Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

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Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom (HM Government).svg
Long title An Act to repeal and re-enact with amendments the Protection of Birds Acts 1954 to 1967 and the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975; to prohibit certain methods of killing or taking wild animals; to amend the law relating to protection of certain mammals; to restrict the introduction of certain animals and plants; to amend the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act 1976; to amend the law relating to nature conservation, the countryside and National Parks and to make provision with respect to the Countryside Commission; to amend the law relating to public rights of way; and for connected purposes.
Territorial extentEngland & Wales; Scotland
Other legislation
Amended byThe Environment Act 1995 (Consequential Amendments) Regulations 1996
Status: Amended
Text of statute as originally enacted
Revised text of statute as amended

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom implemented to comply with European Council Directive 2009/147/EC on the conservation of wild birds. In short, the act gives protection to native species (especially those at threat), controls the release of non-native species, enhances the protection of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and builds upon the rights of way rules in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. The Act is split into 4 parts covering 74 sections; it also includes 17 schedules.


The legislation has strength; few amendments have been made to it, and it has acted as a foundation for later legislation to build upon. The compulsory 5 year review of schedules 5 and 8 make it dynamic in terms of the species which it protects.


Wild Birds Protection Act 1902

The Wild Birds Protection Act 1902 (2 Edw 7 c. 6) was an Act of Parliament of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, given the royal assent on 22 July 1902 and repealed in 1954.

It provided that where any person was convicted of an offence against the Wild Birds Protection Acts 1880 to 1896 (the 1880, 1881, 1894 and 1896 Acts), the court was empowered to dispose of any bird or bird's egg in respect of which the offence had been committed. [1] [2]

The Act was repealed and replaced by the Protection of Birds Act 1954. Bird Sanctuary Orders (BSOs) under this Act were replaced by Areas of Special Protection (AoSPs) under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. [3]

Birds Directive

The 1979 Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats covered the natural heritage of Europe, as well as in some African countries. It encouraged European co-operation in protecting natural habitats; and the conservation of flora and fauna, including migratory species and particularly endangered species.

The convention became open for signature on 19 September 1979 as a binding international legal instrument; it came into force on 1 June 1982. The UK ratified the convention and adopted the European Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds (among other directives). [4]

European Directive 79/409/EC on the Conservation of Wild Birds was adopted on 2 April 1979. The main provisions included: protection of vulnerable species; classification of Special Protection Areas, protection for all wild birds; and restrictions on killing/selling/keeping wild birds. [5]

From 1981 several acts have passed as UK legislation to comply with the European Directive on the Conservation. [6] The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 strengthened protection of SSSIs introduced by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. The pre-dated acts:

were repealed by the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. [7]

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 came into force in 1982. In 1985 the UK ratified the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (1979). Adopted in Bonn, West Germany in 1979 and coming into force in 1985, the Bonn Convention worked to conserve migratory species and their habitats. Listed in Appendix I are species which are endangered, Appendix II contains species which would benefit from international cooperation.

Appendix 1 migratory species listed in the convention were amended into the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Further UK legislation to comply with the European Directive on the Conservation include:


Part I: Wildlife

Part I includes sections 1 to 27 of the Act. The legislation contained in these sections covers:

Part II: Nature Conservation, Countryside & National Parks

Part II includes sections 28 to 52 of the Act. The legislation contained in these sections covers:

Part III: Public Rights of Way

Part III includes sections 53 to 66 of the Act. Building on the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 which required local authorities to draw up maps defining public rights of way.

Part IV: Miscellaneous & General

Part IV includes sections 67 to 74 of the Act. The legislation contained in these sections covers:


The Act contains 17 schedules.


There have been a few simple amendments to the Wildlife and Countryside Act, such as word changes, increase in fines, etc. Every 5 years the JNCC coordinates a compulsory review of schedules 5 and 8 to add new species that may need protection. [9]

A secretary of state can add or remove species at any time. [9]

Main amendments to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

  • 1985: Makes it necessary for local authorities to use Countryside Commission guidelines in deciding whether area with natural beauty are important to conserve. Amendments were made to SSSI documentation, notification periods and maintenance of registers. [9]
  • 1991: Amendment making it an offence to knowingly cause or permit to cause actions listed in sections 5 and 11. [10]
  • 1995: Restricts licenses issued to control wild birds in order to reduce damage to crops, livestock, etc. [10]
  • 1998: Variation of schedules 5 and 8; for example, Flamingo Moss (Desmatodon cernuus) was added to schedule 8 as well as 17 other species. [9]
  • 1999: Variation of schedule 9; several species of deer were added to schedule 9. [9]
  • 2004: Minor amendments of various words. [9]

Amendments from following legislation

  • 1990: The Environmental Protection Act 1990 established English Nature and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. JNCC made responsible for producing guidelines for SSSI selection.
  • 1994: Conservation Regulations 1994. Built on Part I protecting habitats and species by implementing the requirement to assess plans/projects that will impact on European Protected Species.
  • 2000: The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 strengthened protection of SSSIs; by increased English Nature's enforcement power (allowed to combat neglect, prevent damaging activity, make public bodies responsible for conservation and enhancement of SSSIs) and increasing penalties for damage to a maximum of £20,000 per offence (along with court power to order restoration if damage occurs). Improved public rights of way giving people access to mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land.
  • 2006: The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 merged English Nature and the Countryside Agency to create Natural England. Introduced new offences involving the intentional and reckless damage of SSSIs.
  • 2009: The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 allowed the creation of marine conservation zones and with the consent of the secretary of state, the creation of SSSIs below mean low water mark. [11]
  • 2011: The Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 made some major amendments with regard to control of non-native species, the protection of birds, protection of hares and rabbits and associated poaching.


Regulated by Natural England

As well as being a regulator of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, Natural England acts as an advisor (to individuals, companies, government, etc.) in relation to nature conservation. Additionally Natural England helps with land management through grants, projects and information.

Legally responsible for Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and enforce law when necessary. Damage, destruction or disturbance of SSSI habitats and features can lead to the following actions by Natural England:

Regulated by Natural Resources Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage

Similar responsibilities to Natural England, but responsible in Wales and Scotland, respectively.

Regulated by the police

Within the police there are several aspects to regulating wildlife crime; intelligence, enforcement and prevention. [13]

The police are responsible for enforcing part I of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, often advised by Natural England [12] and will investigate wildlife offences; usually performed by wildlife crime officers (WCOs).

The National Wildlife Crime Unit (NWCU) is a law enforcement unit which helps agencies with enforcement. Wildlife crime investigations, statistics and intelligence are provided.

Regulated by the Environment Agency

The Environment Agency deal with reports from the public in relation to wildlife crime; under duties to prosecute environmental crimes, offences such as damage to habitats and wildlife are included. The EA work closely with the RSPB and wildlife crime officers. [14]

Regulated by local authorities

Local authorities (e.g. Southampton City Council) are responsible for regulating public rights of way and enforcing rights of way legislation. [9] Issues such as obstructions and misleading signs are usually reported by members of the public and then are dealt with by the local authority. [15]

Monitored by


Land owners and occupiers

Public bodies/industry

Any person


Tried with regards to each separate animal/site involved. If multiple organisms or sites are involved then defendant tried per animal/site involved:


Exemptions to Part 1: Wildlife

There are various exemptions applied to part one providing protection for wildlife, thus no lawful act or offence will be committed, if:

  • an authorised person for example by obtaining a licence from Natural England or DEFRA kills or takes a wild bird, damages or destroys the nest of a bird and damages or removes eggs from the nest.
  • an authorised person for example has obtained a licence for killing or injuring an animal in schedule 5 and can provide sufficient evidence stating it was necessary to prevent damage and protect livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber and fisheries.
  • a wild bird or animal has been taken if injured and that person's intention is to tend and return the bird or animal to the wild when fully recovered. If it is so severely injured beyond recovery then it can be killed in the most humane way possible.

All sick and injured birds and animals which are being cared for must be registered with DEFRA.

  • it can be shown that the destruction of a nest, egg, bird, animal or an animal's shelter was accidental from a lawful operation and could not have been avoided.
  • an individual can provide evidence showing it was necessary to kill or injure a protected animal or bird in order to protect livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber and fisheries. [9]


Provided below is a list - probably incomplete - of documents modifying the W&C Act 1981.

Related Research Articles

Site of Special Scientific Interest Conservation designation denoting a protected area in the United Kingdom

A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Great Britain or an Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) in the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland is a conservation designation denoting a protected area in the United Kingdom and Isle of Man. SSSI/ASSIs are the basic building block of site-based nature conservation legislation and most other legal nature/geological conservation designations in the United Kingdom are based upon them, including national nature reserves, Ramsar sites, Special Protection Areas, and Special Areas of Conservation. The acronym "SSSI" is often pronounced "triple-S I".

English Nature was the United Kingdom government agency that promoted the conservation of wildlife, geology and wild places throughout England between 1990 and 2006. It was a non-departmental public body funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and gave statutory advice, grants and issued licences.

This page gives an overview of the complex structure of environmental and cultural conservation in the United Kingdom.

Scottish Natural Heritage is the public body responsible for Scotland's natural heritage, especially its natural, genetic and scenic diversity. It advises the Scottish Government and acts as a government agent in the delivery of conservation designations, i.e. national nature reserves, local nature reserves, long distance routes, national parks, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protection Areas and the national scenic areas. The protected areas in Scotland account for 20% of the total area, SSSIs alone 13%. SNH receives annual funding from the Government in the form of Grant in Aid to deliver Government priorities for the natural heritage. SNH programmes and priorities have a strong focus on helping to deliver the Scottish Government's National Outcomes and Targets which comprise the National Performance Framework.

New Forest Area in southern England

The New Forest is one of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in Southern England, covering southwest Hampshire and southeast Wiltshire. It was proclaimed a royal forest by William the Conqueror, featuring in the Domesday Book. Pre-existing rights of common pasture are still recognised today, being enforced by official verderers. In the 18th century, The New Forest became a source of timber for the Royal Navy. It remains a habitat for many rare birds and mammals.

Hunting Act 2004 United Kingdom legislation

The Hunting Act 2004 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which bans the hunting of wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales; the Act does not cover the use of dogs in the process of flushing out an unidentified wild mammal, nor does it affect drag hunting, where hounds are trained to follow an artificial scent.

Natural England is a non-departmental public body in the United Kingdom sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is responsible for ensuring that England's natural environment, including its land, flora and fauna, freshwater and marine environments, geology and soils, are protected and improved. It also has a responsibility to help people enjoy, understand and access the natural environment.

Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 UK Act of Parliament concerning freedom to roam

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United Kingdom Biodiversity Action Plan

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The Geological Conservation Review (GCR) is produced by the UK's Joint Nature Conservation Committee and is designed to identify those sites of national and international importance needed to show all the key scientific elements of the geological and geomorphological features of Britain. These sites display sediments, rocks, minerals, fossils, and features of the landscape that make a special contribution to an understanding and appreciation of Earth science and the geological history of Britain, which stretches back more than three billion years. The intention of the project, which was devised in 1974 by George Black and William Wimbledon working for the Governmental advisory agency, the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC), was activated in 1977. It aimed to provide the scientific rationale and information base for the conservation of geological SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest, protected under British law. The NCC and country conservation agencies were established in 1990 when JNCC became established and took over responsibility for managing the GCR site assessment process, and publishing accounts of accepted sites.

Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 Act of the Parliament of India

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Wildlife inspector

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The Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) is a registered British charity dedicated to the conservation of bats and their habitats in the UK. BCT was founded in 1991 and is the only national organisation solely devoted to bats. Its vision is a world where bats and people live in harmony. BCT currently has a membership of around 5,600, including individuals, families, teachers and youth workers and corporate businesses.

Wildlife law in England and Wales is the law relating to the protection of wildlife in England and Wales. The law is considered by some as "confusing" and "complicated", and containing "inconsistencies", in November 2013 the Law Commission consulted about the possibility of reform. Much of existing UK law dates from pre-Victorian times. Wildlife was viewed as a resource to be utilised by the landowner or occupier, phrases such as "game" or "sporting rights” appear. Public opinion is now much more in favour of protection of birds and mammals rather than the landowners’ interests.

Havannah Nature Reserve lies to the west of the village of Hazlerigg, approximately five miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne in the north of England. It was declared a nature reserve in 1998 and is designated a Site of Local Conservation Interest. A wildlife corridor runs through the site.

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Protected areas of Scotland

Many parts of Scotland are protected in accordance with a number of national and international designations because of their environmental, historical or cultural value. Protected areas can be divided according to the type of resource which each seeks to protect. Scottish Natural Heritage has various roles in the delivery of many environmental designations in Scotland, i.e. those aimed at protecting flora and fauna, scenic qualities and geological features. Historic Environment Scotland is responsible for designations that protect sites of historic and cultural importance. Some international designations, such as World Heritage Sites, can cover both categories of site.

Quarry Moor Site of Special Scientific Interest in North Yorkshire, England

Quarry Moor is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, or SSSI, at the south edge of Ripon, North Yorkshire, England, and adjacent to the A61 road. It contains an outcrop of Magnesian Limestone, exposed by former quarrying. 255 million years ago this limestone was the peripheral sediment of a tropical sea. The land was donated in 1945 to the people of Ripon by the town's mayor, Alderman Thomas Fowler Spence, a varnish manufacturer. The land was notified as an SSSI in 1986 because its calcareous grassland supported a large diversity of plant species. The site features a Schedule 8 protected plant, thistle broomrape. The land is protected as a nature reserve, and it is also managed as a recreational area. Therefore, its calcareous grass area is fenced off for protection and study, but it also contains a car park, information signs, a children's play area, accessible paths, benches, and dog waste bins.

Bishop Monkton Ings Site of Special Scientific Interest in North Yorkshire, England

Bishop Monkton Ings is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, or SSSI, situated east of Bishop Monkton village in North Yorkshire, England. It consists mostly of marshy, calcareous grassland, with some broadleaved woodland, and some fen alongside the two watercourses which run through the site. This varied wetland forms a habitat for a variety of plants, including the semi-parasitic marsh lousewort (Pedicularis palustris).

Kirk Deighton SSSI Site of Special Scientific Interest in North Yorkshire, England

Kirk Deighton SSSI is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in Alton's Field, Kirk Deighton, North Yorkshire, England. This site has been recognised as having one of the largest known breeding populations of great crested newts in the United Kingdom. It is a Special Area of Conservation, and is listed for protection under a number of directives. This ordinary-looking grassland field, with a couple of ponds in it, is ideal habitat for the newts, which use the grassland for foraging, the ponds for breeding, and surrounding walls, hedges and woodpiles for hibernation. The site is not accessible to the public, and it is not permissible to survey the ponds without a licence.


  1. The Public General Acts Passed in the Second Year of the Reign of His Majesty King Edward the Seventh. London: printed for His Majesty's Stationery Office. 1902.
  2. Chronological table of the statutes; HMSO, London. 1993.
  3. "Protected areas designations directory". Joint Nature Conservation Committee. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  4. Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, Council of Europe, (2011) [Accessed: 24 March 2011]
  5. JNCC, 2010
  6. JNCC, 2010a
  7. Naturenet, 2009
  8. DEFRA Cross Compliance Handbook for England, 2006 edition
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Text of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from legislation.gov.uk .
  10. 1 2 Animal welfare law- fifteen years of progress, RSPCA, (2004) [Accessed: 27 March 2011]
  11. SSSI legislative timeline, Defra (2009) [Accessed: 27 March 2011].
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 SSSI Enforcement Policy, Natural England, (2007) [Accessed: 23 March 2011].
  13. IEEM, 2010
  14. 1 2 Regulators and Agencies, Environmentlaw, (2010) [Accessed: 27 March 2011]
  15. 1 2 Maintaining Public Rights of Way, Southampton City Council, (2009) [Accessed: 27 March 2011]
  16. Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime, Defra, (2011) [Accessed: 27 March 2011]
  17. RSPB, 2011