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A lead-free win-win

Posted on 29 May 2018

Blog by Peter Morris, WWT Head of Public Relations & Campaigns

We all need and want a clean countryside. We all rely on it for food, water and clean air, even if we live in towns or cities.

Our need means we can’t avoid damaging the countryside, but we do our best to care for it at the same time.

At WWT we try to find a balance. For example, adding wetland treatment systems or sustainable drainage to development projects can increase their value to wildlife while reducing costs for farmers and water companies. Win-wins are possible for everyone.

Another group of countryside users facing a similar challenge is the shooting community Shooting is an activity that takes many forms – e.g. targets rather than live quarry, or conservation management rather than sport – and many shooters also work hard to find a balance.

An example is the scheme at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve where the money from licences to shoot limited numbers of certain species helps pay to protect the UK’s only wintering site for Svalbard light-bellied brent geese.

As with all coastal wildfowling, the use of lead shot is banned at Lindisfarne in order to avoid wildfowl being poisoned through ingesting it. This is a nasty form of poisoning which causes a slow and messy death.

Away from the coasts, i.e. the vast majority of UK shooting, lead shot isn’t banned on the assumption there are fewer wildfowl to harm. But this means it's still shot across fields where wildfowl graze, and lead shot is attractive and eaten by lots of other species including game birds. So it's down to the shooter’s own choice whether to continue using it or switch to widely available non-poisonous shot instead.

Most UK guns can use non-poisonous steel shot at a similar price. A minority of antique guns need more expensive options, but this is still a tiny proportion of the thousands of pounds it usually costs to acquire one of these guns and take it on a day’s shoot.

The global shooting industry has been slow to switch to non-poisoning shot and is now being overtaken by international agreements. In the last two years the United Nations’ highest environment body UNEP and its daughter Convention on Migratory Species both adopted moves to encourage the phasing out of lead shot. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, to which the UK also belongs, has done likewise.

This momentum causes a trickledown effect. In Europe, there is an EU-wide proposal to ban lead ammunition in all wetlands – not just coasts and protected zones.

These moves are the result of the evidence from hundreds of studies over decades showing that lead shot poisons wildlife – and people. WWT's contribution to that evidence base includes thousands of post mortems of dead birds and testing with hundreds of live wild birds.

A voluntary group in the UK, the Lead Ammunition Group, has published a collation of scores of further studies in the last three years which continue to show that the more the problem is researched, the wider the effects that are found.

Among these newer studies is reference to the wider cost to society of thousands of birds suffering these slow and messy deaths – something which is against all shooting principles for humane killing. Yet for some reason the response from some UK shooting representatives is to ignore that cost and publicly denounce the research as an “attack” on shooting which “seeks to sensationalise” and is “irrelevant”.

But many other shooters and conservationists are evidence-led. The challenge for UK shooters everywhere is whether they will continue to needlessly poison wildlife because of the myth that the evidence of their impact is in some strange way an “attack” on themselves, or switch to non-poisonous ammunition because they don't actually want to cause needless poisoning.

The trick is to look for opportunity. As I mentioned at the top, win-wins are possible for everyone.

For example, poison-free game is surely more marketable than poisoned game? So I gently encourage the brand new British Game Alliance to inspect and ensure all wildfowl game are shot with non-poisonous ammunition – as opposed to the more-than 70% of 641 locally shot English duck we found to be illegally shot with lead. And why not go further than wildfowl and ensure all game meat is lead-free, so not subject to Food Standards Agency advice to limit consumption?

If the rest of the shooting community listens to those who regard needless poisoning as an attack on themselves rather than countryside wildlife, the industry will miss these opportunities and instead face a challenge: If it doesn’t regulate under its own terms, in a way that is balanced for everyone and everything in the countryside, it might end up seeing regulation imposed on it instead.