UK wildlife legislation

Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981

This legislation is the principal mechanism of wildlife protection in Great Britain.  It is divided into four parts:

  • Part I relates to the protection of wildlife
  • Part II relates to the countryside and national parks (and the designation of protected areas)
  • Part III relates to public rights of way
  • Part IV relates to miscellaneous provisions of the Act

This legislation enabled the former Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) to publicly identify Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in Great Britain and to negotiate with landowners and managers of these sites to prevent any management that might damage or destroy the 'interest' for which the site had been identified. Within England, English Nature took on the old NCC's role. It, in turn, was subsumed into a new agency, Natural England, in October 2006 as a result of the enactment of the Natural Environment & Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006.

Under Part I of the Act there are 27 sections and several lists of species, known as Schedules. Certain species of plant and animal identified in Schedules 5 and 8 of the Act are afforded special protection, making it an offence to pick, disturb, capture, injure or kill them or to damage, destroy or obstruct access to the their breeding place or place of shelter. Those most likely to be found in Sussex are dormouse, great crested newt, otter, water vole and all species of bat.

Marine species protected include all species of cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) and all species of marine turtle. The harbour porpoise and bottlenose dolphin are the cetacean species most likely to be encountered off our shores, and leatherback turtles visit the Irish Sea in small numbers every summer.

It is also an offence to take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while that nest is being built or in use or take or destroy an egg of any wild bird (with exceptions to birds on Schedule 2). Special penalties are available for offences related to birds listed on Schedule 1, this includes species such as barn owl and kingfisher.

National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act 1949

This legislation enables a local authority (county, city, district and borough councils, plus parish and town councils) to declare areas of land on which they have legal tenure as Local Nature Reserves.

Environmental Protection Act 1990

This broke up the Nature Conservancy Council (NCC) which had covered all of Great Britain. The role of advising Government on nature conservation in England was given to a new body, English Nature. English Nature was subsumed into a new agency, Natural England, in October 2006. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) was also created. It coordinates nature conservation matters at Great Britain, UK and international levels and also has overall responsibility for the UK's dependent territories.

Hedgerow Regulations 1997

These regulations require owners and managers of rural hedgerows to notify their local planning authority (city, borough or district council) if they intend to remove a hedgerow. If the hedgerow supports a diverse range of shrubs or rare or specially protected plants or animals then the council may refuse permission for removal or place conditions on the process.  Hedgerows in areas covered by a Historic Landscape Characterisation are often protected on the basis of historic importance and cultural significance value.

Protection of Badgers Act 1992

This animal welfare legislation makes it an offence to capture, injure or kill a wild badger; be in possession of a live or dead badger; or damage, destroy or obstruct access to an active badger sett.

Conservation (Natural Habitats &c) Regulations 1994

These regulations translate the EU Habitats & Species Directive into the detail of English law. The Regulations came into force on 30 October 1994, and have been subsequently amended. Containing five Parts and four Schedules, the Regulations provide for the designation and protection of 'European sites', the protection of 'European protected species', and the adaptation of planning and other controls for the protection of European sites.

Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000

The protection of SSSIs, already established in the Wildlife and Countryside Act, is strengthened in this legislation. It gave greater power to English Nature (now subsumed into Natural England) to enter into management agreements, to refuse consent for damaging operations, and to take action where damage is being caused through neglect or inappropriate management. It also allowed for prosecution of third parties that damage or destroy a SSSI. This Act also improved the protection offered to native species listed in Annex II of the EU Habitats & Species Directive.

Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996

This legislation offers a degree of protection to individuals of all wild species of mammal. In essence, it's an animal welfare law rather than one that deals specifically with nature conservation. All mammals are protected from deliberate acts of cruelty by this act. So if, for example, someone kicks a hedgehog they commit an offence under this legislation.  Obviously there are some exceptions, such as mercy killing; any lawful hunting, shooting or coursing; or any lawful pest control. Some mammals such as badgers, grey seals and wild deer have their own legislation.

Natural Environment & Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006

This legislation enabled the amalgamation of English Nature with the Countryside Agency and Defra's Rural Development Service to form a new agency called Natural England. Natural England came into existence in October 2006. The importance of biodiversity conservation was given a legal basis, requiring government departments to have regard for biodiversity in carrying out their functions, and to take positive steps to further the conservation of listed species and habitats. Local government was given a statutory duty to further the conservation and enhancement of SSSIs, both in carrying out operations and in exercising decision-making functions.