A just-published study reveals that lead gunshot is still a threat to wild waterbirds in the UK, over a decade after the use of lead gunshot was banned in wetlands and for shooting wildfowl in England ( similar but slightly different legislation pertains elsewhere in the UK).
Waterfowl ingest spent lead shot whilst feeding. Sometimes they may mistake the shot particles for seeds or small molluscs (after all – these ducks are feeding either underwater or by sticking their beaks into muddy sediments) or take them up ‘deliberately’ but mistaking them for grit particles which they store in their gizzards to aid the grinding of their food. Some dead birds were found with hundreds of lead particles in their gizzards.
Lead is a poison, and elevated lead blood levels were found in 34% of over 250 waterbirds tested at four sites across the UK in the winter of 2010/11. Lead poisoning caused 11.8% of waterfowl deaths (excluding infectious diseases) in the period after the lead shot ban compared with a higher figure of 20.8% in the preceding decade and 13.7% in an even earlier period. Things might just be getting slightly better – but hardly at all and not with any certainty.
These results are unsurprising given that previous studies have shown shocking non-compliance with the law which bans lead shot being used to shoot wildfowl.
In contrast, the incidence of mortality from lead poisoning in mute swans (which used to be poisoned by fishermen’s angling weights) has fallen dramatically since the use of almost all lead weights was banned.
Also in contrast, in the USA, where millions of waterfowl used to die from lead poisoning, this number is now much reduced thanks to effective legislation and enforcement. Half a dozen years after the ban in the USA 68% of mallard contained no ingested lead shot. That is quite an impressive turn-around. This fact sheet from the American Bird Conservancy is a very useful summary of the issue and the science – maybe UK nature conservationists should produce something equally clear and compelling?
After a decade there is still evidence from the UK of large numbers of deaths of waterbirds due to lead poisoning, non-compliance by hunters and a complete lack of willingness to engage with this issue. Not surprisingly nature conservationists are getting a bit impatient.
Martin Spray, the Chief Executive of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust said:
“Considering that the law currently isn’t protecting waterbirds in Britain the way it is meant to, the most practical and effective solution would appear to be to extend the restrictions on the use of lead shot to cover all shooting.
“Non-toxic alternatives are available and have been used successfully for years in countries such as Denmark. Spokespeople for the shooting community have always said that, when the evidence is forth coming, they will support practical proposals to address the threat to wildlife. We very much look forward to working with them.”
Professor Chris Perrins, LVO, FRS, Emeritus Fellow of the Edward Grey Institute at Oxford University, has been the Queen’s Warden of the Swans since 1993. His research into lead poisoning of mute swans built the case for the restrictions on the sale of lead angling weights. He said:
“I find it extraordinary that we are still using lead [for shooting]. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution dealt with lead in 1983. One of its recommendations was [to phase out] all lead shooting shot and all lead fishing weights. Yet here we are nearly 30 years on and we are still using them.”
And this blog revealed last week that the RSPB had changed to a position of wanting an outright ban on lead shot.
Now if there were a Food Standards Agency for Ducks it would be advising them to cut as much lead as possible out of their diets. That’s actually what we have been doing too – removing it from petrol, paint, water pipes etc.
The FSA was expected to issue updated guidance this week on human lead intake as a result of recent improvements in our knowledge of the impacts of lead on our bodies and the ingestion rates of lead from different sources of food – but that update has been delayed. It couldn’t be that the shooting community is putting on pressure to delay or weaken this advice, surely?
There is no doubt that game sold for human consumption can have high levels of lead that comes from the shot used to kill that game; there is no doubt that eating enough lead will do you harm (and see here). But how many people might come into that affected category? Not me, as I eat few meals of lead-shot game a year (I’d happily eat more game if it were lead-free), and maybe not you, but I had an interesting ‘discussion’ last week with habituees of the National Gamekeepers Organisation’s Facebook page. One of them appeared to eat two pheasants a week in his sandwiches, another said he had two game meals a week and another said three game meals a week, and many fill their freezers with lead-shot game in season and live off it through the year. This is enough to suggest high game intake rates for some sections of society and that will mean high lead intake rates too.
We need data on game intake rates to assess risks to people, and BASC is still sitting on data they collected several years ago. The non-disclosure of these data is shocking and utterly reprehensible.
But selling game is big business. Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, TESCO and Sainsbury’s all sell game. The Countryside Alliance promotes a ‘Game to Eat’ campaign that is noticeably silent about any adverse health risks of eating lead-shot game, particularly those for the most vulnerable, such as children.
These are some quotes from the Game-to-Eat webpage which bears the banner of the Countryside Alliance and its unconvincing claim to be the ‘Voice of the Countryside’:
‘A tasty and healthy alternative to Lamb, Chicken, Beef or Pork’
‘Game is wild, natural and free range with a distinctive flavour making it a great alternative to beef, pork, lamb and chicken. And, as it’s low in cholesterol and high in protein Game is one of the healthiest meats available today. For example, venison, with its brilliant taste and extra lean meat, is perfect for anyone on a low fat diet.’
‘Results from research commissioned by the Game-to-Eat campaign, suggest that there are real health benefits to eating game. Venison is high in rotein (sic), low in saturated fatty acids and contains higher levels of iron than any other red meat. Pheasant and partridge also contain a high level of iron, protein, vitamin B(6) and selenium, which helps to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals.’
The evidence of wildlife problems and human health problems have grown over time – but the shooting organisations such as BASC and the GWCT, and the Countryside Alliance (who belong in a category of their own) have played little part in improving the evidence base and paid little heed to the evidence. They have known about the evidence for years and have been updated as and when new facts became available. Yet the response from the shooting community has been to remain almost completely silent on these issues except to attack those who have advanced the frontiers of knowledge. With leadership like this the shooting community really doesn’t deserve any more time to get its act together on the issue of lead shot. Shooters have had their chance and done nothing. In fact they have obstructed moves that would reduce the exposure of people and wildlife to lead in the environment and denigrated those who have studied the subject and produced assessments of the problems (click here, here, here).
Use of lead shot should be banned throughout the UK now.