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Airguns and the Law

  • It is illegal to sell air weapons and ammunition to anybody under 18.
  • Owners of airguns MUST stop someone under 18 gaining unauthorised access to them and will face a fine if they fail in this duty.
  • Air weapons (like firearms) should be stored in a lockable cupboard or a gun cabinet and the keys stored separately and securely.
  • Those using air rifles should take careful note of boundaries. If an air pellet is fired that goes beyond the boundaries of any premises then an offence has been committed. This includes a supervising adult who allows a person under the age of 18 to use an air weapon for firing a pellet beyond the boundaries of any premises.
  • Airguns with a muzzle energy of more than 12ft/lbs require the user to hold a firearms certificate.
  • The law is slightly different in Scotland where an Air Weapon Certificate or a visitor permit to use, possess, purchase or acquire an air weapon is required.

In general terms, an airgun (or air gun) is a gun that fires projectiles (usually known as pellets) using energy from compressed air or other gases that are mechanically pressurized. This is in contrast to a firearm, which fires projectiles using energy created by burning combustible propellants, i.e. gunpowder.

Air rifles and air pistols clearly look different but the main issue in law is the pressure used to fire the projectile: usually no more than 6ft/lb for a psitol, and up to 12ft/lb for a rifle. NB airguns with pressure above 12ft/lb require a firearms licence.

What wildlife species can be shot with any gun is covered by what the government of the day describe as ‘pest species’. Wild birds are protected by law, but some are covered by General Licences which allows limited shooting providing there is a provable risk to health or serious damage to crops.

Mammals: species frequently targeted legally by airgunners are Grey Squirrel, Brown Rat, rabbit, Stoat, and American Mink.

Birds: Most birds are protected or are too large to be shot cleanly with an airgun (see under General Licences at > Firearms and the Law for what species can and can’t be shot with a firearm).

Anyone using an airgun must have permission from the landowner or person with the sporting rights and must know precisely where the boundaries are.

It is an offence to have an air weapon in a public place without a “reasonable excuse”. It is ultimately for the courts to decide what constitutes a “reasonable excuse”.

  • Going on to private land, or water, without permission is trespassing (a civil offence only), but if someone is carrying an airgun it becomes armed trespass – whether the gun is loaded or not. Note that an airgun is treated as loaded if there is a pellet in the breech even if the compression necessary to fire the gun is not present. Armed trespass is a serious criminal offence carrying heavy penalties.

  • It is very likely that someone shooting at wildlife in a public park is breaking the law. The police should be called immediately.

It is an offence to have an air weapon with intent to endanger life, as well as intent to damage or to destroy property, or to be reckless as to whether property would be damaged or destroyed.

Anyone under the age of 14 can use an air rifle under supervision on private premises with permission from the occupier. They must be supervised by someone at least 21 years old.

Parents or guardians who buy an air rifle for use by someone under 14 must exercise control over it at all times, even in the home or garden. The airgun must be owned, kept and controlled by the parent/guardian.

It is against the law for anyone under the age of 18 to buy or own an airgun or airgun ammunition (even if given as a gift).

There are no laws to stop someone firing an airgun in their garden (or in a garden where they have permission from the landowner) or any requirement to tell a neighbour beforehand, but shooters must follow the law:

  • Pellets must never stray beyond the boundaires of the garden without permission of the adjoining landowner. An air rifle used in a garden or residential area is therefore being used illegally if pellets are fired in to someone else’s garden without the owner’s permission.
  • At no point should an airgun be left unattended, even if it is unloaded and so considered to be safe.
  • Any person under the age of eighteen using an airgun must be supervised by an adult at all times.
  • It is illegal to shoot any bird or mammal (including with an air rifle) unless they are listed on the General Licences – but even then they can only be shot to protect public health and safety or to prevent serious damage to crops. An air rifle used in a garden or residential area to shoot birds is therefore likely to be being used illegally no matter what species are being targeted.

It is an offence in England and Wales to fire an air rifle within 50 feet/15 metres of the centre of any highway (a road or track used by a vehicle) if this results in someone being injured, interrupted or endangered .

  • An offence could be committed, for example, when someone is shooting in their garden close to a road and the pellets ricochet onto the highway and cause injury etc.

Yes, an air gun can be carried in public if the following conditions are met:

  • There must be a genuine reason for carrying an airgun in public. Genuine reasons for carrying an air gun in public include travelling to or from a gun club, shooting competition or air gun shop.
  •  The airgun must be inside a securely fastened case or slip which do not allow the gun to be fired.
  • The airgun must be uncocked and unloaded. Even a cleaning pellet (a felt pellet used to clean grease etc from the barrel) left in the gun can be classified as “a loaded weapon”. Guns that take a multishot magazine will be considered as loaded even if there’s no pellet in the actual barrel: the magazine and all pellets should be removed whilst transporting in public.
  • The carrier of the gun must be over 18.

Under the terms of The Air Weapon and Licensing (Scotland) Act, 2015, airgunners in Scotland need a Scottish Air Weapon Certificate (AWC) to possess or use an airgun.

The standards expected for the grant of a Scottish AWC are similar to those for a firearm certificate.

  • An applicant must be over 14 years of age, will require two identical ‘passport type’ photographs and will need to be countersigned by someone who’s known them for at least two years.
  • An applicant does not need a police-approved gun safe, nor a high security alarm system installed, but the application form does ask what type of security and storage is in place.
  • An applicant will need to provide a ‘good reason’ for possessing an airgun such as target shooting and so-called ‘pest control’.
  • If the airgun is inherited, it must either be handed in to the police or the new owner must get a Scottish AWC. In some circumstances, Police Scotland will consider issuing a short-term police permit to allow it to be sold, but the permit does not allow the airgun to be used.
  • The Scottish AWC is an independent licence. Even if a shooter holds a shotgun or firearms licence they still need to apply for one separately.

The law appears very confused on this. BB guns (a type of air gun designed to shoot metallic spherical projectiles called BBs) may or may not be firearms and so may or may not be prohibited.

The soft air type of gun which is ‘toy like’ (though it may be a little too powerful to be officially classed as a toy) does not fit within the definition of a section 1 firearm because it is usually too low powered and is probably designed to fire plastic/aluminium balls

However, there are more powerful BB guns which could be considered firearms, for which, possession, purchase or acquisition, without holding a valid firearms certificate is an offence.

Possession of a BB guns that looks like a real firearm in a public place will amount to an offence of possession of an imitation firearm (it is an offence for a person to carry an imitation firearm in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse), regardless of the power of the gun itself.

Wildlife crime is defined as any action which contravenes current legislation governing the protection of the UK’s wild flora and fauna, including species traded in the UK.

Note that wildlife crime does NOT include:

  • Incidents involving domestic or companion animals such as dogs (other than dogs being used to hunt mammals), cats, rabbits, domesticated birds, etc.
  • Wild animals that have been involved (killed or injured etc) in road traffic accidents.

Road accidents with wild animals do not need to be reported to the police, but note that domestic animals (as well as goats, horses, cattle, asses, mules, sheep and pigs) come within the remit of the Road Traffic Act.
If you have a road accident involving these animals you are required by law to report it to the police. If the wild animal is so badly injured in a road accident that there is no chance of recovery or the animal can not be returned to the wild then he or she may be euthanised, providing there is no appropriate long-term captive or semi-captive accommodation or when treatment would involve undue suffering or distress.

If we come across a wildlife crime scene or a dead bird/object that may be related to a wildlife crime every piece of information is – or might be – important, but it needs to be recorded properly and accurately for the authorities to have a chance of prosecuting an offender.

  • Before we do anything else it is very important that we do NOT approach anyone we suspect of committing a crime – they may be violent and/or aggressive. This is especially true of badger baiters and hare coursers who are typically extremely violent. This must be a first priority!
 
What do we need to record?
  • What we can see happening – what sort of crime is being committed
  • Are any firearms involved, could we or the public be in danger?
  • The exact location. Most smartphones have map apps or download the free What3Words app. If in open countryside look for obvious landmarks or fence lines, a tall or isolated tree, a wind turbine, any streams or brooks etc. Think about what would you need to re find a remote location.
  • It is important to record if at all possible whether we are on or near public land as this will determine the type of police response.
  • Never put ourselves in danger, but can we see who is involved and what they look like (e.g. number of people, their gender(s), age(s), the clothing worn, tools being carried)? Can we hear them – if so what are they saying, are they using any names etc?
  • If any dogs are involved how many are there, what colour are they, do we know what breed they are (even information like ‘terriers’ or ‘lurcher-types’ can be very useful).
  • The make, colour and registration number of any vehicle (we can take photos of a car if we think it is being used or might be used to commit a crime). Does it have any obvious dents, branding or markings, spotlights, bullbars etc.

 

DO and DO NOT

  • Do NOT disturb the scene by walking around unnecessarily – small pieces of evidence (cigarette ends, footprints, the marks left by a spade etc) may be lost or trampled into the mud or grass.
  • If photographing an object do try to use eg a coin or a notebook/field guide for scale – providing it won’t disturb the crime scene.
  • If in the countryside take wide angle photographs of any landmarks (a tree, a distinctive fenceline, a hill) that might help officers relocate the crime scene. DO NOT mark a site with eg a white plastic bag though. Being able to see a marker from a distance might sound like a good idea, but it will also alert an offender that someone has been at the site: they may go back and remove the evidence
  • Do NOT move any items at the scene – the exception being if they are likely to disappear before the police arrive when we can collect them as evidence.
  • Do NOT touch any dead birds or animals with bare hands. They may be poisoned baits or victims of poisoning. Many poisons (eg Carbofuran) are extremely dangerous in even very small amounts and can be absorbed through the skin.
  • Do NOT do anything illegal ourselves – that might mean our evidence is not admissible.
 If we see a wildlife crime taking place (or someone is at risk of getting injured or is being threatened) call 999 immediately.
They will want to know what we can see happening:
  • What sort of crime is being committed
  • Are any firearms involved
  • Could we or the public be in danger
  • Do we have photos or video footage which may be used as evidence
  • Tell whoever you REPORT the crime to exactly what you have RECORDED as described in the section above.
 
To report a historic crime – that is, a crime that is no longer taking place – use 101 or a local organisation instead.
  • If calling the police ask to speak to a Wildlife Crime Officer and make sure to get an Incident Report number.
  • Please always follow any advice given and – if they are not available – insist that a Wildlife Crime Officer is made aware of your report.
  •  Our options are wider if the event is over, and it may be preferable to talk first to a charity or NGO to get advice. Crimestoppers (an independent charity) can be contacted in complete confidence on 0800 555 111
  • When thinking about reporting a crime it’s worth noting that only the police have statutory powers to make an arrest. RSPCA and RSPB investigation officers work with the police for successful prosecutions.
 
Reporting a wildlife crime (or even a suspected wildlife crime) is important for two reasons.
  • If the event is still happening it may enable the authorities to catch the criminals ‘in the act’ (which means a higher chance of prosecution),
  • and if the event is over a report can still help to build up a more accurate picture of what might be happening in a specific location or across the country as a whole.
Our help is always welcomed
  • Whoever we decide to contact we have been assured that our help is welcomed and that if we’re in any doubt that what we’re seeing is a crime we should report it anyway. Remember, if what we see ‘feels’ wrong, it probably is!
  • Even if we’re not sure about what we’re seeing, we can take a photograph and email it to the police or an investigations officer – they are trained to quickly recognise for example when a snare is illegally placed, whether a trap is being used illegally, or whether a crime is being committed or not.
  • We may help stop or solve future crimes by helping build up a pattern of behaviour in an area.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault, or what we should do if we’re arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in over thirty simple, mobile-friendly pages just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault or harassment, or what we should do if we’re stopped and searched or even arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in forty-one simple, mobile-friendly pages and over 500 FAQs just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource with two aims: to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution; and to provide a ‘quick guide’ to anyone interacting with hunts, hunt supporters, or the police.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to, and the more we know our rights the better we can protect ourselves.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit currently has seven priority offences for wildlife crime.

Badger persecution

It is illegal to interfere with or block a badger’s home or ‘sett’. Badger baiting is a centuries-old now illegal blood sport, where small dogs such as terriers or lurchers seek badgers out of their setts before fighting and killing them.

Bat persecution

Bats and their homes are legally protected, so disturbing or removing them is an offence. If bats roost in your roof, you need to obtain a special ‘bat mitigation licence’ from Natural England to be allowed to disturb them. They are hugely important to our ecosystem.

Trade of endangered species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) sets out which endangered animals and plants have protected status. It is illegal to remove any of them from their natural habitat, possess, or sell them. Currently, the top priorities are European eels, birds of prey, ivory, medicinal and health products, reptiles, rhino horns, and timber.

Freshwater pearl mussel offences

These Endangered mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) are only found in rivers in Scotland and small parts of England. They can live for more than 130 years but are extremely sensitive to water pollution and have been illegally farmed for years. It is illegal to damage or destroy their habitat or to take, injure or kill them.

Poaching

Fox, deer, and hare hunting are all illegal under the Hunting Act 2004. Poaching offences also cover illegal fishing – when anglers do not obtain a licence or remove protected fish from lakes and rivers without returning them.

Raptor persecution

Birds of prey are often targeted on shooting estates. Their eggs are also traded illegally. It is an offence to target, poison, or kill them, with a particular focus on Golden Sagles, Goshawks, Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Red Kites, and White-tailed Eagles. Disturbing or taking their eggs or chicks is also illegal.

Cyber-enabled wildlife crime

Social media is often used to promote wildlife crime and recruit people to take part in it. Endangered plants and animals are also traded illegally online.

  • Punishment must fit the crime. Conditional discharges and paltry fines are not a disincentive for criminals.

A common complaint is that even if wildlife criminals are brought to court the fines or sentences they get are pathetic and not a disincentive. In most cases judges are giving out the penalties they are allowed to under the law. Changes can be made though. In 2022 the maximum sentence for ‘causing uneccesary suffering’ went from six months to five years. That was the result of targeted public pressure and campaigning. We need to identify where changes should be made and push hard for them.

 

  • Wildlife crime must be notifiable and statistics accurately compiled so that resources can be properly targeted.

Police forces are required by law to inform the Home Office of any notifiable offences, which then uses the reports to compile the crime statistics known as ‘recorded crime’. Currently, wildlife crimes are not ‘notifiable’ though (and wildlife crime involving firearms are also not recorded as firearms offences by the Police).  Without them being notifiable, no one knows how many wildlife crimes are being committed across the UK and where the hotspots are (though ‘grouse moors’ is one obvious response). As we have stated many times on this website, law and legislative enforcement is hugely underfunded and under-resourced. Some of this has undoubtedly been through political choice, but if we at least know which crimes are being committed and where, the resources that are available can be placed where they are needed most.

 

  • There must be changes to make it far easier for all of us to play our part in ‘Recognising, Reporting, Recording’ wildlife cime.

As even a quick glance at the Protectors pages makes clear, laws protecting wildlife are hard to understand. Major pieces of legislation like the Hunting Act 2004  and other laws are riddled with exemptions which strongly favour the hunting, shooting, and agricultural industries. Some date from a century or more ago and don’t reflect the modern world. These need to be updated. While there has undoubtedly been efforts made by successive governmants to use ‘plain english’ to explain legislation, any government wanting to tackle wildlife crime needs to make understanding what is and what isn’t a crime far more easily understood and put resources into a reporting system that the public feel confident using. Crucially, the public need to be sure that if they do report a crime it will be acted upon.

 

  • We have to protect the environment and wildlife properly.

Laws protecting wildlife and the environment need to be revised to reflect the 21st century and the biodiversity and climate crises we are in. Animals (and plants) are not an add-on or a ‘nice to have’ – they have shaped the systems that life depends on, and our laws need to reflect how critically important they are.

 

If you’d like to support just one legislative change, Protect the Wild has launched ‘The Hunting of Mammals Bill: A Proper Ban on Hunting‘ – please sign our petition calling for a proper ban on hunting with dogs.

We would like Protectors of the Wild to be the ‘go to’ free resource, packed with the kind of information that really does help all of us become ‘eyes in the field. But we can’t possibly think of every question that might need answering or every situation someone might find themselves in! And while the information in these pages is largely taken from Government online advice and was compiled in 2023 (and constantlyy updated), perhaps we’ve missed something out.

If you could provide us with legal advice get in touch. Or if you find a mistake or a gap please let us know. That way we can continually improve Protectors of the Wild – for the benefit of animals and all of us. Thanks.

‘Protectors of the Wild’ is a project of Protect the Wild. We have a dedicated email address for anyone wishing to get in touch with a specific Protectors query or with additional information etc. Please use the form on our Contact Protectors page or email protectors@protectthewild.org.uk. Thank you.

Much of the information we give in these pages is very technical or to do with legislation which can be revised without much notice. While we have worked very hard on these pages and we take keeping our information accurate and up-to-date very seriously, Protect the Wild are not legal professionals. Just to make sure no-one thinks we’re offering professional legal advice, we feel obliged to include the following disclaimer on every page.

  • Please think of the ‘Protectors of the Wild’ pages as a ‘first stop’ before seeking legal advice. We provide detailed information but not professional advice. The information provided by Protect the Wild should NOT be considered or relied on as legal advice and is for general informational purposes only. Any of the material on our website may be out of date at any given time, and we are under no legal obligation to update such material. While we update and revise as often as we can, Protect the Wild assumes no responsibility for the accuracy and correctness of any information, or for any consequences of relying on it. Please do not act or refrain from acting upon this information without seeking professional legal advice.