A new report has estimated that up to 100,000 ducks, geese and swans die each year in the UK from lead poisoning after ingesting spent gunshot.
Research by the Oxford Lead Symposium found that approximately 2000 tonnes of lead shot pellets are used to shoot live quarry in the UK each year, with a further 3,000 tonnes deposited on clay shooting grounds.
According to the report’s authors, this used lead shot is frequently eaten by birds after it is mistaken for grit or seeds. An unknown number of terrestrial birds may also die from eating lead.
Lead can also enter the human food chain when people eat game birds shot using lead pellets. These can fragment into tiny fragments that are too small to be seen – and small enough to be absorbed by the body.
Additional studies have also found that lead poisoning has been linked to mental health issues, especially in children.
The government was recently advised by a stakeholder group of the risks from lead ammunition and that its replacement with non-toxic alternatives is the only option likely to address these risks.
Conservation groups; including the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Sustainable Food Trust, have called for lead ammunition to be phased out by the end of 2017 and replaced with non-toxic alternatives, which they say are effective, affordable and readily available.
The WWT’s chief executive Martin Spray said: “Voluntary and partial restrictions on the use of lead shot have not worked. We believe there is now no practical option left short of phasing out lead ammunition. We’ll continue to work with the government and stakeholders to facilitate a smooth transition to the use of non-toxic alternatives.
“This issue is about reducing an unnecessary pollutant in our countryside, not about the wider ethics of shooting.”
Sustainable Food Trust Policy Director, Richard Young said: “The Sustainable Food Trust strongly supports calls for an end to the use of ammunition containing lead.”
Andrew Gilruth of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust responded to the report: “In May 2008 a conference in the United States examined the use of lead ammunition for shooting. New research had shown that big raptors like condors, eagles and vultures can die through eating lead bullets and bullet fragments left in carcasses that they scavenge.
“The very survival of the California condor is threatened by this. It is now also apparent that other birds like gamebirds and pigeons can also pick up lead shot and be poisoned but, despite the RSPB and WWT spending years looking for it, there is still no evidence this is a significant issue.
“Having failed to find that evidence of bird losses, as a direct result of ingesting lead, there is now a suggested number of wildfowl losses. This number is based on a theoretical extrapolation, to support their original position that lead ammunition should be banned, however many will struggle to see that as a convincing substitute.”
On the subject of lead poisoning in humans, Gilruth added:
“The general public consumes most of its lead through the normal staples of cereals and vegetables in their everyday diet. These crops ‘pick up’ naturally occurring lead from the ground as they grow. Nevertheless game meat does contain more lead than any other food and people who eat game regularly could incur an increased health risk. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been advising, since 2012, that those that eat more than two portions of game, every week, to eat less.”