Wildlife legislation has evolved in the UK to promote the conservation of certain species. It generally prevents the deliberate killing, injuring or taking of a protected wild animal, and puts in place provisions for protected animals to be taken, for specific purposes, and/or at specific times. Although there have been Acts protecting some game species, the first main piece of conservation legislation in the UK was the Protection of Wild Birds Act 1954, revised in 1967. Over time, it became apparent that other species required protection and the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975 came into being. It was then felt that these pieces of legislation should be consolidated into one new piece of legislation, and so the Wildlife and Countryside Act was born in 1981. European legislation has also been an important driver of domestic legislation; the Conservation of Wild Birds (Birds Directive) (79/409/EEC) and the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c) Directive 1992 (Habitats Directive) (92/43/EEC) are relevant and have been enacted in the UK under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017.
There is some legislation that deals primarily with welfare of wild animals as opposed to conservation and these are detailed below. There are no specific licences required for wildlife rehabilitation, but there are some licensing issues related to keeping and releasing of rehabilitated wildlife of which all rehabilitators should be aware.
This page provides a summary of the legislation that is pertinent to wildlife rehabilitation. It is recommended that you should refer back to original legislation for clarification, and the subsequent amendments. The BWRC would recommend the following website: http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/ and although we would state that the legislation listed may not always be up-to-date, this website does display each act with the relevant amendments, as and when they appear.
Further information on wildlife legislation and licences etc. can also be found at:
https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/natural-england for England;
http://naturalresourceswales.gov.uk/splash?orig=/ for Wales;
http://www.snh.org.uk for Scotland.
Following devolution, it should be remembered that some aspects of licensing may vary in Wales, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own legislation and that is also detailed below.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).
This is the primary piece of legislation in England and Wales for protecting wildlife. All birds and a variety of other plant and animal species are protected under this Act, BUT NOT ALL. The Act also includes sections relating to Sites of Scientific Interest, National Parks and countryside access and rights of way. Note that Scotland has its own legislation relating to wildlife, but there is still some crossover with English legislation.
The Act has been amended on a number of occasions, most notably by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000) Natural Environments and Rural Communities Act (2006) and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (2010). However, not all these pieces of legislation will be discussed here.
This legislation makes it an offence to deliberately take, kill or injure a protected wild animal, or to intentionally, or recklessly, disturb such an animal in its place of shelter, or to damage, destroy or obstruct access to its place of shelter. It is also an offence to be in possession of a protected animal, live or dead.
However, the Act also includes various defences. Some are discussed below, under Schedules, but the important ones, as they relate to wildlife rehabilitation, are Part 1, Section 4 (2) a and b for birds and Part 1, Section 10, (3) a and b for animals listed on Schedule 5 of the Act.
Wildlife and Countryside Act, Part 1, Section 4:
(2) Notwithstanding anything in the provisions of section 1 or any order made under section 3, a person shall not be guilty of an offence by reason of—
(a) the taking of any wild bird if he shows that the bird had been disabled otherwise than by his unlawful act and was taken solely for the purpose of tending it and releasing it when no longer disabled;
(b) the killing of any wild bird if he shows that the bird had been so seriously disabled otherwise than by his unlawful act that there was no reasonable chance of its recovering;
Wildlife and Countryside Act, Part 1, Section 10:
(3) Notwithstanding anything in section 9, a person shall not be guilty of an offence by reason of—
(a) the taking of any such animal if he shows that the animal had been disabled otherwise than by his unlawful act and was taken solely for the purpose of tending it and releasing it when no longer disabled;
(b) the killing of any such animal if he shows that the animal had been so seriously disabled otherwise than by his unlawful act that there was no reasonable chance of its recovering;
These defences allow anybody to pick up and treat a protected wild animal for the purposes of tending and releasing it, or, to euthanase it to prevent further suffering.
Another important section for rehabilitators to be aware of the Section 14, which prohibits the release of certain animals into the wild:
Wildlife and Countryside Act, Part 1, Section 14. Introduction of new species etc.
(1) Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person releases or allows to escape into the wild any animal which—
(a) is of a kind which is not ordinarily resident in and is not a regular visitor to Great Britain in a wild state; or
(b) is included in Part I of Schedule 9,
he shall be guilty of an offence.
The Act contains a number of Schedules, relating to particular sections of the Act. The following are of direct interest to the rehabilitator.
Schedule 4 lists species of birds that must be registered and ringed if kept in captivity – this includes rehabilitation. There are General Licences that allow certain people to keep these birds for a certain period of time, e.g. a vet may keep such a bird for six weeks, before he is required to register it.
Schedule 5 lists the species of animals, other than birds, that are protected by the Act.
Schedule 9 lists animals that are thought to be living in the UK, but whose release would be an offence under Section 14, unless you have a licence to do so.
Licences may be issued under Section 16 of the Act for a variety of purposes; for instance, it is possible to apply for a licence to release a rehabilitated Canada goose, but you may not necessarily be permitted to do so, depending on where you live etc. The licences are issued by the statutory nature conservation organisations (SNCOs), such as Natural England, Natural Resources, Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage.
Licences come with specified conditions; any breach of these conditions is an offence, so if you should obtain a licence for an activity, ensure that you read all the conditions attached to it.
General Licences allow certain activities to be undertaken that would otherwise be unlawful and rehabilitation is one example. They cover a variety of activities that are considered to be low risk and where the likelihood is that any application for a licence would be granted. This therefore reduces the bureaucratic workload.
No application is required for a General Licence, they can just be downloaded from the appropriate website. General Licences also come with conditions which must be strictly adhered to. They are reissued every year, and are subject to revision, so the BWRC recommends that you check the relevant websites to see if a licence has been updated, before you undertake any activity covered by such a licence.
Examples of General Licenses for the rehabilitator are:
WML GL07 – To keep birds of species listed on Schedule 4 bird for the purposes of rehabilitation.
WML GL08 – To keep birds of species listed on Schedule 4 bird for the purposes of veterinary treatment (note the conditions are different to L07).
WML GL22 – To permit the release of native bird species listed on Schedule 9.
Further information on licensing in England can be found at:
Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017
This legislation translates into UK legislation, the EEC Council Directive 92/43/EEC, The Conservation of Natural Habitats and of wild fauna and flora, known as the Habitats Directive. This legislation protects habitats and species across Europe and so includes species on animal found in the UK. These species are known as European Protected Species (EPS) and these regulations are the primary regulations protecting these species, NOT the Wildlife and Countryside Act. These species include the otter, common dormouse and all bats.
Section 43 provides protection for these European Protected Species (EPS) which are listed on Schedule 2. Like the Wildlife and Countryside Act, it has similarly worded defences for rehabilitation of any species protected under Section 44. These Regulations require all those who are keeping either a; a wild animal of an EPS species or b; part of, or anything derived of, a wild animal of an EPS species, to have a licence. Although rehabilitation is permitted under the Regulations, the various SNCOs are considering time limits for holding different species in care before a licence is required. For instance, you do not need a licence to rehabilitate a bat unless you intend to keep it for longer than six months.
Invasive Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019
This legislation transposes EU Invasive Alien Species (IAS) Regulation (1143/2014) which came into force on 1 January 2015. The Regulation imposes strict restrictions on a list of species known as ‘species of Union concern’. These are species whose potential adverse impacts across the European Union are such that concerted action across Europe is required to manage their impact.
Currently, 30 animal species are listed as ‘Invasive Alien Species’, published in three Commission Implementing Regulations: 2016/1141, 2017/1263 and 2019/1262.
In March 2019, legislation was also published that would implement the EU legislation into UK law, so that the restrictions on the listed species will continue to apply after Brexit. The Invasive Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019 came into force on 1st December 2019. The new regulations make it an offence to keep, breed or release these animals and as a result. revokes the licences that RSPCA and others hold in England to rehabilitate and release grey squirrels and muntjac deer. As licences for such releases have never been available in Wales, the situation for these species in Wales remains unchanged. The transport of these animals is also prohibited under the new regulation, although we are currently seeking clarification from Natural England/Natural Resources Wales whether we will be permitted to transport animals to a vets or other licensed establishment for euthanasia.The regulations also require that any establishments keeping listed species are licensed by Natural England or Natural Resources Wales; further details of the new licence to move and keep invasive alien species are available here for England and here for Wales.
Protection of Badgers Act, 1992
The Protection of Badgers Act (The Badger Act) is primarily aimed at protecting the welfare of wild badgers, a species that has been persecuted in the UK for many years. Like the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, it has specific provisions for the rehabilitation of badgers, or their euthanasia:
Protection of Badgers Act 1992, Section 6. General exceptions.
A person is not guilty of an offence under this Act by reason only of—
(a) taking or attempting to take a badger which has been disabled otherwise than by his act and is taken or to be taken solely for the purpose of tending it;
(b) killing or attempting to kill a badger which appears to be so seriously injured or in such a condition that to kill it would be an act of mercy;
Deer Act, 1991
The Deer Act provides for the hunting of deer and so regulates how, and it what manner, deer may be taken. As such, it also includes provisions for rehabilitation and/or euthanasia:
Deer Act 1991 Section 6, General exceptions:
(2) A person shall not be guilty of an offence under section 2 or section 3 above by reason of any act done for the purpose of preventing the suffering of an injured or diseased deer.
Conservation of Seals Act 1970
The Conservation of Seals Act was enabled to protect the British seal population, but it does give allowances for the control of seals in some circumstances. It also has the following provisions for rehabilitation:
The Conservation of Seals Act, 1970, Section 9, General Exceptions:
(1) A person shall not be guilty of an offence under section 2 or 3 of this Act by reason only of—
(a) the taking or attempted taking of any seal which had been disabled otherwise than by his act and was taken or to be taken solely for the purpose of tending it and releasing it when no longer disabled;
(2) A person shall not be guilty of an offence under section 1, 2 or 3 of this Act by reason only of the killing of any seal which had been so seriously disabled otherwise than by his act that there was no reasonable chance of its recovering.
Wild Mammals Protection Act 1996
This Act makes it an offence to use a variety of methods to intentionally cause suffering to a wild mammal. It also has exemptions, related to euthanasia:
Wild Mammals Protection Act, 1996, Section 2, Exceptions from offence under the Act:
2. A person shall not be guilty of an offence under this Act by reason of—
(a) the attempted killing of any such wild mammal as an act of mercy if he shows that the mammal had been so seriously disabled otherwise than by his unlawful act that there was no reasonable chance of its recovering;
Animal Welfare Act 2006
The Animal Welfare Act does not cover wild animals living in the wild, but under Section 2 of the Act, any animal that is under the temporary control of man, is a protected animal:
Animal Welfare Act, 2006, Section 2, “Protected Animal”
An animal is a “protected animal” for the purposes of this Act if—
(a) it is of a kind which is commonly domesticated in the British Islands,
(b) it is under the control of man whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or
(c) it is not living in a wild state.
Therefore, any wild animal taken in for the purposes of rehabilitation becomes a protected animal, and as such, deserves a duty of care as defined in Section 9 of the Act. This duty of care defines an animal’s needs as:
• its need for a suitable environment
• its need to be able to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
• any need it has to be housed with, or apart from, other animals
• its need to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
• any other need of that animal
More details of how this legislation affects wildlife rehabilitators can be found in a booklet produced by the RSPCA, which is available to download from their website:
Protection of Animals Act 1911
Although most of this legislation was repealed by the Animal Welfare Actm, there are tow provisions that remain relating to wildlife. One is in regard of setting traps for hares and rabbits, including inspection times. The other makes it an offence to put down poison for any animal, unless it is listed in the Act (e.g. rats, mice, small ground vermin, invertebrates).
The Welfare of Animals During Transport Order 2006
The 2006 Order must be read along with Council Regulation (EC) 1/2005 http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2005:003:0001:0044:EN:PDF
Section 4 of the Welfare of Animals During Transport Order 2006 protects for all animals in transport, including invertebrates. All other sections of this Order refer to the Council Regulation. These Regulations exist to protect farm livestock, but they include general principles which should be borne in mind. Article 1 states “This Regulation shall not apply to the transport of animals which does not take place in connection with an economic activity and to the transport of animals directly to or from veterinary practices or clinics, under the advice of a veterinarian.” The regulation lays down all the provisions for animals in transport that come under the definition of an economic activity, e.g as a business or commercial venture, such as hauliers. The only defences are listed as those that are exempted from the regulation and not an economic activity.
This Order stipulates the construction and use of receptacles in which animals are transported. The main conditions are that the receptacle is suitable for the species contained therein.
That there is means of inspection.
That the animal can stand in its natural position, turn around and lie down.
That there is suitable ventilation and litter (bedding) and that the animals are fed and watered at suitable intervals according to species.
No animal should be transported within sight of a natural predator.
Therefore, these conditions apply to healthy wild animals in transit.
Destructive Imported Animals Act 1932
Various Orders are made under this Act to control non-native animals living in this country but must be viewed in reference to the Invasive Alien Species (Enforcement and Permitting) Order 2019. The Coypu and Mink Order 1972 creates an offence for keeping these species without a licence. Such licences are obtained from Natural England or equivalent but it may be difficult to acquire such licences because the purpose of these Orders is to eradicate these species. The non-indigenous Rabbit Order 1954 also creates an offence of liberating non-indigenous rabbits.
Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 2018 (COTES)
These Regulations enact the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in UK legislation. Although unlikely to affect rehabilitators, it should be noted that permits are required to sell or display certain animals that are listed in the Annexes. Therefore, you should be aware which species are listed and be aware of the legislation.
Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (as amended)
Section 19 provides penalties for those who practice, or hold themselves out as practising, veterinary surgery without having been enrolled by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons on their register. The general principle here is that an unqualified person should not carry out veterinary surgery, so those looking after wild animals in captivity should, in areas of doubt, always seek professional veterinary advice. There are some exceptions to this rule in so far as rendering first-aid, in emergency, for the purpose of saving life or relieving pain is acceptable. The expression “first-aid” means the first assistance or treatment given to a casualty for any injury or sudden illness before a medical expert attends. It may involve improvising with facilities and materials at the time. There is reasoned argument that such treatment cannot be extended over a long period as the urgency of the situation will have been attended to and it is reasonable that, where necessary, expert medical advice is sought afterwards.
This legislation precludes anyone not registered, as above, from giving “professional advice” or from receiving payment for treatment. Other exceptions occur under the principal Act, and subsequent Orders, regarding minor operations of an agricultural nature and some procedures which are carried out under the supervision of a veterinary surgeon by a lay person. If in any doubt, you are advised to seek advice prior to carrying out any treatment.
When a drug is prescribed by a veterinary surgeon for a specific animal’s condition, an unqualified person must not take it upon themselves to use that drug for any other purpose. Prescription only medicines are strictly controlled by law and these can only be prescribed by a qualified person, i.e. a medical practitioner or a veterinary surgeon.
Protection of Animals (Anaesthetics) Acts 1954 & 1964
Under this legislation, the term “animal” does not include “fowl or other bird, fish or reptile”. Otherwise, it does include all other vertebrates.
The spirit of this legislation is to prevent any painful operation being carried out on any animal without the appropriate anaesthetic being administered. With the exception of some routing agricultural operations, anaesthetics would normally only be administered by a registered veterinary surgeon. Unless the treatment administered to a wild animal comes within the category of “first-aid” (see Veterinary Surgeons Act above), no person will carry out any operation on any captive wild animal without having regard to this legislation and the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
Zoo Licensing Act 1981
Under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, a licence is required to allow the public to view wild animals “with or without charge for admission, on more than seven days in any period of 12 consecutive months”. Such a licence is obtainable from the Local Authority and any establishment will be subject to inspection by a member (or members) of the Secretary of State’s Inspectorate. The Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 (as amended) states that if any animal Scheduled under this Act is kept then a licence from the Local Authority is required.