A deadline is imminent for the UK to report on its progress in complying with an international resolution to protect wildlife from lead poisoning.
The source of the poisoning is some of the 6,000 tonnes of lead ammunition deposited across the UK each year by people who shoot. Birds ingest lead shot pellets, mistaking them for seeds or grit, and can be poisoned and often die.
The resolution calls for lead ammunition to be phased out by 2017, given that effective non-poisonous alternative ammunition is already available for almost every type of gun. It’s one of several similar international agreements, all of which are responses to thousands of scientific research papers detailing the risks to wildlife.
A question of how big?
However the resolution doesn’t necessarily mean the UK has to ban lead ammunition. It contains a qualification for countries to assess “whether or how to implement the recommended actions, considering the extent and type of poisoning risk”.
So how big is that risk in the UK? It’s estimated around a third of a million wildfowl alone in the UK are poisoned each winter, of which 50-100,000 die. That’s about 1.5-3% of the total wintering population. WWT’s monitoring shows the worst affected species seem to be migratory swans, for which lead poisoning accounted for the deaths of about a quarter of 515 dead birds we examined.
But whether those figures are “big enough” to warrant action is a matter of judgement. At WWT we often deal with conservation of declining species and tackling the many pressures that threaten them. For us those figures seem like a significant and unnecessary level of sickness and deaths.
But everything is relative. To the shooting industry who release 28 million pheasant into the countryside each year, these figures are tiny. Especially when all the other disease, power lines, traffic kills and illegal shooting combined cause more deaths than lead poisoning.
A dodged answer
Instead of making a judgement, the Government dodged the question and unilaterally introduced its own separate test. It said it won’t take action because the evidence doesn’t prove lead poisoning affects population trends for individual species.
We’re not sure where that test comes from. It shows no understanding of morbidity effects. You may as well say we shouldn’t have taken lead out of petrol and paint unless there was proof it affected human population levels.
The Government’s awkwardness with this response was obvious. It was slipped out last year on the day the previous Prime Minister resigned. It conflicted with an expert advisory panel’s advice and with new research they had just received suggesting there might be population effects after all.
But we have to be realistic. Regulation was unlikely, not due to whether the problem is big enough or not, but because Government rules demanded three laws be ditched in order to introduce one. Parliament wouldn’t have had the time, and won’t for the foreseeable future.
In our own hands
In 2017 we live in a world where many people are frustrated with politicians and want to get things done ourselves. It would be great to think we can solve this poisoning issue. But little is happening because WWT and shooting organisations are locked together in a climate-change style debate loop:
- Where we see wide global scientific consensus, shooters see anti-shooting propaganda. Because they won’t act voluntarily, we see a phase-out of lead ammunition as the only resort left;
- Shooters don’t believe the issue warrants regulation so they see this as an attack on their industry, and there’s no point in listening to people who only want to attack you;
- So they feel justified to strongly defend their industry by accusing the scientists of duplicity, which we see as personal and professional abuse of scientists and science. This makes us even more convinced that shooters won’t act voluntarily, so regulation is needed, which shooters see as unjustified attacks, and…
…and so the loop goes on. If we’re to break that loop then shooters need to believe we are pro-healthy wetlands and not anti-responsible shooting, and we need to believe that they want to reduce unnecessary suffering of wildfowl. (Nb: WWT has no pro or anti position on shooting as a whole, we’re merely pro-healthy wetlands which means we occasionally overlap with shooting).
Breaking the loop
Hopefully that loop is now breaking. Let me help by saying firstly that WWT doesn’t start from wanting a ban on lead ammunition. We would much prefer voluntary action to reduce the poisoning of wildfowl in a way that is led by shooting and conservation enthusiasts and works for the countryside. Our policy position remains that regulation is the only option, because we can’t see anything else happening. We’d much prefer to be proved wrong and see things happen!
Secondly I’ll say that I believe the shooting industry wants to break the loop too and be as clean as possible. This isn’t based on the tub-thumping exchanges I see in shooting or animal welfare forums and press. Instead it’s based on my conversations with people who shoot, who love the countryside and understand where shooting can benefit conservation. Some have already made the switch some or all of the time, others are looking for ways to make it work.
Where I’ve spoken to shooters in private, all defend the conservation value of specific shooting activities and the trade-offs that requires. But none find they can justify the poisoning of hundreds of thousands of birds nationwide, because it isn’t consistent with their deep connection with the rhythm of life and death in the countryside.
In fact the only thing we disagree on is that they say it’s not helpful to push, whereas I say the lack of any action this century makes them overdue for a push. We usually then both agree we need to start talking about the issue itself, not the politics around who said what, why or when.
Direction of travel
The direction of travel is set. Unregulated release of lead into the environment is being phased out globally. Lead ammunition is essentially the last use standing. It’s about making a phase-out work for shooting in the UK which exists in many forms. Arguably it might help a sustainable shooting industry to nurture more birds and a healthier countryside.
Many wildfowlers and other shooters are already using non-toxic shot with no reduction in the value of the industry or their contribution to conservation. The game industry could benefit too from freeing its healthy meat credentials from the shadow of the Food Standards Agency’s advice to limit intake due to poisonous lead content.
I make those points out of encouragement. I realise there are cumulative implications – for example there will be antique gun dealers with valid financial counterpoints – but this blog is simply an invitation to the shooting industry as a whole to have open discussions within itself and decide where its underlying ethics lie and what it can do.
For example if perceived crippling is collateral damage to be avoided where possible, should this apply to poisoning too? Could that result in the “use lead legally” campaign becoming a “use non-lead shot where possible” message?
I’ll finish with the international resolution I started with, the small print to which contains the line “promote leadership from ammunition users”. I believe the shooting industry can lead in phasing out toxic ammunition. I hope the shooting industry believes this too. If it’s in any doubt, I leave the last words to some of its commentators who are already breaking the loop:
“We promote practices that minimise suffering, we abhor cruelty to animals and have a deep respect for our quarry species which those who do not live so close to nature find hard to comprehend”.
Joint statement by BASC and Countryside Alliance CEOs, September 2014.
“Effectiveness – We all have our own range limit – the distance at which we can consistently achieve clean kills. It could be said that the main lead substitutes are capable of killing quarry at longer ranges than most shooters are capable of consistently hitting their target. The key for success with any cartridge type then becomes shooting skill – the ability to hit your target”.
BASC guidance on lead shot alternatives
“At the end of the day it is not about debating the numbers of birds dying from lead poisoning, but the fact that birds are dying unnecessarily and in a manner that is avoidable. From a responsible shooter’s point of view – from anyone’s point of view – this is not wise use of our waterfowl populations and it is not sustainable.”
BASC Scotland guidance on using lead shot.
(Main photo: Typical wing damage on a swan poisoned by lead ammunition – poisoned birds will often drag their wings on the ground as their movement becomes impaired)