Lead Shot: Significant New Developments with Relevance to All Hunters
Several recent developments have combined to take the debate about lead shot into what might be a final phase. There is more evidence that it is causing harm and more evidence that the available alternatives offer a practical solution.
First some background: lead causes harm yet unlike say, arsenic or tungsten, it has no known biological function. In the list of toxic substances whose level in European Community groundwater must be reduced, it is placed at number 20 between isoproturon and mercury, both of which have been banned. In most countries lead has already been banned from petrol, paint, water pipes, fishingweights, solder and wheelbalancing weights.
Poisoning of wild birds by lead gun-shot has been known for more than 125 years, but with greatly increasing concern since about 1980. In particular the risk of ingestion of lead shot by waterfowl has led to the elimination of the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in USA and Canada, and several European countries. The Federation of Associations for Hunting and Conservation in the EU (FACE) has recently surveyed the legal status of lead shot in the EU. This shows that 10 Member States (Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK) have implemented a ban on the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands. Two Member States (Germany and Latvia) have banned the use of lead shot in certain wetlands (e.g. SPAs) and in two further Member States (Italy and Portugal) legislation is being prepared. In 13 Member States (Austria, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia), no initiative has so far been taken to phase out lead shot. However, three countries, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands have phased out lead shot for all kinds of hunting. The African Eurasian Waterbirds Agreement (AEWA) is running a questionnaire study to further describe the legal status in a wide range of countries and to compile experiences with non-toxic shot. The study is expected to be published early in 2008.
The argument that lead shot is mainly a problem in the hunting of waterfowl and in the contamination of wetlands has become untenable. A recent review excluding all wetland birds revealed that 59 so-called terrestrial species have been recorded to ingest lead shot, including 9 that are globally threatened such as the Imperial Eagle. Detailed research has shown clearly that the lead shot ingestion rates two of the terrestrial species, the grey partridge and common pheasant now overlap those of ducks. The distinction between terrestrial game-birds, where it has been thought OK to shoot lead and waterfowl where there are many agreements that alternatives must be used, cannot be justified with today’s new evidence.
Yet many hunters do not regard lead ammunition as a real threat to wildlife conservation, instead seeing the moves to ban lead shot as an “attack” on hunting. Many hunters claim that they have never found waterfowl poisoned by lead and that the few cartridges they spend every year never could cause any kind of problem. To others it seems obvious that some wetlands are hunted so intensively that they will become heavily contaminated with lead shot with birds inevitably suffering from fatal lead ingestion.
Until recently it has been believed that this extra mortality was very limited and does not constitute a problem for conservation but new American studies have shown very positive effects of the lead bans introduced nationwide (1991 in USA, and 1997 in Canada). At the same time the investigation of gizzards collected from several species of waterfowl has revealed a very high prevalence of ingested shot. This shot is now mostly non-toxic but it illustrates the problem. Ingestion rates in combination with measurements of lead in blood and bone has revealed that lead poisoning in the Mississippi Flyway has been reduced by two thirds. Millions of North American waterfowl have been saved by the elimination of lead shot.
As recently as 2001, a CIC review concluded that the then available alternatives to lead were unsatisfactory, excepting soft steel shot for waterfowl. This is no longer the case. Soon after the CIC review it was shown that tungsten-iron or tungsten polymer repeatedly administered to mallard had no adverse effect on the birds’ health whatsoever. After exhaustive further work, on 7 February 2006 the US Fish & Wildlife Service approved four new kinds of shot. Each of the four were found harmless when ingested, with ballistic properties equal to or better than lead. These new alternatives all contained tungsten however and with the rapidly rising price of tungsten at the time, it seemed that they might become too expensive. Today new mines have come on stream and the price of tungsten is decreasing.
By contrast the price of lead has increased ten-fold during recent years. Although the cost of cartridges is a very limited part of the hunter’s overall budget, the price plays a role in the choice of ammunition, especially in the case of hunting with high cartridge consumption or with clay pigeon shooting. Steel shot will become the most realistic alternative for clay pigeon shooting and for many hunters.
For those who do not trust soft steel shot or other available “non-toxic shot” the four new types of shot seem to be a practical solution. Looking to the future much will depend on how quickly a market will develop in Europe. There seems at long last a real prospect that lead can be phased out from all hunting without serious impact on hunting, with significant benefits for game and wildlife and with a marked improvement in the image of hunters.
President, Migratory Birds Commission
Dr. G R (Dick) Potts
President, Small Game Commission