Remembering the rules when photographing nests


Wildlife photographers have a moral responsibility towards their subjects – and there are laws to consider too. Award-winning photographer Ben Andrew shares advice on taking pictures in the bird breeding season.

The accessibility of digital photography has, to an extent, turned us all into wildlife photographers. Everyone has a camera on their phone these days, and the sheer range and quality of equipment on the market, at all levels, has led to a huge upsurge in wildlife photographers in the UK in the last 10 years.

It’s great that so many people out in the countryside, enjoying wildlife and wanting to share what they see. But it’s crucial to protect birds’ interests while you’re taking photos – and protect yourself from the law especially at this time of year when millions of birds are nesting in the UK.


Wild birds and the law


All wild birds in the UK are fully protected by law.

The laws that protect birds in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all slightly different and it’s important to know the facts.

There are two protection levels: ordinarily protected birds and species listed on Schedule 1. ‘Schedule 1 species’ as they are commonly known are our rarer and more threatened species. The difference from a photography point of view is that it’s an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb Schedule 1 birds whilst they are nest building, at, on or near an active and whilst they have dependent young. So, in basic terms, avoid these species in the breeding season unless you are lucky enough to hold a government license or are watching from a public hide, such as osprey at Loch Garten.

 For more information see Wild Birds and the Law. For more information on this in Scotland see here.

:: You can check the list of Schedule 1 species here

:: You can also find further information on Schedule 1 species in Scotland here


The moral position


Between March-August ordinarily protected birds are either nesting or about to start nesting. As such, we don’t morally encourage the photography of nests for fear of disturbance.

If you are close to a nest you could risk:

  • Causing an adult bird incubating eggs to leave the nest and abandon it permanently
  • Preventing an adult bird from entering the nest to feed its chicks
  • Damaging the habitat around the nest making it more obvious to a predator
  • Causing young to become frightened and flee the nest before they’re fully developed, affecting their chances of survival.

If you do feel compelled to photograph common breeding birds then there is no set distance to stand from a nest as each bird is different in terms of its tolerance, so just make a common-sense decision based on the bird’s behaviour towards you. To be safe, position yourself well away from a nesting site or take your pictures from a public hide.

We also recommend not getting too close to any species that are feeding their young outside of the nest after fledging, or disturbing birds setting up territories before nesting. It is crucial that birds don’t waste their time and energy, so do not prevent a bird from building a nest, and never use tape lures to attract singing territorial males who need to focus this time on courting a female. Like all courtships, it’s best to stay out of other people’s...!


Give people what they want – not what they don’t


Bird photography has moved on in leaps and bounds since its first inception and, in fact, photography at the nest is no longer considered something that most organisations or individuals are keen to see. The RSPB has very little need for nest images except for specific scientific projects. And websites such as BirdGuides will not publish any images of Schedule 1 species during the breeding season at all.

Equally, no-one wants to see images of an adult bird looking stressed because it doesn’t feel comfortable entering its nest or is prevented from doing so.

Plus, with long lenses and modern equipment allowing images to be cropped, there really is no need to get too close!

Finally, we ask you to please never give out detailed nesting locations of any species – this information could easily fall into the wrong hands. However if you spot a bird nesting somewhere new, or see something unusual, tell the county bird recorder, RSPB and the Rare Breeding Bird Panel. Otherwise be cautious about spreading any news.


So please go out, enjoy our wonderful wildlife and capture fantastic images in an ethical, responsible and legal way.

  • If someone thinks it's OK to disturb any bird for a photo then they are absolutely not a birder.

    Our herring gulls are red listed birds.  Think about that the next time you hear some flaming idiot calling for a cull of them.

  • In my experience there are two types of photographer taking pictures in situations they shouldn't (and the issue is far wider than just birds at nesting time) - the ignorant & the ones that simply don't care.  I spend a fair proportion of my time on reserves providing some education to the former and watching out for the latter.  The good news is that the list of people who believe their photograph is more important than anybody else's (or the animal's welfare) is pretty small, though encountering such attitudes always angers me as it reflects on all of us photographers who try to do the right thing.

    We should also be clear that the law is NOT specifically about photographers, and "intentional or reckless disturbance" is not "OK because I am a birder".  Yes, I have had someone tell me that!


    Find me on Flickr / All about your camera - The Getting off Auto Index