Mark Avery: lead weights

Mark Avery © Dominic Mitchell
Mark Avery © Dominic Mitchell

David Cameron left Downing Street on 13 July 2016, after losing the EU referendum. At precisely the time when the nation watched the Prime Minister take his leave, DEFRA chose to publish its response to a report on which it had been sitting for more than a year.  

The report was from the Lead Ammunition Group (LAG), chaired by the former Chief Executive of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) John Swift. It recommended – after around five years of assessing the science – that lead ammunition should be phased out because of its impacts on human and environmental health.  

The LAG was set up after Dr Debbie Pain (Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust) and I (RSPB) had written to Hilary Benn in October 2009, pointing out that there was growing evidence for bigger impacts of lead ammunition on wildlife and human health than had previously been realised. The LAG submitted its meaty report to DEFRA on 3 June 2015.

Responding to this report, which had been on her desk for 13 months, was the last act of Secretary of State for DEFRA Liz Truss before she became Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Her response was a curt two-page letter saying that the government wasn’t going to do anything – but thanks for all your hard work. Two reasons were given: the existing Food Standards Agency advice on eating lead is sufficient, and there is no evidence that the ingestion of lead ammunition has a population-level impact on birds.

I have a feeling that very few readers of this magazine have the FSA advice on the tips of their tongues, but it includes the phrase: “There is no agreed safe level for lead intake.” We can be sure that not many shoppers in the food aisles know what it says, so it is pretty worthless as a health warning. It can be found at bit.ly/bw301FSA. 

Numbers of Northern Pintail, which is known to ingest discarded lead shot, are declining in Britain. Photo: Conor Molloy.

Deliberate mistake?
Truss was simply wrong on bird population impacts, either deliberately, which would be a lie, or accidentally, which would be gross negligence. Her department had received a scientific paper almost two months earlier which provided good evidence of impact. 

The paper – available to view online in Ibis at bit.ly/bw301LeadImpact – shows that five duck species – Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Northern Shoveler and Tufted Duck – that eat little lead shot have stable or increasing populations, whereas three species with higher lead intakes – Common Pochard, Mallard and Northern Pintail – are declining. 

Our NGOs need to realise that the rules have changed: being right and knowing your stuff is not enough. In fact it counts for little. The RSPB and WWT failed to mobilise public support for a lead ammunition ban (despite this being the agreed policy of both organisations) and that let DEFRA off the hook. In contrast, the shooting lobby fought a dirty, inaccurate and energetic campaign – and won. Our side lacked passion and energy; the bad guys were much more effective.

This is what life is like under a government that cares little for science – ask any Badger you meet! Welcome to post-fact, post-truth Britain. But we only have to live in a post-truth country if we allow it.

Do this in July
Write to your MP and ask them to write to whoever is the Secretary of State at DEFRA (I’m writing this before the election result) and ask them to review the evidence on lead ammunition and to ban its use for fieldsports.