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Bird Watching Code

The interests of the bird come first.
Birds respond to people in many ways, depending on the species, location and time of year. Disturbance can keep birds from their nests, leaving chicks hungry or enabling predators to take eggs or young. During cold weather or when migrants have just made a long flight, repeatedly flushing birds can mean they use up vital energy that they need for feeding. Intentional or reckless disturbance of some species at or near the nest is illegal in Britain.

Whether your particular interest is photography, ringing, sound-recording or birdwatching, remember that the interests of the bird must always come first.

  • Avoid going too close to birds or disturbing their habitats – if a bird flies away or makes repeated alarm calls, you are too close. And if it leaves, you won’t get a good view.

  • Stay on roads and paths where they exist and avoid disturbing habitat used by birds.

  • Think about your fieldcraft. Disturbance is not just about going too close – a flock of wading birds on the foreshore can be disturbed from a mile away if you stand on the seawall.

  • Repeatedly playing a recording of birdsong or calls to encourage a bird to respond can divert a territorial bird from other important duties, such as feeding its young. Never use playback to attract a species during its breeding season, even if it isn’t a normal breeder in the area as this could prevent potential colonisation.

Know the rules for visiting the countryside, and follow them
Respect the wishes of local residents and landowners, and don’t enter private land without permission unless it is open for public access on foot. Follow the codes on access and the countryside for the place you’re walking in.

Irresponsible behaviour may cause a land manager to deny access to others (eg for necessary survey work). It may also disturb the bird or give birdwatching bad coverage in the media.

Legislation provides access for walkers to open country in Britain, and includes measures to protect wildlife. In England and Wales, access is to land mapped as mountain, moor, heath and down, and to registered common land. However, local restrictions may be in force, so follow the Countryside Code and plan your visit. In England, the Countryside Code and maps showing areas for public access are at

Know the law
In England, Scotland and Wales, it is a criminal offence to disturb, intentionally or recklessly, at or near the nest, a species listed on Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. Disturbance could include playback of songs and calls. The courts can impose fines of up to £5,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to six months for each offence. In Scotland, disturbance of capercaillie and ruffs at leks is also an offence.

The government can, for particular reasons such as scientific study, issue licences to individuals that permit limited disturbance, including monitoring of nests and ringing.

It is a criminal offence to destroy or damage, intentionally or recklessly, a special interest feature of a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or to disturb the wildlife for which the site was notified. In England, Wales, a fine of up to £20,000 may be imposed by the Magistrates’ Court, or an unlimited fine by the Crown Court. In Scotland, the maximum fine on summary conviction is £40,000, or an unlimited fine on conviction on indictment.

If you witness anyone who you suspect may be illegally disturbing or destroying wildlife or habitat, phone the police immediately (ideally, with a six-figure map reference) and report it to the RSPB.

If you discover a rare bird, please bear the following in mind:

  • Consider the potential impact of spreading the news and make an effort to inform the landowner (or, on a nature reserve, the warden) first. Think about whether the site can cope with a large number of visitors and whether sensitive species might be at risk, such as breeding terns, flocks of wading birds or rare plants.

  • On private land, always talk to the landowner first. With a little planning, access can often be arranged.

  • Rare breeding birds are at risk from egg-collectors and some birds of prey from persecution. If you discover a rare breeding species that you think is vulnerable report it to the Recorder via this Contact Form on this site as a matter of urgency or the RSPB if it’s outside the county. The Recorder will consider telling the landowner of the bird’s presence and legal obligations in most cases, and this will help ensure that the nest is not disturbed accidentally.

If you have the opportunity to see a rare bird, enjoy it, but don’t let your enthusiasm override common sense. In addition to the guidelines above:

  • If you go to see a rare bird, park sensibly, follow instructions and consider making a donation if requested.

  • Don’t get too close for a photograph – you’ll earn the wrath of everyone else if you flush the bird out of sight.

  • Be patient if the viewing is limited, talk quietly and give others a chance to see the bird too.

  • Do not enter private areas without permission.

  • Birds should not be flushed more frequently than every two hours nor within two hours of sunrise or sunset, so that the bird has chance to feed and rest. Birds should never be flushed in important wildlife habitats or where there are other nesting or roosting birds nearby. In the breeding season flushing rare visitors can be very disruptive at any time to both the rarity and other species that are breeding in the area.

This code is based on the RSPB’s code.

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