Duck! Lead in the air!

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I'm the RSPB's Conservation Director. My aim with this blog will be to comment on matters of conservation importance and give you a few insights into the RSPB's conservation work - there's plenty to write about!

Duck! Lead in the air!

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A Defra-funded study, involving BASC, WWT and the CLA, shows that most (344 out of 492, ie 70%) shot ducks bought from gamedealers, supermarkets and butchers are illegally shot with lead ammunition.  This figure is similar to that found in 2002 in a study by WWT and the RSPB - there has been no real progress in the last eight years. 

Quite shockingly, the survey of shooters indicated that most understood the law but nearly half (45%) admitted to breaking the law.  At least this suggests that the 'honest' ones (the 45% who admit to acting illegally) are the best shots (if 70% of ducks have been shot illegally)!

The main reasons given for breaking the law are: small chance of being caught, don't believe that lead is a problem and lead-free ammunition is more expensive or more difficult to obtain than lead ammunition. 

We await the reaction of shooting organisations and the shooting press with interest.  Some shooting organisations have spent quite considerable time and effort communicating to their members on this issue - they must feel very let down.

We also await Defra's reaction.  Minister of State Jim Paice is a keen shot and a former trustee of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust.  Defra has just withdrawn its secretarial support from the Lead Ammunition Group that it and the Food Standards Agency set up to look at issues surrounding the (legal) use of lead ammunition concerning human and wildlife health.

  • apologies - misread so thanks !!

  • flavirostris - welcome!  Are you a twite, a mosquito, a black crake, a speckled teal or maybe a greenland white-fronted goose? If the last then I can see you may have a personal interest in this subject.  Thank you for your comments.

  • Interesting debate developing, though the separate issues of

    a)  Compliance with legislation to eliminate the well-established impacts of toxic lead-shot on waterbirds; and

    b)  the potential impacts on human health from lead residues in game shot with lead

    seem to be becoming a bit conflated.  

    In respect of both these issues however, there is a significant body of robust, peer-reviewed science (e.g.  I always find it a bit depressing when the debate (elsewhere) is around stereotyping organisations: “well, they would say that wouldn’t they?” rather than addressing issues of uncertainty in the science (and of course, what that science means for policy).  There will always be areas where our understanding could be improved and we should be encouraging the commissioning of further research to illuminate these uncertainties.  

    However, the current research from WWT and BASC ( is very impressive in the degree to which it explicitly highlights and discusses all the various assumptions and potential biases that inevitably exist with such a survey.  I’m as impressed by the quality of the science as I am dispirited by the findings...  Let’s hope for a rapid policy response from government – and of course equivalent assessments undertaken in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

  • Bassman - welcome!  Hope you don't mind me correcting your point above.

  • A couple of points.

    Firstly - the survey everyone is going on about is from 2002 - so lets ignore it! [Note added by Mark Avery - No it isn't actually.  It's from 2008/9 and 2009/10 shooting seasons.  So let's not ignore it.] The question is what do they do now?

    Secondly - jamesm makes a very good point.  Wildfowlers who will shoot exclusively over wetland areas will be using non lead shot.  They are well informed and just do it.

    Many of the duck that ends up in butchers etc is from mixed shoots where they have been bred and released to provide alternative 'drives' to pheasant.  I can understand that compliance through those shoots will be less than 100%.

    That's the reason - not an excuse.

  • Hi Harebelly - agreed, very good points. It's your body, you decide what to put in it, that's the way it should be. And like you, I want the best possible impartial information on what the effects might be of eating this or that. Trouble is getting truly impartial information - frankly I take it all with a pinch of (toxic) NaCl, whether it's put out by BASC or RSPB, they've all got their own agenda. But this 'growing concern' you feel is driven by campaigning by groups who're hardly fans of shooting.

    I know plenty of old, healthy gamekeepers who've eaten lead-shot game all their lives. I've yet to come across a single person affected by eating game with lead shot in it. All anecdotal, not science, but I suspect there's an element of scare tactics in use here. Whenever I read about the 'risks' of lead shot, it's full of 'might' this and 'could' that. For instance, Dr Benford's evidence to the Lead Ammunition Group here - sounds like they're struggling to even measure exposure, never mind find any effect on humans.

    Shooters' concerns over non-lead shot are being misrepresented. I'd happily pay a bit more for non-lead shot, just to be on the safe side. Some steel shot shells are cheaper than lead now. But i) there are concerns over safety, and damage to guns, ii) I have doubts about their ability to kill quarry cleanly, and iii) they are inclined to make the bird inedible, which rather defeats the object. If RSPB are so concerned about lead use, perhaps they'd like to help address these concerns, which are the major obstacles to change.

    At least it seems Mark and I are agreed - people should obey the law, and seek to change it if it is daft.

  • Alternatives to lead

    A. Sample steel non-toxic loads

    B. Iron-Tungsten Steel-tungsten and Tin

  • Harebelly - welcome! And - good points!

  • James, as Mark just pointed out, lots of things are naturally occurring but can be harmful when consumed – that’s why I don’t go around the countryside munching on hemlock or deathcap fungi!  I eat a fair amount of shot game in the winter and the idea of lead fragments in my food has been a growing concern of mine for a couple of years.  I find the fact that lead accumulates in the body particularly worrying.  I think more people would embrace game if they weren’t worried about lead (I’ve heard several people new to game voice this to me)…and in turn that would help with PR and the future of shooting in general.  If I plan to get pregnant I won’t be eating game shot with lead and I’m not sure I’d feed it to children either.

    The fact that lead shot can also be detrimental to wildfowl and possibly to anything that might eat carrion peppered with shot…well it just doesn’t make the shooting community look good.

    I’ve heard the excuse that non-lead shot is ‘three times more expensive than lead’ but then again a day’s driven shoot can cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

    From a welfare point of view, the killing ability of non-lead shot is slightly concerning, I don’t know much about it though…however, I’ve seen plenty of birds that were just clipped or not killed outright with lead cartridges too – but that’s just how it is sometimes in shooting.  Individual skill and luck could play as important a role as the type of metal used in cartridges, perhaps?

    Incidentally, I also know of several commercial pheasant shoots in my area that have one or more duck drives, they are not on ponds but over rivers.

  • Jamesm - Let's remember that arsenic and uranium are naturally occurring elements.  We mine them from the soil and they end up back there eventually - it's where they go and what they do in between that should give us reason to think!

    The English legislation bans use of lead shot over wetlands too - it actually names wetland SSSIs.

    Of course people should obey the law - and seek to change it if it is daft but stick to it anyway.

  • Let's remember that we are talking about a naturally occurring element, not toxic sludge from the planet Zog. We mine it from the soil, it ends up back in the soil. A large part of our exposure to lead comes naturally from soil and dust. There's no "safe" level, but there's no "harm" level either, and we cannot achieve zero exposure. There is a study group under way to discover if there is even a problem with lead shot and if so, what can be done to reduce it.

    That said, it's clear that in some circumstances lead shot can affect wildfowl - hence the ban on lead fishing weights, and the very sensible legislation in Scotland which bans use of lead shot in wetland areas.

    Sadly the English legislation was poorly thought through. It makes no sense, and was poorly communicated (many shooters aren't members of BASC, and don't read shooting magazines etc).

    I expect (I've no proof) that wildfowlers are virtually 100% compliant - they're well informed, well organised, and fully support the use of non-lead shot. They also don't tend to supply game dealers etc, they eat their bag themselves. Lead-shot ducks most likely come from pheasant shoot days, where mallard are shot off a pond in farmland, miles from the nearest wetlands.

    Of course people should obey the law. But this one is just plain daft, and should be changed.

  • Just a brief one Mark - if readers go to Mike's web link above - re James Marchington - they will see on the home page - on the right - a fabulous graph re TB and the method of managing B*****S since the 80's and one doesn't need a PhD to understand it - it's obvious to all.  So how come the RSPB missed it?

  • Incidentally - This week's Shooting Times reports(!) - non-lead richocet risk - in Germany where stalkers in Brandenberg have had their non-lead bullets (not shot) richochet and injure several and kill one!

    Lead was banned following concern over local Sea Eagles being poisoned.

  • If there's such a price differential why not tax the lead shot - like for cigarettes ? Were the money recycled into the environment it might even get the support of both shooters & conservationists - but I fear this is one area in which the two sides would agree wholeheartedly that whatever they may feel about each other they'd be united in distrust of the Government sticking to any promises it made.