Wildlife and the Law: Your Questions

Wildlife law is necessarily complex, but the bottom line is that it has been successful in protecting much of Britain’s flora and fauna – and especially the most vulnerable or endangered species – to some degree.

Although getting to grips with the relevant Acts and instruments of legislation can be a real challenge, in simple terms, with very few exceptions, all British native wildlife enjoys a measure of protection – and even those officially classed as ‘pests’ must be treated humanely.

For the wildlife gardener, staying on the right side of the law doesn’t often pose too many problems, but there are still times when even the most well-meaning of us could do something illegal unintentionally – so it’s as well to know.

What’s protected?

Wild birds are protected and it is an offence to capture them or take their eggs from the wild, intentionally kill or injure them or to destroy their nests (though there are some exceptions for pest species).

A wide range of other creatures also enjoy full protection, principally under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and the list is reviewed and revised every five years. However, not all of the species are likely to be encountered in the garden – the list includes the harbour porpoise, all whales and dolphins, all kinds of marine turtles and the basking shark!

A number of invertebrates including a large range of moths, beetles and butterflies, two kinds of dragonflies, the mole cricket and the fen raft spider are protected, along with all bats, the great crested newt, natterjack toad and some mammals, such as the otter, dormouse and red squirrel.

Although this level of protection is reserved for the most endangered species, most others also enjoy varying degrees of protection, principally to stop them being killed, injured or sold.

What are the main pieces of legislation?

The main piece of legislation affecting England, Scotland and Wales is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and in Northern Ireland, the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.

In Scotland the other main relevant Act is the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act of 2004, while the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 affects England and Wales.

The Wild Mammals (Protection) Act, 1996 protects all wild mammals against cruelty.

What about badgers in the garden?

For many people, having badgers visit the garden is a delight, but there’s no escaping the fact that their antics – however engaging – can sometimes be a bit destructive!

The Protection of Badgers Act 1992 gives considerable protection to this most distinctive of British mammals and that protection also includes the area around their setts. By law any sett is deemed to be inhabited unless it can be shown beyond all doubt that it isn’t – and since all manner of penalties will rain down on anyone damaging or disturbing them, or allowing their dog to enter, play it safe and stay away!

What about wildflowers?

Although the discussion of wildlife law often tends to concentrate on wild animals, wild plants too get some protection and generally speaking, while it isn’t illegal to pick wildflowers, it is against the law to uproot any wild plant without the landowner’s permission.

In addition, just as is the case for animals, there are some plants – many of Britain’s rarest, including some native orchids and a small number of ferns – which merit special protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. As with wild animals, this list is also reviewed every five years.

Who can give me further advice on wildlife law?

Your own solicitor should be able to help, but it’s such a complex and refined area of law that you’re often best off taking to more of a specialist.

Many police forces have Wildlife Officers, while the likes of DEFRA, your local Wildlife Trust, or depending on where you live, English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage, Countryside Council for Wales or Northern Ireland Environment Agency may be able to help.

Although there are some pitfalls for the unwary, generally the average wildlife gardener is highly unlikely to do anything that will earn a visit from the boys in blue. If you simply enjoy watching the wildlife your garden attracts, take particular care not to disturb birds around their nest sites and don’t interfere with any of your wild visitors, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a great time and – best of all – stay entirely legal!

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