Wild birds: protection and licences

What you must do to avoid harming birds and when you’ll need a licence.

Applies to England

All wild bird species, their eggs and nests are protected by law. You must always try to avoid harming birds or to use measures which do not kill or injure them before considering taking harmful action.

In most cases you should be able to avoid harming wild birds by:

  • timing your work to avoid the breeding season
  • using a range of methods that deter but don’t harm them

In exceptional cases the law allows certain exemptions to permit legal activities (such as a development with planning permission) and where avoiding harm isn’t possible. You may also be able to get a licence from Natural England for certain activities if you need to remove wild birds because they’re causing problems.

If wild birds are causing you problems, there are ways to deal with them legally.

It’s sometimes legal to hunt some species of bird, such as game birds.

What you must not do

You’re breaking the law if you:

  • intentionally kill, injure or take wild birds
  • intentionally take, damage or destroy a wild bird’s nest while it’s being used or built
  • intentionally take or destroy a wild bird’s egg
  • possess, control or transport live or dead wild birds, or parts of them, or their eggs
  • sell wild birds or put them on display for sale
  • use prohibited methods to kill or take wild birds

Some birds, known as ‘schedule 1 birds’, eg barn owls, have extra legal protection. For these bird species it’s also an offence to do the following, either intentionally or by not taking enough care:

  • disturb them while they’re nesting, building a nest, in or near a nest that contains their young
  • disturb their dependent young

You could get an unlimited fine and up to 6 months in prison for each offence if you’re found guilty.

Activities that can harm birds

These activities can affect wild birds, particularly during breeding season:

  • trimming or cutting trees, bushes, hedges and rough vegetation
  • renovating, converting or demolishing a building
  • creating disturbance, eg noise, lighting and vibration
  • taking actions to prevent problems, eg shooting birds or removing nests

When you can get a licence

There are no licensing purposes to permit development or construction but there are ways you can continue development or construction when birds are present. These activities should rely upon the legal exemptions. You must make sure that you can comply fully with the terms of the exemption so that you don’t break the law.

You can apply for a licence from Natural England in certain circumstances and for certain problems.

Licences are available for disturbing or harming birds for a limited number of reasons that include:

  • preserve public health and safety
  • preserve air safety
  • do work for science, education or research
  • prevent damage to crops or animal feed
  • conserve plants and animals (including other wild birds)
  • prevent damage to fisheries
  • take part in photography, falconry, keeping or breeding birds

Get more information

Find out what’s involved for construction that affects protected species.

Find out what ecologists and local planning authorities can do for surveys and planning mitigation measures for wild birds.

Updates to this page

Published 13 October 2014
Last updated 29 March 2015 + show all updates
  1. Guide updated following full consultation with Natural England.

  2. First published.

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