On Monday this week I went to court for the first time in my life. No, I hadn’t been up to no good (shockingly), but I was there as an observer for the case of the first man in the UK to be prosecuted for using lead ammunition.

Lead is a very toxic metal, that’s why its no longer used in things like paint, petrol and children’s toys. In 1999 the use of lead gunshot over wetlands and to shoot certain wetland species like ducks, swans and geese was banned in England (and subsequently across the rest of the UK) to prevent wildfowl accidentally ingesting spent lead shot and suffering from lead poisoning as a result.

The man in this case was accused of shooting a mute swan with lead, so was being prosecuted for both offences as swans are of course fully protected and legally are the property of the Queen. After all the build up, he pled guilty on both counts, so the court case itself was over very quickly, with a fine of £445 for shooting the swan and £100 for illegally using lead shot.

This might not be the biggest fine in the world, but as it was the very first person convicted under the lead shot regulations, hopefully it will be a timely reminder that shooters need to obey these laws as much as any other. A recent study found that 70% of ducks were shot illegally with lead. Perhaps its not surprising when its taken 12 years for the first case to come to court, but hopefully that shockingly high figure will now start to decline. Still, there’s clearly a lot of work for shooting groups to do to ensure they’re complying with the law!

Now some of you reading this may wonder why lead shot is only banned over wetlands. Well the regulations were based on the evidence at the time, which showed that thousands of waterfowl were dying from lead poisoning. More recent evidence has suggested that, not surprisingly, lead ammunition can be just as  big a problem in terrestrial habitats. Anything which east a gamebird shot with lead ammunition is at risk from lead poisoning, as they can eat the lead shot embedded in their prey. This can be a major problem. Studies from the United States have shown that the major threat to one of the world’s most-threatened and largest birds of prey – the California condor – comes from the birds ingesting lead when feeding on deer carcasses. This has been such a problem that the former Californian governor – Arnold Schwarzenegger - banned all lead ammunition in the critically-endangered bird’s range within the state.

And of course its not just birds of prey which eat game shot with lead – humans do. Now don’t panic, you’re not going to die if you’ve eaten pheasant or rabbit. But there is an increasing body of evidence that eating as little as one game meal a week can have significant impacts on things like your blood pressure, intelligence (especially in children) and risk of heart problems. And if you’re pregnant or a young child, you could be even more at risk from lead in game meat. Its all a bit scary really and has led to the Government setting up a Lead Ammunition Group, which I sit on for the RSPB, to decide on what should be done.

So a long way to go, but at least this case is a step in the right direction and hopefully some of the publicity around it will raise the profile of the continued problems with lead ammunition.