With work underway on HS2, RSPB's Colin Wilkinson describes the law around development and nesting birds and what to keep an eye out for...

 Roses and chocolates in the shop windows can mean just one thing - it’s Valentine’s Day, in folklore the day that birds begin to nest. But with the green light given to HS2 just days ago, no doubt HS2’s contractors are also sharpening their chainsaws ready to begin clearing more land.  

Let’s hope those contractors have been well briefed on what the law says about breeding birds and will act responsiblybut last year’s events at Calvert Jubilee don’t inspire great confidence. So, for them and for you, here’s a quick summary of the key points of the law.  

1. Under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, it’s an offence intentionally to kill, injure or take any wild bird, or take or destroy their eggs or nest, or damage a nest, while that nest is in use or being built - but proving intent can be a challenge. Nest destruction that’s genuinely accidental isn’t an offence, but it would be a bit poor for HS2’s contractors to claim this as a defence for badly-timed work on a massive scale. 

 2. It’s also an offence intentionally or recklessly to disturb a wild bird listed on Schedule 1 of the Act while it is nest building, at or near a nest containing eggs or young or disturb its dependent young - reckless activity might include working too near a Schedule 1 nest despite knowing it was there. A full list of birds on Schedule 1 of the Act is here and includes species such as barn owls. Note that “disturbing” (without destroying) an active nest of a bird not on Schedule 1 is not an offence even though the adults might desert it for somewhere quieter. 

3. The Act does not define the bird breeding season, simply that if a nest is being built or contains eggs or young then it is active and therefore protected - our advice is to avoid extensive tree and vegetation clearance from early March to the end of August wherever possible, and always to be vigilant at other times to try to avoid mishaps. Neither should netting trees and hedges be the easy alternative. 

So - those are the basics of the law on nesting birds. What should you look out forwhat should you do about it, and when? 

The body that investigates these matters is the Police. All forces have Rural Crime Teams and Wildlife Crime Officers. But the Police have a lot to do, so before deciding to report an alleged offence (using the non-emergency number) take a moment to consider: 

Are trees etc being cleared now? If it’s all over and those responsible are long gone, it’s likely to be difficult for the Police to act. 

Are there birds singing within the area affected? singing male bird from March to July indicates an occupied territory and the strong likelihood of an active nest somewhere close by. 

Is there any evidence of destruction of active nests? A smashed nest without evidence of eggs or chicks and without fresh interior lining is more likely to be a nest from a previous season, and not active. Equally, if adult birds are calling and acting in an alarmed manner, then even if no nest is visible, it’s probably there somewhere. 

If the answers to these questions are “yes”, then it’s definitely worth contacting the Police and asking them to look into it. Make notes, take pictures if it’s safe and you can do so from a public place. When you speak to the Police, obtain an incident number and keep a record of it. There’s no need to call RSPB though, like any other potential crime, it’s a police matter. 

If not, then there will be little for the Police to follow up on. 

There is lots more detail on wild birds and the law, and what to do if you suspect an offence has been committed, on our website. 
 
Let’s hope none of this advice is needed. HS2, please be our Valentine this spring! 

 We will also be writing to the Department for Transport soon on this issue, to make sure that the law in respect of birds and their nests is fully understood.  

(Photo credit: Ben Andrew)

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