Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

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The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom implemented to comply with the Directive 2009/147/EC on the conservation of wild birds and still in force as of 2011. In short, the act gives protection to native species (especially those at threat), controls the release of non-native species, enhances the protection of SSSIs 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.


1979-Berne Convention. Legally binding, covering most of the European continent and some states of Africa. Aims of the convention:

The UK ratified the convention and adopted the European Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds (among other directives).

1979-European Directive 79/409/EC on the Conservation of Wild Birds. The main provisions included:


1981-The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 along with several other acts were passed as UK legislation to comply with the European Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds:


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were repealed by the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

1982- The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was implemented.

1985- The UK ratified the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (1979). Adopted in Bonn, 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.

Part I: Wildlife[edit]

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

Introduction into the wild of species that are not native to Great Britain or are otherwise banned (Section 14): a list of affected animal and plant species was greatly expanded in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (Variation of Schedule 9) (England and Wales) Order 2010
The import or export of endangered species.

Part II: Nature Conservation, Countryside & National Parks[edit]

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

Sites of Special Scientific Interest
Limestone pavements
National nature reserves
Marine nature reserves

Part III: Public Rights of Way[edit]

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.

The duties of government bodies to identify, maintain and update records about Public Rights of Way and to keep maps showing rights of way under continuous review.
Updating may be required after the following:
  1. diversion of a highway
  2. extension of a highway
  3. widening of a highway
  4. stopping of a highway
  5. addition of a highway
  6. removal of a highway
  7. change in position of public path or traffic byway
  8. implementation of restrictions to public right of way
Rights of way are maintained at public expense.
An up to date map act as evidence that the public has right of way in relevant way (i.e. by foot on footpaths or on horseback on bridleways).
Changes of right of way requires a survey or review by the local surveying authority
Some responsibilities of owners of land crossed by a Public Right of Way
Regulation of traffic on Public Rights of Way

Part IV: Miscellaneous & General[edit]

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

"public path"- means a footpath or bridleway.
"footpath"- allows the public to use highway on foot.
"bridleway"- allows the public to use highway on foot, leading a horse or riding a horse.
"byway open to all traffic"- allows public to use highway for vehicles, on foot, leading a horse or riding a horse
"recognised dairy breed"- Ayrshire, British Friesian, British Holstein, Dairy Shorthorn, Guernsey, Jersey and Kerry.
"relevant conservation body"- Natural England or Countryside Council for Wales


The Act contains 17 schedules.

Schedules 1 to 10 relate to powers under the "Wildlife" part of the Act. Schedule 1 Lists over forty species of birds that are protected by special penalties. Schedule 2 lists Huntable birds and their close seasons.[5]

Schedules 11 to 13 relate to powers under Part II of the Act

Schedules 14 to 16 relate to powers under Part III of the Act

Schedule 17 lists previous legislation that was repealed in favour of this Act.


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.[6]

A secretary of state can add or remove species at any time.[6]

Main amendments to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981[edit]

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.[6]

1991- Amendment making it an offence to knowingly cause or permit to cause actions listed in sections 5 and 11.[7]

1995- Restricts licenses issued to control wild birds in order to reduce damage to crops, livestock, etc.[7]

1998- Variation of schedules 5 and 8; for example, Flamingo Moss (Desmatodon cernuus) was added to schedule 8 as well as 17 other species.[6]

1999- Variation of schedule 9; several species of deer were added to schedule 9.[6]

2004- Minor amendments of various words.[6]

Amendments from following legislation[edit]

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.[8]

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[edit]

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 Countryside Council of Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage[edit]

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

Regulated by the police[edit]

Within the police there are several aspects to regulating wildlife crime; intelligence, enforcement and prevention.[10]

The police are responsible for enforcing part I of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, often advised by Natural England[9] 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[edit]

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.[11]

Regulated by local authorities[edit]

Local authorities (e.g. Southampton City Council) are responsible for regulating public rights of way and enforcing rights of way legislation.[6] Issues such as obstructions and misleading signs are usually reported by members of the public and then are dealt with by the local authority.[12]

Monitored by[edit]


Land owners and occupiers[edit]

Public bodies/industry[edit]

Any person[edit]


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:

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


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


  1. ^ Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, Council of Europe, (2011) [Accessed: 24 March 2011]
  2. ^ JNCC, 2010
  3. ^ JNCC, 2010a
  4. ^ Naturenet, 2009
  5. ^ DEFRA Cross Compliance Handbook for England, 2006 edition
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Text of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as in force today (including any amendments) within the United Kingdom, from the UK Statute Law Database
  7. ^ a b Animal welfare law- fifteen years of progress, RSPCA, (2004) [Accessed: 27 March 2011]
  8. ^ SSSI legislative timeline, Defra (2009) [Accessed: 27 March 2011].
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t SSSI Enforcement Policy, Natural England, (2007) [Accessed: 23 March 2011].
  10. ^ IEEM, 2010
  11. ^ a b Regulators and Agencies, Environmentlaw, (2010) [Accessed: 27 March 2011]
  12. ^ a b Maintaining Public Rights of Way, Southampton City Council, (2009) [Accessed: 27 March 2011]
  13. ^ Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime, Defra, (2011) [Accessed: 27 March 2011]
  14. ^ RSPB, 2011

External links[edit]