Understanding Schedule 1 Licenses for Bird Photography

In the UK, there are a number of bird species protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. Some birds in particular are afforded Schedule 1 protection, meaning they are the most tightly protected birds in the country. Photographers looking to take images of birds may find themselves in breach of these laws, but unfortunately not everybody actually knows they exist.

What is Schedule 1 Protection?

Birds listed under Schedule 1 protection are protected against any disturbance whilst nesting and/or rearing young, at or near the nest. Schedule 1 protection provides laws against:

  • Disturbing any wild bird included in Schedule 1 while it is building a nest or is in, on or near a nest containing eggs or young.
  • Disturbing dependent young of such a bird.

The ‘at or near the nest’ is a bit of a grey area. This can vary, depending on the factors at stake. In the case of barn owls, it is said to be within 30 metres of a tree nest.

Most wild birds are also protected by the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 with three general laws preventing anyone who looks to:

  • Kill, injure or take any wild bird.
  • Take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built.
  • Take or destroy an egg of any wild bird.

Consequently, Schedule 1 listed birds also are afforded the above protection by default.

The punishment for disturbing a Schedule 1 bird at, in, on or near the nest is a fine of up to £5,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to 6 months.

Which Birds are Protected?

There are a number of birds under the Schedule 1 protection in the UK. These are just some of the species you may have considered photographing that are protected under this scheme:

  • Barn Owl
  • Brambling
  • Crested Tit
  • Kingfisher
  • Red Kite

To view the full list of species currently protected under Schedule 1, please refer to the UK government website.

schedule 1 license UK protection bird photography
A number of birds are protected under Schedule 1 in the UK. This includes the Kingfisher.

Do You Need a License to Photograph Schedule 1 Birds?

If you’re going to be disturbing birds that are protected at their nest, then you’re going to need to apply for a license. Some reasons that disturb a bird include, but are not limited to:

  • Using torches or acoustic lures
  • Using repeated sound recordings to lure species to a filming site (acoustic lures)
  • Using overhead unmanned aerial vehicles (drones)
  • Remember that your presence alone is enough to disturb an animal.

However, it is sometimes possible to photograph these birds at the nest without disturbing them. To do this, you’re likely to need to be far away from the nesting site. This is not a loophole to get around the law. Disturbing birds is very easy, and even the bird looking at you could be argued as disturbance – after all, it knows that you are there. Think – do you even need to be at the nest at all? You can photograph owls, for example, at hunting grounds far from the nest sites to your heart’s content.

schedule 1 licenses and bird photography
Wildlife hides can be used to reduce, or eliminate, disturbance to Schedule 1 birds.

According to the UK government’s website, if you don’t disturb the birds then you don’t need a license. However, the problem here is that you can’t predict if you are going to disturb them or not, even if you take precautions. The official advice on avoiding disturbance is:

  • Walk through habitats to observe, record, film or photograph at a distance
  • Use camouflage or hides put up when birds or animals are away from their nests or resting places

You can still disturb birds by using a hide, however. I would strongly recommend keeping hides discrete and at a distance. The birds aren’t stupid and will notice any drastic changes to their environment. The last thing you want to do is make an individual abandon its nest.

Even if you unintentionally disturb the birds, you are still liable to be prosecuted thanks to the Countryside and Rights Way (CROW) Act 2000. It introduced the concept of recklessness, preventing:

  • Any activity that involves deliberately taking an unacceptable risk.
  • Failing to notice or not considering an obvious risk, which results in disturbance.

Whether or not you are photographing these birds legally is only part of the consideration. As wildlife photographers, we should be ethical about our photography. Even if you were to be granted a Schedule 1 license, that doesn’t mean it’s morally correct to go around tape luring a family of owls intensively. Do you really need to do it? Read our guide to ethics for wildlife photography for further debate about this. The same practices should be offered to unprotected birds too.

How to Apply for a Schedule 1 License

There is a dedicated application form for those looking to photograph and subsequently disturb schedule 1 birds. Licenses are specific to a single location and species, and will not allow you to disturb any animal in any location.

You can download this on the UK government website. The process is arduous, requiring references and examples of previous work, but it is the only way to legally disturb these birds. It can take up to 30 days to receive a response to your application, and there are a limited number of licenses issued each year across the country.

Please consider whether you actually need to disturb the animals before submitting the form. There are both legal and moral considerations to be made when involving wild animals.

Will Nicholls is the founder of Nature TTL and a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from England. Having been photographing since the age of 12, Will’s images have won a string of awards, including the title of “Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year” in 2009 from the British Wildlife Photography Awards. Will is also the author of the book On the Trail of Red Squirrels.

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  • Zeneti

    Keeping humans at a distance from animals is extremely harmful. Unfortunately in typical British fashion, when 10 people scream loudest then stupid laws are put in place to mess everything up for the rest of the 65 million people in this country. Humans are part of nature, we should not distance ourselves but instead learn to live in harmony. It is proven in various areas of the world that animals can be in a state of mind that humans are not a threat and don’t run away from us. This is how it should be.