Mark writes: John Swift is the former boss of BASC and for more than five years has been the Chair of the Lead Ammunition Group set up by the last Labour government and treated so shabbily by the outgoing Secretary of State for Environment Liz Truss only a matter of 12 days ago.
Here he writes for the first time about the work of the LAG and what he feels is the way forward.
I have just been made aware by one of his members that Tim Bonner of Countryside Alliance has circulated his opinions on Liz Truss’s letter to me about the Lead Ammunition Group. My advice is to take Tim’s wishful thinking with a pinch of salt.
Let’s be clear. The problems of lead in ammunition are not about to go away. They are getting bigger and more obvious. The Lead Ammunition Group remains in place for the time being to keep this emerging science under review and continue to provide sound advice where needed, albeit without the non-scientist stakeholder representatives who resigned en bloc last year when they didn’t like what the evidence was telling them.
So browse the LAG Report and Appendices and, if that’s not enough, the proceedings of the Oxford Lead Symposium – then take a view. The literature is vast so I won’t tax you with more homework than that. And if you aren’t a scientist I will give below a non-scientific way of looking at it.
It will perhaps be an anathema for many who read this blog to start by making clear that I have shot all my life and I’m also a paid up member of the Conservative Party.
When I was doing my 25-year stint as Chief Executive at BASC, constructive dialogue and cooperative working were the way we did things. Mark used to buttonhole me at the CLA Game Fairs, often at the GWCT champagne reception, and we had many useful conversations about contentious subjects. We would end by him saying, “Now please introduce me to the person who least wants to meet me” and we would have some fun drawing up a list.
I owe my love of countryside and conservation in the first instance to my father, Dr Peter Swift FRCP, a senior clinical specialist in neonatal paediatrics who, incidentally, knew a thing or two about the dangers of lead, and to Dr Jeffery Harrison a GP (when he wasn’t birding or wildfowling). For me, nature conservation has always come first. Shooting is a dependent privilege to be exercised with care.
I was inspired to read zoology at Oxford by Professor Niko Tinbergen, listening to his discussion with the redoubtable fisherman, Hugh Falkus, while exploring the Animal Behaviour Research Group’s study area in the vast gulleries at Ravenglass in Cumberland (now sadly gone). Those discussions brought together the high science of academe with the low cunning of a practiced countryman. I was then but a lowly gap-year assistant for Mike Norton-Griffiths helping his DPhil research into Oystercatcher learning behaviour, before going up to Brasenose.
After Oxford and commercial management training in London, chance took me to WAGBI as the Association’s first Conservation Research Officer. Researching the Common Snipe (among many other adventures) I had the good fortune to have my MPhil thesis mercilessly dissected (with cutting good humour) by Professor Geoffrey Matthews at The Wildfowl Trust. He taught me about the essential discipline of good science for effective conservation.
Another big influence on me was Professor Teppo Lampio from the Game Biology Station at Oulu in Finland. As chairman of the IWRB’s Hunting Rationalisation Working Group, he taught me about patience and pragmatism. I was about to do something for momentary effect rather than long-term result, and he stopped me: “We learned in the Winter War that pissing in our pants to keep warm was not a good thing ”.
I would also like to take this opportunity to mention the great Hugh Boyd whose sad passing I only learned about this weekend. Having been sent to spend time at the Ducks Unlimited (Canada) offices in Winnipeg and the Delta Waterfowl Research Station upcountry in late 1978, I visited Hugh in Ottawa where he was head of the Canadian Wildlife Service. After a brief, friendly discussion he required me that very afternoon to make a presentation to the assembled CWS Provincial Directors on priorities for BASC’s conservation and research programmes in the coming 5 years; which I’m happy to say were to be achieved and stand the test of time – thanks in no small measure to Hugh.
I could mention many other characters and escapades that shaped 40 years at WAGBI and BASC, the last 25 years as Chief Executive – all of which have aided my approach to the last 5 years’ difficult work as Chairman of the Lead Ammunition Group.
As a shooter and paid up member of the Conservative Party, it now puzzles me profoundly, all the weight of science to one side, that the current shooting hierarchies at my alma mater, BASC, as well as the current Government administration at Defra, “don’t get” the non-scientific argument either, that littering the countryside every year with thousands of tonnes of poisonous substance and encouraging the provision of dirty food to people already known to be vulnerable – all of it avoidable – needs to have something done about it – urgently.
When we embarked on the LAG process I was not convinced that the case for sweeping legislative prohibition of lead from all ammunition, shot and bullets, across all forms of shooting, living quarry and target, was yet justified. I knew well, as did all the members of the shooting industry’s Lead Ammunition Technical Working Group which I had chaired for many years, that lead was a uniquely “nasty poison” and changes should be explored and encouraged, but did not go further at that time.
During the past 5 years in LAG I have been privileged to work with massively intelligent and professional specialists. As their Chairman I have had to wrap a cold towel round my head and piece together the complex science of several disciplines through every twist and turn. It hasn’t always been straightforward but the quality of their contributions to our Group, especially in the form of the risk assessments is very high. I thank them all deeply.
The various representatives to the Group from the different stakeholder interests, mostly non-scientists as mentioned, raised every herring they could think of and helped us decide which were red or which might perhaps carry some weight. These issues are all reviewed at length in the LAG report or in the published minutes of meetings on our website. It has been saddening to hear personal remarks about bias and conspiracy – but once we got the basic rules sorted out at the beginning, it became possible to resolve or navigate around any differences as they arose.
So, having personally had to work through all the evidence (which is considerable with new stuff continuing to appear even as I write this), having studied all those shoals of herrings, being familiar with experiences in other countries, and knowing from a lifetime’s professional work how it is likely to play in the shooting world here at home, my absolute conclusion must be, and is without shadow of doubt, that the only way to get rid of all the many damages that lead ammunition does to our environment, wildlife and human health, is replacement of lead with the known alternatives.
I’m absolutely confident that sooner or later the penny will drop, perhaps by degrees. Shooting will change. But for that to happen sooner rather than later there needs to be political direction from upstairs, and for that much will depend on the leadership calibre of those in authority – both governmental and non-governmental.
And after a few years we will all be saying – bar one or two who I could possibly name – what was all the fuss about? Just as we now do with seat belts, lead-free petrol, not smoking in pubs and restaurants – or chucking harmless litter into the street. All of them were fiercely resisted in their time.