Why is UK Wildlife Law so confusing?
Lee Raye, Wildlife Law tutor at ADL, shares his favourite stories of wildlife legislation.
UK Wildlife Law can be confusing. Swans and stranded whales belong to the crown and you should not touch them. Nesting birds and wild plants are also protected, but you should exterminate rabbits whenever they appear on your land. If you accidently catch a grey squirrel you are not supposed to let it go, but if you catch a great crested newt you should let it go immediately and stop whatever you are doing.
The reason our laws are so complicated is because of the rich tradition of environment-use in the UK. Our current law system is almost a thousand years old, and has been established to promote four uses of wildlife: (i) sustainable hunting, (ii) pest control, (iii) conservation, and (iv) welfare. For example:
- Sustainable Hunting. Parks and forests were originally Norman reserves for wild animals, especially the introduced fallow deer (Dama dama) and native red deer (Cervus elaphus). These lands were used by the aristocracy for hunting, and were strictly off-limits for poorer people. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle explains in a scathing elegy that William the Conqueror ‘loved the stags as though he were their father’, and blinded anyone he caught poaching venison.
- Pest Control. The Act(s) for the Preservation of Grayne (esp. 1566) were written at another time when ordinary people were starving. The increasing population was putting more pressure on food and farms could not keep up with demand. The Tudor Grain Acts required all parishes in England, Wales and Scotland to exterminate agricultural pests. All mammals and most small birds were given a bounty.
- Conservation. But the very same Grain Acts also prevented ravens and kites been taken within two miles of any city. This was because kites and ravens were urban scavengers; they helped protect humans from disease by consuming food waste before it could spoil. Conservation history in Britain goes back a long way.
- Welfare. Swans, eagles and royal stags were protected from injury because they symbolised the power of the ruling class. The Values of Wild and Tame from pre-union Wales ruled that anyone who injured or killed the king’s champion stag had to pay a fine.
In the twenty-first century our laws are more sustainable. We have closed-seasons for hunting, deterrent and reactive-based control of pests and a network of nature reserves for conservation. Our vertebrate animals are now all protected from deliberate harm unless there is good cause. But we got to this stage through centuries of law making. Each of the four pillars above is still provided for. The reason that UK Wildlife Law is so complicated is because it is designed to protect all four historical stakeholders in wildlife.
You can read more wildlife themed blog posts by our tutor, Lee Raye, on his blog Natural History.