The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981


The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 consolidates and amends existing national legislation to implement the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention) and Council Directive 79/409/EEC on the conservation of wild birds (Birds Directive) in Great Britain (NB Council Directive 79/409/EEC has now been replaced by Directive 2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on the conservation of wild birds (codified version)).  Equivalent provisions for Northern Ireland are contained within the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985  and the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.


The Act received royal assent on 30 October 1981. It is supplemented by the Wildlife and Countryside (Service of Notices) Act 1985, which relates to notices served under the 1981 Act. Various amendments have occurred since the original enactment, some of the most significant being via the


There are also numerous country-specific Orders pertaining to Variation of Schedules of the Act.


In Northern Ireland legislative amendments have taken place through the Wildlife (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1995  and the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002.


The original Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 text is available and an updated version is available on website.


There is also a statutory five-yearly review of Schedules 5 and 8 (protected wild animals and plants respectively) and period review of Schedule 9 (in relation to non-native species).  These reviews are undertaken by the country agencies and coordinated by JNCC. Containing four Parts and 17 Schedules, the Act covers protection of wildlife (birds, and some animals and plants), the countryside, National Parks, and the designation of protected areas, and public rights of way. (Further details on the Schedules>>>)


Wildlife - Birds

The Act makes it an offence (with exception to species listed in Schedule 2) to intentionally:

  • kill, injure, or take any wild bird,
  • take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built (also [take, damage or destroy the nest of a wild bird included in Schedule ZA1] under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006), or
  • take or destroy an egg of any wild bird.


Special penalties are available for offences related to birds listed on Schedule 1, for which there are additional offences of disturbing these birds at their nests, or their dependent young. The Secretary of State may also designate Areas of Special Protection (subject to exceptions) to provide further protection to birds. The Act also prohibits certain methods of killing, injuring, or taking birds, restricts the sale and possession of captive bred birds, and sets standards for keeping birds in captivity.


Wildlife - other animals

The Act makes it an offence (subject to exceptions) to intentionally ([or recklessly] - only under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004) kill, injure or take any wild animal listed on Schedule 5, and prohibits interference with places used for shelter or protection, or intentionally disturbing animals occupying such places. The Act also prohibits certain methods of killing, injuring, or taking wild animals.


Wildlife - Vascular plants, bryophytes, lichens and fungi (plants)

The Act makes it an offence (subject to exceptions)

  • to intentionally) pick, uproot or destroy:
    • any wild plant listed in Schedule 8, or
    • any seed or spore attached to any such wild plant (only under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004));
  • unless an authorised person, to intentionally ([or recklessly] - only under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004) uproot any wild plant not included in Schedule 8,
  • to sell, offer or expose for sale, or possess (for the purposes of trade), any live or dead wild plant included in Schedule 8, or any part of, or anything derived from, such a plant.


Non-avian animals and plants (vascular plants, bryophytes, lichens and fungi) on Schedules 5 and 8 are reviewed every five years in a process called the Quinquennial Review. Animals and plants found on schedules 5 and 8 are listed on a spreadsheet of conservation designations for UK taxa.


Wildlife - Non-native Species

The Act contains measures for preventing the establishment of non-native species which may be detrimental to native wildlife, prohibiting the release of animals and planting of plants listed in Schedule 9  in England and Wales. It also provides a mechanism making any of the above offences legal through the granting of licences by the appropriate authorities. Schedule 9 -  March 2015.


In Scotland, the release offences are different and take a general ‘no-release’ approach. Where exceptions are needed, they are provided through secondary legislation.  For a list of exempted species, please see the latest Wildlife and Countryside Act (Exceptions to Section 14) Amendment Order on the Scottish Government’s website.  In addition, the Code of Practice on Non-Native Species describes some circumstances which are not considered to be releasing an animal or planting in the wild.


Quinquennial Review

Every five years, the statutory nature conservation agencies Natural England, Natural Resources Wales (formally Countryside Council for Wales) and Scottish Natural Heritage, working jointly through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), are required to review Schedules 5 and 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and to make recommendations to the Secretary of State and Ministers for the Environment. Schedule 5 lists animals (other than birds) which are specially protected, and Schedule 8 lists plants (vascular plants, bryophytes, lichens and fungi) which are specially protected.


The statutory nature conservation bodies and JNCC prepare recommendations which are sent to the Joint Committee for approval prior to being submitted as JNCC advice to Defra and the Devolved Administrations in Great Britain.


There have been five QQRs and recommendations from the sixth QQR are under review.


5th QQR  was submitted by JNCC in 2008. Defra and the Welsh Government responded to these recommendations in 2010.


Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other protected areas


Sections 28 to 33 of Part 2 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act detail the law regarding SSSIs. See Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Sections 34 to 53 deal with other protected areas within Great Britain.


The Act provides for the notification and confirmation of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) – these sites are identified for their flora, fauna, geological or physiographical features – by the country conservation bodies in England (Natural England) and Wales (Natural Resources Wales). (NB In Scotland similar powers are afforded to Scottish Natural Heritage under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and in Northern Ireland the Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside have powers under the Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002) to designate Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs).

A notification must be served on the relevant local planning authority, all land owners and occupiers, and the Secretary of State, specifying the time period within which representations and objections may be made. The country conservation bodies must consider these responses and may withdraw or confirm the notification, with or without amendment. The Act also contains measures for the protection and management of SSSIs.


The Act provides for the making of Limestone Pavement Orders, which prohibit the disturbance and removal of limestone from such designated areas, and the designation of Marine Nature Reserves.The Act prohibits the undertaking of agricultural or forestry operations on land within National Parks which has been either moor or heath for 20 years, without consent from the relevant planning authority. Planning authorities are also required to make available to the public up to date maps of moor and heath land within National Parks, which are important for the conservation of natural beauty.


March 2015