UK shooters still killing most birds with lead despite voluntary phase-out pledge

A pheasant sat on a wooden butt, a structure used by the shooting industry
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The shooting industry recently urged MPs not to introduce statutory limits on the killing of a bird – the woodcock – that is in decline. The industry appears to think that shooters should limit woodcock killing. However, it essentially argued that shooters could do this through “voluntary restraint“. In other words, the industry wants policymakers to trust shooters to regulate themselves.

A new study has illustrated what restraint shooters are capable of when left to their own devices. In 2020, the industry pledged to eliminate the use of environmentally-heinous lead shot within five years. The probe shows that some three years later, the use of lead shot remains widespread.

Lead: A dangerous toxin

Lead is a deeply damaging toxin for humans and the rest of the natural world. As the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) has highlighted, lead is a “non-threshold poison”, which means that:

there is no safe level, for people or wildlife. It gets into the ecosystem and moves up the food chain, eventually affecting predators and humans.

Nonetheless, the shooting industry commonly uses lead ammunition to kill birds. This is despite the fact that scientists have warned of the dangers of lead shot for some years. As a 2016 paper highlighted, its use poses a threat to waterfowl, along with:

raptors, scavengers, and other terrestrial species, including humans who frequently consume hunted game.

Shooting industry pledge

In 2020, nine UK shooting industry organisations pledged to phase out the use of lead shot. Every year since then, the SHOT-SWITCH research project has monitored progress on this pledge. The project assesses progress by testing shot pheasants on sale in Britain.

Read on...

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The Conservation Evidence Journal published its latest findings on 27 February. The project sourced 356 pheasants for the 2022/23 analysis. 235 of these birds contained shot pellets, or fragments of them. The analysis of these pellets indicated that shooters had used lead ammunition to kill 94% of the pheasants.

The project’s researchers highlighted that this is an improvement on the previous two analyses, as they showed that shooters killed over 99% of them with lead ammunition. In light of the poor progress on eliminating lead shot, the authors of the findings said:

We found no direct evidence of any effect of recent voluntary initiatives to promote the replacement of lead with non-lead ammunition by suppliers and retailers of wild-shot game.

Little voluntary restraint in practice

As the non-profit Wild Justice pointed out, the analysis suggests that shooters are voluntarily reducing their use of lead shot by around 2% a year. It emphasised that:

At this rate of change, it would take the industry another 47 years to phase out the use of lead shot – just a little bit longer than the 5 years they committed to.

In other words, the shooting industry is failing to show that it’s capable of meaningful voluntary restraint. Clearly, then, statutory measures are needed, both in relation to the protection of woodcock from shooting and the safeguarding of other wildlife – as well as people – from toxic lead shot.

Despite what the industry would have people – and politicians – believe, voluntary limits are not enough.

Featured image via Rob Burke / Wikimedia, cropped to 770×403, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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