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The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981: A Legal Landmark

Friday, 29 November 2013

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 consolidated existing countryside law making it an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird.

The act also extended state protection of wildlife to wild plants, and wild birds’ nests and eggs.

Most farmers and rural inhabitants will be aware of the Act and many of its provisions but it is important for all users of the countryside to keep abreast of the legislation, particularly newer agri-businesses or other businesses establishing themselves in rural areas.

Basic Provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act

Passed in order to comply with Council Directive 79/409/EEC (replaced now by Directive 2009/147/EC of the European Parliament and Council), the Act defines “wild birds” as birds of a species resident in, or as a visitor to, the territory of any member state of the EU. Game birds are not included in this definition.

Importantly, the Act makes it an offence to let loose any wild animal which is of a kind not ordinarily resident in the UK. Furthermore, the Act specifically prohibits the selling of these non-resident animals and plants.

The Act also specifies that notice must be given to various levels of government and the owners of the land, if the site is of Special Scientific Interest. These sites are deemed so by Natural England for various reasons, but often because of the unique and/or diverse array of life and biology at the site.

Obligations on Local Authorities

The Act makes clear that local councils are under a duty to keep any definitive map and statement of the countryside under “continuous review”. In practice, this will mean modifying any definitive maps of the area to take into account the often frequent modifications of highways, including when highways are diverted, widened and extended.

This effect is also found with regard to public rights of way in the countryside, including those public rights of way over land used for farming. The Act makes clear that there is an onus on local councils to update maps to take into account any changes to these public rights of way. In practice, this is applied when any new rights of way are created, or when rights of way cease to exist against particular land.

The Act also prohibits the keeping of bulls on land crossed by public rights of way.


The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is not only the primary piece of legislation governing the protection of animal and plant habitats in the UK, but also governs the obligations on local councils to draw up and modify definitive maps of the countryside. In this way, the Act represents a landmark in the law on the regulation of behaviour in and towards the countryside.

For more information please contact Peter Gourri today by email or telephone 0207 611 4848.

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