Wild birds: management and legal protection
The management of wildlife by farmers is regulated by a range of legislation.
The main law applying to the management of wild birds is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. This Act protects all wild birds and states that they cannot be killed or taken except in certain circumstances, for example, during the open seasons for huntable species or under the authority of a licence. Wild birds and other wild animals are considered to be under your control if they are in a trap and are therefore protected by the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Some Cross Compliance requirements also apply to wild birds. If you are claiming payments under a Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) scheme, you will need to meet Statutory Management Requirement (SMR) 1 and Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition (GAEC) 15.
This guide outlines the legal protection given to wild birds in England, and explains how you can manage the problems they can cause.
Wild birds and Cross Compliance
To qualify for full payment under the Single Payment Scheme (SPS) and other direct payments - eg Environmental Stewardship schemes - you must meet all relevant Cross Compliance requirements. These requirements are split into two types:
- Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs)
- requirements to keep your land in GAEC
Some Cross Compliance requirements also apply to wild birds. If you are claiming payments under a CAP scheme, you will need to meet SMR 1, which protects wild birds and their nests and eggs, as well as protecting their habitats.
In addition to SMR 1, if you have hedgerows growing in or adjacent to any of your land, you will have to carry out - or desist from carrying out - certain farming activities under GAEC 15. Read about protecting hedgerows under GAEC 15 on the RPA website.
Managing wild birds
Many of the wild birds found on farmland are dependent on that land for their survival. Livestock often attracts large numbers of wild birds due to the presence of feedstuffs - for example, from spillage or even directly from feeders and grain storage areas.
The increasingly intensive way in which many farmland habitats are managed has resulted in substantial declines of many farmland birds. The government’s Farmland Bird Public Service Agreement target lists 19 wild bird species that are declining, including the yellowhammer, skylark, lapwing and corn bunting.
However, given specific management farmland birds can thrive alongside modern productive agriculture and you may be able to obtain funding through agri-environment schemes, such as Entry Level Stewardship (ELS).
While most birds cause no harm to agricultural interests, some species can cause crop damage. If the scale of the damage is minor or economically insignificant you shouldn’t need to resort to taking action against the birds. If in doubt, you should assess the scale and nature of the problem before taking action.
If the problem is sufficiently serious, you should first try non-lethal approaches, such as scaring and physical exclusion or proofing, if these are feasible and appropriate. If this doesn’t work and the crop damage is still serious, then there may be legal lethal control options available to you. This includes control of the birds in their open season for huntable species. If open season control doesn’t resolve the problem, and for all other species, then you will normally require a licence to take action.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) states that all wild birds are protected and usually cannot be killed or taken except under licence. As a result, you must not:
- intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird
- intentionally damage, destroy or take the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built - nests of golden eagles, white tailed eagles and ospreys are protected all year round
- intentionally destroy an egg of any wild bird
- intentionally or recklessly disturb certain wild birds or their dependent young while they are at or near to an active nest site
- kill or take huntable birds during the close season for that species
There are instances when you would not be in violation of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. For example, it’s not usually necessary to apply for a specific licence for species such as crows, pigeons and some members of the gull family. However, you must comply with the terms and conditions of the relevant general licences if you are taking action against these species.
Before you apply for any licence to control wild birds, you must be sure that you have exhausted all possible ways to satisfactorily deal with them.
To apply for a licence to take or kill wild birds in certain situations, you should complete an application form and return it to the address printed on the form. Find application forms for licences on the Natural England website.
Managing game birds
According to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), game birds are defined as any:
- grouse (moor game)
- black game (black grouse)
These birds can only be killed or taken at certain times of the year, known as the ‘open season’. The open season is different for different species of bird.
Close seasons are periods where game birds cannot be taken or killed and were established in England and Wales by the Game Act 1831. This act is still in force and makes it an offence to kill or take game birds between certain dates.
It is also an offence to take or kill game on Sundays and Christmas Day in England and Wales.
In exceptional circumstances, where the birds are causing serious damage, a notice may be issued under Section 98 of the Agriculture Act 1947. If you are unsure how to proceed, you can contact the Natural England helpline on 0845 600 3078.
Please note that there are no licensing provisions in the Game Act 1831.
Close seasons for game birds covered by the Game Act 1831
|Game bird (common name if different from that cited in legislation)||Close seasons (dates between)|
|Black game (black grouse)||10 December - 20 August (10 December - 1 September for Somerset, Devon and New Forest)|
|Grouse (red grouse and ptarmigan)||10 December - 12 August|
|Partridges (grey partridge and red-legged partridge)||1 February - 1 September|
|Pheasants||1 February - 1 October|
It is also an offence to take or kill game on Sundays and Christmas Day in England and Wales.
Other birds, not legally defined as game birds, have close seasons covered by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). You can obtain a licence for these species in the same way that you can for all species covered by the Act.
Close seasons for birds covered by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended)
|Bird (common name if different from that cited in legislation)||Close seasons (dates between)|
|Snipe, Common||1 February - 11 August|
|Woodcock||1 February - 30 September|
It is not an offence to kill or take one of these birds outside of the close season for that bird, except on Sundays in any area of England (and Wales), which the Secretary of State has prescribed by Order.
Agricultural losses caused by waterfowl - such as ducks, geese and swans - occur primarily in late winter and spring on wintering and migration areas. Generally, crop damage is light, so can be tolerated, although losses can be significant for some farmers.
In the spring, waterfowl can graze and trample crops. In autumn, cereal crops can be eaten and fouled by ducks and geese. Winter wheat can be pulled and trampled, particularly during wet periods.
Under licence, waterfowl may be managed to:
- prevent serious damage to livestock and their foodstuffs, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters
- preserve public health and safety - including air safety
- prevent the spread of disease
- conserve wild birds
- conserve flora and fauna
Waterfowl which have an open season can be killed during that season without a licence.
Wild birds’ close seasons
|Coot||1 February to 31 August|
|Goldeneye||1 February to 31 August|
|Goose, pink-footed||1 February to 31 August|
|Moorhen||1 February to 31 August|
|Pochard||1 February to 31 August|
|Teal||1 February to 31 August|
|Duck, tufted||1 February to 31 August|
|Goose, Canada||1 February to 31 August|
|Goose, white-fronted||1 February to 31 August|
|Pintail||1 February to 31 August|
|Shoveler||1 February to 31 August|
|Wigeon||1 February to 31 August|
|Gadwall||1 February to 31 August|
|Goose, greylag||1 February to 31 August|
|Mallard||1 February to 31 August|
|Plover, golden||1 February to 31 August|
|Snipe, common||11 February to 11 August|
|Woodcock||1 February to 30 September|
The Canada Goose and other named wild birds can be killed or taken by a general licence to prevent serious damage and/or disease. Find out about general licences for actions affecting birds on the Natural England website.
You should carefully read the terms of the general licence before taking or killing any birds, as anyone not meeting its terms and conditions could face a heavy penalty and/or custodial sentence.
If waterfowl have damaged your crops, but the impact is small, it is recommended that you tolerate the birds. If the damage is considerable, you should first attempt non-lethal ways to deter the birds or protect your crops. For example, you could:
- fence off the damaged area to keep birds away. However, this may cause them to move to a nearby site and cause damage there. This can be a suitable option if damage is acceptable on other areas of the site or if you plant suitable crops that the birds can graze on.
- use visual scarers - eg scarecrows, balloons, kites or flags. You should also move them frequently so that the birds don’t become accustomed to them. If you use kites or flags, you should consult with the Civil Aviation Authority if necessary, as there may be restrictions that apply to their use, depending on the location.
- use acoustic scarers such as speakers or gas bangers to deter birds from small areas. However, like visual scarers, birds can become accustomed to them. If you use these, you will need to consult with your local authority in case they cause noise pollution under the Environment Protection Act 1990 Part III.
- alter the birds’ habitat by landscaping, reducing foraging areas, or planting areas of dense vegetation along bodies of water that they frequent
Trapping and shooting wild birds during their appropriate open season does not require a licence, however there are some methods prohibited under Section 5 of the Wildlife of the Countryside Act 1981. Otherwise any manipulation of wild bird numbers usually requires a licence either general, for example for Canada Geese, or specific for other species. This can include preventing reproduction by treating eggs to stop hatching - this will not reduce the adult population in the short term.
A close season licence will only be issued if you have taken all the remedial action possible during the open season.
When there is no other satisfactory solution - ie, the bird cannot be killed during the open season - licences may be issued by Natural England under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) to take - including relocation - or kill geese, swans or ducks.
Managing general licence birds
Certain members of the crow family, as well as some gulls and pigeons are recognised as causing persistent problems and it is accepted that in certain situations there is no satisfactory alternative to taking action, such as shooting or cage-trapping, which requires a licence.
It is not normally necessary to apply for a specific licence for these species, as Natural England issues general licences for all of England. These allow certain actions to be taken for specified purposes. The main licence of relevance to farmers is the general licence for preventing the spread of disease and serious damage to livestock and their foodstuffs, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters.
Please note that this licence can only be used in circumstances where you have exhausted appropriate non-lethal methods of control such as scaring, and they have been proven either ineffective or impracticable. Failure to comply with the terms and conditions of a general licence may mean that the licence cannot be relied upon and an offence could therefore be committed.
House sparrows and starlings are not included on most general licences. You can find out more about applying for an individual licence on the page in this guide on managing wild birds. Note also that the trapping and release of house sparrow, starling, robin and blackbird are included on a public health and public safety licence available to food production and handling premises.
Managing specially protected birds
Specially protected birds - often referred to as ‘Schedule 1’ birds - receive enhanced protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). The birds listed in Schedule 1 are further divided. Part I birds are fully protected at all times, whereas Part II birds are protected only during the close season.
All birds, their nests and their eggs are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 from being killed or taken, but Schedule 1 birds and their dependent young are also protected from disturbance at or near the nest.
There are also designated protection areas for birds, known as Special Protection Areas (SPAs). These were set up under Article 4 of the European Commission Birds Directive (1979) and there are special rules relating to rare and vulnerable birds, and regularly occurring migratory species. You can find guidance on SPAs under Statutory Management Requirement 1 - Wild birds - on the Rural Payments Agency website.
Schedule 1 birds
Under certain circumstances, it may be possible to obtain a licence to ‘disturb’ a Schedule 1 bird. The Natural England Wildlife Licensing Unit administers such licence applications for the following purposes:
- preventing the spread of disease
- preserving public health or public safety
- scientific research and conservation - for ringing or marking or the Nest Record Scheme you should apply to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) - see the page in this guide on conservation activities to consider as a farmer.
Conservation activities to consider as a farmer
As a farmer, you play an important role in protecting the rural landscape and local environment. You will be well acquainted with your land, its wildlife and the various habitats in which you work.
If you are keen to contribute to the conservation of wildlife and the environment - and not already doing so - you can take part in the Environmental Stewardship Scheme. Environmental Stewardship is the main way for you to receive financial reward for providing land management practices that benefit farmland birds and other wildlife. This scheme provides you with funding to provide habitats for nesting and feeding in order to encourage wild bird populations.
Natural England runs the Environmental Stewardship Scheme which is an agri-environment scheme that supplies funding to farmers and other land managers in England who deliver effective environmental management on their land. The Scheme is divided into three areas:
- ELS - simple and effective land management that goes beyond the SPS requirement to keep land in good agricultural and environmental condition. Payments of £30 per hectare per year are made for all land entered into the scheme.
- Organic Entry Level Stewardship - an organic type of ELS that is aimed at organic and mixed organic farmers
- Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) - involves more complex land management to provide greater benefits for wildlife and which receives additional support and advice from Natural England.
You can join either the ELS or the HLS. If you’re already participating, there are many options you can choose from to help wild birds.
For more information on Environmental Stewardship and the different schemes under it, see the guides on the Environmental Stewardship: the basics, Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS).
You can also read the guide on protecting farm environments: the basics.
If your property includes woodland, or you wish to create new woodland, funds and grants may be available under the England Woodland Grant Scheme (EWGS). For more information on EWGS, see the guide on trees and woodlands.
Cross Compliance requirements apply to you if you receive direct payments under CAP support schemes or if you receive payments under certain Rural Development schemes.
There are two sets of Cross Compliance requirements that apply to wild birds:
- SMR 1 - protects wild birds, their nests and eggs
- GAEC 15 - hedgerows to protect habitats, particularly for nesting birds
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)
You can also help the BTO with their wild bird projects.
The BTO conducts a Nest Record Scheme (NRS). This scheme gathers vital information on the productivity of the UK’s birds using simple, standardised techniques. You can also contribute to the BTO’s BirdTrack project, which is a more general survey of bird movements.
Natural England enquiry service
0845 600 3078
Natural England wildlife management and licensing helpline
0845 601 4523
Cross Compliance helpline
0845 345 1302
08459 33 55 77