The shocking truth of lead shot poisoning

This lead-poisoned Whooper Swan died from poisoning by the cumulative substance. Photo: WWT.
This lead-poisoned Whooper Swan died from poisoning by the cumulative substance. Photo: WWT.
Up to 100,000 swans, ducks and geese are estimated to die each year in the British countryside due to lead poisoning from spent gunshot.

New research published today fingers the shooting industry's reluctance to replace lead shot with alternative materials as the major culprit in these unnecessary and self-defeating deaths. It’s also estimated that large numbers of terrestrial birds also die.

At least 2,000 tonnes of toxic lead shot pellets – the equivalent weight of two million bags of sugar – is used to shoot live quarry in Britain every year. Most of it is irretrievably deposited on the ground, where it can be ingested by birds who mistake it for grit or seeds. A further 3,000 tonnes of lead shot is deposited on clay shooting grounds, where it can also be ingested in the same way.

Lead from ammunition can also enter the human food chain when people eat wild-shot game. When lead ammunition passes through an animal it can fragment into tiny pieces that are often too small to be seen or cut out, and these fragments are soluble and can be absorbed fully into the body, where they act as a poison, causing blindness, pain hysteria and seizures in animals, including domestic cats and dogs.

Steel alloy alternatives to lead shot are currently available enclosed in biodegradable fibre cups to protect gun barrels, but these have been far from universally taken up, often owing to the physical adaptations needed to guns to be able to use different weights and densities of shot.

Lead pellets being extracted from the gizzard of the dead Whooper Swan by a WWT scientist. Photo: WWT.

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), the RSPB and the Sustainable Food Trust have said that they would like to see lead ammunition phased out by the end of 2017 and replaced with non-toxic alternatives which are effective, affordable and readily available.

Today’s figures, which are part of the proceedings of a symposium on the risks from lead ammunition held at Oxford University, draw on hundreds of scientific sources including research by WWT and RSPB. There is widespread scientific consensus on the evidence of toxic risks from lead ammunition and the need for it to be phased out.

The new figures state that:

• Up to 100,000 wildfowl are estimated to die every winter as a direct result of ingesting poisonous lead shot. For migratory swans, lead poisoning accounts for a quarter of all recorded deaths. Many terrestrial game birds die in a similar way

• In a recent study, 77 per cent of ducks purchased as 'locally shot' from suppliers in England were illegally killed using lead rather than non-toxic alternatives. This suggests a shooting industry campaign to 'use lead legally' was not successful, despite being signed by thousands of law-abiding shooters

• Thousands of British children per year could be at a potential risk of a one-point reduction in IQ or more as a result of current levels of exposure to ammunition-derived dietary lead. Children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable to the effects of lead

WWT Chief Executive Martin Spray said: “You can’t deny the clear and powerful narrative of hundreds of research papers and the consensus of scientists from around the world, who agree lead is a poison, its use in ammunition presents significant risks and that exposure to it should be minimised. 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.

“A phase-out would mean far fewer wildfowl and game birds being poisoned; low-lead meat could be a great selling point for the UK game industry; and Danish hunters tell us that using non-toxic shot for all shooting, which they have done for nearly 20 years, is important for the reputation of the sport.”

The Government were 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. An international agreement, the Convention for Migratory Species, has also passed a resolution for member countries – including the UK – to phase out lead ammunition by the end of 2017. In 2014, 30 human and wildlife health experts from 10 European countries signed a consensus statement on the evidence of the toxic risks from lead ammunition, and recommended it be phased out. The Government is yet to act, even though the Food Standards Agency has advised frequent eaters of lead-shot game to reduce their intake.

Lead poisoning is an ‘invisible killer’ because in the wild lead poisoned birds are usually scattered and hard to find, and readily eaten by predators and scavengers. However, occasionally large numbers of birds will die from feeding in one area. In the video, hundreds of ducks on this farm died after feeding on land contaminated with lead shot, next to a clay pigeon shoot. While this type of die-off in farmed birds is quite rare, large numbers of wild birds suffer the same effects as these ducks from lead poisoning every year.
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