The environmental impact of lead shot in game shooting is under scrutiny by the government and countryside groups. According to the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust, “up to 100,000 waterbirds in the UK and one million in Europe die every year through ingesting poisonous lead shot.” However, it has been a tradition since the 19th century and is still the most commonly used shot today.
The National Gamekeepers Organisation has proposed alternatives. “Modern, non-toxic shot is just as effective as lead, providing of course that you shoot at things within range. The problems we had with the old steel cartridges are a thing of the past,” the group said.
In 2020, the British Association of Shooting and Conservation announced that along with other shooting groups it wanted to phase the use of lead out by 2025, and urged its members to start switching.
There are three main alternatives currently in use, although some have drawbacks. Bismuth shot nearly matches lead’s density, producing similar effects and is very effective, having been used for wetland shooting for years, however, it is significantly more expensive than lead. Steel shot is cheap and easy to access. Due to their softer consistency, cap wads have to be used to prevent the shot from touching the barrel walls and these can now be made with environmentally friendly fibres instead of plastic. Tungsten has also been used for years, however it is expensive and the polymer shot cups can contribute to plastic pollution.
A campaign group called Wild Justice conducted tests on Waitrose and Harrods pheasant breasts late last year and found that 13 of the 14 pheasants bought from Waitrose contained higher levels of lead than is legally permitted in chicken, pork and beef.
The one pheasant had lead levels that were 186 times higher than the limit. The median average was 29. The campaign group said: “Waitrose pheasant fillets bought in stores in Essex and London in late November and tested for lead content at the University of the Highlands and Islands, had high lead levels – higher even than the results from the samples that we had analysed from last year’s shooting season, despite Waitrose promises to go lead-free.”
Waitrose told The Times that these results are due to environmental residues and not by lead shot.
Nicky Smith, the Head Keeper at the Elton Estate manages a mixed partridge/pheasant shoot. He raised another issue regarding what type of shot should be used due to the effectiveness of the shot to kill the game cleanly.
“We try to do things in the most humane way possible and at the moment, the alternatives still aren’t up to the same standard as lead,” he said.
He is wary about enforcement that might ban lead shot. “Although we appreciate the pollution side of it, and I’m sure in time they will improve the standard of shot, my personal opinion is they should wait until this problem is improved before they enforce the legislation.”
This is a good indication of the dilemma that the game industry faces. A plan, however, has been proposed. Nine of the largest shooting and rural organisations, including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Scottish Association for Country Sports, have announced they seek an end to the use of lead and single-use plastics in shotgun ammunition for live quarry shooting within five years. They say significant recent advances in technology have enabled the transition to take place.
The group is calling for the support of the shooting community and says such a change will benefit wildlife and the environment while also protecting the growing market for healthy game meat.
Mr Amps, a local wine merchant and businessman in Oundle, takes a pragmatic view on this hot issue in the shooting world. He said he has shot locally and all over the country and for 60 years has eaten “an enormous amount of game all with lead shot and am not aware of any ill effects”.
However, he said: “I am happy to follow the science. Currently I am letting others experiment with the new ammunition and when the industry has a good selection of alternatives, I will start using it.”