Effects of lead on wildlife

Q: Can lead be dangerous to wildlife?
X-ray showing lead pellets collected in the gizzard of a swan (Photo by Lamiot CC BY-SA)A: Yes. When waterfowl ingest spent shot mistaken for grit or foodstuffs it can result in lead poisoning. In addition, birds that are shot but not killed may carry lead shot in their muscles.

Q: How big is the problem?
A: In 2009 a Europe-wide study estimated that one million waterfowl might be dying from ingested lead poisoning; however, this was based on data collected before the restrictions on using lead shot over wetlands were introduced.

Q: Is this why lead ammunition was banned over wetlands across Europe?
A: Yes. Even though most wildfowl populations continued to increase, legislation restricting the use of lead was introduced in England in 1999, Wales in 2002 and Scotland in 2004.

Q: Is this legislation the same across the UK?
A: No. The regulations in England and Wales are based on species as well as habitat, but Scotland and Northern Ireland differ by restricting lead use in certain habitats only.

Q: What are these restrictions?
A: In England and Wales the use of lead shot is prohibited:

  • On or over any area below the high water mark
  • On or over certain Sites of Special Scientific Interest
  • For the shooting of ducks, geese or swans of any species, coots of morrhens

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the use of lead shot is prohibited for shooting anything on or over all wetland areas.

Q: So how many wildfowl are now dying through lead poisoning?
A: We don’t know. There have been no new studies of wildfowl lead ingestion since legislation was introduced.

Q: Why are so many not convinced by the estimated numbers?
A: One estimate suggests that 73,000 ducks die each year in the UK, however this is based on lead ingestion rates prior to the introduction of legalisation banning lead ammunition for waterfowl.

Q: Are large numbers of ducks suffering from lead poisoning being found?
A: No.

Q: Where is the physical evidence for sick and dying wildfowl?
A: Some claim sick birds are not found because they are eaten by scavengers. Another possibility is that birds suffering from poisoning seek a safe refuge, therefore if they die they are hidden from view. Others suggest that the number of sick birds is being exaggerated.

Q: Is there any evidence that lead is having a population-level impact on wildfowl?
A: Whilst there are negative impacts on individual birds exposed to lead, studies have not shown a direct effect of lead shot exposure on wild bird populations in the UK. There is evidence that exposure to lead shot may have a negative effect on mallard populations in France, and that lead from fishing weights affected mute swan populations in the UK. These two sources of exposure have been removed for waterfowl by the wetlands lead shot restrictions and the ban on lead fishing weights.

Q: Is there any evidence that lead shot exposure is having an impact on gamebirds?
A: There is evidence that gamebirds can ingest shot into the gizzard when taking in grit. However, this is seen at a lower level than in waterfowl. A GWCT study published in 2005 found that 4.5% of discovered dead birds contained shot in their gizzard, and estimated that 1.2% of living wild grey partridge contain ingested shot at any one time. Other studies report similar findings in pheasants and red-legged partridge but do not record negative impacts on bird health.

Q: So is lead shot the only remaining source of lead exposure for wildlife?
A: No. Some areas of the UK have higher levels of naturally occurring lead minerals on the ground. For example, red grouse studied on a Yorkshire estate were found to have high levels of lead exposure from lead ore used in historic lead mining, as well as lead shot.

Q: What non-lead ammunition is available?
A: Alternatives to lead ammunition are continually being developed using other metals including steel, copper, tungsten or bismuth.

Q: Is there evidence of non-compliance with existing lead ammunition legislation?
A: Yes. Informal purchases of duck from game dealers in England show that up to 70% are still being shot illegally with lead.

Q: Has anyone been prosecuted for illegally using lead ammunition?
A: Not yet. Enforcement of the current legislation, designed to protect wildlife in our wetland areas, is essential.

Q: Do we know the environmental impacts of all these alternative ammunitions?
A: No. More research is needed. There is emerging evidence, for example, that tungsten may be carcinogenic, and possibly damaging to soil bacteria and earthworms at higher concentrations.

Q: Would changing to non-lead ammunition reduce lead in the environment?
A: Yes. Some data from Holland suggests that it would reduce environmental lead, but the evidence is limited and we do not know the effect on the wider environment.

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