Wildlife Protection

A great many international conventions, European directives and national laws attempt to protect species of animals and plants, but the degree of protection varies considerably. For instance, laboratory animals are protected from being kept in unsuitable conditions, but not from cruel experiments. On the other hand, it can be illegal to keep certain animals (otters or badgers for example), even if they are dead. Some of the most important of the many Acts of Parliament which refer to animals are:

Protection of Animals Act 1911

Protects captive animals from various forms of abuse, and protects wild animals temporarily held in captivity. The RSPCA often uses the Act to prosecute people guilty of cruelty.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES, 1975)

This convention makes unregulated trade in certain species unlawful, whether the animals are alive or dead. Tigers, whales, rhinos and pandas are among the animals protected.

Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

Provides the strongest protection of any British legislation. Species listed in Schedule 5 of the Act are protected from disturbance, injury, intentional destruction or sale. Other provisions outlaw certain methods of taking or killing listed species. This Act amended and strengthened earlier legislation, and is brought up to date regularly to ensure the most endangered animals are on the schedule.

Legislation banning the taking, killing or sale of a threatened species cannot halt a decline if this is caused by the disappearance of the its natural habitat. The Act did improve protection for the most important wildlife habitats (designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest or National Nature Reserves) but there are too few of these to protect population of rare mammals.

EC Directive on Conservation of Natural Habitats and Wild Flora and Fauna (1992)

This European Directive instructs member states to return and maintain certain threatened or endangered species to "favourable conservation status". The Directive lists 200 animals and 400 plant species.

The UK's protected mammals

Our own law offers protection for some native UK mammals. These are pine martens, red squirrels, dormice, all bats, badgers, deer, wild cats, otters, hedgehogs, brown hares and rabbits, shrews, polecats, walrus, porpoise, whales and seals and some species of dolphins.

Badgers (Meles meles) Badger baiting with dogs has been illegal since the last century, digging for badgers was made illegal by the Badger Act 1973 and badger setts were protected in 1991. It is now illegal to kill, injure or take a badger, to possess a dead badger or anything derived from it, or to interfere with a sett without a licence from a statutory authority.

Bats (Rhinolophidae all species, Vespertilionidae all species)

Bats are in decline across the UK as their habitats and food supply are destroyed. There are 15 bat species in Britain, many on the brink of extinction. The Wildlife and Countryside Act makes it an offence to intentionally damage, destroy or obstruct access to any place used by bats for shelter or protection. It is necessary to obtain a licence before handling a bat, dead or alive.

Otters (Lutra lutra)

Otter populations declined dramatically during the 1 950s and 1 960s throughout Europe as a result of pollution in rivers, pesticides on agricultural land and the drainage of wetland areas. Otters have disappeared from most of the rivers in central and southern England.

Otters are strictly protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act and cannot be killed, kept or sold (even stuffed specimens) without a licence.

Red squirrels (Sciurus vulyaris)

The red squirrel has declined in numbers ever since the grey squirrel was introduced from the USA (around the turn of the last century) and is now extinct in most southern counties. The Wildlife and Countryside Act makes it an offence to trap, kill or keep a red squirrel, except under licence.

The role of The Wildlife Trusts

Your local wildlife trust is involved in work that protects mammals in your area. Some wildlife trusts run projects to help otters return to our riverbanks, and they may also arrange bat or badger watching events. At a national level The Wildlife Trusts arrange campaign for better legal protection for threatened animals, plants and their natural habitats.

Further reading

Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), HMSO, London.

Lyster, S. ( 1985) Internahonal Wildlife Law, Grotius Publications Ltd, Cambridge.

The Mammal Society, Red Data Book for mammals

The Mammal Society produces a series of information leaflets about mammals.

Back to the Facts Page