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Wildlife and nature conservation

Leigh Day has decades of experience pursuing wildlife conservation cases, protecting habitats and species in the terrestrial and marine environments.

We specialise in cases concerning the proper implementation of international, EU and domestic environmental law, including:

  • The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
  • The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009
  • EU Directives on Birds and Habitats protection
  • EU Directives on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)

We also work on cases to protect threatened species from persecution, disturbance and harassment on land and at sea (through, for example, hunting and oil and gas expansion).

Leigh Day can offer legal advice and help you challenge injustice, improve wildlife conditions and review wildlife conservation laws.

Most recently, we have acted for clients challenging:

  • General Licences for the killing of wild birds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • The failure to evaluate the impact of the introduction of some 60 million non-native pheasants into the countryside every year.
  • Ofwat’s failure to regulate discharges of sewage into rivers.
  • Permission for the emergency use of neonicotinoids to protect sugar beet crops from aphids.
  • The grant of licences for bottom trawling and their impact on Marine Protected Areas.

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Wildlife laws and regulations

Wildlife laws and regulations exist to protect wild animals and their habitats in the UK.

The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 is the primary legislation for wildlife and nature conservation, covering four key areas:

  • Wildlife protection, including animals, plants, wild birds and their eggs and nests
  • Nature conservation, including the countryside and National Parks
  • Public rights of way
  • Miscellaneous provisions.

We can also offer advice and representation in respect to many other wildlife protection laws, including:

  • Hedgerows Regulations 1997 –protecting important hedgerows under local authority.
  • Protection of Badgers Act 1992 – assisting the welfare of badgers and their setts.
  • The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 – for European conservation sites and protected species.
  • Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 – allowing further protection of SSSIs (Site of Special Scientific Interest).
  • Wild Mammals (Protection) Act 1996 – protecting the welfare of wild species of mammals.
  • Natural Environment & Rural Communities Act 2006 – providing a legal basis for the importance of biodiversity conservation.
  • Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 – establishing a network of marine protected areas and protecting marine wildlife

How Leigh Day can help with wildlife and nature conservation claims

We offer specialist legal advice and help to support you in protecting threatened species and natural environments.

Our cases on behalf of individuals, community groups and environmental organisations have led to crucial reforms in the statutory frameworks governing the protection of wildlife. This is despite the massive pressure brought to bear by the State and other parties whose interests are in maintaining the status quo.

Leigh Day has expertise in these highly specialised cases which involve an amalgam of complex international, EU and national wildlife laws and regulations, as well as high-level scientific information.

Our wildlife conservation work


Leigh Day was instructed to bring a legal challenge to ensure the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) review the impact of the annual introduction of some 60 million non-native gamebirds on important wildlife sites.

As a result, DEFRA conceded in announcing a regime that requires a licence to release non-native birds near nature reserves and protected areas. The case provoked a major breakthrough in regulating the impacts of non-native birds in England’s wildlife sites.

General Licences

We have supported legal claims to challenge the flaws in general licencing legislation for the welfare of birds throughout the UK.

This resulted in a significant review of the system of general licences in England and Wales with an ongoing case in Northern Ireland, working to ensure adequate protection of wild birds.


Leigh Day was instructed to challenge widespread badger culling in England on the basis that it is inhumane. We are currently challenging a proposed badger cull in Northern Ireland on the basis that crucial documents providing the rationale for the decision were not made available to the public during the consultation period.


Leigh Day is instructed to investigate the use of pesticides by local councils in England and Wales due to concerns over their impacts on wildlife and human health.

After gathering evidence on the use of herbicides (and in particular those containing Glyphosate) by local authorities through environmental information requests, Leigh Day is currently exploring legal action against a small number of local authorities whose use of herbicide products clearly falls foul of the regulations and guidance issued by Health and Safety England.

Marine Protection Zones

Leigh Day successfully acted for Sussex Wildlife Trust in its judicial review of a decision by local planning authority that would have caused damage to a marine chalk habitat in the south-east of England.

The case argued that the local planning authority failed to carry out an environmental impact assessment, putting the protected marine habitat at risk. As a result, the planning permission was quashed.

Why choose Leigh Day for conservation law?

Leigh Day has been praised for its “ground-breaking work”, consistently ranking in The Legal 500 and Chamber and Partners legal directories for environmental and public law cases. Our expert wildlife conservation lawyers have more than 35 years’ experience representing clients on a range of environmental cases.

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Wildlife news and blogs

News Article
Environment Wild Justice Judicial review human rights Northern Ireland

Wildlife groups challenge Northern Ireland badger cull

The decision to launch a major cull of badgers in Northern Ireland is being challenged in the courts by Wild Justice and Northern Ireland Badger Group (NIBG).

News Article
Wild Justice Environment Human rights

Wild Justice calls for longer close season to protect resident population of Woodcock

Wild Justice has called for a change to the dates when the shooting of Woodcock is permitted in order to halt the decline in numbers of the at-risk birds.

News Article
Railway Line Environmental

HS2 preparatory works threaten destruction of irreplaceable wildlife habitat

Broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham CBE has threatened legal action against the Government over plans to destroy ancient woodlands from October onwards in preparation for the HS2 railway.

Our work with Wild Justice

The team is proud to be instructed in a number of wildlife conservation cases by Wild Justice.

Wild Justice

Wild Justice is a not-for-profit organisation set up by wildlife campaigner Chris Packham CBE, Dr Mark Avery and Dr Ruth Tingay.

As advocates for wild species and natural environments, Wild Justice take legal challenges against UK governments, their agencies and policies, and campaign for better wildlife laws and regulations. They have impacted wildlife conservation laws regarding:

  • General licences for bird killing
  • Gamebird releases
  • Badger culling
  • Beaver reintroductions
  • The use of lead ammunition
  • Glyphosate use by local authorities
  • Regulations governing the burning of peatlands
  • Discharges of sewage pollution into rivers

Leigh Day interview with Chris Packham and David Wolfe QC

Wild Justice General Licences Legal Challenge: FAQs

The legal challenge was not concerned with the wider merits, or otherwise, of the use of general licences as a regulatory tool in line with the requirements of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (the ‘Wildlife Act’). Rather, the legal challenge concerned the lawful basis on which three particular general licences were granted by Natural England on 1 January 2019; namely General Licences GL04, GL05 and GL06 (the ‘General Licences’).

The Wildlife Act provides for the protection of birds and prevention of poaching. The Wildlife Act makes it a criminal offence to intentionally kill a wild bird, but provides for an exception to this where the appropriate authority has lawfully granted a licence and the killing is in accordance with the terms of that licence.

Natural England is only permitted to grant licences for specific narrow purposes listed in the Wildlife Act, such as preventing serious damage to crops. Natural England’s power to grant the General Licences is dependent on Natural England first being satisfied that there would be no other alternative solution to killing the wild birds covered by each General Licence for each specific purpose listed in the respective licence during its operation.

Before granting the General Licences in 2019, Natural England did not consider that matter at all, let alone properly satisfy itself. As Natural England had not met the condition of first satisfying itself, it was not permitted in law to grant the General Licences. Wild Justice contended that the General Licences were therefore unlawful.

On 13 February 2019, Wild Justice sent Natural England a Pre-action Protocol letter setting out its legal concerns about the General Licences. Wild Justice asked Natural England to do two things: (1) accept that the General Licences were granted unlawfully; (2) replace them with a lawful alternative once they expired on 31 December 2019. It was of course open to Natural England to demonstrate that it had in fact satisfied itself before granting the General Licences.

On 13 March 2019, Natural England responded in writing to Wild Justice’s pre-action protocol letter. Natural England’s letter followed a confidential ‘without prejudice’ meeting that Wild Justice attended to discuss its concerns with Natural England. In its written response, Natural England accepted that it needed to be satisfied that there are no other satisfactory solutions before issuing the General Licences. Natural England did not, however, say that it had satisfied itself, nor did it provide any evidence that it had done so. Instead, Natural England omitted to indicate what its position was regarding the substance of Wild Justice’s legal argument: it did not concede the legal point or provide evidence for the lawfulness of the 2019 General Licences.

Natural England stated in its letter that it intended to review the General Licences later in 2019. Natural England declined to provide any detail about its intended review of the General Licences, or to indicate when Natural England had decided there would be such a review.

It is in everyone’s interest that licences granted by Natural England are lawful. Legal proceedings were an appropriate way to secure legal certainty in the absence of a clear response by Natural England to the concerns raised by Wild Justice in pre-action correspondence.

Legal proceedings of this kind must be brought within three months of the decision subject to scrutiny; in this case, the three months started to run from 1 January 2019 when Natural England granted the General Licences. To ensure the claim was filed in good time, Wild Justice filed proceedings in court on 21 March 2019 after carefully considering Natural England’s formal pre-action response of 13 March 2019.

On 23 April, the day before Natural England was due to file its legal grounds defending the claim, Natural England wrote to Leigh Day to concede the claim. Natural England had not been able to demonstrate that it had satisfied itself that there were no other satisfactory solutions before granting the General Licences. The claim was subsequently withdrawn from the court by consent.

At almost exactly the same time on 23 April, Natural England separately made a public announcement that it had decided to revoke the three General Licences starting two days later from the end of 25 April and that, on an interim basis, anyone wanting to kill any of the species formerly listed on those General Licences would need to apply for and receive a specific licence from Natural England. Natural England also publicly announced that a longer-term review of general and class licences is planned. The scope and timing of that review is yet to be announced.

Natural England took the decision to revoke the General Licences. Wild Justice was not approached by Natural England about this prior to its announcement. Wild Justice did not ask for the licences to be revoked with immediate effect and did not consider it necessary to do so. Wild Justice asked Natural England to replace the current licences with a lawful alternative once they expired on 31 December 2019.

Wild Justice’s challenge against Natural England’s decision to grant the General Licences had the following chronology:

1 January 2019 – Natural England grants the 2019 General Licences GL04-06 (the ‘General Licences’) which ‘authorise’ the killing of 16 bird species.

13 February – Leigh Day sent Natural England a Pre-Action Protocol (‘PAP’) legal letter on behalf of Wild Justice setting out why our client considered the General Licences to be unlawful.

26 February – Natural England responds, a day ahead of the formal deadline for response, asking for two more weeks.

27 February – Wild Justice gives Natural England a further week.

1 March – Natural England asks for a meeting with Wild Justice.

13 March – Chris Packham, Dr Ruth Tingay, Dr Mark Avery and two of their lawyers meet Natural England.

15 March – Wild Justice receives a confused and ambiguous written legal response from Natural England which does not concede the legal argument, nor provide evidence for the lawfulness of the General Licences.

15 March – Wild Justice launches crowdfunder on Crowdjustice platform to raise funds for legal challenge – this was the first public mention of what the case was about.

21 March – Leigh Day files legal claim in the court on behalf of Wild Justice seeking judicial review of Natural England’s decision to grant the General Licences.

25 March – crowdfunder reaches target of £36,000 in 10 days.

23 April – Natural England concedes the claim and separately makes a public announcement of its decision to revoke the General Licences

26 April – Natural England publishes an interim general licence to kill or take Carrion Crows to prevent serious damage to livestock including poultry and reared gamebirds.

3 May – Natural England publishes interim general licences for controlling Canada Geese and Wood Pigeon.

3 May – Leigh Day writes to Scottish Natural Heritage, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland, and Natural Resources Wales to bring the outcome of the legal challenge to their attention.

4 May – Responsibility for granting general licences is transferred to Defra with immediate effect. Defra announces a call for evidence on the use of general licences for the management of certain wild birds with a closing date of 13 May 2019.

8 May – The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee announces that it will hold a one-off evidence session with Defra Ministers and Natural England on 21 May 2019 on Natural England’s decision to withdraw and reissue the general licences for controlling wild birds, and the subsequent decision by Defra to take over this responsibility.