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.
A huge leap towards ending the suffering of millions of waterbirds from lead poisoning has been taken following a momentous vote to ban lead shot in and around wetlands.
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In the UK, more than 6,000 tonnes of lead ammunition are fired over our countryside every year in areas where birds feed, and are left behind strewn on the ground. Birds often mistake tiny shot pellets for grit or seeds, and ingest them. Dead and dying birds are usually taken quickly by predators – making their deaths unseen and ‘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. Poisoned birds, weakened by the lead, are easy targets for predators and scavengers across Europe – from griffon vultures in Spain to golden eagles in Scotland. And so, lead’s toxic influence extends to other wildlife.
Humans are not exempt from lead’s damage. Lead ammunition finds its way into wildlife, plants, soils, domestic animals and onto our plates where it presents risks for people eating lead-shot game meat.
Game meat is exempt from these European laws because it is wild rather than farmed meat. Food agencies in a number of countries, including within the UK, warn of its dangers to pregnant women and children (due to neurotoxic impacts on the developing brain) and to frequent consumers of game. Some supermarkets are now committed to not selling game shot with lead due to the risks to consumers.
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.
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. 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.
In February 2020, a coalition of nine leading UK shooting and countryside organisations announced a call for their members to end the use of lead (and single-use plastics) in shotgun ammunition for live quarry shooting within five years. This voluntary ban will benefit both wildlife and people who eat game meat, and it follows moves from supermarkets such as Waitrose, who have already committed to no longer sell game meat contaminated with lead ammunition.
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 market for game meat. A full restriction will help us remove poisonous lead from our environment for good.
Elsewhere, there are inconsistent restrictions across many wetlands. The European Federation for Hunting and Conservation (FACE) encourages shooters to use non-toxic alternatives to lead. But despite all this, the majority of shooters in Europe still use lead ammunition and the numbers of birds being poisoned isn’t falling.
As change has been slow and inconsistent, the European Commission requested its European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to develop a recommendation that the EU restrict use of all lead shot in wetlands. To protect wider wildlife and human health beyond wetlands, ECHA is now developing a second recommendation to address risks from all lead shot and bullets wherever they are used.
Successful outcomes for these two important proposals, in wetlands and more widely, will bring about the substantial change we have been seeking across Europe and put an end to lead poisoning across much of our European flyway. Discussions with the European Commission and subsequently EU Member States are at a crucial stage. There is strong medical, veterinary and scientific support for the need for these proposals to succeed. More than 50 European scientists, doctors and vets have written an open letter which is available here.
To tackle this lethal and insidious problem, WWT continues to encourage shooters to use non-toxic alternatives to lead shot. We believe voluntary behaviour change is better than law change, but law change is necessary if and where this doesn’t work. Working with the shooting community and governments in the UK and Europe is key to ensure that we realise our shared goal of having sustainable and healthy populations of wild birds in the countryside.
Through our scientific research, we continue to build on our substantial body of evidence to help us understand and communicate how severe this problem is for birds, the risks to people from eating game meat contaminated with lead shot and the socio-economic and cultural barriers to hunters choosing non-toxic ammunition. Being on the ‘frontline’ of this issue and in a position to access and examine birds in wetlands, we are often the first to see the grisly extent and realities of the suffering brought about by the ingestion of lead shot.
By alerting hunters, policymakers and other decision makers to the deadly effects of lead, we can encourage the use of non-toxic ammunition. This is an issue which involves the shooting community, the veterinary and medical communities, wildlife rehabilitators, regulators, governments, non-sports shooting ammunition users, land managers, conservationists and the wider public. Depending on the audience, we have been promoting change using a wide variety of mechanisms such as events, literature, presentations, films and face-to-face discussions. For example, as part of our Flight of the Swans project we produced a short film to engage shooting communities in states along the Bewick’s swan’s migratory route.
WWT now leads or advises on several national and international bodies and treaties striving to reduce this unnecessary harm to wildlife. We continue to be a driving force in securing international resolutions on the use of lead ammunition, and in supporting recent crucial EU restriction processes.
Through dialogue and partnerships we also create and support ‘change coalitions’ – bodies of experts, in the UK and internationally, pushing for the much-needed shift to non-toxic ammunition and bringing the issue to the attention of wider audiences including the several million hunters across Europe.
We hope to continue working with the shooting community to secure a better future for our birds.
Lead poisoning is a problem that requires a holistic approach across areas such as policy, research, communications and stakeholder engagement. WWT has been a leader for many decades in researching the effects of poisoning from lead ammunition and alerting the world to the problem, but our work goes beyond research. We are now key global advisors to many national and international policy agreements.
Between 1999 and 2009 WWT’s long-term research and campaigning informed the introduction of restrictions on using lead over UK wetlands. Under the legally binding African-Eurasian Migratory Bird Agreement (AEWA), these restrictions came into force in 1999 in England, 2002 in Wales, 2004 in Scotland and 2009 in Northern Ireland.
The Lead Ammunition Group was established by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Food Standards Agency in response to the Defra report undertaken by WWT and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation which showed that regulations were being ignored, and the reasons why, together with a growing concern for human health.
A WWT-led study revealed that lead poisoning remained a threat to wild waterbirds in Britain.
WWT helped secure UN Convention on Migratory Species Resolution to phase out lead ammunition across all habitats, bringing the issue to global attention. The Resolution was adopted by some 130 countries.
WWT joined dozens of scientists on a European Scientists Consensus Statement on risks from lead ammunition and need for transition to non-toxic ammunition.
WWT contributed several papers to the Oxford Lead Symposium – a meeting of scientists which brought together findings from the hundreds of international research papers to date showing how lead ammunition affects wildlife and humans.
WWT played a vital role in the adoption of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s resolution on lead poisoning.
WWT ensured that the UN Convention on Migratory Species established a Lead Task Group and provided scientific evidence and technical advice to support a UN Environment Assembly Resolution which addresses the damage caused by poisoning from lead ammunition.
WWT along with more than 50 scientists, medics and vets from 16 European countries signed an open letter in support of the ECHA/REACH processes on the risks posed by lead ammunition to the health of humans, wildlife and the wider environment. Research undertaken by WWT and the University of Cambridge showed a correlation between lead shot ingestion and the declining population trend for ducks such as common pochard.
WWT published several papers in a special issue of the journal Ambio on the economic impacts of lead ammunition, how to make change happen and the benefits of transitioning to non-toxic ammunition. WWT published social science research on the perspectives of ammunition users on the use of lead ammunition, prompting further engagement with UK hunters. UK supermarkets including Waitrose and Marks and Spencer commit to stocking only lead-free game meat following communication with WWT and other partners. WWT supported ECHA’s new work on a wider restriction for all lead ammunition.
WWT supported the creation of the UN Convention on Migratory Species Intergovernmental Task Force on Lead Ammunition. A coalition of UK shooting and countryside organisations announced a voluntary ban on lead shot which WWT supports.