Bird shooting and the Law
Under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (the primary legislation which protects animals, plants and habitats in the UK) all wild birds are protected.
In the UK no-one can simply go out armed and shoot whatever birds they want to.
However, certain species of game birds (a term Protect the Wild will not normally use, we explain why here) may be shot and killed during shooting seasons first laid out in the Game Act 1831, and waterfowl (ducks, geese, waders) may be shot and killed during shooting seasons described in the Wildlife & Countryside Act. These species include now familiar birds such as Common Pheasant and Red Grouse and less familiar birds such as Woodcock and Northern Pochard.
Many of the ‘laws’ that further ‘protect’ these specific birds are in fact guidelines. Any efforts to strengthen legislation in their favour (by shortening shooting seasons, for example) are met with fierce resistance by shooting lobbying groups like the Countryside Alliance, British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).
We have covered related issues on other Protectors of the Wild pages:
The Game Act 1831 established a ‘close season’ during which listed ‘gamebirds’ (typically the ‘property’ of wealthy landowners) could not be legally killed, and banned the shooting of all ‘game’ on Sundays, Christmas Day, and at night. The Act established the need for game licences and the appointing of gamekeepers. The Act also made it illegal to lay poison baits. It is still (mostly) in force today.
The Game Act designated certain species (using names current at the time and given below in brackets) as ‘game birds’ and the dates between which (the so-called ‘open season’) when they can be legally shot:
- Red Grouse (Moor Game), 12 August – 10 December
- Black Grouse (Black Game), 20 August – 10 December
- Pheasant, 1 October – 1 February
- Partridge (now taken to mean both Grey and Red-legged Partridges), 1 September – 1 February
The requirement for a Game Licence to shoot was abolished in England and Wales on 1 August 2007.
In Scotland a licence is still required to shoot grouse, pheasant, rabbit, and hare (but not – oddly – ducks or geese).
It is illegal to shoot a wild bird or ‘gamebird’ if:
- the species is protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which covers almost all wild birds;
- the species is a ‘gamebird’ but the shooting is not within the specified shooting season for that species;
- the species is a ‘gamebird’ but the shooting takes place on a Sunday or on Christmas Day, or between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise;
- the species is not included in a general licence and is therefore protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981;
- the species is included in a general licence but the conditions of the licence are not being met;
- an individual is shooting wild birds on someone else’s land without their permission;
- an individual is using firearms without a firearms licence.
No, it is illegal to shoot pheasants or grouse (and in fact any birds listed as ‘game birds’) on Sundays. Nor can they be shot on Christmas Day (or at night).
The vast majority of birds that breed in or regularly visit the UK are rightly protected by law and can not be harmed or killed at any time of the year.
For those unfortunate species that were long ago declared as ‘game’ or ‘quarry’ though (and there are no biological reasons for the choices that were made) there are set periods within the year when they are legally allowed to be killed.
Originally laid down in the Game Act 1831 and regardless of how much the rest of us love birds, of habitat loss, collapsing biodiversity, and climate change, there are still periods when anyone with a gun can leave their house and go out and shoot at and kill birds because they want to or find it exciting.
For most ‘quarry’ species these ‘seasons’ start between the middle of August/the 1st of September and end on January 31st.
HWM = High Water Mark of ordinary spring tides England, Wales and Scotland and any area below high-water mark of ordinary spring tides Isle of Man. Geese can only be shot under general licence.
After much pressure the UK government (via Defra) agreed to license the release of Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges to control ecological damage to wildlife sites.
In May 2023 they published “GL43: licence to release common pheasants or red-legged partridges on certain European sites or within 500m of their boundary“. (NB neither species are native to the UK and around 60 million in total are released to be shot every year.)
GL43 states that “You must not release common pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) or red-legged partridges (Alectoris rufa) into the wild on European sites or within 500 metres of their boundary (known as the buffer zone), except under a licence.”
For Pheasants, the licence conditions stipulate that the density of pheasants released within a European site must be no more than 700 birds per hectare of release pen, or lower if required by a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) consent.
The density of Red-legged Partridges released within a European site must be no more than 700 birds per hectare of land they inhabit, or lower if required by a SSSI consent.
- However, neither species can be released on SACs or within the buffer zone of a SAC if the site is also designated as a special protection area (SPA) or is within the buffer zone of a SPA.
Sites of Special Scientfic Interest (SSSIs): GL43 does not provide consent under section 28E of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 for those operations requiring Natural England’s consent as listed on a notification of a SSSI.
- Before someone can release or permit the release of gamebirds in a SSSI that is also a European site, they need to know if Natural England needs to give SSSI consent. The owner or occupier of the land will need to check if SSSI consent is needed.
- Natural England’s SSSI consent is needed if the release or related activities: take place in a SSSI that is also a European site; or are listed on the SSSI notification as operations that need Natural England’s consent
An individual needs to have Natural England’s consent, where this is necessary, before releasing or permitting the release of gamebirds within the SSSI.
GL43 is valid in England only from 31 May 2023 to 30 May 2025. Work is being undertaken to assess impacts of releases on individual sites.
- Note, that this is a General Licence. Any authorised person (which includes the owner or occupier of the site on which the release will be carried out, or any person authorised by the owner or occupier of that site) can use this General Licence and there is NO requirement to apply or register to use it.
No, there is no legal limit on how many pheasants an estate can release and no accurate data needs to be collated.
It’s estimated that around 50 MILLION Common Pheasants (pheasants) are released each year along with 10 MILLION Red-legged Partridges. Neither species are native to the UK.
Guidelines suggested by shooting lobbyists GWCT recommend that no more than 1,000 pheasants should be released into each hectare of woodland release pen (400 per acre). Higher numbers have effects on some woodland plants, and other wildlife in and near to release pens may also be affected more at higher release densities.
In sensitive woods, e.g. ancient semi-natural woods or those with a rich bryophyte and lichen flora, shooting lobbyists GWCT recommends that the maximum release should be 700 birds per hectare of pen (280 per acre).
These are not legal limits though, just guidelines.
No, there is no legal limit on how many birds (eg pheasants or ducks) can be killed on a shoot.
The number of birds killed varies from shoot to shoot. Typical figures given on shooting websites would be that, for example, 500 birds between eight Guns is a ‘big bag’. For syndicate shoots, it’s more typical for the guns to kill between 100 to 150 birds a day.
Shooters still call the mass killing of 100-150 birds in a day ‘fun’.
A ‘priest’ is a short tool used like a club to kill wounded/injured birds that shooters have failed to kill outright. Typical of a ‘sport’ that fetishises the equipment it uses, ‘priests’ come in many shapes sizes and sizes and in materials from highly-polished wood to antler or bone.
The ‘priest’ is used to crack the skull of the bird, allegedly killing it cleanly and swiftly.
Shooting describes killing an injured/wounded bird in this way as ‘humane dispatch’ and the use of a ‘priest’ is currenty legal.
Yes, Red-listing is a measure of conservation status, not a measure of legal protection.
Established in 1964, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species has evolved to become the world’s most comprehensive information source on the global extinction risk status of animal, fungus and plant species.
Protect the Wild wants to see an automatic shooting ban on any bird species that is Red-listed, but remarkably six bird species on the UK Red List for Birds can still be legally shot.
Included on both the UK Red List for Birds and ‘quarry lists’ are:
In almost all cases, no, people can NOT shoot birds in their gardens.
- Almost all birds are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and shooting almost any bird requires a licence from the Department for Food Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) which should only be used as a last resort and for specific reasons including to protect public health and safety or to prevent serious damage to crops.
- While eg an airgun can be used in a garden, it is illegal for a shooter to fire any shot/airgun pellet into another garden without the owner’s permission – most gardens are not large enough to ensure this doesn’t happen. If this happens it should be reported to the police.
Yes, Wood Pigeons can be shot at any time of year (there is no close season), but General Licences govern the conditions why they (and Feral Pigeons) can be shot. There is no need to apply for these licences but the conditions must be followed.
Wood Pigeons were once indiscriminately shot in huge numbers for ‘sport’, but improvements in legislation mean that a shooter must now prove the birds are causing or are likely to cause a problem in the immediate area. If not shooting on land they own a landowner’s permission (preferably in writing) must be obtained.
The General Licence that governs the shooting of pigeons in England is GL42. The licence makes it clear that where possible a landowner must have made “reasonable endeavours to achieve the purpose in question” (ie distrubance, loud noises etc) before shooting starts. The licence also states there is no requirement to use eg bangers here it would be “impractical, without effect or disproportionate in the circumstances”.
|General Licences England
|General Licences Scotland
|General Licences Wales
|General Licences Northern Ireland
The UK government revised its list of so-called ‘pest birds’ that can be shot in England from 1 January 2022 under the main General Licences (numbered below).
These species can only be shot as a last resort – ie if all other measures to move them on, scare them away, or in the case of crops to stop them from reaching the crop, have been tried.
Canada Goose (GL28, GL40, GL41, GL42)
Carrion Crow (GL26, GL40, GL41, GL42)
Woodpigeon (GL31, GL42)
Magpie (GL40, GL42)
Egyptian goose (GL40, GL42)
Monk Parakeet (GL40, GL40, GL42)
Ring-necked Parakeet (GL40, GL42)
Ruddy Duck (GL21)
Sacred Ibis (GL40)
Indian House-crow (GL40, GL42)
Feral Pigeon (GL41, GL42)
GL21 = kill or take ruddy ducks for conservation purposes
GL26 = kill or take carrion crows to prevent serious damage to livestock
GL28 = kill or take Canada geese to preserve public health and safety
GL31 = kill or take woodpigeons to prevent serious damage to crops
GL40 = kill or take wild birds to conserve wild birds and to conserve flora and fauna
GL41 = kill or take wild birds to preserve public health or public safety
GL42 = kill or take wild birds to prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber, fisheries or inland waters.
So-called ‘pest birds’ that can be shot in Scotland from 1 January 2022 fall under three main General Licences:
Canada Goose (GL01, GL02, GL03)
Carrion Crow (GL01, GL02)
Feral Pigeon (GL02, GL03)
Greylag Goose (GL02)
Hooded Crow (GL01, GL02)
Jackdaw (GL01, GL02)
Magpie (GL01, GL02)
Ruddy Duck (GL01)
GL01 = for the conservation of wild birds
GL02 = for the prevention of serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables and fruit
GL03 = for the preservation of public health, public safety and preventing the spread of disease.
In April 2020, Scotland removed Collared Doves, Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Greater Black-backed Gulls from the general licences. At the same time it was made illegal to shoot Woodpigeons, Jackdaws, Magpies, Rooks, Carrion or Hooded crows for reasons of public health.
There is no minimum age for a child to attend a shoot (in reality, that means no minimum age at which a shooter can introduce their child to killing wildlife).
Shooting magazines blithely say that, for example, by the age of five or six a child could ‘sit at your peg and hold the dog’, pick up spent cartridges, or count dead birds. At the age of eight or nine a child ‘could join the beaters or flankers’, driving birds to their deaths. A couple of years later the proud shooting parent can assume the child will be ready for ‘their first clay lesson’ and on their way to joining their parents in the ghastly ‘sport’ of shooting living animals for fun.
Yes, you will almost certainly be committing an offence – probably aggravated trespass – if you deliberately disrupt a shoot. (Accidentally wandering onto a shoot and disrupting it without meaning to will likely result in simply being asked to leave the area with no further action being taken if you comply promptly and peaceably.)
Deliberately sabbing or disrupting a lawful activity on private land, though, is aggravated trespass.
Whether we like it or not (and Protect the Wild doesn’t) as long as the shoot are not breaking any laws and the shooters have the landowner’s permission to be on the site, shooting some species of birds and mammals is currently a lawful activity.
- Shooting almost always takes place on private land and trespass becomes the criminal offence of aggravated trespass the moment somebody tries to prevent another person from pursuing a lawful activity. It is up to the landowner on whose land there has been an incursion to decide on what action to take, but if the disruption involves violence or criminal damage the police will always be called.
- A shoot could apply for an injunction (a formal court order which forbids the trespassing activity) against identified individuals which would involve charges and costs.
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 simple, mobile-friendly pages and over 400 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.
- 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. 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, 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 email@example.com. 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 information not professional opinion. 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 obligation to update such material. 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.