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Rabbits and the Law

Rabbits are not native to the UK (they are from the Iberian Peninsula originally) and despite being here for around two thousand years, they are considered ‘pests’ in law. Since the Pest Act 1954 (which was put forward in response to huge agricultural losses) land occupiers – unless they can establish that it is not reasonably practicable to do so – have been legally obliged to remove all rabbits across the whole of England and Wales (excluding the City of London, the Isles of Scilly, and Skokholm Island) which was named a ‘rabbit clearance area‘.

If this is not possible they must stop rabbits causing damage to adjoining crops by putting up rabbit proof fencing.

  • Rabbits have no specific protection per se, so it is legal for an authorised person to kill or take them by lawful methods at any time of year.
  • Rabbits caught in traps etc have protection under Section 4 of the > Animal Welfare Act 2006 which prohibits ‘unnecessary suffering’, but they were excluded from the > Hunting Act 2004 which banned the hunting of wild mammals with dogs.
  • Rabbits are also not a protected species in Northern Ireland or Scotland.
 

Rabbits are considered pests under the Pests Act 1954, and all occupiers of land have a responsibility to take action to prevent them from causing damage. They are not given any specific protection, so it is legal to kill or take them by lawful methods at any time of year.

Under the Pests Act 1954 the whole of England and Wales (excluding the City of London, the Isles of Scilly, and Skokholm Island) was declared a ‘rabbit clearance area’.

The Act says that “The occupier of any land in a rabbit clearance area shall take such steps as may from time to time be necessary for the killing or taking of wild rabbits living on or resorting to the land, and, where it is not reasonably practicable to destroy the wild rabbits living on any part of the land, for the prevention of damage by those rabbits, and shall in particular comply with any directions contained in the rabbit clearance order as to the steps to be so taken or as to the time for taking them.”

Many of the individual clearance areas listed in 1956 are for counties that have been reshaped and renamed (some have been lost entirely) and make little sense now. Defra said in 2015 that the concept of a ‘rabbit clearance area’ is now a redundant part of the Pests Act and has not been enforced in decades so could be withdrawn, but as of 2023 had not started a process to delegislate. 

Yes and no. A landowner (or authorised person with written permission from the landowner) does not need a licence to shoot a rabbit, but anyone using a firearm to do so must have the correct firearm licence. Having or using a firearm on land without permission is armed trespass, a serious offence ( > Firearms and the Law).

Unlike its meaning of ‘having official approval’, an authorised person is someone that a landowner (or legal occupier of the land) has given written permission to kill wildlife on their behalf.

An authorised person can be: a member of the household; an employee; or someone hired specifically to carry out the killing.

While rabbits are considered ‘pests’ they can’t simply be killed in any way imaginable. While the methods allowed still leave room for a great deal of suffering, the law does take into account that rabbits are sentient animals so a landowner or authorised person must not cause ‘unnecessary suffering’ while a rabbit is in their control (as per Section 4 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006), and can only kill rabbits using:

  • Traps and snares – only cage traps, drop box traps or spring traps can be used. It is illegal to set spring traps in the open (so they must be placed within the mouth of a rabbit burrow). It is illegal to use self-locking snares. Traps and snares must be examined twice every day, preferably in the early morning and at dusk. It is an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to a rabbit caught in a trap or snare.
  • Ferreting – ferrets may be sent into the burrow system, driving rabbits into nets which are placed over the burrow entrances or to waiting guns.
  • Shooting – a landowner, authorised person, or legal occupier of land can shoot rabbits on that land.
  • Gassing – it is legal to gas rabbits in their burrows but steps must be taken under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) to assess the risks and decide what precautions are necessary in the circumstances (this only applies to moisture-activated gassing compounds used in open areas).

Because rabbits are considered to be ‘pests’ they are not currently protected in the UK by Acts that ban hunting with dogs, but when the Hunting with Dogs (Scotland) Act 2023 comes into force in summer/autumn 2023 it will longer be permissible to use a dog to search for, or flush a rabbit from below ground. While two dogs, or more than two dogs under licence, may still be used to search for and flush rabbits above ground for “preventing serious damage to livestock, woodland or crops” any rabbits flushed must now be shot dead or killed by a bird of prey as soon as reasonably possible. (If in that process the rabbit is injured then reasonable steps must be taken “to kill it in a way (other than by using a dog) that causes it the minimum possible suffering”.)

Under the new Act a dog may be used to find an injured rabbit but must not kill it.

Yes, it is currently legal to snare rabbits at any time of the year.

The use of snares is (supposed to be) strictly controlled, however, and a snare operator by law must:

  • only use free-running snares, which relax when an animal is captured
  • check snares at least once a day
  • humanely kill any rabbit they catch
  • In Scotland snares used for rabbits must have an effective safety stop 13cm from the running end and must be firmly anchored by staking to the ground or attaching to an object to prevent the snare being dragged by an animal caught in it.

 

An operator must not use:

  • snares where rabbits would be exposed to severe weather
  • snares or traps if weather conditions are likely to stop he or she from inspecting them once a day
  • snares near a fox earth, a badger sett or where badgers are present
  • self-locking snares
  • snares that could allow rabbits to become fully or partially suspended, entangled, drowned or strangled.

 

Additionally, the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Scotland) 2011 has a number of provisions that  affect the use of snares in Scotland:

  1. Since 1 April 2013, anyone who sets a snare in position must have an identification number
  2. Anyone who sets in position or otherwise uses a snare must ensure:
    a) that a tag is fitted on the snare that can’t be easily removed
    b) that there is displayed on the tag (which will remain readable) the identification number of the person who set the snare
    c) where the snare is intended to catch the following types of animal-
    i) brown hares or rabbits or
    ii) foxes.

A person can legally shoot hares and rabbits on their own land if they have the correct firearm licence.

The Ground Game Act 1880 gives an occupier the right to authorise in writing one other person to do so as well. That person must have the correct firearm licence and be:

  • part of their household
  • one of their staff
  • employed to specifically kill rabbits

 

Yes, rabbits may be shot with an airgun (and without a weapons licence) if .177 or .22 airguns with an impact power of less than 12lb per cubic foot are used.

A shooter using an airgun must have the permission of the landowner and ensure the welfare of the rabbit.

Also see > Airguns and the Law

Yes, but as interpreted by the courts and as read with the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, only the following are allowed to shoot rabbits at night:

  • an owner or occupier with shooting rights
  • a landlord or landlady who has reserved their shooting rights
  • a shooting tenant who is not an occupier but who has derived the shooting rights from the owner
  • an occupier, or one other person authorised by the occupier in writing, where the occupier has written authority from someone with the shooting rights.

Yes. Animals that are legally considered to be ‘pests’ such as rabbits, pigeons and Muntjac Deer have no closed season so can (legally) be killed all year round.

Many councils now do not remove rabbits from land they own saying that the wording of the Pests Act says that it is ‘the occupiers of land’ that have a legal duty to control rabbit populations (unless they can establish that it is not reasonably practicable to do so), but they must not cause unnecesary suffering or use illegal methods to do so.

On behalf of a supporter Protect the Wild is looking to answer an interesting legal/enforcement question ‘Can I be made to kill rabbits on my land?’ – and to answer the follow-up question ‘What happens to me if I don’t kill the rabbits on my land’?

Under the Pests Act 1954 ‘an occupier of land’ in England and Wales has to ‘control’ rabbits on it. The original ‘rabbit clearance order’ from 1954 says that a fine ‘not exceeding £25’ (an almost insignificant sum in today’s terms of course) would be liable on summary conviction.

More recently,  Natural England’s Control of Rabbits – Complaint form A02 (‘to be used if you’re suffering significant crop damage caused by rabbits coming from neighbouring land and your neighbour is refusing to control them’) states under the section on ‘Enforcement of the Obligation to control rabbits’:

Occupiers who neglect a rabbit infestation on their land which causes serious damage to neighbouring land will be reminded of their obligation by Natural England and given reasonable time to put matters right. If this warning is ignored, the Secretary of State has discretionary powers, under Section 98 of the Agriculture Act 1947, to serve a Notice requiring an occupier to take specified action against the rabbits. If an occupier fails to take the specified action he/she would be liable for prosecution. In addition, the Secretary of State can also arrange for a third party to carry out the necessary control work on the occupier’s land and then recover the cost of this work from the occupier.”

To make a complaint, complete the form and send it to Natural England at the address provided. If the information you provide on the form justifies further action, you’ll be contacted by a Natural England wildlife adviser to discuss the problem and, if appropriate, arrange a site visit.

During the site visit the wildlife adviser will carry out an independent assessment of the damage and the rabbit infestation, and will provide advice on rabbit control.

The wildlife adviser will also wish to speak to your neighbour and to assess the rabbit infestation on their land. Where possible, a voluntary agreement to solve the problem between all parties will be encouraged.”

 

Protect the Wild can’t even guess at this point how or whether any of this would be enforced by an understaffed and under-resourced Natural England or its ‘wildlife adviser’, or whether a Secretary of State would really be interested in chasing down a land occupier (especially if the complaint related to a small area like a private garden) – we will do our best to find out.

Yes. Myxomatosis is an extremely aggressive and contagious disease of rabbits caused by the Myxoma virus. It arrived in Britain in 1953 from France and killed millions of wild rabbits. It was made illegal to spread the virus in 1954 under the Pests Act which says that “A person shall be guilty of an offence if he knowingly uses or permits the use of a rabbit infected with myxomatosis to spread the disease among uninfected rabbits“.

Wild rabbit populations are largely resistant to the disease now, however there are still several deadly strains in existence which can affect both wild and domesticated rabbits. 

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.

 For more information on this much maligned animal go to our European Rabbit species account.

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.