Toxic lead left behind by game hunts ‘killing 100,000 birds a year’

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Pheasants have been found to contain high levels of lead  (Getty Images)
Pheasants have been found to contain high levels of lead (Getty Images)

A cross-party alliance of MPs and lords have set up a parliamentary group to lobby for a ban on lead shot used to kill wildlife for consumption, which they say also causes the death of 100,000 other birds each year.

The Lead Ammunition All Party Parliamentary Group is joining forces with the biggest wildlife organisations in the UK to oppose the toxic ammunition, which is commonly used to kill animals such as pheasants, partridges, rabbits, grouse, hares and even woodpigeons.

Its members argue people also suffer the effects of lead pollution from eating game meat as well as from coming into contact with wildlife, plants, soil and pets that have been contaminated.

Experts estimate that up to 100,000 waterbirds each year in the UK are killed from ingesting spent pellets left in the countryside.

Up to 400,000 more birds survive but suffer lead poisoning effects, including being more susceptible to disease and less able to breed, the experts say. Birds such as golden eagles and red kites that prey or scavenge on small mammals are especially susceptible.

The parliamentarians are supported by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), and Wildlife and Countryside Link, the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, which represents 65 organisations including Greenpeace, the National Trust and WWF.

The shooting industry introduced a five-year plan two years ago to voluntarily phase out lead shot, and the government is considering outlawing it. Last month, the Health and Safety Executive published a report with options including proposals for a ban.

But members of the new parliamentary group say a ban must go ahead - and quickly.

An estimated 6,000 tonnes of lead from ammunition used in shotgun and rifle shooting are discharged every year, and at least 2,000 tonnes used for “game and pest” shooting are left outdoors. The Wildlife experts point out that is the equivalent weight of 3,000 cows or 19 blue whales.

Pheasants sold in supermarkets and butchers have been found by Chris Packham’s Wild Justice organisation to be contaminated by potentially hazardous lead, with no reduction since the start of the five-year phase-out.

Now is the time for effective policy change that will bring an end to this continuing scandal

Lord Browne

The Food Standards Agency says eating lead-shot game often can expose people to potentially harmful lead levels and that anyone who eats it should minimise the amount they eat.

The WWT says compliance with both legal restrictions and a wider voluntary ban are poor.

Lord Browne of Ladyton, a Labour former defence secretary and co-chair of the group, said: “There are no safe levels of lead.

“The last largely unregulated release of lead into the environment is from lead ammunition.

“Non-toxic ammunition is widely available, effective, and comparably priced.

“Now is the time for effective policy change that will bring an end to this continuing scandal, as I am convinced the vast majority of parliamentarians agree.”

A gun and cartridges (Getty Images)
A gun and cartridges (Getty Images)

Lord Randall of Uxbridge, a Conservative former deputy chief whip and environment adviser, said: “Other countries have successfully proved that the transition to other materials can be made without difficulty. It is time to stop poisoning our environment.”

In England and Wales, by law non-lead alternatives must be used when shooting wildfowl, coot and moorhen and in certain wetlands, while lead shot is already banned in all wetlands in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The Independent has asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to respond.

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