Tackling lead ammunition poisoning

WWT is uncovering and solving an invisible killer of birds. Up to 100,000 swans, ducks and geese die slowly in the UK each winter through ingesting poisonous lead shot.

More than 6,000 tonnes of lead ammunition – including billions of individual shot pellets - are discharged by guns ever 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.

WWT research

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.

Over the years, we have recovered and almost 2,500 dead birds from our reserves, of which we found around 10 per cent were killed by lead poisoning - with up to 438 pieces of shot found in any one bird’s gizzard. Migratory swans were worse affected, with lead poisoning accounting for a quarter of deaths.

Nationally – using data from various sources – we estimate up to 400,000 wildfowl suffer from poisoning every winter in the UK, of which 50-100,000 die.

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 per cent of the birds in measurably poor body condition as a result.

The solution

The solution is for shooters to use non-poisonous alternatives to lead ammunition, which are available for all types of guns.

Many shooters are already trying to reduce the suffering and deaths. Wildfowlers – who shoot individual ducks and geese around our wetlands and coasts – are legally required to use non-toxic shot such as steel or bismuth instead of lead. In England and Wales the law says non-toxic alternatives need to be used to shoot wildfowl wherever they may be.

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

Despite the law, WWT’s field testing shows the number of birds affected 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 fact repeated WWT investigations found that around 70 per cent of duck meat sold as locally shot in England was illegally shot with lead, and this illegal activity has not improved over time.

Some shooters are concerned their guns can’t shoot steel and other non-toxic materials are more expensive than lead and steel which are similarly priced. Or they don’t trust their organisations’ guidance that non-toxic shot kills as cleanly as lead within maximum shooting distances. So we’re working with shooting organisations and governments in the UK and abroad to find ways forward.

At WWT we believe cultural change is better than law change, but believe law change is necessary if and where cultural change doesn’t work. Our scientific research has led the UK’s efforts to identify the severity of the problem for birds in the UK: WWT now leads or advises on several national and international bodies and treaties striving to reduce this unnecessary harm to wildlife.

Tackling lead ammunition poisoning in Europe

Poisoning caused by lead ammunition is also a widespread problem across Europe. WWT’s scientific research and technical advice is helping governments, agencies and shooting organisations to move to non-toxic alternatives.

The UK shares many migratory swans, ducks and geese with the rest of Europe. An estimated million waterbirds alone are killed across Europe each winter through ingesting poisonous lead shot.

X-ray showing lead pellets in the gizzard of a lead poisoned swan
X-ray showing lead pellets in the gizzard of a lead poisoned swan

The overall death toll is likely to be much higher because the source data for the estimate doesn’t include the summer months or terrestrial birds. Plants and soils also become contaminated.

The problem affects animals higher up the food chain too. Poisoned birds, quarry species that have been peppered by shot but not died, and carcasses shot with lead and left in the field are all a source of poisonous lead for predators and scavengers across Europe – from griffon vultures in Spain to golden eagles in Scotland.

Humans can be exposed to tiny particles of lead when eating lead-shot game. WWT research shows some game meat contains many times the European maximum allowed level of lead content, even after visible pieces have been removed (in fact the tiny non-visible particles are more likely to enter the human bloodstream rather than simply pass through the body). Game meat is exempt from these European laws because it is wild rather than farmed meat.

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

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 those who consume game frequently.

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.

Solutions for Europe

Lead shot is already illegal in Denmark, the Netherlands and parts of Belgium due to its toxicity. Elsewhere there are inconsistent restrictions across many wetlands including those in the UK. 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 still use lead ammunition and the numbers of birds being poisoned isn’t falling.

So WWT has passed its research to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), who have been asked by the European Commission to investigate the issue and possible solutions.

Because cultural change hasn’t worked, the ECHA has recommended that the EU restrict possession and use of all lead shot in all wetlands. They also recommend further action beyond wetlands.

Importantly they looked at the alternatives to lead ammunition and found them to be both practically and economically feasible. This view is supported by the fact that in areas where lead is already restricted – for example UK wetlands used by wildfowling clubs – there has been no reduction in either shooting activities or their associated conservation work.

Discussions with the Commission and then Member States are at a crucial stage. If you want to reduce the use of lead shot you can write to your MP, MEP or Defra saying you expect the ECHA restriction proposal to be fully supported. More than 50 European scientists, doctors and vets have done just that, and further information is available in their letter.

We continue to work closely with shooting groups across Europe to listen to their concerns and encourage cultural change.

WWT’s work

WWT has been a leader for many decades in researching the effects of poisoning from lead ammunition. It’s a multi-disciplinary problem and we are using a multi-disciplinary team to address the issue. We have become a key global adviser to many international agreements.

In the UK

Our work informed the introduction of restrictions on using lead over UK wetlands. Under the legally binding Africa-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.

We have tested thousands of live and dead birds over the decades for lead poisoning. See the research section below for a fuller list of our research and source links – some of the headline findings are:

  • 11 per cent of dead waterbirds we’ve picked up died from lead poisoning
  • Of over 500 dead migratory swans we picked up, a quarter had died of lead poisoning
  • A third of live wild swans, geese and ducks we tested in the UK had elevated levels of lead in their blood
  • We looked more closely at whooper swans and found that 10 per cent had poor body condition related to high levels of lead in their blood.
  • We estimate up to 400,000 waterbirds are affected by lead poisoning each winter, with 50-100,000 dying as a result
Lead shot removed from the gizzard of a lead poisoned swan - the range of sizes indicates how they are ground up and then absorbed by the bird
Lead shot removed from the gizzard of a lead poisoned swan - the range of sizes indicates how they are ground up and then absorbed by the bird

Despite the restrictions on using lead ammunition in wetlands, between 2001 and 2014 we tested 641 game ducks sold as locally shot in England and found that more than 70 per cent were illegally shot using lead. Part of this work was carried out for Defra in conjunction with the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) who found, in parallel, that 45 per cent of shooters they surveyed sometimes or never obeyed the restrictions.

In 2015 our research formed a major part of a shooting and conservation organisations’ report on the issue in England. The government ignored the scientific evidence and the Chair’s recommendation to phase out lead ammunition. But government delivery agencies across the UK decided to make their own evidence-based decisions instead. Forest Enterprise England has ended its use for the management of all game going into the human food chain on its publicly owned land in England. Scottish Natural Heritage will do likewise in Scotland, and Natural Resources Wales are currently assessing non-toxic ammunitions.

In 2018, our research contributed to an update on that report which included a correlation between lead shot ingestion and the declining population trend for ducks such as common pochard.

Around the world

As one of the key global players in this issue we have been involved in multiple national and international policy developments.

Working with the shooting community is key to ensure that our shared goal of having sustainable and healthy populations of wild birds in the countryside is realised. We have been having multiple discussions and using methods from the social sciences to better understand the perspective of ammunition users in relation to lead poisoning and ammunition types. Looking to the future, we hope to continue working with shooting stakeholders to secure a better future for our birds.

This is an issue which involves multiple stakeholders including 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.