Why Policy Matters: Leading the way?

(c) Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

In today's Why Policy Matters blog, Jeff Knott, RSPB Director of Policy & Advocacy, reflects on the use of lead ammunition and the pace of policy change.

I’ve had a pretty frustrating week. Not because of anything work related. I’ve finally had to admit defeat in my efforts to get tickets to see Eurovision in a few weeks. What particular annoyed me was getting stuck in a never ending online queue that periodically kicked you out and back to the start, all the while suggesting “you’re almost there”! There’s nothing worse than banging your head up against a brick wall, going round in circles, while being told you’re almost where you want to be.

Why do I mention that? Well working in policy can often feel like that. Constantly banging your head against a brick wall and getting stuck in a loop, never quite getting the outcome we need. Our efforts to finally see a ban on the use and sale of toxic lead ammunition in the UK are a classic example.

You can read more on this here and here, but in summary, lead is toxic - there’s a reason we’ve gone to such lengths to get rid of it from petrol, paint and pipes – yet its still used in ammunition to shoot food which people eat. Sometimes this is legal (e.g. pheasants) and sometimes illegal (e.g. ducks), but it’s always wrong. There is no safe level of lead in your diet and with alternatives generally readily available, it boggles the mind why lead ammunition is still in use.

(c) Joakim Orrhult (unsplash.com)

Lead was one of the first policy areas I worked on when I joined the RSPB 15 years ago. I never thought weeks into my conservation career I would be spending quite so long reading up on bullet ballistics! But it’s a debate which has been going on much longer than that. Indeed some of the leading scientists in this area have been making the case to end lead ammunition use since before I was born.

So why have we not got there yet, when almost everyone, including responsible shooting organisations, recognise lead’s days are numbered? Well as is so often the case, it comes down to playing for time. Change is hard, we all get that. But in a nature and climate emergency, we don’t have the luxury of time. Shooting organisations have been pushing a voluntary switch to alternative types of ammunition and while recent signs show some limited, but welcome progress, there is still a long way to go and only a full legal ban will deliver the scale and pace of change we need.

It is important to recognise the progress that has been made. When I sat on the Government’s Lead Ammunition Group a decade ago, the hostility to the idea of even talking about stopping lead ammunition use was palpable. One well known senior representative of a shooting organisation told me he would “personally end my career” if I continued to push for a ban on the group. Happily, those days seem to be (largely) behind us and the debate is now over how we get rid of lead, rather than whether we should.

But that doesn’t mean the job is done. Lead is still being sprayed into our countryside and food, to the cost of wildlife and humans alike. Change is happening, but not fast enough, which is why we need Governments to act to speed things up. And there are much bigger, more challenging issues to be dealt with. This really shouldn’t be a difficult one.

Its frustrating getting stuck in a loop, whether its for hours on a ticketing website, or for decades in policy development. But that’s what the RSPB does best. We don’t give up. We keep plugging away to get the best possible outcome for nature. The end for lead ammunition use in the UK is coming and we will keep pushing for that day to come as soon as possible. The decades long effort to end the use of toxic lead ammunition will have a successful outcome, even if my efforts to get Eurovision tickets did not.