious damage to livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, or fisheries (contact Defra for more information).
  • A person may take or kill (or injure in attempting to kill) a bird listed on Schedule 2, Part I, outside the close season (see Schedules).
  • A person may take a wild bird if the bird has been injured other than by their own hand and their sole purpose is to tend it and then release it when no longer disabled. These provisions enable people to care for sick, injured or orphaned birds. Additionally, a wild bird may be killed if it is so seriously disabled as to be beyond recovery. Sick and injured birds listed on Schedule 4 should be registered with Defra.


Licences may be issued by the government to specific persons for specific reasons, for example to a bird ringer to allow the catching of birds for scientific study, or they may be eneral licences which are issued countrywide.

Licences may be issued by the government, to permit an otherwise illegal act for the following purposes:

  • Scientific or educational work
  • Ringing or marking
  • Conserving flora or fauna
  • Re-introduction schemes
  • Protecting any collection of wild birds
  • Public exhibition or competition
  • Falconry or aviculture
  • Photography
  • Taxidermy
  • Preserving public health or air safety
  • Preventing spread of disease
  • Preventing serious damage to livestock, food for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber or fisheries
  • Killing a gannet for food on the island of Sula Sgeir
  • Taking certain gulls' eggs for food or, at any time before 15 April, a Lapwing's egg.
  • General Licences. The government issues annually a series of General Licences which permit certain acts which would otherwise be against the law. They are not issued to specific persons but are posted on the internet for general use. They are subject to strict terms and conditions and anyone intending to use one of these licences must read them very carefully. Failure to comply could lead to an illegal act being committed.
Lone Lapwing, stood in long grass

Among the most widely used General Licences are the ones which permit, subject to conditions, the following acts:

  • The killing or taking of certain ‘pest species’, or the destruction of their nests or eggs, by authorised persons for the purposes of preventing the spread of disease or serious damage to livestock, agriculture or fisheries interests, preserving air safety, conserving wild birds and preserving public health and public safety.
  • The competitive showing of certain captive bred birds.
  • The removal and destruction of abandoned eggs from nest boxes outside the breeding season.
  • The exhibition of certain captive bred birds for competitive purposes.
  • The sale of certain captive bred birds.
  • The sale of dead wild birds (includes taxidermy specimens) which were lawfully acquired.

For a full list of General Licences, please follow the links to the Natural England, Nature ScotNatural Resources Wales and DAERA websites.

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