Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Lead Shot: time to solve the problem

David North, Head of People and Wildlife

Lead is a poison. There is nothing particularly contentious in saying that. After all that is why lead was removed as an additive to petrol and paints, and why we no longer use lead water pipes. This fact, of course, has been known for centuries: it may even have been the decreases in fertility and increased cases of psychosis brought about by contamination of drinking water from lead pipes that was a factor in the decline of the Roman empire! The scientific consensus is that lead is a poison, with no known safe limit, that is capable of killing, and causing many serious health problems, in both people and wildlife.

However despite these bans, which now even include the use of lead in small fishing weights, there is one source of lead into the UK environment that studies suggest is annually killing at least 73,000 ducks, geese and swans. Today it might surprise you that the largest source of lead being dispersed into the UK environment comes not from industry but from the use of lead shot in game and clay pigeon shooting. An estimated 5,000 tonnes a year enters the environment this way and, as lead shot can remain in the soil for up to a century this is a poison that accumulates year on year.

Gadwall, photo by Derek Moore

As Lord Krebs, emeritus professor of zoology at Oxford University and former chair of the UK Food Standards Agency said in a recent BBC interview there is, ‘an overwhelming body of evidence’ that lead used in hunting was ‘a risk both to humans and to wildlife.’ And, ‘on that basis the advice would be that lead shot should be phased out’.

Water birds are especially susceptible to lead poisoning. When they are feeding they seek out small stones from the soil or water’s edge to take into their gizzards to help grind up their food. Unfortunately, if there is spent shot on the ground, they don’t distinguish between poisonous lead and safe natural grit. When a cartridge is fired then the lead shot it contains, (typically more than 200 in each cartridge) spread out, and most, even if the hunter is successful in hitting their target, fall to the ground, irretrievably spread over quite a large area. We have known for more than a century that spent lead shot can kill birds and the ingestion of just one or two can be lethal to birds. A recent study on marshland, now an NWT nature reserve, that had formerly been shot over for decades revealed up to a million spent lead shot per hectare. Shocking, but perhaps not surprising, as in 1992 it was estimated that 1.6 billion lead shot were deposited in UK wetlands alone in the 1990s.

It’s almost 30 years ago that the UK Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded that, ‘urgent efforts should be made to develop alternatives to lead shot and lead fishing weights’ and that ‘As soon as these alternatives are available, the Government should legislate to ban any further use of lead shot and fishing weights in circumstances where they are irretrievably dispersed in the environment’. This is not just a UK issue. It is estimated that millions of water birds are dying globally from lead poisoning from ingested spent lead shot. In Europe alone it has been estimated that around a million wildfowl, from 17 species, die every winter from lead poisoning from ingested lead shot... Globally endangered species, including the white –headed duck, are threatened by this and of course many waterfowl that die from lead poisoning may be eaten by predators. The poison then accumulates up the food chain. Lead poisoning was a major reason that the California Condor came perilously close to extinction in North America and in Europe vultures, red kites and other birds of prey have been shown to be at risk.

The use of lead shot has since 1999 been restricted over English wetlands and for shooting of waterfowl but sadly there is strong evidence that this ban is widely ignored. The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust recently carried out tests on over 100 wild ducks being sold for food in England and found that three-quarters had been shot with lead despite the ban having been in force for more than a decade. Recent work has also shown that any wild game shot with lead, even if all the shot are removed from the carcass, will still be contaminated by small fragments of lead. There is increasing concern over the threat this may pose to human health.

So what can be done? Some European countries have already banned the use of lead shot including Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium. Several states in the USA have total bans on its use. Unfortunately calls for a ban are sometimes seen by the shooting community as an attack on shooting but this is not the case. In Denmark for example, where the use and possession of lead shot has been banned since 1996, many hunters now regard the ban as beneficial for hunting. As Niels Kanstrup, a Danish hunter, has commented recently, ‘I’m a conservationist and I’m a hunter, too. I think shooting is a fair and sustainable way to use natural resources, but we can’t have it connected with spreading poisonous heavy metals in nature.’ Safe alternatives to lead, such as steel shot, now exist and at comparable prices and the countries which have introduced bans on lead have not seen any reduction in the numbers of people shooting. Shooters have simply switched to using safe alternatives.

As Stephen Trotter, Wildlife Trusts England Director has said:

"The scientific evidence is clear from a large body of published research papers. There would seem to be no reasonable or logical justifications for the continued use of lead ammunition when safer but equally functional non-toxic alternatives are available. I realise that an adjustment like this will require time and would not be welcomed by everyone but the risks are serious. If anglers can do the right thing for the environment, surely shooters can too?"

The Wildlife Trusts support calls by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, RSPB and the Sustainable Food Trust for lead ammunition to be phased out and replaced with non-toxic alternatives You may wish to consider supporting moves towards a ban by signing the e-petition calling on the Government to ban lead-based ammunition If you would like more scientific information and evidence on this topic then the proceedings of the Oxford Lead Symposium published last month provide more detailed evidence on the effects of lead ammunition on human health, wildlife and the environment.

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