Duty to provide and protect habitat for wild birds

Competent authorities must help to protect wild bird habitats on land and at sea, and avoid pollution to protect wild bird populations.

Applies to England and Wales

As a competent authority, you must help to provide, protect and restore habitats for wild birds. This will help to make sure there are healthy populations of wild birds in their natural habitats across England and Wales.

The wild bird habitat duty applies to all competent authorities. These include:

  • local authorities
  • the Environment Agency
  • Natural England
  • Natural Resources Wales
  • the Forestry Commission and Forestry England
  • national park authorities and the Broads authorities
  • the Marine Management Organisation
  • Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities

You must take appropriate steps to help:

  • preserve, manage and re-establish habitat that is large and varied enough for wild birds to support and maintain their populations in the long term
  • avoid any pollution or deterioration of wild bird habitat as far as possible

Your duty to provide and protect wild bird habitats applies when you carry out your functions, for example, when you:

  • manage land that you own or occupy
  • make plans or strategies to decide where activities or development should take place
  • take decisions that might affect wild bird habitats, such as giving permissions or consents
  • get a request from someone to use your powers to protect wild bird habitats
  • carry out your own statutory work affecting land with wild bird habitats

You must use your judgement to decide what is appropriate action. You should get an ecologist to help if you’re not sure. In most cases, the action you should already be taking to protect and enhance the natural environment will benefit the habitats of wild birds.

In England, read about how to meet your biodiversity duty.

In Wales, read about your biodiversity and resilience of ecosystems duty.

When you carry out your duties you should aim to provide or protect habitat that allows wild bird populations to maintain their numbers in the areas where they naturally live.

You should consider habitats used by wild bird species that are in decline and also habitats supporting wild birds with healthy populations.

You should keep evidence to show how you have complied with your duty for wild bird habitats. Government ministers, Natural England or Natural Resources Wales may ask for this evidence.

Identify areas with wild bird habitat

To help you comply with this duty you should find out where wild bird habitats are found. This includes land, water and marine areas.

For all areas that you own, manage or have influence over, you should identify the:

  • wild bird habitat types
  • wild bird species

Identify wild bird habitat type

You should identify the habitats that are being used by wild birds currently or that could be used by wild birds in the future.

To find out where habitats and species are, you can:

Designated wildlife sites will usually protect wild birds and their habitats, whether or not they are designated for them. Designated sites include special protection areas, special areas of conservation, wetlands of international importance (Ramsar sites), marine conservation zones and sites of special scientific interest.

Protected landscapes in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty will also contain important areas of wild bird habitat.

If you’re a local authority you should identify and map wild bird habitat in your area, including land that has the potential to provide such habitat. You should make policies to protect and enhance these areas in line with national planning guidance. Read more about in England: the public authority duty to conserve biodiversity, in Wales: the biodiversity and resilience of ecosystems duty.

Identify wild bird species

You should identify the species of wild bird that use these habitats now or could do in the future, particularly those with declining populations. For example using:

Protect wild bird habitats

Once you have identified areas as important for wild birds, you must take appropriate steps to preserve, maintain or establish the habitats, or create new ones.

You can do this in different ways, it will depend on the site and your functions. For example, if it’s relevant you should:

  • take on the management or control of areas of land with wild bird habitat
  • consider how to protect, restore or create wild bird habitats when you consult on or grant permissions, such as planning permissions, licences, environmental permits or consents
  • incorporate measures to maintain or improve bird habitats when you administer funding such as grant schemes or agricultural funds
  • consider the conservation of wild birds and their habitats when you create strategic plans like development control, marine or land use plans
  • protect important examples of wild bird habitat in your area by designating them as local wildlife sites

As well as considering how decisions on land use or the marine environment could harm wild bird habitats, consider how your decision might benefit wild birds and their habitats.

To improve wild bird habitat conditions you could, for example:

  • designate and manage your own land for conservation, considering where you can make improvements to wild bird habitats
  • enter your land into schemes such as Countryside Stewardship in England, or Glastir in Wales, if it’s eligible

Planning and development control

If you’re a local planning authority you should use planning and development control to conserve and enhance the natural environment. This is set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (England) and Planning Policy Wales. This will include wild bird habitats.

Planning authorities should:

You should follow the guidance to help you protect and enhance the natural environment in England or in Wales, the biodiversity and resilience of ecosystems duty.

Wild bird habitat types

There are no specific methods you must use for maintaining, improving or creating habitats for wild birds. Different methods may be suitable for different types of wild bird habitat. You should also consider the appropriate scale for each type of management.

This guide includes some examples of how you might be able to conserve wild bird habitats. You will need to decide what is relevant and appropriate to you. You should get advice from an ecologist if you’re not sure.

Lowland farmland habitats

You can help wild birds on lowland farmland by working with local farmers and ensuring there are habitats large and varied enough on arable and pastoral land.

Lowland farmland includes arable and grass fields, hedgerows and other habitats that are not farmed but are associated with lowland agriculture, such as ditches.

Examples of farmland wild birds include the kestrel, corn bunting, grey partridge, turtle dove and yellowhammer.

Improve lowland farmland for wild birds

You can improve lowland farmland habitats for wild birds in different ways. For example, you could:

Upland habitats

Uplands include both of the following:

  • rocky habitats such as screes, ledges and mountain habitats
  • areas with specific vegetation, such as heaths, bogs and rough grasslands found above the 250 to 400m upper limit of an agricultural enclosure

These open habitats have important connections with other habitats including native woodlands and freshwaters. They’re found in mid and north Wales, the North York Moors, the Pennines, the Lake District, the Peak Districts and Exmoor.

Examples of upland wild birds include the curlew, peregrine falcon, hen harrier and ring ouzel.

Improve uplands for wild birds

You can improve upland habitats for wild birds in different ways. For example, you could:

  • allow the ground to hold water through rewetting or ditch blocking
  • only allow appropriate burning on land that you own or manage
  • manage the number of grazing animals - overgrazing can decrease biodiversity, and under-grazing can lead to too many shrubs and bushy plants
  • cut meadows and pastures (guidance from the RSPB) at the appropriate time of year and use wildlife friendly mowing practices (guidance from the RSPB)
  • create a variety of habitats where it’s appropriate to do so, such as blanket bog, wet and dry heath, scrub or woodland
  • carry out large-scale restoration where habitats are badly degraded or target help to wild birds in decline, for example the twite
  • control predators appropriately to allow ground-nesting wild birds of conservation importance including the black grouse, curlew, lapwing and golden plover to use suitable habitat - you might need to apply for a wildlife licence to do this

Woodland habitats

Woodland areas include:

  • broadleaved and conifer woodland
  • wood-pastures and parklands
  • wet woodland - with alder, birch and willow
  • upland oak or ash woods

Examples of woodland wild birds include the chaffinch, lesser spotted woodpecker, hawfinch and song thrush.

Improve woodland areas for wild birds

You can support wild birds by encouraging the management of woodlands to create a more varied woodland structure. This will help wild bird populations to breed on a long-term basis. For example, you could:

  • provide trees, bushes and plants of different species and ages
  • leave any decaying and dead wood
  • create rides and glades to make open spaces within the woodland to increase habitat diversity
  • expand areas of woodland in the right places by allowing the natural regeneration of trees and shrubs or by planting them, as appropriate
  • restore traditional practices, such as coppicing or grazing
  • control grazing by large deer populations

You may need to apply for a tree felling licence before you begin any woodland management. See the guidance for England: tree felling licence or Wales: tree felling licence.

You can find out more about how to improve habitats in relevant woodland and forest guidelines:

You can also:

Lowland heathland

Lowland heathland is found on acidic, sandy or peaty soils, and usually features a range of dwarf shrubs. It’s common in the coastal counties of Suffolk, Somerset, the Gower, Pembrokeshire, the Llyn Peninsula and Anglesey.

You can also find lowland heathland inland, for example in the Thames basin, Breckland, the Midlands, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, south Wales valleys and Snowdonia.

Examples of lowland heathland wild birds include the nightjar, woodlark and stonechat.

Improve lowland heathland for wild birds

You can improve lowland heathland for wild birds in different ways. For example, you could:

Freshwater wetland habitats

Freshwater wetlands occur in lowland and upland areas. They include:

  • lakes, ponds and reservoirs
  • swamps, marshes, bogs, floodplains and fen
  • rivers, streams and ditches

Examples of freshwater wetland wild birds include the mute swan, bittern, mallard duck and kingfisher.

Improve freshwater wetlands for wild birds

You can improve freshwater wetlands for wild birds in different ways. For example, you could:

  • improve water quality by controlling diffuse pollution from agriculture and industrial land
  • manage water levels to avoid extremes of flooding and drying out
  • restore rivers and catchment areas, such as when planning flood defences
  • plans to restore habitats before, during and after mineral extraction
  • improve the water environment through river basin management plans in England and river basin management plans in Wales

Marine and coastal habitats

Marine and coastal areas include:

  • coastal cliffs, slopes, lagoons, sand dunes and shingle banks
  • saltmarsh and mudflats
  • inshore and offshore reefs
  • sea grass and mollusc beds on which wild birds may depend for food

Examples of marine and coastal wild birds include terns, puffins and gulls.

Improve marine and coastal habitats for wild birds

Marine and coastal areas for wild birds may be designated as special protection areas.

These areas support the breeding success and survival rates of wild seabirds by improving feeding conditions and managing activities that might disturb them.

You should adopt a sustainable approach to coastal defences. This includes the managed realignment of coastal habitats, where flood defences are altered to allow a defended area to flood, creating new intertidal habitat.

You can also:

  • support sustainable fisheries and shellfisheries, such as using funding and decision making on licensing and byelaws
  • place new offshore infrastructure, like wind farms, where it will have the least impact
  • carry out marine planning for England and marine planning for Wales that supports wild birds, such as encouraging developments that consider wildlife and the environment

Urban habitats

Urban habitats include a wide range of city centre streets, public parks, gardens, derelict and undeveloped areas.

Examples of urban wild birds include the swift, house sparrow and starling.

Improve urban habitats for wild birds

You can use urban planning measures to provide wild bird habitat, and promote the benefits for biodiversity.

To protect wild bird habitats in urban areas you can:

You can also:

  • design and create green infrastructure to maintain and enhance biodiversity
  • improve habitat, such as managing hedgerows and road verges, and creating wildlife corridors
  • carry out planning and development control
  • carry out projects to create habitat, such as creating wetlands or wildflower meadows
Published 25 February 2016
Last updated 20 October 2021 + show all updates
  1. Updated guide to focus on competent authorities duty to provide and protect wild bird habitats.

  2. First published.