Who, What, Why: Is it legal to eat wild birds?

image captionRook may not be everyone's ideal main course, but it is legal to eat in some circumstances

A pub has stopped selling wild bird on its menu - in the form of rook salad - on police advice. So what is the legality of such dishes?

The Taverners pub on the Isle of Wight managed to sell 30 servings of its unusual addition to the specials menu before the authorities asked the landlord to desist.

All wild birds in the UK are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Technically, it is legal for people to eat some species if they killed the birds under licence but, with the exception of wood pigeon, they can never be sold for human consumption.

It would, however, be legal to eat a wild bird if it had been killed by someone else, or discovered dead as roadkill - although anyone wishing to do so would have to prove they were not responsible for its demise.

The hitherto obscure area of law was brought to public attention by the Taverners. However, the pub's owners and the customers who chose the dish were not technically guilty of breaking the law.

Instead, the man who supplied the bird meat was arrested on suspicion of contravening the 1981 act. A police investigation found that the man had shot a number of fledgling rooks.

The legislation makes it illegal to kill, injure or take any wild bird, although a general licence system allows exemptions in some circumstances. It sets out a list of birds - such as golden eagles, red kites and woodlarks - which are protected at all times and for whom no licence to kill will be granted.

Other species can be killed under licence to prevent damage, disease or to conserve flora and fauna, and there would be nothing to stop those who did so from eating the birds they had culled.

However, except in the case of wood pigeon, it has never been legal to sell wild birds killed under licence for human consumption. Game birds are covered by a different law.

"The reasoning for this is that permitting sales of the wide variety of other wild birds killed under general licence, could increase the risk of killing purely to meet commercial demand," says Melissa Gill of Natural England, which oversees the permits in England.

"The licensee is at fault if he sells on the meat of a bird he has killed under licence - it is a condition of the licence which he is granted that he does not do that."

On the other hand, tucking into a dead bird which had been found in one's garden or as roadkill would not contravene the act.

"It would not be illegal to eat it, so long as the individual could prove that they had not killed it and had discovered it dead," Ms Gill adds. However, the legal onus would be on the individual eating the bird to prove how and where they found it.

And the organisation responsible for food safety advises against making a meal of a newly discovered avian carcass.

"The Food Standards Agency would not advocate cooking and eating roadkill," a spokesman says.

"There are various reasons for this, including the possibility that the animals you find may not have been healthy when killed and may have been suffering from disease or environmental contamination which could have an adverse effect on your health."