Tackling lead ammunition poisoning

Up to 100,000 waterbirds in the UK and one million in Europe die every year through ingesting poisonous lead shot. But it’s not just birds that it harms.

A true One Health issue

When billions of individual lead shotgun pellets are left to contaminate our wetland and terrestrial habitats, they leave a toxic legacy for our environment, wildlife and people.

It’s hard to think of a better example of a One Health issue – the term used by the World Health Organisation for issues that affect environments, people and animals – than the poisoning caused by lead ammunition worldwide.

Lead ammunition finds its way into wildlife, soils, domestic and companion animals and onto our plates

The challenge

In the UK, more than 7,000 tonnes of lead ammunition is discharged into the environment every year. Birds often mistake tiny shot pellets for grit or seeds, and eat them. Dead and dying birds are usually taken quickly by predators – making their deaths ‘invisible’ to shooters and the wider public alike.

It has taken WWT’s scientific research to discover the extent of the problem in the UK. Our long term waterbird health surveillance has found 10% were killed by lead poisoning – sometimes with dozens or even hundreds of ingested shot pellets being found in their gizzards (a part of their stomach that needs grit to grind their food). Migratory swans like whoopers and Bewick’s were worst affected, with lead poisoning accounting for a quarter of deaths.

The UK shares many migratory swans, ducks and geese with the rest of Europe where it claims the lives of one million waterbirds each year. A further 3 million are estimated to suffer ill health from lead poisoning.

Of those that survive, we know that their behaviour, resistance to diseases, mobility and ability to breed are affected. Our research found that nearly half of live whooper swans we tested had worrying lead levels in their blood with 10% of the birds in measurably poor body condition as a result.

The problem affects animals higher up the food chain too. Embedded lead shot and bullet fragments are eaten by birds of prey and other scavengers leading to death directly or indirectly via poorer ability to hunt and find food. From griffon vultures in Spain to sea eagles on British coasts, this source of poisoning has significant impacts on vulnerable populations. And lead accumulates in the environment contaminating soils, plants and waterbodies finding its way into wider food chains.

Humans are not exempt from lead’s damage. Lead ammunition finds its way onto our plates where it presents risks for people eating lead-shot game meat. Even dogs are exposed to lead in hunting households or via pet food containing this kind of game meat.

The solution

The solution is for shooters to use non-poisonous alternatives to lead ammunition, which are available for all types of guns. There is general consensus among shooters that hunting must be sustainable. As lead ammunition isn’t considered as sustainable, many hunters are already using non-toxic ammunition to prevent poisoning the countryside and reduce the suffering and deaths.

Using these non-toxic alternatives would resolve the problem
Using these non-toxic alternatives would resolve the problem

Field trials comparing lead and steel shot have found no difference in the number of birds killed. This shows that steel shot works just as well. In Denmark, the Netherlands and Flanders, where the use of lead shot was made illegal decades ago, those who shoot do not report problems with effectiveness. Steel shot is the most popular alternative among these countries, and that is likely to be the same in the UK as it works well and is similarly priced. UK hunting organisations have issued guidance for shooters using non-lead cartridges to help address these concerns.

There are some restrictions on using lead shot in the UK. Wildfowlers, as opposed to grouse or pheasant shooters, shoot ducks and geese around our wetlands and coasts. They are legally required to use non-toxic shot such as steel or bismuth instead of lead. In England and Wales the law says non-lead alternatives must be used when shooting wildfowl, and in some wetlands regardless of what you’re shooting, while lead shot is prohibited in all wetlands in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Despite the law, WWT’s field testing shows the number of birds ingesting lead still isn’t decreasing. This could be because many birds feed in fields where lead shot can still be legally used, or because some shooters are still using it illegally.

We now know it’s possible to change to non-lead bullets and Denmark will ban lead bullets for hunting in 2024.

More on our work towards a lead-free future