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Firearms and the Law

Firearms (in general terms a rifle, pistol or any other kind of smaller, handheld gun) are regulated in the UK by the Firearms Act 1968. The Policing and Crime Act 2017 inserted section 55A in to the 1968 Act, allowing the Secretary of State to issue guidance to chief officers of police as to the exercise of their functions under, or in connection with, the 1968 Act. 

Those who wish to own a firearm must obtain a license from the police. The police conduct several checks to ensure the applicant has good reason to own a firearm, is fit to own a firearm and can safely own a firearm. 

A home visit must always be carried out before granting a certificate to a first-time applicant. Firearms license holders are required to follow license conditions specified by the police. These include conditions relating to the safe keeping of their firearms.

Firearms policy in the UK is based on the fact that firearms are dangerous weapons and the State has a duty to protect the public from their misuse. The Home Office published new statutory guidance for police forces on firearms licensing in October 2021.
 
  • Regulations concerning firearms are complex and we can only provide general information that we think would most likely be of use in trying to assess whether a hunt, shoot or individual shooters are breaking the law.
 
(Also see Protectors page > Airguns and the Law)

 

In general terms  a ‘firearm’ is a rifle, pistol or any other kind of smaller, handheld gun.

In law it is defined as a lethal barrelled weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet or other missile can be fired, with Section 57 of the principal Act (as amended) further defining a ‘firearm’ as:

  •  a lethal barrelled weapon of any description from which any shot, bullet or other missile can be discharged with kinetic energy of more than one joule at the muzzle of the weapon,
  •  a prohibited weapon and/or any relevant component part of such a lethal barrelled or prohibited weapon,
  • and any accessory to a lethal barrelled or prohibited weapon designed or adapted to diminish the noise or flash caused by firing the weapon.

Some firearms and shot guns may be held on a firearm or shot gun certificate issued by the police. Low-powered air weapons are not licensed in England and Wales unless they are of a type declared specially dangerous by the Firearms (Dangerous Air Weapons) Rules 1969, but there are restrictions on their sale.

The police are the licensing authority for firearm and shot gun certificates, as well as for firearms dealers. The authority rests with local police forces rather than a central licensing authority because of the local information that police will use to inform their judgement.

Applications for authority to possess prohibited weapons, such as handguns, in England and Wales are determined by the Home Office on
behalf of the Secretary of State. Applications for such authority in Scotland are determined by the Scottish Government on behalf of Scottish Ministers.

The guiding principle behind the requirement to have a “good reason” to possess, purchase or acquire firearms or ammunition, is that firearms are dangerous weapons and the state has a duty to protect the public from their misuse.

In general, applicants should be able to demonstrate that they ‘use’ their firearm on a regular, legitimate basis for work, sport or leisure (including collections or research).

Chief officers are able to exercise discretion over what constitutes a good reason, judging each case on its own merits. Chief officers should exercise caution in dealing with cases where the applicant presents a nominal reason for possessing firearms without supporting evidence.

The police will be expected to make reasonable inquiries to verify the applicant’s “good reason” for the possession of firearms.

Permission to possess, purchase or acquire a firearm will only be granted to an individual who is assessed by the licensing authority, the police, as not posing a threat to public safety and having good reason to own the firearm.

Background checks are to be completed for every applicant who applies for either grant or renewal of a certificate or certification, unless checks were carried out within the last six months as part of continuous monitoring of existing certificate holders. A home visit must always be carried out before granting a certificate to a first-time applicant.

Section 27(1) of the 1968 Firearms Act says that:

A firearm certificate shall be granted where the chief officer of police is satisfied:

(a) that the applicant is fit to be entrusted with a firearm to which section 1 of this Act applies and is not a person prohibited by this Act from possessing such a firearm;

(b) that he has a good reason for having in his possession, or for purchasing or acquiring, the firearm or ammunition in respect of which the application is made; and

(c) that in all the circumstances the applicant can be permitted to have the firearm or ammunition in his possession without danger to the public safety or to the peace.

Organisations such as target shooting clubs, museums and firearms dealers must also apply for licences if they wish to possess or use firearms.

Persons who are sentenced to a term of imprisonment of three years or more cannot possess a firearm or ammunition (including antique firearms) at any time.

In the UK a firearms license is a literal certificate which is issued to an individual person and outlines which firearms they are legally allowed to own.

There are two types of certificates which can be applied for. They are completely separate with no overlap and cover a user for specific different firearms.

 

Shotgun Certificate

A shotgun certificate is the simpler of the two certificates to obtain and allows a holder to own specific kinds of shotgun. The kinds of shotgun that can be owned under this certificate are widely used for clay pigeon shooting and for shooting wildlife.

The shotgun must:

  • Have a barrel no shorter than 24 inches (from muzzle to breech)
  • Have a barrel with a bore not exceeding 2 inches in diameter
  • Have no magazine, or have a non-detachable magazine not capable of holding more than 2 cartridges.

 

Firearms certificate

A firearms certificate entitles the holder to own a section 1 firearm (all firearms except: a shotgun; an air weapon (unless declared ‘specially dangerous’); prohibited weapons such as centre fire self-loading rifles, handguns, machine guns etc (unless specifically authorised).)

Shooters looking to fire a large calibre rifle will need to get a firearms certificate.

The firearms that can be owned are assessed on an individual basis by the local police force, which will ensure a shooter has a good reason to own the firearm.

A firearms certificate lists the exact firearm rather than the “type” and the certificate holder is limited to these firearms.  Anyone wishing to amend their certificate with more or fewer weapons will need to file for a “variation”.

 

A person must be 14 years old before they can be granted a firearms certificate, and must prove to the police that they have a good reason for possessing a firearm. They will also have to show that they have somewhere suitable to use it.

There is no minimum age for a shotgun certificate, though a person is not allowed to use a shotgun without an adult supervisor until 15 years old.

In Northern Ireland it is an offence for a person under 18 to possess a firearm. However, a person aged 16 or over may, for sporting purposes, have a firearm or ammunition in his possession while accompanied by a person of 18 or over who holds a valid certificate for the firearm and ammunition. Furthermore, it is not an offence for any person to possess a firearm, which they are entitled to possess by virtue of a Great Britain firearms certificate.

There is no minimum age for a child to attand 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.

Firearms and ammunition  must be stored and transported securely to prevent, as far is reasonably practicable, unauthorised people from taking or using them.

  • Firearms transported in vehicles must be hidden or concealed. If the vehicle is used ‘frequently’ to carry firearms and the firearms might be left unattended it should be fitted with an immobiliser and alarm.
  • If a vehicle is left unattended for any reason, the firearms should be made temporarily inoperable by removing essential components such as the bolt or fore-end which should kept in possession of the responsible person.
  • Even when just stopping to eg refuel, a vehicle being used to transport firearms should be locked and kept within the sight of the responsible person.

 

The security of firearms and ammunition is the responsibility of the holder of a firearm or shotgun certificate.

Yes it is. Shotgun pellets that fall on to another person’s land constitute a constructive trespass, so a tort in civil law rather than a criminal offence though.

It is however a criminal offence to allow an airgun pellet to leave a premises and land on someone else’s property without their permission. 

Trespass means a physical entry by a person onto land without permission (for the purposes of poaching law a person shooting or sending a dog from the public road or footpath is a trespasser). The Firearms Act 1968 says that “A person commits an offence if, while he has a firearm [or imitation firearm] with him, he enters or is on any land as a trespasser and without reasonable excuse (the proof whereof lies on him).”

Having or using a firearm while trespassing is considered to be armed trespass, a serious offence.

The trespasser may be liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months or to a fine not exceeding level 4 on the standard scale (£2500) or to both.

The police should always be called when someone is seen or found without permission on land (or in a building) with a firearm. The burden of proof is on the trespasser to prove that they have a good reason to be on the land carrying a gun.

  • NB. Shotgun pellets landing on someone else’s land without their permission is not ‘armed trespass’ but constructive trespass, a civil offence.

Several high-profile prosecutions have been brought against gamekeepers for not storing firearms properly, including (in January 2023) Dorset gamekeeper Paul Allen when police found an unsecured loaded firearm behind a door in Allen’s home. 

The conditions of a firearm or shot gun certificate stipulate that guns must be stored securely so as to prevent access by an unauthorised person eg a burglar/housebreaker or thief.

Firearms Rules 1998 prescribe safe keeping conditions on firearm and shot gun certificates. They create two levels of security:

  • Rule 3(4)(iv)(a) provides for the firearms and ammunition to which the certificate relates to be stored securely at all times except as provided in paragraph (b), so as to prevent, as far as is reasonably practicable, access by an unauthorised person;
  • Paragraph (b) lists the circumstances in which the security requirements of paragraph (a) do not apply:
    i. when the firearms or ammunition are in use;
    ii. when certificate holders have the firearm with them for cleaning, repairing or testing it or in connection with its use, transfer or sale;
    iii. for some other purpose connected with its use, transfer or sale;
    iv. the firearm or ammunition is in transit in connection with any of these purposes.
 
The Rules do not prescribe the form of safekeeping or security. Police must look at the individual circumstances of each case and at the overall security arrangements that will be in place. The level of security should be proportionate to the risk and each case must be judged on its merits.
 
  • The law does not require that a firearm is stored in a purpose-made firearms cabinet but says that all reasonable measures must be taken to ensure their safe keeping.  Many police forces suggest though that all firearms should be kept in a British standard approved gun cabinet, fixed to the fabric of the building (so it can’t be pulled off the wall), and out of casual sight of a visitor.
 

A gun owner is not legally required to keep their guns at their home address but must apply for a certificate to the police force responsible for the area in which they live, rather than that where the guns are kept.

The Licensing Act 1872 makes it an offence to be drunk in charge of a loaded gun.

Gun carriers for stag hunts like the Quantock Stag Hounds must therefore be sober when they have a loaded weapon strapped to the side of their horse.

The Firearms Act 1968 also makes it an offence to transfer a firearm or ammunition to anyone believed to be drunk. A loader on a shoot could therefore potentially be charged under the Firearms Act for ‘loading’ a shotgun for a drunk client.

‘Drunkenness’ is not clearly defined in law, but if a hunter or shooter’s faculties are impaired they may be deemed to be drunk. If their eyes are glazed, speech slurred, or unsteady on their feet, they are in no fit state to be shooting (and if they try to drive home, s. 4(1) Road Traffic Act 1988, makes it an offence if a person drives or attempts to drive a motor vehicle on a road or other public place whilst unfit through drink or drugs).

The police will take a conviction for drink-driving into account when assessing suitability to hold a shotgun certificate, and a conviction may be seen as demonstrating impaired judgement or loss of self-control.

One conviction on an otherwise unblemished record may not matter but two or three convictions and  judgement will certainly be questioned.

Section 21(4) of the Firearms Act says that it is an offence for certain persons previously convicted of criminal offences to possess a firearm or ammunition.

  • Where a person has been sentenced to three or more years’ imprisonment, the prohibition is for life;
  • Where a person has been sentenced to at least three months but less than three years’ imprisonment, the prohibition is for five years from the date of release (or from the second date after the sentence is passed where it is suspended);
  • There may also be a prohibition included in a community order.

A spent cartridge is one that has been fired and ejected from a firearm. There appears to be no legal requirement for shooters to pick up spent cartridges, so anyone might find one ‘dumped’ in the environment.

The first thing to know is that finding spent cartridges doesn’t indicate a crime of any sort has taken a place – providing the targets are not protected species shooting (sadly) is considered a ‘lawful activity’ and anyone with a firearms licence can shoot in a field or a wood if they have the landowner’s permission.

Should we dispose of any cartridges we find? Even though spent shotgun cartridges contain lead residues they are not present in the sort of quantities to be classed as a ‘Hazardous Waste’ and are classed as a ‘Non-hazardous Waste’. They are though as polluting as any other waste. Rather than leave them on-site, they can be picked up and disposed of at home. Unless you are prepared to send a spent cartridge to a specialist recycling service, because they contain both hard plastic and metal they cannot be placed in a domestic recycling bin but need to go in with standard domestic waste.

 

 

  • NB: Finding unfired cartridges is a different matter. No certificate is required for possession of shotgun cartridges but while a cartridge is unlikely to go off accidentally (it does take a lot of force for a cartridge to go off when outside a firearm), they could still be dangerous if stored or carried improperly. It is advisable to call the police on 101 and ask them to come and remove them.

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.

These species can only be shot if all other measures to move them on, scare them away or in the case of crops stop them reaching the crop, have been tried.

Canada Goose (GL28, GL40, GL41, GL42)
Carrion Crow (GL26, GL40, GL41, GL42)
Woodpigeon (GL31, GL42)
Jackdaw (GL42)
Jay (GL40)
Magpie (GL40, GL42)
Rook (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)
Jay (GL01)
Magpie (GL01, GL02)
Rook (GL02)
Ruddy Duck (GL01)
Woodpigeon (GL02)

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.

It’s far more difficult than it should be to stop shooting taking place, because it is currently legal and legislation is weighted very heavily in favour of shooters rather than the people who want to live in a quiet and peaceful countryside.

The three key questions to ask are:

  • do the shooters have permission from the landowner to shoot on their land (ie has the landowner given permission to shoot on that site),
  • what was being shot (what species),
  • and were any laws being broken.


Who owns the land?

If the shooters (or the shooting syndicate) include the landowner or they had permission from the landowner to be on the land, it is very difficult under current law to stop shooting taking place.

As well as having licences for any firearms (which is almost impossible to verify as a member of the public), all shoots are obliged to show consideration for others, and individual guns must ensure that their activities take account of others’ interests. Everyone involved in shooting should have regard for other people’s property and safety and the frequency of shooting must not give rise to unreasonable nuisance to neighbours. Shoots must obtain permission before entering neighbouring land. If it can be shown that shooting is impacting your right of enjoyment of your property, or that shooters have come onto your property without your permission, it may be worth consulting a solicitor for legal advice but they will need to be given detailed records showing the frequency of the shoot etc, and it may be an expensive option.

If you can show that the shooters didn’t have permission to shoot on a site then they are trespassing. The police may not respond to trespass ordinarily, but trespassing with a firearm is armed trespass which they should always respond to.

If the land is council-owned or a protected site then that is another route to follow: contacting the landowner in that case may (eventually) result in shooting being stopped on the site.


What is being shot?

 While most birds are protected by UK law at all times of the year, landowners can use a ‘general licence’  to ‘control’ some birds species almost all year around. There is very little protection for Wood Pigeons and some corvids (crows), for instance.  Grey Squirrels also have very limited protection as a non-native species and can be shot all year round. The Pheasant and Partridge shooting ‘season’ runs until 1st Feb, so any organised ‘pheasant’ shoot will have to end then.


Is the shooting lawful?

Were any laws broken in terms of shooting near a road, using a decoy bird, killing protected wildlife like badgers etc? It might be worth checking for any evidence left behind once the shooters have left the site – but only when and if it is absolutely safe to do so.


Do others feel the same way?

Do any of your neighbours feel the same way as you do? Multiple complaints to a local paper, the council, your MP etc are usually better than trying to complain as an individual.

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.