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Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was enacted primarily to implement the Birds Directive and Bern Convention in Great Britain and additional legislation. The Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended) is considered to be the main mechanism for legislative protection of wildlife in Great Britain. 

Background

The Act received royal assent on 30 October 1981 and was brought into force in incremental steps. It is supplemented by the Wildlife and Countryside (Service of Notices) Act 1985, which relates to notices served under the 1981 Act.

At the time that it was brought into force, the Wildlife and Countryside Act was a fairly simple source of wildlife law. The legal picture now (decades later) is more complex. Nature conservation became a devolved function in response to devolution. As a result, the Wildlife and Countryside Act has been amended and supplemented over the past 40 years, by provision in a number of other pieces of legislation, including: the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (in England and Wales); and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 (in Scotland) and Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011. In Northern Ireland, the main legislation is contained in the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985 (as amended), the Nature Conservation and Amenity Lands (Northern Ireland) Order 1995, and The Environment (Northern Ireland) Order 2002. Note this list is not exhaustive.

The original version of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and subsequent amendments are available on the legislation.gov.uk website.

The act contains four parts and 17 schedules, which cover:

  • Part 1: Wildlife (includes protection of birds, animals and plants; and measures to prevent the establishment of non-native species which may be detrimental to native wildlife).
  • Part 2: Nature conservation, the countryside and National Parks (including the designation of protected areas).
  • Part 3: Public rights of way.
  • Part 4: Miscellaneous provisions of the act.

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Statutory reviews of schedules

A statutory review of Schedules 5 and 8 (protected wild animals (excluding birds) and plants respectively) is undertaken every five years (referred to as the Quinquennial review of species).

Periodic reviews of the remaining schedules, including Schedule 9 (in relation to non-native species), are is also undertaken. These reviews are undertaken by the country nature conservation bodies and co-ordinated by JNCC.

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SSSI Guidelines

Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), the country nature conservation bodies have a duty to notify any area of land which in their opinion is 'of special interest by reason of any of its flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features' – these areas are known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). In 1989 the then Nature Conservancy Council published guidelines for the selection of biological SSSIs. Since 1991, JNCC has been the focus for the production and revision of the guidelines.

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