Shooting and lead shot

There has been a ripple of news around a ‘decision’ that the shooting industry is planning a voluntary ban on the use of lead shot. Well, ‘ban’ as in spending another five years of polluting the environment with a toxic product, poisoning waterbirds that pick up lead shot thinking it’s grit (many birds swallow grit to help grind fibrous food material in their gizzards), and ignoring the inconvenient fact that non-toxic alternatives exist and are widely used.

The Netherlands and Denmark banned the use of lead shot decades ago, but in the UK we’ve been here many times before. A recalcitrant and self-serving industry has been resisting sensible movement on lead shot and fobbing us off with ‘voluntary bans’ for decades. As the New Scientist reported in 1997, in an article titled ‘Crunch time for lead shot ban’, “In 1995 Britain introduced a two-year “voluntary phase-out” of lead shot. It is not banned, but hunters are encouraged to use alternatives“. That worked well, didn’t it…

It’s not just in the UK: Europe’s hunters have form on this issue too. In 2004 the ridiculously self-aggrandising European Federation for Hunting and Conservation (or FACE) made an agreement with BirdLife International which included a commitment to phase out lead shot use in wetlands “as soon as possible” throughout the EU, and in any case “no later than 2009”. Eleven years past this deadline, FACE brazenly state that the transition period proposed by the Commission to phase out lead shots is ‘too-short’. As Birdlife explained this week, “The FACE criticism in reality opposes everything which would result in the long over-due and enforceable ban on lead shot”, and they are taking “a sledgehammer to the social acceptance of hunting in Europe.”

However, real conservationists (as opposed to the ones who save species by shooting them) are putting a positive spin on the announcement here in the UK. While there are clearly some reservations as to what will actually be achieved this time around, as the press-release below from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust shows, twenty-five years later we’re trying again:


WWT welcomes steps towards removing lead ammunition from the environment

Plans to introduce a voluntary ban on the use of lead ammunition by UK shooting organisations have been described as an ‘important step’ by wetland charity WWT.

The new initiative means that hunters are expected to transition from lead ammunition in favour of non-toxic alternatives by 2025, benefitting wildlife and people who eat game meat shot with lead.

This move has the potential to reduce the high levels of poisoning of birds prone to ingesting lead shot when foraging or those that prey on birds and other animals that have been shot with lead.

Importantly, to protect human health, it follows moves from supermarkets such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, who have already committed to no longer sell game meat contaminated with lead ammunition.

The Director of Conservation Dr James Robinson said:

“Lead is a poison, and we should be taking every step possible to remove it from our environment. We are therefore delighted to see this leadership coming from within the shooting community itself.

“Supermarkets have recognised that there is no future for lead-shot game on their shelves, and it’s good to see that the shooting community has also recognised that there are effective, non-toxic alternatives, which not only reduce the numbers of poisoned birds, but will be better for soils and importantly human health.

“Lead shot is currently banned on all wetlands in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, there is a ban on using lead shot to shoot wildfowl and over certain wetlands, but repeated research in England found poor compliance with more than 70% of ducks shot illegally with lead. Given such poor compliance with current regulations, it is important that concrete actions are taken by shooting organisations to encourage their members to use non-toxic ammunition before it is removed completely. We look forward to hearing about the substance of these next steps and how WWT can help.”

While the transition to lead-free ammunition is a positive move forward, conservationists stress that previous voluntary bans have been unsuccessful and without policy change at government level, there will still be risks to human health, wildlife – and the game market.

Dr Robinson adds:

“We need a full transition to non-toxic ammunition – and soon – to reduce the many 1000s of tonnes of lead ammunition which accumulate in our environment every year. We look forward to the UK Government and the devolved administrations catching up and introducing new legislation to remove all lead ammunition from our game meat, and importantly from the environment. With multiple international initiatives calling for the phase out of lead ammunition and countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands going non-toxic, the global direction of travel on this issue is clear: a non-toxic future which benefits us all.”

It has been difficult to persuade shooters of the scale of the deaths caused by lead poisoning because dead and dying birds are usually taken quickly by predators – making their deaths unseen and ‘invisible’ to shooters and the wider public alike. Nationally it is estimated that approximately 75,000 wildfowl die from lead poisoning each winter.

A full restriction will contribute to the further removal of poisonous lead from our environment. Lead ammunition is the last largely unregulated release of lead as it’s been removed from petrol, paint and pipes decades ago. Campaigners argue it should also be removed from the food we eat.

Lead is known to affect the developing brain and nervous system, and the Food Standards Agency states that there is no agreed safe level for lead. Independent scientific experts across the European Union advise that exposure to lead should be reduced as far as possible, especially for children and pregnant women.

Non-toxic alternatives to lead have been developed for all types of guns, and these are already in use in other countries which have already imposed a total ban on lead shot ammunition.

WWT 24 Feb 2020


Lead is toxic

Let’s unpick this a little. Lead is a serious pollutant. It’s dangerous – even Roman physicians knew that. Due to its high toxicity and the public and environmental health problems it causes, most releases of lead into the environment are strictly regulated in Europe (e.g. see AMEC 2012). In the UK lead was finally fully banned from vehicle fuel in 2000, removed from paint in 1992, and its use in water pipes before that. However, shooting still sprays tens of thousands of tonnes of lead across fields, moorlands, and woodlands, contaminating soil and water and besides putting at risk the health of wild birds also risks the health of people (their concerns brushed aside by disingenuous lobbyists and advertisers) that eat fragments of shot in their food.

Why the reluctance to stop using it? After all, shooting is under huge pressure as the public turns against its exploitation of wildlife, raptor persecution, and threats and abusive behaviour towards non-shooters (even the shooting industry admits that shooting is under threat because of its own shortcomings). Banning lead would be an easy win for them, but, for example, when Dr Rob Sheldon launched a petition to ban the use of toxic lead ammunition in 2015 (after working for years to raise awareness of the problems of lead shot in the environment), he blogged that a ‘counter’ petition had been established to keep lead. As he wrote, “To date, this has reached more than 23,000 signatures. Let’s think about that, twice as many people want to keep poisoning our wildlife, our environment and our food, than don’t!“.

The answer to ‘why the reluctance to stop using it‘ is simple enough. While they talk about using alternatives to lead meaning having to make changes to gun barrels and (incredibly) shedding crocodile tears about inaccuracy leading to more injured birds, the reality is that shooting doesn’t want to make any concessions at all, fearing it will eventually lead to a total ban. Lead shot has been a ‘line in the sand’ for one of the most destructive, archaic hobbies in the country. In other words, keep doing all the wrong things, keep polluting, just in case it cracks open the door to a ban.

On the other hand, surely even the most thick-headed spokesperson for shooting must now realise that banning lead shot is perhaps the easiest win shooting will ever be presented with? That might possibly explain why they are now considering yet another ‘voluntary ban’ (and the ‘thick-headed’ bit might explain why, as Raptor Persecution UK details, the Scottish Gamekeepers Organisation seems unlikely to join in any time soon). And why not: it’s a low-risk strategy. After all, it’s almost impossible to verify in the short-term whether a voluntary ban is being adhered to, industry leaders can claim that they’ve ‘done something’ without actually doing very much, and of course they get to carry on killing wildlife and millions of reared and released non-native pheasants and Red-legged Partridges for fun just as before.

Conservation not anti-shooting

The odd thing about this reluctance to change is that most voices within conservation are not anti-shooting per se, even those who work tirelessly to protect the species that shooters are targetting (as the press-release above demonstrates). Most campaigners and NGOs don’t talk about a ban at all (with a few noble exceptions including the League Against Cruel Sports and the Hunt Saboteurs). But all of conservation recognises the damage that lead shot causes. Shooting’s short-sighted intransigence is frustrating even those who might be considered ‘moderates’: the RSPB, which has been relaxed about shooting since its inception, is now organising a review of its stance on ‘gamebird’ shooting after pressure from members fed up with reading reports about the deaths of Hen Harriers, Mountain Hares, and countless native predators in traps and snares.

That pressure would ease (and possibly not exist at all) if shooting gave some indication that it was prepared to stop supporting illegality, root out the so-called ‘rotten apples’ in its midst, and (finally) stop using lead shot. Will it do that? While the shooting industry ties itself in knots trying to portray itself as the ‘true guardians of the countryside’ and edges towards the bleeding obvious, many of its adherents appear (on social media, including BASC’s own facebook page) to be ‘spitting feathers’, cancelling memberships of shooting organisations, and giving every impression of being quite happy to withdraw even further into their own little world of noise and destruction. It’s a great shame, but not unexpected.

And here’s perhaps the bigger question: should we give credit to shooting for doing what the science – and common sense – says it should, anyway?

Conservation has always opted to take a ‘softly-softly’ approach to the bloodsports industry (perhaps because it’s been impossible to have an adult conversation with it) but for how much longer? BASC has now admitted myths were spread (ie they lied) to defend the use of lead ammunition, including that more people would break their teeth on the alternatives and that lead was less likely to ricochet than steel shot. Public pressure is building for serious reform. Our feeling is that shooting itself is overseeing the implementation of the stricter controls it has always fought against, and will have only itself to blame when they are put in place.

But let’s not forget that a change in ammunition does not mean a change in the number of animals killed or in shooting’s exploitative use of wildlife. And in our opinion those are the real problems we need to be addressing.