The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was the most important piece of environmental legislation passed by a British government since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. It sought to enhance the protection of listed flora and fauna, prevent further damage to existing habitat and resolve issues that had arisen with respect to rights of public access to the countryside. Although the bill was long and complex, many of its provisions sought to rationalise existing statutes or extend existing provision rather than create new powers. Provisions seeking to protect habitat proved highly contentious. The proprietary interest resented what it saw as an unjustified interference in private property rights; statutory bodies were alarmed that the centralising aspects of the Act would empower ministers at the expense of their ‘scientific’ independence; and the emergent environmental lobby, increasingly frustrated by the cautious approach of the statutory bodies, was determined that the bill’s habitat protection provisions be strengthened. This article examines the lengthy and disputatious consultation and parliamentary process in terms of longer-term frustration with the apparent weakness of statutory protections and how it brought the environmental effect of agricultural intensification into mainstream political debate. This article contextualises the growing insistence that there was a public interest in the health of the natural environment and situates the argument with respect to what environmental historians have started to analyse as the history of the ‘nature state’, a distinct realm of state activity comparable to the welfare state, warfare state or security state.