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The Barn Owl Trust

Conserving the Barn Owl and its Environment

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Wild owl capture, care and rehabilitation

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legal care and rehab

Legal aspects of wild owl capture, care and rehabilitation

In England, Wales and Scotland, Part 1, Section 4 (2) of the W&C Act 1981 allows the removal of an animal from the wild if it is injured and/or suffering, for the purposes of treating it and releasing it, or to euthanase it to prevent further distress. In Northern Ireland this is in Part 2, Section 5 (5) of the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order 1985. It is therefore perfectly legal to catch a wild bird that is unable to fend for itself, provided that your sole intention is to release it when it is deemed able to survive.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 (part 9, section 1) which covers wild birds in care states: “A person commits an offence if he does not take such steps as are reasonable in all the circumstances to ensure that the needs of an animal for which he is responsible are met to the extent required by good practice.” In Scotland similar provision is made in the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2006 (Scotland).

When an animal is temporarily removed from the wild for the purpose of rehabilitation, the carer has a duty of care to that animal. Euthanasia may only be carried out if justifiable. If any unnecessary suffering is caused to the animal while in rehabilitation, the carer is liable to prosecution. In the case of a potentially releasable wild bird, doing anything that renders it unreleasable, such as allowing it to become tame, may be deemed an offence. Such birds should not be kept for any longer than absolutely necessary.


Nestling and fledgling Barn Owls are quite commonly found, having fallen from an unsafe nesting place or inappropriately designed nestbox. Once the owlet has been checked over and nothing found to be amiss, it will need to be placed back in the nest. Bearing in mind the special protection afforded breeding Barn Owls, there is a danger that a rescuer may be in contravention of the law by approaching the nest place for this purpose. In such cases, Natural England has advised that the legal requirement to return the bird to the wild could be considered to override the requirement for a disturbance licence. Before attempting to help a fallen owlet the finder is strongly advised to consult the Barn Owl Trust publication What to do if you find a young Barn Owl. See link >


Most of the wild owls that are picked up injured or starving are passed on to a local wildlife hospital, a specialist owl or bird of prey rehabilitator, or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). There is currently very little legal control of wildlife rehabilitation in Britain. There is no requirement for rehabilitators to be registered or licensed and no set of basic standards that they are required to meet. There is very little control over the conditions in which birds are kept, and no requirement for casualties to receive veterinary attention. The chance of individuals surviving the process of rehabilitation is greatly affected by the treatment provided, the way in which their fitness for release is assessed and the release method used. The power to decide what happens to an individual bird rests almost entirely with the person who has it in their possession.


There is more information on this topic in the Barn Owl Conservation Handbook


The Barn Owl Trust is dedicated to conservation & education and does not operate a visitor centre.
Barn Owl Trust staff and volunteers
Waterleat, Ashburton, Devon TQ13 7HU
+44 (0) 1364 653026