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Wild Birds – Protected or not?

A great number of the questions that we get asked refer to nuisance birds such as Magpies and Gulls. Are they a protected species? What can I do to stop magpies attacking the birds in my garden and so on?

I’ve therefore decided to try to get all the information together here to make it easier to know how to deal with these pest birds and still act within the law. The birds referred to here are pest birds. The law regarding gamebirds and birds of prey is not covered here. Basically in the UK, all wild birds, their nests and their eggs are protected by law.

In England, Scotland and Wales the legislation that protects wild birds is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and in Northern Ireland, The Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. In England and Wales the law has been amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and in Scotland by the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.

The amount of protection afforded to wild birds varies depending on whether the species are listed on various Schedules or Licences.

Basic protection

All birds, their nests and eggs are protected by law and it is thus an offence, with certain exceptions, to:

  • intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird
  • intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird whilst it is in use or being built
  • intentionally take or destroy the egg of any wild bird
  • have in one’s possession or control any wild bird, dead or alive, or any part of a wild bird, which has been taken in contravention of the Act or the Protection of Birds Act 1954
  • have in one’s possession or control any egg or part of an egg which has been taken in contravention of the Act or the Protection of Birds Act 1954
    use traps or similar items to kill, injure or take wild birds
  • have in one’s possession or control any bird of a species occurring on Schedule 4 of the Act unless registered, and in most cases ringed, in accordance with the Secretary of State’s regulations (such birds include hawks, falcons, eagles, kites, tits etc.)
  • 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 (birds on schedule 1 include gulls, some tits, swans, some eagles, falcons etc)

There are exceptions to the offences created by the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.

  • 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 permissible under the terms of General Licences issues by government departments.
  • 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 lawful 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.
  • 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.

A licence is needed to carry out species control where exceptions apply

There are three types of licence:

  1. General – a set of standardised licences that anyone who satisfies the eligibility criteria may use. They reduce bureaucracy by allowing people to carry out activities that affect protected species without the need to apply for a personal licence. You DO NOTneed to apply for these licences, they can be found online, but you must ensure you abide by their conditions.
  2. Class – these represent a ‘middle way’ between General Licences and Individual Licences. You DO NOTneed to apply for these, except for a limited number of cases, but you DOneed to register for them.
  3. Individual – tailored licences which you DOneed to apply for and which are judged on a case by case basis.

General licences

General licences are issued by government agencies to provide a legal basis for people to carry out a range of activities relating to wildlife. By definition you do not need to apply for general licencesbut you are required by law to abide by their terms and conditions.

General licences are renewed annually in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These general licences are made available on the websites of the relevant government agencies and include those general licences relevant to the all year round control of ‘pest birds’ such as carrion and hooded crows, magpies and woodpigeon. Control methods allowed under general licence may include shooting; the destruction of eggs and nests; and the use of cage traps such as larsen traps, larsen mates and multi-catch traps.

General Licences are only used for activities that carry a low risk for the conservation or welfare of the protected species and where a personal licence would be routinely issued. General Licences reduce bureaucracy by allowing people to carry out activities that affect protected species. You do not need to apply for a General Licence.

If you plan to act under the authority of a General Licence, you must:

  • Be satisfied that you are eligible to do so (eligibility is licence-specific and in most cases there is a condition preventing use of the licences by persons who are convicted of wildlife crimes after 01 January 2010)
  • act within the provisions of the relevant General Licence and therefore the law. This means that it is your responsibility to read the conditions of the licence to ensure that your situation is covered, and to comply with these conditions. However, you do not need to carry a paper copy of the relevant General Licence.
  • Some General Licences require annual reporting of actions carried out.
  • If there is no General Licence or Class Licence relevant to your situation, you will need to apply for an Individual Licence.

Please note that most General Licences are valid from 1 January until 31 December each year. When licences are renewed on 1 January changes may be made to the terms and conditions or to the accompanying advice. You must read the latest version of any licence you intend to use before you use it for the first time each calendar year

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