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Wildlife & Habitats


There is a wealth of wildlife for you to see and enjoy throughout the British Isles and off our extensive coastline, but a lot of these animals are vulnerable to disturbance if not approached in a responsible way that respects their wild nature. Wildlife is under   constant pressure from factors such as climate change, development and disturbance from human activity.


Industries and water users have a duty to protect wildlife and enhance the environment.  We share the waters we use for our recreation with a wide range of birds, fish and cetaceans but the presence of boats should not necessarily have to mean disturbance to the local wildlife.


If crafts are handled with sensitivity there can be minimal or zero disturbance. Zoning of sensitive areas, speed restrictions, awareness of seasonal and geographical sensitivities, and education can all be used to mitigate the impact of boat use on wildlife.


Laws that protect particular species:

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 protects certain species from disturbance, injury, intentional destruction or sale. These include seabirds, dolphins, whales, basking sharks and porpoises. The European Habitats Directive and the national Regulations that implement it provide similar protections for ‘European protected species’. These include dolphins, porpoises and whales. Thus, it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly disturb a cetacean or basking shark, and ignorance of the law is no defence. All club members and instructors should be aware of what disturbance is and how to prevent it.


Law that protect special habitats and areas:

Many clubs and centres are located within or near conservation designations. These may be international, national or local designations. The main designations that could affect you includes: Marine Protected Areas, Ramsar Sites, Sites of Special Scientific interest (SSSI), Special Areas of Conservation, Special Protected area and local nature reserves. Many of these sites will have management measures in place to help ensure that damage from activities is kept to an absolute minimum and that the area is maintained in a healthy or improving state. It is important that you are aware of designations near your club and what that means for your facilities and operations.


Laws that set the standard for the state of water bodies:

This includes legislation relating to the management, use and pollution of water bodies such as the Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive.


Find out more on wildlife and habitat legislation:


Impacts on habitats:


  • Find out what designations are in place locally by using the interactive map on the JNCC website .
  • Talk to the relevant local office (Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs or Natural Resources Wales). Ask what management measures are in place and what they advise regarding your event.
  • If necessary, cordon or buoy off any sensitive habitats to avoid trampling or damage from vehicles or from grounding or anchoring.
  • Ensure any course is set out to avoid passing through or close to sensitive habitats where possible.
  • Read our sections on pollution control (link to pollution control site 4.1.1) and take action to avoid damage from these sources.



Impacts on wildlife:


  • Follow the precautionary principle – that there is likely to be wildlife in your area and you should do all that’s possible to avoid disturbance.
  • Talk to national and local experts to identify key species including the areas and timings that may pose a risk.
  • Seek advice on how best to act to avoid disturbance.
  • Promote good practice and brief members on how to act around wildlife.
  • During boating activities, in areas with potential impact on protected species include marine mammal observers on the safety boats and at strategic viewpoints.
  • Encourage biosecurity to prevent invasive species. (link to biosecurity page 4.1.4)
  • Imposing speed restrictions on the water bodies is useful to reduce any risks and to improve safety.

Encourage good practice, provide resources and information on…


  • Encourage members to find out if the areas they visit are protected and why so they are better informed on more sensitive areas.
  • Keep your distance, use binoculars! Never separate mother and young or disturb resting animals.
  • Keep noise and wash to a minimum. See more by disturbing less.
  • Small craft can reach shallow, more sensitive habitats and where wildlife might be nesting, feeding or breeding on the shoreline. Avoid stirring up the bottom or disturbing vegetation – use designated access points where possible.
  • Slow down if there are waves at the bow or stern of your boat. You are probably using unnecessary fuel with no increase in actual speed.
  • Keep to designated speed limits. If in doubt, don’t exceed 4 knots when close to shorelines and banks.
  • To minimise the impact of your wake, keep a safe and reasonable distance between your boat and the bank/shoreline where possible.
  • Hull design can have a major influence on wash. Short full bows give higher waves, while longer and finer bows can reduce wash.
  • A well balanced and clean propeller will disturb less sediment and reduce your impact on the underwater environment.
  • Sensible use of throttle and good boat handling skills can significantly reduce wash as well as improve fuel efficiency.
  • When you go ashore try to use recognised landing places.
  • Take an RYA training course to improve your boat handling skills to help reduce unnecessary wash.

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