All wild birds are protected during nesting season. This includes their nests, whilst in use or being built, as well as any eggs the nest may contain. Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA) it is an offence to:
- intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird,
- intentionally damage, destroy or take the nest of any wild bird while it is in use or being built,
- intentionally destroy an egg of any wild bird
- and intentionally or recklessly disturb certain wild birds or their dependent young while they are nesting.
Therefore it is best to avoid the cutting of trees or hedges between the 1st March and the end of August, as this is the main breeding period for most garden birds, who built their nests in trees and hedges. However, not just hedges and bushes, but also trees like conifers can provide perfect nesting sites for a variety of species at this time including blackbirds, robins, greenfinch, goldcrest and even larger birds such as sparrowhawks and crows, so care needs to be taken during any cutting. September and October can be a good time to do such work. However, it is always important to check first for nesting birds as some species always nest a bit later. Collared doves and wood pigeons for example are preoccupied by nesting at this time of the year and often choose large conifers to build their nests. If any birds are seen taking in nesting material, or one can actually see active nests, then one must leave cutting and trimming until these birds have fledged.
In the context of cutting and trimming, it is worth considering the benefits to wildlife that a mixed hedge would provide. Including species like hawthorn, holly, hazel and crab apple into a hedge will create a greater diversity of structure for nesting birds and a variety of food in the form of berries, seeds and fruit.
The WCA applies also to birds nesting in roof spaces or buildings. Many birds use roof spaces for nesting, and they are generally doing no harm or damage whilst there. The most frequent roof nesters are starlings and house sparrows, both of which are red listed because of major population declines. Because all wild birds and their active nests are protected by law, it would be a criminal offence to remove or block off an active nest. It is recommended that any roofing work is scheduled to be done outside the spring and summer months when birds are likely to be nesting. If swifts are nesting in the roof, then please always allow them to continue to share your home. Swifts are quiet when inside the roof and cause no problems at all. They are suffering from a shortage of nesting sites, and any lost site is very difficult to replace. House martins are amber listed because of their population decline, and should be allowed to nest too. Young starlings can be a bit noisy during the last few days before fledging, and it is understandable that a nest above a bedroom might be a little bit of a nuisance. However, this is not a justifiable reason to remove a nest or to block the entrance into the roof space. It usually does not take them very long anyway until they are fully fledged. If you must deter birds from nesting in your roof, work to deny access must be done during the winter months, and not when they are nesting. Also, regarding other roof nesting species, one should bear in mind that some native species like pigeons can nest throughout the year. It is also recommended to install chimney cowls to avoid jackdaws or owls being trapped in a chimney or behind a fire place.
When it comes to the protection of wild bird species, there are a few ‘legal’ exceptions from the general rule. The first irregularity in the law is caused by the man made existence of so called ‘game birds’, such as pheasants. Captive ‘game birds’ are ‘livestock’, just like captive chickens. If animals are regarded as ‘livestock’, then the same animal welfare provisions apply to a pheasant as to a domestic fowl. This means that a pheasant needs sufficient space, food and water. When millions of non-native pheasants or other ‘game birds’ like the red-legged partridge are legally released into the countryside, then they loose their legal ‘livestock’ status and become wild birds, purely for the reason that it would be otherwise a legal conundrum to justify hunting ‘livestock’ for pleasure. As wild birds pheasants can legally be shot in the open season, and as wild birds they do not have an owner. This helps the game keeper, because if his or her pheasants would damage gardens or would cause a road traffic accident, then the incident would now be caused by a wild bird, and not someone’s ‘livestock’, for which the owner would normally be responsible. However, at the end of the shooting season, some shoots catch ‘leftover’ birds, something which would be illegal, if these pheasants would be legally regarded ‘wild birds’. Therefore, the status of pheasants reverts back into ‘livestock’ to allow this to happen legally. The whole legal situation has been specifically created to protect the interests of the shooting industry. Judging by this inconsistent legal status, one can only guess that surviving wild pheasants and their offspring would theoretically be protected during their nesting season.
Another exception is being made for some bird species, which are being regarded as so called ‘pest birds’. In these cases, and if a nest does need to be moved, a General Licence, issued by the government, allows ‘authorised persons’ to kill or take roof-nesting feral pigeons in Britain, and house sparrows, starlings and feral pigeons in Northern Ireland, and destroy their nests. However, this is only legal if it can be clearly shown that this action is going to be necessary for the purpose of preserving public health. Theoretically at least, convincing evidence of a public health risk needs to be provided. A few droppings or noise pollution are normally not being regarded as acceptable reasons. Suspected offences against nesting wild birds or their eggs should be reported to the local police force. Please ask for a wildlife crime officer to investigate for illegal activity.
As outlined above, active nests or nests being built, should never be intentionally moved. However, accidents may happen. If a nest is being unintentionally exposed, and the cover of the nest is maintained and undisturbed, then one should retreat immediately and watch the nest from a safe distance, ideally with binoculars, to make sure that the parents return and continue to feed the youngsters. If there are barely feathered birds in the nest, and the parents do not return within an hour, then these birds need to be rescued and kept warm in a padded, covered and well ventilated card board box or other safe container, and brought immediately to an experienced wild bird rescue. If the birds found in the nest are sufficiently feathered but not fledged, then one can wait a bit longer, but no longer than two or three hours, before these birds will require to be rescued as well. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the birds, the less time they can survive without sufficient warmth, food and water, the latter being provided by the parents in form of food.
If the nest cover has been destroyed by accident, then one can try to move the nest slightly to a safer place, in a radius of not more than one meter. However, there remains a high risk that parents will not return to a moved nest. If the nest has been moved, intentionally or unintentionally, then one must monitor the nest as described above. If the parents continue to feed, then all is fine. If not, then these youngsters need help as soon as possible and definitely before nightfall.
The following restrictions should be considered when cleaning nestboxes. In England and Wales, General Licence permits unsuccessful eggs to be removed from 1st September to 31st January. In Scotland, General Licence permits unsuccessful eggs to be removed from 1st August to 31st January. This would be the ideal time for nest boxes to be cleaned. Please note, it is illegal to keep any unhatched eggs. If there are unhatched eggs in the box, the relevant General Licence permits egg removal, but the eggs must be discarded.