Wildlife and Habitats
Most wildlife causes no damage to historic sites and it can be an added attraction.
This page includes advice on wildlife protection, vegetation on walls, bats, birds, squirrels, reptiles, amphibians, insects, peat, and a list of contacts.
Further advice on wildlife and habitat conservation is provided by Defra.
This section covers:
Many historic property owners and managers may have species, habitats or sites which they are legally required to conserve. If wildlife is damaging historic fabric or archaeology, it is important to prevent or mitigate this without breaking the law.
Owners and managers need to be aware of:
- Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981
This Act covers protection of birds, including birds of prey, animals (including bats), reptiles and amphibians, plants, and sites.
- Protection of Badgers Act 1992
Badgers are protected under their own Act not because they are rare but to stop cruelty and to make all aspects of ‘badger baiting’ illegal.
- Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006
This Act includes the duty ‘Every public authority must, in exercising its functions, have regard, so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of those functions, to the purpose of conserving biodiversity’ (Section 40).
- Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010
The European Directive 92/43 EEC ‘Conservation of Natural Habitats and of Wild Fauna and Flora’ was approved by the Council of Ministers in 1992 and transposed into UK law these Regulations which are often referred to as the ‘Habitats Regs’.
The withdrawal of the UK from the European Union may result in some changes to the Habitats Regulations. Changes will not happen automatically on the date of formal withdrawal but only when (and if) Parliament decides changes are required.
There are four different site designations for wildlife protection. Each of these has a slightly different focus and some sites or parts of a site may be covered by more than one designation.
- Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)
SSSIs are areas of land and water considered to best represent our natural heritage and its diversity of plants, animals and habitats, including geological features such as rocks and landforms. There are currently 4,238 SSSIs in England.
- Special Areas of Conservation (SACs)
SACs are designated under the Habitats Directive in order to protect internationally important or threatened habitats and species. There are currently 254 SACs in England.
- Special Protection Areas (SPAs)
SPAs are designated under the Birds Directive. These sites are designated to protect rare and vulnerable birds, and migratory species. There are currently 85 SPAs in England.
- Ramsar sites
These sites are designated under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat 1971 (the Ramsar Convention). There are currently 73 Ramsar sites in England.
- Natura 2000
Sites designated as SACs, SPAs and Ramsar sites make up a network of natural habitat and core breeding and resting sites for rare and threatened species stretching across all EU countries, both on land and at sea. The aim of the network is to ensure the long-term survival of Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats. All these European sites in England are also designated as SSSIs.
Vegetation on walls
Walls, and other exposed stonework, are colonised by plants in a similar way to cliffs and scree. These man-made features replace scarce natural habitats. The long association between these plant species and walls is reflected in names such as Wall-flower (Erysimum cheiri) or in their scientific names. The Ivy-leaved toadflax’s scientific name is Cymbalaria muralis. Its species name ‘muralis’ means ‘of a wall’.
Most flowering plants and ferns can establish in mortar-filled joints in stonework, or take advantage of cracks and crannies in old walls. Individual species of lichens and mosses like different types of stone and aspects. Variation in construction materials and orientation can produce conditions suitable for several different species.
Walls provide demanding conditions for plants because of exposure, drought and sparse amounts of soil development. True wall plants are able to withstand extremes of temperature and drought. These specialised conditions allow uncommon plants to grow which would be displaced by more vigorous, common species on less hostile sites. The mortar is usually more alkaline than the stonework so a wall built of acid stone may still support lime-loving plants. Historic sites are especially important, because the structure and age of their walls provide a range of opportunities for plants such as weathered stonework and lime-rich mortar. Building stone that has been brought in from a distance can provide a different growing base for plants to the local stone. For example granite or sandstone brought into a limestone area.
Control of plant growth on standing historic remains and other walls may be necessary to prevent damage from woody plants, or to clear areas for recording and inspection, or repair work. However, many plants which grow on walls cause no damage, have considerable ecological value and also add to the visual interest of the walls. Our research has found that soft capping can protect ruined masonry. Sometimes wall flora, especially a grassy turf on the top of a ruined wall, can protect the wall from extremes of temperature and heavy rainfall. More stable conditions within a wall will help conserve the wall itself. We recommend that before you carry out any plant growth control work you give careful consideration to whether the wall flora is causing harm. Don't remove vegetation under a presumption that all is harmful or unsightly. Wherever possible, remove vegetation by hand with minimal use of chemicals.
Bats are often found in historic buildings as they provide a large range of potential roosting areas and many entry points.
All bats and their roosts (whether in use or not) are protected by law. You need a licence from Natural England for any work that may disturb them or their habitats. Bats use different roosts at different times of the year and with specialist advice it may be possible to avoid disturbance (and the need for a licence) by carrying out work at an appropriate time of year.
More advice on working with bats can be found in our Bats in Traditional Buildings guidance.
The publication covers:
- The law
- Bat facts
- Bat roosts
- Planning work and contracting a bat specialist
- Maintenance, repairs and alterations including good practice advice timings, lighting, timber treatments
- Managing properties with bats including advice on stray bats, droppings and urine, allergies, insect pest control, rewiring and plumbing, building security, and opportunities to involve visitors
Bats are nocturnal and are rarely seen during the day but they sometimes get into rooms during daylight hours particularly if they are young, or lost, sick or injured, or disorientated. If you do find a bat, follow the advice given by the Bat Conservation Trust.
Owners or managers of properties which host bats should be aware of the potential risk of bat rabies and handling bats. These ‘bat rabies’ lyssaviruses are found in bats across Northern Europe and have occasionally been found in bats in the UK.
All wild birds are protected by law.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) Section 1 makes it an offence to kill, injure or take any wild bird; or to take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; and to take or destroy an egg of any wild bird. The ‘nesting period’ when nests are being built or in use varies slightly depending on the weather each year but is generally March to August.
Some species of birds, particularly when in large numbers, can cause problems for historic buildings. Preventative measures such as scaring birds away, preventing roosting or preventing access (provided this is outside of the nesting period) do not require permission, although such measures may require Scheduled Monument or Listed Building Consent. Licences will be required for other means of control.
Visit our page on Opening for Visitors and Schools for information on falconry displays.
Two species of squirrel are found in England, the endangered native Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) and the common, introduced Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Very occasionally albino (white) and melanic (black) forms of either species occur.
Red Squirrels are a protected species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The population has declined considerably in the last century and they are restricted to a few locations in England – principally Northumberland, Cumbria and the Isle of Wight. They are rare and should be safeguarded on sites where they are present; and steps taken to stop Grey Squirrels invading.
Red Squirrels do not pose a threat to trees, plant collections or other wildlife. They are generally extremely shy creatures and are not known to enter buildings or to pose a threat to staff or visitors on sites.
Grey Squirrels are not protected and are common in most areas. They originate from North America. The first recorded introduction was in 1876 (although there are recorded sightings of Grey Squirrels as early as 1828) and this was followed by numerous other releases over the next 50 years. Once it became apparent that this species was spreading unchecked throughout the country a Prohibition Order preventing their import or release, was issued in 1937.
Populations can reach proportions where damage is done to other wildlife, trees, gardens and properties. They will strip bark from trees particularly when their numbers are high. Bark stripping is extremely disfiguring to trees and can be lethal and therefore a serious risk in historic parks, woodlands and tree collections.
Grey Squirrels can also damage other wildlife, particularly birds, stealing both eggs and nestlings. They are much bolder than their red cousins and are often found to enter roof spaces where they will gnaw cables and pipes. In many places they appear tame, but people forget that they are wild animals and over familiarity can result in painful bites or scratches.
In such situations you should take measures to control the squirrel population. It's an offence under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 to release Grey Squirrels into the wild. This means that squirrels caught in non-lethal traps must be humanely destroyed and cannot be released elsewhere. More information on Grey Squirrels is provided by the Forestry Commission.
Reptiles and amphibians
There are six native reptiles in England all of which are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.
The three native snakes are the Grass snake (Natrix natrix), Smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) and Adder (Vipera berus). The three native lizards are the Common lizard (Lacerta vivipara), Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis), and the Slow worm (Anguis fragilis) which looks like a snake but is in fact a legless lizard.
In addition, there are a number of non-native species which have been introduced and have become established in different parts of England. In particular this includes the red-eared terrapin (Tracemys scripta elegans) which is particularly devastating to native wildlife.
Both the Sand lizard and Smooth snake are also protected by European Directive. Loss of habitat is the main reason for decline so sites which retain features such as moats, ponds, caves, boundary banks, old hedges, meadows, or scrub in their grounds are valuable. Some species may shelter in old walls.
Advice on good management practices can be found in the Reptile Habitat Management Handbook produced by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.
In England there are seven native amphibians all of which are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981.
The four native frogs and toads are the Common toad (Bufo bufo), Natterjack toad (Bufo calamita), Common frog (Rana temporaria), and the Pool frog (Pelophylax lessonae) – previously extinct but recently re-introduced to one site in Norfolk. The three native newts are the Smooth newt (Triturus vulgaris), Great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) and Palmate newt (Triturus helveticus).
There are also a number of non-native amphibians which have been introduced and have become established in different parts of England, including two newts, two toads, seven frogs and the Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra).
Both Natterjack toad and Great crested newt are also protected by European Directive. Loss of habitat is the main reason for decline so sites which retain features such as moats, ponds, caves, boundary banks, old hedges, meadows, or scrub in their grounds are valuable. Some species may shelter in old walls.
There are very few native insects which cause external damage to historic buildings, or to landscapes.
However there are a wide range of insect pests (both native and introduced) which can cause problems to the interiors and contents of historic houses. Our Practical Building Conservation book on timber includes advice and guidance on insect damage.
There are 49 protected native invertebrates (47 insects - 25 butterflies, eight moths, eight beetles, one cicada, three crickets, two dragonflies and two spiders, which are arachnids) listed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. All of these insects are rare and although some may be found on historic sites they are unlikely to cause damage.
The only native insect species likely to cause damage to the outside of historic structures are Masonry bees. These solitary bees excavate tunnels in which to lay a small number of individual eggs. They usually do this in mortar, but may occasionally excavate soft sandstones or limestones. Damage is usually minimal, although on some occasions large numbers of individuals may use particularly favoured sites and damage may be extensive. There is no restriction on repairing any damage caused. These insects act as individuals and are not aggressive.
Stinging insects – bees and wasps
Honey bees, Wasps and occasionally Hornets will sometimes use buildings or trees for their nests. Where the entrances to these nests are near to staff or visitor routes safety concerns will arise. All three species, but particularly Honey bees, will aggressively defend their nests and human activity nearby can provoke a response.
Hornet and Wasp queens overwinter as individuals and build a new colony from scratch each year. If nests start to appear in inappropriate places, control at an early stage, before large numbers have been built up is advisable. There are no legal restrictions on control.
Honey bees are most likely to appear suddenly in a large swarm, detached from an existing colony, with a queen in the centre. These often rest in a place while scouts look for a suitable new home, so may only stay a few hours. If they find a suitable site and take up permanent residence in a place unsuitable for site safety, removal is the best option. Bee swarms are regularly sought by bee-keepers and most will happily come out to site and expertly remove a swarm for free and the British Beekeepers Association website has a facility to find local ‘swarm collectors’.
Badgers and archaeological sites
Badgers and other burrowing animals can sometimes cause significant damage to archaeological and other historic sites.
Badgers and their setts (underground tunnel systems) are protected by law (Protection of Badgers Act 1992). The Natural England/Defra web page sets out:
- What you must not do
- Activities that can harm badgers
- When you’ll need a licence
- When you usually won’t need a licence, and
- How to apply for a licence
Badgers are widespread and common in suitable habitats in Britain but scarce in some upland and wetland areas. They also have a history of persecution, and it is this, rather than their rarity on a national scale, that has led to their legal protection.
Badgers live in social groups, sometimes called clans. Females tend to stay with their natal group, whilst males are more likely to disperse after reaching maturity. Their setts are used by successive generations of badgers, sometimes for centuries.
Clans are territorial, and particularly in spring the animals dig latrine pits along the boundaries and on well-used paths to mark their territories.
Setts can be divided into four types depending on their size and importance to the group:
- Main sett - The main sett is large, continuously occupied and used for breeding.
- Annex sett - The annex sett is smaller, usually occupied, and connected to a main sett by well-worn pathways.
- Subsidiary sett - The subsidiary sett is seasonally occupied and some distance from the main sett.
- Outliers - Outlier setts are only used sporadically and may have no obvious path connecting them with another sett.
Typically a badger clan will have one main sett and additional smaller setts within its territory. Setts can usually be distinguished from tunnels of foxes or rabbits by their size and shape. Badger tunnels are at least 25 centimetres in diameter and often have an oval profile, and they are wider than they are high. There are large spoil heaps, often with bedding material, outside active entrances. However other animals, including foxes, may use badger setts, and sometimes when badgers are resident. In urban, upland, intensively farmed, or low-lying areas individual badger setts may be of high local importance.
Badgers are omnivorous, feeding on earthworms and grubs, digging holes to extract them from grasslands and lawns, insects, fruits, amphibians and small mammals, including hedgehogs.
Where the presence of a badger sett is causing damage to an archaeological site, or threatening to do so, the main licensing option considered is usually closure of the sett. This means excluding the badgers from the problem sett, whilst allowing them to remain in the general area. Badgers will usually have more than one sett in their territory.
The longer a sett has been established on a vulnerable site, and the more extensive it is, the more difficult it is likely to be to take mitigating action. In addition, significant damage to the site may already have done been done. The creation of new setts, or significant extension of existing ones, should be checked for routinely. If a sett poses a threat, advice should be sought from Natural England as soon as possible.
In some cases, for example where a large well established sett is present, it may be impractical to deal with the whole sett. Such sites should be monitored for signs of new tunnelling and, whilst it may not be possible to prevent all damage, advice should be sought on limiting further damage.
Where damage to lawns and gardens is being caused by badger feeding activity a licence will not normally be appropriate. Feeding damage is usually caused when badgers forage for worms, grubs or nutritious roots and tubers. This often only occurs seasonally, but it can be unsightly and may create trip hazards. If persistent damage, it may be possible to identify the food item the badgers are digging for and reduce its abundance. In some cases, badgers may be fenced out of vulnerable areas, provided this does not deprive the clan of a substantial proportion of their foraging territory. Serious damage in gardens involving setts will necessitate applying for a licence.
Badger latrines can be unsightly, and in public access areas may be perceived as a health risk. The risks from badger droppings are similar to dog and cat faeces. Like these animals, badger droppings can carry the parasitic worm Toxocara which can cause blindness in children. There is also a theoretical risk of tuberculosis, albeit very slight. If there is concern about a health risk, or latrines are considered intolerable because of their appearance or smell, dung should be shovelled up and removed, or covered over with soil. Appropriate safety equipment should be used if handling dung such as protective gloves, splash mask and coveralls. It may be possible to exclude badgers from the site if the area is not too extensive.
The Natural England/Defra licences set out what works can be done and when. The licences take into account animal welfare and their breeding season (November to June).
The ‘Managing Earthworks Manual’ also includes advice on managing badgers and other burrowing animals.