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Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981

When enacted to implement the Birds Directive external site and Bern Convention external site , the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 external site  provided a relatively straightforward source of wildlife law in Great Britain.  However, the legal picture is now more complicated. Firstly, the introduction of the Habitats Regulations 1994 created a separate set of rules for those species (and habitats) protected under the Habitats Directive.  Secondly, devolution has meant that changes to the 1981 Act (through the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004) external site and the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 external site .  Further, the Habitats Regulations have been made differently in Scotland than in England and Wales.

Please note that the consolidated version of the 1981 Act external site available here may not show all the amendments as they apply in Scotland.

Application and offences

Even though there have been significant revisions to the 1981 Act, it remains a very important statute relating to wildlife protection in Scotland.  The Act applies to the terrestrial environment and inshore waters (0-12 nautical miles). 

Part 1 of the Act details a large number of offences in relation to the killing and taking of wild birds, other animals and plants.  A number of Schedules are attached which categorise species.  This means that the degree of protection afforded varies according to which Schedule a species is listed on.

Key Schedules include:

Schedules 5 and 8 must be reviewed once every 5 years by all the country agencies (ourselves, Natural England external site and Natural Resources Wales) acting through the JNCC. external site

Important changes were made to Schedules A1 and 1A in 2013  PDF document when new species were added to these schedules.  For birds listed on Schedule A1  (now the white-tailed eagle and golden eagle) it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly take, damage, destroy or interfere with any nest which are used habitually at any time.  Meanwhile, it is now illegal to intentionally or recklessly harass birds listed on Schedule 1A (white-tailed eagle, golden eagle, hen harrier and red kite) at any time. 

Please look at our protected species table  PDF document  to identify what Schedule a particular bird species is listed under.

It is an offence to commit or attempt to commit detailed actions in relation to protected species.  Notably, the usual requirement in Scotland for corroborated evidence is relaxed in relation to taking or destroying birds' eggs - a person may be convicted on the evidence of a single witness.  Further, certain means of killing or taking wild birds and animals are outlawed.  Various exceptions and defences to the offences apply including licences which may be issued to allow illegal activities to go ahead.

Some offences require intentional or reckless behaviour for example, on the part of the accused.  Other offences are of strict liability (e.g. the possession or sale of specimens).  This means that the law here places an onus on an accused person to show their innocence - those who keep protected species do so at their own risk. 

To find out more about specific offences against a particular species, please go to our licensing pages.


The law is enforced by the police.  Police Scotland has 14 regional divisions each with its own Wildlife Crime Liaison Officer external site .  'Wildlife inspectors' (individuals with Ministerial permission to exercise certain powers as detailed in the Act) support the police. Certain criminal procedures must be followed with all cases for criminal proceedings being referred to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. Scottish Natural Heritage cannot instigate proceedings in Scotland.  Offenders may be sent to prison and/or fined for each crime they have committed.  Also, the court has the power to order the forfeiture of items connected with the crime.

Last updated on Wednesday 13th January 2016 at 13:52 PM. Click here to comment on this page