The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 created a number of criminal offences relating to wild birds, their nests and their eggs. These include:
- Intentionally killing, injuring or taking any wild bird (subject to certain exceptions – see below).
- Intentionally taking, damaging or destroying the nest or egg of any wild bird while it is in use or being built.
- Having in one’s possession or control any wild bird (dead or alive), any part of a wild bird, any egg or part of an egg which has been taken in contravention of the Act.
- Using traps to kill, injure or take wild birds.
- Having in one’s possession or control any bird listed in Schedule 4 of the Act unless they are registered, and in most cases ringed.
- intentionally or recklessly disturbing the wild birds listed in Schedule 1 of the Act while it is building a nest or is in, on, or near a nest containing eggs or young or disturbing dependent young of such a bird.
Although it is normally be a criminal offence to intentionally kill, injure or take a wild bird, there are exceptions to this outside of the close season. These include:
- Goose, Greylag (in Outer Hebrides, Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross);
The close season for such wild ducks and geese, is in or over any area below high-water mark of ordinary spring tide between 21 February and 31 August.
Game birds are not included in the Act’s definition of wild birds (except for limited parts of the Act). They are covered by the Game Acts, which fully protect them during the close season.
If someone finds a disabled wild bird it is permissible for them to take it for the purpose of tending it and releasing it when it is no longer disabled.
A person is also allowed to kill a wild bird they find injured if it has been so seriously disabled that there is no reasonable chance of it recovering.
Birds killed and injured by authorised persons
There is a defence available to the offence of killing or injuring certain wild birds by an ‘authorised person’ (eg, a landowner or occupier) to preserve public health or air safety, to prevent the spread of disease or serious damage to livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters.
For acts carried out for the prevention of serious damage to livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters, the person will have to show that there was no other satisfactory solution and will normally need to show they have a licence or have applied for a licence to carry out the act.
It is also legal to destroy a nest, egg or bird if it can be demonstrated that such an action was the incidental result of a lawful operation which could not reasonably have been avoided.
There are further exceptions to these offences for acts done pursuant to a requirement by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food under the Agriculture Act 1947 and for acts done pursuant to an order made under the Animal Health Act 1981.
Those found guilty of a criminal offence regarding a single bird, nest or egg contrary to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 face an unlimited fine, up to six months imprisonment or both.