Lead ammunition today

Why is lead ammunition under scrutiny?
Lead ammunition is now the main source of human lead emissions to soil1 and the environment2 and has been linked to risks to wildlife and human health3,4.  Each of these aspects is considered in more detail below.

Is legislation for use of lead ammunition the same across the UK?
No, the rules and legislation for the use of lead ammunition are different in each part of the UK.

The Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot) Regulations were introduced in England in 19995following a 4-year voluntary ban6. Regulations were introduced in Wales in 20027; Scotland in 20048; and Northern Ireland in 20099. England is the only country in the UK that carries out compliance monitoring for this legislation10.

What are current environmental regulations on the use of lead ammunition?
Restrictions on the use of lead ammunition were introduced in England in 1999, Wales in 2002 and Scotland in 2004.

In England and Wales, the rules are5,7:

  • No lead use over any area of foreshore or on or above the high-water mark.
  • No lead use on or over Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).
  • No lead use when shooting any species of duck, goose, swan, coot, or moorhen. This applies to any bird listed in Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, regardless of habitat.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the use of lead shot is prohibited for shooting anything on or over all wetland areas8,9.

Why have the health risks now come to the fore for people consuming game shot with lead ammunition?
Medical opinion has altered in recent years and experts have set a zero threshold for exposure to lead. This means that even the smallest quantity will have a deleterious effect, even if that effect is not detectable11.

Current Food Standards Agency advice can be found here.

Why is lead used for ammunition?
Ever since the invention of firearms, lead has been the metal of choice for bullets and shotgun pellets because its high density and softness gives the projectiles good range, penetration and killing power, and its low melting point makes it easy to cast into ammunition.

How much of the lead produced is used as ammunition, compared to other uses?
Between 10 and 12 million tonnes (2014-2018 statistics) is produced each year worldwide. Lead in ammunition is a relatively minor use (3%), but nevertheless is now the main source of human-induced lead emissions to soil, accounting for 67% of emissions compared with 7% for the next highest source, lead sheet1. 80% of lead produced is used to make batteries – mainly for cars, and backup batteries for computer and telecommunications networks1,12. In the past, considerable amounts were used in pipes, paint and petrol, but lead has now been removed from those products.

Shooting sports in the UK are estimated to release 5,000-6,000 tonnes of lead ammunition into the environment every year. Some 2,040 tonnes of this ammunition is released into the rural environment2,13.

Is there evidence of non-compliance with existing lead ammunition legislation?
Compliance with lead shot restrictions can be monitored through methods such as:

  • Analysis of soil and sediments for lead shot
  • Analysis of shot wildfowl
  • Surveys of cartridge manufacturers
  • Analysis of wildfowl purchased from game dealers; and
  • Surveys of shooters and landowners

Scientists at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), ADAS UK, the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) carry out surveys assessing compliance. These organisations studied samples of shot wildfowl alongside member surveys14.

These surveys found that over the winters of 2001/2, 2008/9, 2009/10, and 2013/14 over 70% of ducks sold by game suppliers were shot with lead14,15. Surveys of BASC members found at 45% of respondents admitted they ‘sometimes or never comply’ with lead shot restrictions14. Surveys of live birds in 2010-11 using blood samples also showed that 33% of birds sampled had elevated levels of lead in their blood16.

Long-term research found that between 1999 and 2020, an estimated 12.9 million ducks were illegally killed with lead shot in England. This equates to an average of 586,000 a year6. There was no recorded difference in wildfowl deaths attributed to lead shot from 1999-20106,10,16.

As a result of this data, it is fair to assume that compliance with current regulations on and around wetlands is low in England2,15. The GWCT condemns this illegal activity and has emphasised the need for compliance in its publications.

Has anyone been prosecuted for illegally using lead ammunition?
Not yet. Compliance with and enforcement of the current legislation, designed to protect wildlife in our wetland areas, is essential. Alternatively, it is suggested that a complete ban is the only way to ensure compliance, as has happened in Denmark since 199617.

Are people responding to the call for a move away from lead?
There are various sources that suggest the shooting community is responding and beginning to make the transition to non-lead ammunition. However, there is also evidence to the contrary, suggesting that lead was used almost exclusively (at the time of the study). The scale of movement is difficult to quantify, but we feel that there are positive signs.

A paper published in early 2021 found that, of 180 pheasants bought from butcher’s shops and game dealers during the five months Oct 2020 – Feb 2021 (six to twelve months after the statement was released), 99% were shot with lead ammunition18. This suggests that change within the first year was very limited.

However, surveys carried out by both the GWCT in spring 2021 and Savills in summer 2021 give more hope that change is gradually happening. A survey of over 2,500 shoot participants found that 4% of respondents have switched away from lead altogether. 20% had started the process of moving away from lead by testing the alternatives. Another 28% were planning to take this step during the coming 2021/22 season. Many respondents noted that the lack of shooting due to COVID in 2020/21 had delayed this process.

The Savills survey of shoot providers found that three percent of shoots already do not allow the use of lead ammunition. A further 65% of providers plan to phase out the use of lead ammunition on their shoot by 2023, with an additional 20% planning to phase it out by 2025. Some shoots which allow lead ammunition generally are beginning to offer shoot days where lead ammunition is not permitted, encouraging customers to test alternatives.

Although it is difficult to understand accurately how successful the transition is to date, there are signs of movement towards lead alternatives among shoot participants, and many report an intention to make the change. Repeat studies will be needed to record this progress.

Are there alternatives to lead ammunition and are they any good?
Alternatives to lead ammunition are being continually developed using other metals including steel, copper, tungsten, or bismuth.

Field trials of steel and lead shot were carried out in Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium. The trials found that there is no difference in the killing ability of lead and steel shot19. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) also found that lead shot alternatives are practically and financially feasible20.

Would changing to lead-free ammunition help?
As we know, lead ammunition is the largest source of human-induced lead emissions into soil1. Use of lead shot continues to the detriment of human health, animal welfare, and the environment19.

Use of non-lead shot means there can be no argument about game shooting using toxic material. In February 2020 the GWCT released a statement with other countryside organisations advocating for a voluntary phase-out of lead shot21.

In March 2021, we also asked our members to complete a survey on lead ammunition usage. Of 2,436 respondents, more than 24% stated they have started to test lead shot alternatives or have stopped using lead altogether. Another 27% of respondents said they were going to start testing lead alternatives next season22.

Data from Denmark suggests that using lead-free ammunition does reduce environmental lead17,23. In Denmark, compliance with the ban on lead is close to 100% and wildlife exposure has reduced, benefiting the environment, the species and also the hunters17.

What is happening in other countries?
A total of 33 countries across the world have partial or total bans on the use of lead shot in hunting17.

Lead shot was banned for wildfowl hunting in the USA in 199124. Because of this scientists estimate that approximately 1.4 million ducks were spared from lead poisoning in 1997 alone16,25. Denmark and the Netherlands also banned the use of lead shot in all hunting in 199617 and 199326.

What is the GWCT’s position on lead ammunition?
The GWCT and eight other organisations released a statement in February 2020 calling for a voluntary move away from lead ammunition within five years (by 2025):

“In consideration of wildlife, the environment, and to ensure a market for the healthiest game products, at home and abroad, we wish to see an end to both lead and single-use plastics in ammunition used by those taking all live quarry with shotguns within five years. The shooting community must maintain its place at the forefront of wildlife conservation and protection. Sustainability in our practices is of utmost importance.

Recently, there have been significant developments in the quality and availability of non-lead shotgun cartridges, and plastic cases can now be recycled. For the first time, biodegradable shot cups for steel shot are available. These welcome advances are continuing at an ever-quickening pace, in response to demand from a changing market. Such advances mean that, over the coming years, a complete transition is achievable.

We are jointly calling for the shooting community to engage in this transition and work with us, the Gun Trade Association and the cartridge manufacturers to ensure that further viable alternatives are developed for every situation involving live quarry.

This is a vital step we must make together to safeguard our wildlife and the wider environment.”

The GWCT will continue to encourage users to transition away from lead ammunition.

References

  1. Tukker, A., Buist, H., van Oers, L. & van der Voet, E. (2006). Risks to health and environment of the use of lead in products in the EU. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 49:89–109.
  2. Lead Ammunition Group. (2015). Lead Ammunition, Wildlife and Human Health.
  3. Fisher, I.J., Pain, D.J. & Thomas, V.G. (2006). A review of lead poisoning from ammunition sources in terrestrial birds. Biological Conservation, 131:421–432.
  4. Green, R.E. & Pain, D.J. (2015). Risks of health effects to humans in the UK from ammunition-derived lead. In: Proceeding of the Oxford Lead Symposium: 27–42. (eds. Delahay, R.J. & Spray, C.J.) Edward Grey Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford. 
  5. The Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot) (England) Regulations 1999.
  6. Stroud, D.A., Pain, D.J. & Green, R.E. (2021). Evidence of widespread illegal hunting of waterfowl in England despite partial regulation of the use of lead shotgun ammunition. Conservation Evidence, 18:18–24.
  7. The Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot) (Wales) Regulations 2001.
  8. The Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot) (Scotland) Regulations 2004.
  9. The Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2009.
  10. Green, R.E. & Pain, D.J. (2016). Possible effects of ingested lead gunshot on populations of ducks wintering in the UK. International Journal of Avian Science, 158:699–710.
  11. EFSA Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM). (2010). Scientific Opinion on Lead in Food. The European Food Safety Authority Journal, 8:1570, 1–151.
  12. International Lead and Zinc Study Group. (2010). End uses of lead.
  13. Harradine, J. & Leake, A. (2013). Lead Ammunition and Wildlife in England (UK). Lead Ammunition, Wildlife and Human Health: Appendix 3:
  14. Cromie, R.L., Loram, A., Hurst, L., O’Brien, M.F., Newth, J.L., Brown, M.J. & Harradine, J. (2010). Compliance With the Environmental Protection (Restriction on Use of Lead Shot)(England) Regulations 1999. Bristol.
  15. Cromie, R.L., Newth, J.L., Reeves, J., O’Brien, M.F., Beckmann, K. & Brown, M.J. (2015). The sociological and political aspects of reducing lead poisoning from ammunition in the UK: why the apparently simple solution is so difficult. In: Proceedings of the Oxford Lead Symposium. Lead ammunition: understanding and minimising the risks to human and environmental health: 104–124. (eds. Delahay, R.J. & Spray, C.J.) Edward Grey Institute, University of Oxford. Oxford.
  16. Newth, J.L., Cromie, R.L., Brown, M.J., Delahay, R.J., Meharg, A.A., Deacon, C., Norton, G.J., O’Brien, M.F. & Pain, D.J. (2012). Poisoning from lead gunshot: Still a threat to wild waterbirds in Britain. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 59:195–204.
  17. Kanstrup, N. (2019). Lessons learned from 33 years of lead shot regulation in Denmark. Ambio,48:999–1008.
  18. Green, R.E., Taggart, M.A., Pain, D.J., Clark, N.A., Clewley, L., Cromie, R.L., Elliot, B., Green, R.M., Huntley, B., Huntley, J. & Leslie, R. (2021). Effect of a joint policy statement by nine UK shooting and rural organisations on the use of lead shotgun ammunition for hunting common pheasants Phasianus colchicus in Britain. Conservation Evidence Journal, 18:1–9.
  19. The British Association for Shooting & Conservation. (2021). BASC guide to using non-lead shot for live quarry shooting. Available at: https://basc.org.uk/lead/guide-to-using-non-lead-shot/. (Accessed: 7 July 2021)
  20. Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. Tackling lead ammunition poisoning | WWT. Available at: https://www.wwt.org.uk/our-work/projects/tackling-lead-ammunition-poisoning/. (Accessed: 7 July 2021)
  21. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. (2020). A joint statement on the future of shotgun ammunition for live quarry shooting. Available at: https://www.gwct.org.uk/news/news/2020/february/a-joint-statement-on-the-future-of-shotgun-ammunition-for-live-quarry-shooting/. (Accessed: 8 July 2021)
  22. Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. (2021). Lead Ammunition Survey – what you’ve told us so far. Available at: https://www.gwct.org.uk/blogs/news/2021/march/lead-ammunition-survey-–-what-you’ve-told-us-so-far/. (Accessed: 31 August 2021)
  23. Kanstrup, N., Balsby, T.J.S. & Thomas, V.G. (2016). Efficacy of non-lead rifle ammunition for hunting in Denmark. European Journal of Wildlife Research, 62:333–340.
  24. Hadoke, D. (2020). Lead shot ban - how have European countries coped? Shooting UK:
  25. Anderson, W.L., Havera, S.P. & Zercher, B.W. (2000). Ingestion of Lead and Nontoxic Shotgun Pellets by Ducks in the Mississippi Flyway. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 64:848–857.
  26. Newth, J.L., Lawrence, A., Cromie, R.L., Swift, J.A., Rees, E.C., Wood, K.A., Strong, E.A., Reeves, J. & McDonald, R.A. (2019). Perspectives of ammunition users on the use of lead ammunition and its potential impacts on wildlife and humans. People and Nature, 1:347–361.

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