EU lead ammunition ban comes into force


A long-awaited ban on the use of lead shot ammunition at wetlands in all 27 European Union (EU) countries has come into effect.

The law came into force on 15 February, following a two-year period given to EU countries to prepare for the change. In addition to the 27 EU countries, it will be adopted in Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein.

The new law will save the lives of an estimated 1 million waterbirds which currently die of lead poisoning in the EU annually. Exposure to lead can also have severe consequences for people should they be exposed to it, especially children.

Whooper Swan is among the many wildfowl species that will benefit across EU countries due to the ban on using lead shot at or near wetlands (Josh Jones).

Lead shot cartridges consist of hundreds of tiny round lead projectiles that spray out of shotguns when fired. It is used to hunt waterbirds and other small animals, both in wetlands and elsewhere.

It is estimated that hunters have been polluting European wetlands with more than 4,000 tonnes of lead shot annually, despite the existence of competitively priced alternatives. From now on, shooters will need to use non-toxic ammunition such as steel or other non-toxic metals in or within 100 m of wetlands.

Lead shot is particularly problematic for waterbirds that ingest lead pellets, mistaking them for grit (small particles of stone or sand). Birds swallow small bits of grit to act like teeth in their gizzard, a specialized stomach constructed of thick, muscular walls used for grinding up food. The grit helps break down hard foods, such as seeds.  

The ban will also decrease the secondary poisoning of birds of prey and other scavengers, which are regularly poisoned while eating prey contaminated with lead shot.

The BirdLife Partnership has been working to have this poisonous ammunition banned for more than 20 years. Barbara Herrero, Senior EU Nature Policy Officer at BirdLife Europe, said: "This is huge. Despite banning lead from paint, petrol and virtually everything else several decades ago, it was still allowed to poison our shared environment – even when alternatives exist. With this ban, the EU has addressed a significant part of the problem. We now call on EU countries to make sure the ban is enforced."

Dr Julia Newth, Ecosystem Health and Social Dimensions Manager at WWT, added: "This EU law is a huge leap towards ending lead ammunition poisoning of wildlife in Europe. There is no safe level of lead – it has polluted wetlands for more than a century, creating a toxic environment for those that depend on them. This milestone recognises that it is time to clean up our act. This ban must be fully enforced by EU countries to ensure their wetlands are healthy for wildlife and future generations."

While this ban will reduce the exposure of lead to wildlife and people, it will not eliminate it as lead shot remains legal outside of wetland areas. Waterbirds such as Bewick's Swan, a species which is declining rapidly in Europe, will continue to be poisoned as they often spend large proportions of their day feeding away from wetlands where it remains legal to shoot with lead in most places. Lead shot poisoning remains a risk to other predators and scavengers, and gamebirds which often end up on the dinner table.

Given these continued risks, the European Chemicals Agency has proposed a second restriction on the use of lead for outdoor shooting outside of wetlands and lead fishing weights and lures in all EU countries.