Government to define barn owls as non-native

John Muir Trust joins with conservation NGOs and eminent scientists to express concern about proposed definition of "non-native" species.

The John Muir Trust has joined with other conservation NGOs and eminent scientists to express profound concern about the proposed definition of ‘non-native’ species in the Infrastructure Bill, which is currently making its way through the UK Parliament.

The Bill would define several native species as non-native, including capercaillie, white-tailed eagle, chough, corncrake, red kite, barn owl and goshawk. It would also define species that go extinct in the UK as ‘non-native’ just because they are not currently resident, which could stand in the way of species reintroductions.

These species could then be controlled or eradicated by powers to combat invasive, non-native species. A further unintended consequence may be that landowners could even be forced to control native species under this powerful new legislation.

RSPB’s Head of Nature Policy James Robinson said: ‘We share the Government’s concern about the damage caused by invasive species, but it is surely not the Government’s intention to brand the barn owl and other iconic species indigenous to the UK ‘non-native’- it must amend this definition, which is simply incorrect.’

Stuart Brooks, Chief Executive of the John Muir Trust, said: ‘The Bill also reflects a narrowness of thinking on species reintroduction. It creates a legal definition of non-native that could apply to species that return to our shores after going extinct, or that we might wish to reintroduce to enhance biodiversity. Furthermore, it seems that any native species becoming extinct in the future and new species that may naturally colonise our shores would also be classified as non-native. We hope the Government will heed the concerns of the scientific and NGO community and amend the Bill accordingly.’

We have co-signed an open letter published in the journal Nature to underline the serious implications for wildlife management: ‘once a species is classified as non-native, it may also be classified as invasive, and the full weight of the powerful invasive species legislation could be used for its control or eradication.’

Fourteen scientific and non-governmental organisations who share a common interest in the protection and enhancement of biodiversity have written a joint letter to the Government, offering to help them re-draft the Clause.


1. Clause 16, in Part 2 of the Bill which applies to England and Wales, would insert a new Schedule 9A into The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, introducing species control agreements and orders to combat invasive, non-native species. Under Clause 16, a species would be defined as non-native if ‘(a) it is listed in Part 1 or 2 of Schedule 9, or (b) in the case of a species of animal, it is not ordinarily resident in, or a regular visitor to, Great Britain in a wild state

2. The Infrastructure Bill is currently at Committee Stage in the House of Lords and further discussion of this matter is expected at Report Stage, towards the end of November.

3. Full script of letter published in Nature:

The UK government’s Infrastructure Bill: a one-way ticket to biodiversity loss

Invasive non-native species are key drivers of biodiversity loss, and have substantial negative impacts on economies worldwide. The UK coalition government’s proposed Infrastructure Bill for England and Wales provides strong new powers for controlling or eradicating such species. However, what constitutes an invasive non-native species needs to be carefully defined to ensure overall impacts of management actions on biodiversity conservation are positive.

As drafted, the Infrastructure Bill defines ‘non-native’ species as species “not ordinarily resident in, or a regular visitor to, Great Britain”. It thus includes past native species that are now extinct, and species that may become naturally established under a changing climate. Its definition of ‘non-native’ also includes species on Schedule 9 of the current Wildlife and Countryside Act, which lists native species such as barn owl, capercaillie, chough and red kite. The definition has serious implications for wildlife management because once a species is classified as non-native, it may also be classified as invasive, and the full weight of the powerful invasive species legislation could be used for its control or eradication. Proposed amendments to address these problems have been rejected. Yet, without amendment, this legislation could result in the eradication of native species and natural colonists, while also precluding species reintroductions, an important tool for addressing biodiversity loss.

A history of past extinctions mean that Great Britain is already depauperate in native biodiversity. These losses have undoubtedly impacted natural processes and delivery of ecosystem services. In recent years restoration of species has begun to address this imbalance. The Infrastructure Bill, if passed in its current form, could reverse these successes and put in law a one-way route to loss of native biodiversity. Effective legislation on invasive species is important, but it must go hand-in-hand with strong protection of past, current and future native species.

Dr Sarah M Durant (Institute of Zoology, ZSL), Dr Nathalie Pettorelli (Institute of Zoology, ZSL), Prof Tim Blackburn (University College London), Prof Jonathan Baillie (Conservation Programmes, ZSL), Prof Geoff Boxshall (Natural History Museum), Stuart Brooks (John Muir Trust), Dr Chris Carbone (Institute of Zoology, ZSL), Dr Jennifer Crees (Institute of Zoology, ZSL), Prof Andrew Cunningham (Institute of Zoology, ZSL), Dr Mike Daniels (John Muir Trust), Stefanie Deinet (Institute of Zoology, ZSL), Dr John Ewen (Institute of Zoology, ZSL), Dr Matt Hayward (Bangor University), Prof David MacDonald (University of Oxford), Prof Georgina Mace (University College London), Prof Robert May (University of Oxford), Prof Ken Norris (Institute of Zoology, ZSL), Prof Stuart Pimm (Duke University), Prof Dave Raffaelli (University of York), Prof William Sutherland (University of Cambridge)