A press release from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust caught my eye the other day. According to a study 70% of ducks bought from English suppliers had been killed illegally with guns firing lead shot.

The problems of lead in the natural environment have long been understood. Back in the 1980s I clearly remember swans barely able to lift their necks due to the effects of  lead poisoning. They made a sorry sight. The lead was picked up largely from birds inadvertently eating discarded anglers weights. Following a highly successful campaign by conservationists the use of lead weights in fishing was banned in 1987. The swan population responded quickly and positively.

However, angling was not the only source of lead in the environment. At the time of the angling ban hundreds of wildfowlers were still scattering lead shot over the marshlands and wetlands of the UK in pursuit of their hobby. It was reported in the late 90’s that 2000 tons of shot were thought to have fallen on wetlands in the UK and across Europe each season. That’s a lot of lead.

In 1999, recognising the scale of the issue the use of lead shot over all foreshore, specified SSSIs, and for the shooting of all ducks and geese, coot and moorhen was banned. This was welcomed by conservationists and accepted by the  British Association for Shooting and Conservation.

For wildfowlers though, this was a problem. Alternatives to lead are marginally more expensive. They do not suit some older shotguns. Some have suggested that non-lead alternatives lacked “lethality” – in other words, it was less effective in killing the birds (link). And many simply did not believe it was an issue.

As a result of some people’s perceptions, it appears the ban has been widely ignored. The study by WWT for Defra, with contribution from BASC has revealed that “of those legally obliged to use non-lead, 45% indicated that they sometimes or never comply with the Regulations” Its pretty shocking that almost half those interviewed voluntarily admitted to breaking the law!

And all this despite creditable efforts by some shooting organisations to persuade wildfowlers to address the problem and providing good information on alternatives. As BASC state on their website “Wherever we are shooting, particularly inland, we must not tolerate irresponsible behaviour among those who shoot ducks and geese over the foreshore, important wetlands, and wherever else they are encountered – even if it is inconvenient to change cartridges.”

The WWT report makes a number of recommendations to Defra to try and tackle this issue. It is suggested that the reporting of offences should be further encouraged. That game dealers should demand of their suppliers that wildfowl are shot legally. That ammunition manufacturers and suppliers should address issues of efficacy and cost of non-lead alternatives.

Fundamentally though, it needs a change of attitude, and a change of behaviour based on an understanding of the implications of using lead shot. According to WWT Spent lead shot eaten by water birds “... is one of the biggest causes of death and suffering among this group of birds, estimated to kill one in 12 wildfowl in Europe.”

And what’s more, we now know lead poisoning from ammunition can be a problem away from wetlands, with bullets as well as shotgun pellets and potentially for human health as well.