Lead shot is poisoning Europe’s raptors

The shooting industry has been dragging its heels for years (and years) about replacing lead shot with something less environmentally toxic. Non-toxic alternatives like steel and bismuth exist but getting the industry (especially here in the UK) to acknowledge them is incredibly difficult (the alternatives are still fatal to whatever they shoot, but of course that seems to bother them even less than spraying tonnes of a neurotoxin into the environment every year).

Billions of individual lead shot pellets contaminate wetland and terrestrial habitats, and go on to kill even if the ‘shooter’ misses the intended so-called ‘target’. Wildfowl swallow small stones to grind food up in their gizzards, and routinely swallow spent lead shot instead. Lead poisoning is a slow, painful death and many dying birds will be predated making accurate estimates of the number of deaths caused by spent pellets difficult, but as long ago as 2015, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust stated that “Up to 100,000 waterbirds in the UK and one million in Europe die every year through ingesting poisonous lead shot”.

Now a new report “Lead contamination in tissues of large avian scavengers in south-central Europe“, written by a coalition of conservation organisations, has found that raptors are dying in huge numbers as well. The study, conducted by ERSAF – Stelvio National Park and the Province of Sondrio, “Bruno Ubertini” Experimental Zooprophylactic Institute of Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna and ISPRA, revealed the scale and scope of lead contamination in tissues of large avian scavengers.

Out of a sample of 252 Golden Eagles, Bearded, Griffon and Cinereous Vultures, which were collected wounded and dead within a large area of south-central Europe ranging from the Pyrenees to the Apennines, as many as 44% (111 individuals) showed chronic lead values higher than normal and 26% (66 individuals) had clinical poisoning levels. Such high prevalences of lead poisoning is seriously impacting raptor populations, including some very rare species which are already characterized by a scattered distribution and are subject to conservation programmes financed by the European Union and the various Member States.

The report determined that lead shot digested by scavengers was causing “demographic consequences for some species, thus confirming that lead poisoning has population-level impacts“. The Abstract of the report concludes that “Birds with lead fragments in their digestive tract, as detected by X-rays, had higher median lead concentrations, suggesting that hunting ammunition is the main source of lead poisoning” and that “a rapid transition towards lead-free bullets and gunshot is therefore required across Europe“.

The report is clear that to overcome this problem a definitive ban on the use of lead ammunition for hunting purposes must be introduced as soon as possible, very much like – but hopefully more efficient – what has already happened with hunting in wetlands in early 2021, where an EU ban on the use of lead ammunition to prevent waterfowl poisoning is now going through a final transition (despite a disgraceful and prolonged campaign by shooting lobbyists).

So, not content with blasting vast numbers of birds out of the air deliberately, the shooting industry is also responsible for the deaths of huge numbers of waterfowl and rare, highly protected birds of prey that the EU is spending enormous amounts on to keep safe…

Biodiversity crisis? What biodiversity crisis, says the man with the gun slung over his shoulder…