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Scotland : helicopters and birds

Don’t disturb the birds!

The Scottish Western Isles are a favorite spot for pilots, but it’s important to be mindful of the protected bird species that call this place home. Flying helicopters near their breeding grounds can have a negative impact on their population.

Table of Contents

Who is this aimed at?

This guidance is intended for anyone helicoptering in the vicinity of specially protected bird species. It summarises issues arising from the use of helicopters and other aircraft in areas known to support bird species listed on Schedules 1, and 1A of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. It provides guidance on the likelihood of disturbance.

All wild birds receive a level of protection under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. Some more vulnerable species are listed on Schedule 1 of the Act and receive enhanced protection against disturbance during the breeding season whilst species listed on Schedule 1A receive enhanced protection against harassment at any time. The species covered by Schedule 1A changed in 2013 and guidance was produced on the implications of this. It is important, therefore, to understand this protection before planning any flying in areas known to support the listed species.

Getting a license is difficult

If your flight goes near a possible protected species, you may be able to get a license depending on the reason for that flight path. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is a licensing authority for the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. This enables them to issue licences to allow people to carry out activities that would otherwise constitute an offence. However, licences can only be issued for specific purposes defined in the legislation and where there is no other satisfactory solution. Licences should also ensure that the actions permitted will not affect the conservation status of the species in question. An application for a licence for any aerial work, for example, in the vicinity of a protected species would, therefore, need to satisfy these conditions.

Given the above, licences will only be granted in exceptional circumstances and flights should be timed to avoid the breeding season.

Helicopters and Scotland

Helicopters are widely used in Scotland for a variety of tasks, including for development and land management projects (e.g. aquaculture smolt transfer, path/track building and repair, power line construction and maintenance, transfer of materials for forestry planting/management); filming/photography; aerial surveys (e.g. forestry disease, deer counting); chemical spraying (e.g. bracken spraying, aerial fertilising of forestry) and, to a lesser extent, recreation/tourism. Unmanned drones are now starting to be used for environmental surveys (e.g. habitat surveys) and the evidence does suggest that they can cause disturbance.

Types of disturbance

Here are some things to consider about how aircraft can affect birds:

  • Birds may react to aircraft by changing their behavior or moving away from their nests.
  • Raptors (such as eagles) might watch nearby aircraft or flatten on their nests to protect their eggs or chicks.
  • Birds can be flushed from their nests and may delay returning, leaving their eggs or chicks vulnerable to weather or predators.
  • Young birds in nests can exhibit startled or panic behavior, which may lead to premature fledging and potential abandonment.
  • Adult birds may also treat aircraft as intruders and display defensive or aggressive reactions.
  • Helicopters generally disturb birds more than fixed-wing aircraft.
  • Flights below 500m in altitude pose a higher risk of disturbance to birds.
  • Most incidents of nest flushing occur when an aircraft is relatively close to the nest (around 300m) or makes repeated passes.
  • Noise and visual disturbance can contribute to bird disturbance, though direct evidence is limited.
  • Disturbance behaviors have been documented at distances up to 800-850m from aircraft.
  • Minimize disturbance by approaching slowly and from a distance.
  • There is some suspicion that aircraft disturbance may cause breeding failures in raptors, but confirmed records are limited.
  • Bird strikes are also a risk during low-level flying.

It’s important to consider these factors when flying in areas where birds may be present.

Forward planning is crucial.


Collate information on known raptor territories and roosts in the area of the planned flight. Information and advice on known raptor territories and some roosts is available from SNH and RSPB, although more detailed information is often held by the Scottish Raptor Study Group branches. These organisations may not hold up-to-date information on all raptor ranges and nest or roost sites but pilots are expected to be able to demonstrate their efforts to collate the best available information on which plans are based.

This site is not exhaustive but is very useful: https://sitelink.nature.scot/map


Prepare a flight map showing exclusion areas. The map should include not just the area in which the activity will occur, but also any flight routes in or out of the area. Plan flight activity to avoid active nest sites in the breeding season. Where flight activity round known nest sites cannot be avoided, advice should be sought from SNH.

The safe working distance for both golden and white-tailed eagles is relatively large. Where activities cannot avoid areas with high densities of territorial eagles during the breeding season, including within Special Protection Areas designated for golden eagles, careful planning and assessment will be required to avoid infringing safe working distances and to ensure that the activity is not compromised.

When preparing flight plans, consider both horizontal and vertical distances from nests. Disturbance distances have normally been applied laterally but, where there is a need to fly safely over a nest or roost site, consideration should also be given to vertical distances. As a general rule, any flights over nests should be at least 500m in altitude above the sensitive location. Roost disturbance can be avoided by avoiding flying late (2hrs before dusk) or early (2hrs after dawn) in the day.

vWhere protected species are involved, discuss any changes to the plan with SNH. Plans may be subject to change due to the effects of weather, e.g. low cloud, strong winds or poor visibility. Where these necessitate changes, these can be discussed with SNH. Legal protection does apply for some species at all times and operational needs do not necessarily provide protection against prosecution should an offence be caused.

Inadvertent disturbance

Where unexpected nests or birds are detected, action must be taken immediately to avoid infringement of the law.  If the activity is a one-off flight passing through or part of a survey visit, the immediate area should be vacated as soon as possible with the appropriate safe working distance applied for any future flights. Where flying raptors are encountered, the aircraft should give them a wide berth and the pilot should be aware of potential close approach by birds.

To see more about flying in Scotland, go to Scotland: Flying in the Highlands and Islands.


The article provides guidance for pilots who fly helicopters in the Scottish Western Isles, particularly in areas that are home to protected bird species. It emphasizes the importance of being mindful of the impact of flying near breeding grounds and highlights the legal context of species protection. It explains that getting a license to fly near protected species is difficult and should only be granted in exceptional circumstances. The article also discusses the different types of disturbance caused by aircraft and advises on best practices for minimising disturbance, including collating information on raptor territories, planning flight routes to avoid active nest sites, and discussing any changes to flight plans with the licensing authority. Overall, the article emphasises the need for forward planning and responsible flying to protect bird populations in Scotland.

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