Lead ammunition used to shoot animals should be phased out and replaced with non-toxic alternatives by 2025, hunting organisations have said amid calls for a ban to be enshrined in law.
Global scientific consensus on the risks of lead ammunition has long been established and regularly eating game birds shot with the highly toxic metal can harm the developing brain and damage the nervous system, and children and pregnant women are most vulnerable.
More than 6,000 tonnes of lead ammunition is discharged by guns every year, with up to 100,000 swans, ducks, geese and other wildfowl in Britain estimated to be killed after accidentally ingesting poisonous shot pellets.
“The shooting community must maintain its place at the forefront of conservation and environmental protection,” nine pro-shooting groups said in a joint statement issued by the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC).
“Continued development of non-lead shot and recyclable and bio-degradable plastics means the time is right for a complete transition.”
It said the hunters should not fear the change and that both evolution, and the defence of tradition, was required to enhance the shooting community’s reputation as the “rightful custodians” of the countryside.
“Shooting has changed greatly over the years and this move is just the next step in that illustrious history.”
Pressure has been growing after Waitrose, Britain’s largest game retailer, said it would not sell birds “brought to bag” with lead ammunition by the 2020-21 shooting season, while catering outlets in the House of Lords no longer serve game shot with lead following scrutiny from peers.
There are also fears the European Union could ban imports of pheasant, wood pigeon, grouse and other types of game from the UK, unless action was taken.
Sales of game meat have risen in successive years after a number of initiatives, along with the establishment of the British Game Alliance to promote its consumption, but there are fears inspection will not eradicate the risk of consuming lead particles.
Hunters will now be expected to transition to using ammunition made with steel, bismuth or other non-toxic metals. Shooting animals with lead ammunition has been illegal in Denmark for 25 years and California banned it for all hunting last year.
Petrol, paint, pipes and other materials had lead removed from them decades ago, as evidence of its toxicity mounted. Shooting wildfowl with lead was banned in 1999 but enforcement has been lax and research in England has found that more than 70% of ducks are shot with lead.
“Lead is a poison, and we should be taking every step possible to remove it from our environment,” said the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s director of conservation, Dr James Robinson, who welcomed the shooting fraternity showing leadership.
“We need a full transition to non-toxic ammunition – and soon – to reduce the many thousands of tonnes of lead ammunition which accumulate in our environment every year.
“We look forward to the UK government and the devolved administrations catching up and introducing new legislation to remove all lead ammunition from our game meat, and importantly from the environment.”
The statement is reportedly signed by BASC, the Countryside Alliance, British Game Alliance, Country Land and Business Association, Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, Moorland Association, Scottish Land & Estates and Scottish Association for Country Sports.
On its website, BASC had warned against the restriction of any aspect of shooting, such as the prohibition of lead shot, since “an attack on shooters will be seen as an attack on the countryside itself”.
According to the Times, it has admitted myths were spread to defend the use of lead ammunition, including that more people would break their teeth on the alternatives if accidentally attempting to chew and that it was less likely to ricochet than steel shot and that.
In 2016, the then Defra minister, Liz Truss, deemed that the proven risks to human health and wildlife from lead ammunition were not significant enough to change current policy, which allows its use to kill birds and other animals for sport, following an expert report which recommended a general ban. However, she noted the poor compliance with existing lead shot regulations.
Meanwhile, Defra announced last week it would review whether to introduce tighter safeguards to govern the release of non-native game birds around vulnerable habitats following concern over their impact, as scrutiny on the impact of hunting on the environment grows.