In the UK wild birds are protected by law. Thankfully this protection is extended to include their nests (at least whilst they are in use) and their eggs. In England, Scotland and Wales the legislation that protects wild birds is the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and in Northern Ireland, The Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985.
While in theory all wild birds, their eggs, and their nests are protected, the amount of protection varies depending on whether the species are listed on various Schedules or Licences. Please note that this needs to be considered when weighing up whether a crime has been committed or not, and the advice and information below is therefore somewhat more general than we would like.
Birders often have ‘insider’ knowledge of nesting birds and therefore we have a particular responsibility to be careful with that information. Egg thieves are known to mingle with birders looking to pick up information, and follow birding forums and birding websites.
Please do not make it easy for egg thieves by openly discussing or posting information about the location of breeding birds EVEN if the breeding season is over – thieves will monitor the site for the birds to return the following year.
The identity of anyone suspected of being an egg thief should be made known to the police.
Let’s help protect nests and eggs
- It is illegal to intentionally or recklessly disturb any nesting Schedule 1 species – that is, those birds and their young for which it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb at, on, or near an ‘active’ nest.
- It is illegal to intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of ANY wild bird whilst it is in use or being built – this applies as equally to egg thieves as it does to councils ‘tidying’ hedges or homeowners wanting to prevent birds messing up windows, walls, or steps etc.
- In Scotland it is an offence to obstruct or prevent any wild bird from using its nest.
- The nests of Golden Eagles and White tailed Eagles are protected all year round, as are Osprey nests in England.
- Some birds’ nests can be removed while they are active, but only under the conditions of a general licence or a licence issued by a statutory nature organisation.
It’s worth noting (as it’s a commonly asked question) that the nests of House Martins and Swallows can not be removed when they are being built – this means from when the first daub of mud is placed – or are in use, and knocking down an active nest or preventing the adult birds access to their eggs or young is illegal.
It is also illegal to remove hedges or prune trees if birds are nesting in them (and it is the duty of for example a tree surgeon to check carefully before starting any work). If you are a neighbour to some tree works being carried out and you know this will impact nesting wild birds, make this fact known to the house owner or tree surgeons: if they carry on with the work their actions then become intentional and they are committing an offence.
Another so-called ‘problem group’ of birds are gulls. The nests of Herring, Great Black-backed and Lesser Black-backed Gulls can be removed but only under licence, only by an authorised person, and only when there is a need to preserve public health, public safety, or prevent the spread of disease. No action may be taken until the authorised person is satisfied that alternative methods to resolve the problem, such as scaring and proofing, are ineffective or impracticable.
- It has been illegal to take the eggs of most wild birds since the Protection of Birds Act 1954 and it is illegal to possess or control any wild birds’ eggs taken since that time under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Therefore it is illegal to intentionally take or destroy the egg of any wild bird except if licenced to do so under certain circumstances as outlined above (especially likely to apply to corvids and some gulls). Note that is is extremely unlikely that licences will be given to collect the eggs of any protected species or of any bird of prey.
Therefore anyone taking/collecting eggs – or disturbing nesting birds or damaging active nests – is likely to be committing a crime.
While egg-collecting is not the major problem it once was, thieves target rare or unusual species so can have a disproportionately negative impact on certain species. The details of any suspected egg collectors should always be forwarded to the police.
- It is illegal to sell any wild bird’s egg (or shell, or parts, fragments, or derivatives of the shell) irrespective of its age. To dispose of eggs legally, they may only be given away or destroyed.
- If you own birds eggs and can show that the eggs were taken before the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (Protection of Birds Act 1954 in Scotland) came into force, you will not be convicted of possession. Owners of a collection do not have to prove this ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ but show that it is likely ‘on a balance of probabilities’.
- Make a note of the date and time and take photographs or video of the scene using a mobile phone or camera etc (or make as accurate a sketch as possible).
- Note the location as accurately as possible, preferably using a grid reference (free smartphone apps are widely available). If the crime is in an urban area note the address or any other recognisable description of the location.
- If in the countryside take wide angle photographs of any landmarks (a tree, a distinctive fenceline, a hill) that might help officers relocate the crime scene. Imagine we were trying to find the same site again – what information might we need?
- Photograph any vehicle registration numbers that are or might be related to the incident. Even if we’re not sure whether the vehicle is involved or not it is legal to record a registration number if we suspect that the vehicle has been or may be used in a crime. The number may well be useful to the authorities in the future and help build up a more complete picture of eg an egg collector’s movements.
- If you do see someone committing a crime – and if it is safe to do so – take as many photographs as you can. Recording the offender’s face is important of course, but their clothing, the bags they’re carrying, the equipment they’re using are all important too. Egg thieves are generally not known for violence but please do not take any risks. Do NOT try to get too close – taking some long-distance images is better than having a camera smashed or being attacked and hurt.
- If a crime is in progress call 999, if the event is finished or you wish to report a historic crime then call 101. Give details as requested, and ask for a crime reference number.
- Alternatively information can also be passed to Crimestoppers at 0800 555111
The investigation of wild bird egg theft, UK-wide, comes under the auspices of ‘Operation Easter’, which is managed by the National Wildlife Crime Unit (note the NWCU does not provide a direct contact point for the public). It involves every police force in the UK and regular liaison is made with the RSPB. In the two decades this operation has been running it has been very successful: there are now thought to be only 27 known or suspected egg thieves (down from a high of over 130).
Page updated Jan 2015
Do you have any comments, additions, or corrections? Please let us know.