(c) Joakim Orrhult on Unsplash

Today’s blog is from Nick Hawkes, RSPB UK’s Uplands Communications Manager on the risk which the continued use of lead shot and ammo poses to people and nature. 

Despite being banned from most other consumer products our countryside has a big problem with the continued use of the heavy and toxic metal lead in shotgun pellets and other ammunition. The RSPB would like to see the use of lead ammunition banned and its immediate replacement with non- toxic alternative products which are now widely available. This is a matter for the UK Government to address. 


Why is lead a problem?  

For a long time, we have known that lead is a poison, harmful to both people and nature. Lead affects many of the major body systems of animals and humans. Even in small amounts, it can limit the development of children, impact memory and brain function, reduce fertility and cause damage to our internal organs. That is precisely why from petrol to paint, this heavy metal has mostly been phased out of our everyday lives for many years.  

However, lead can still be found in the shotgun pellets, bullets and airgun pellets used by the shooting industry and this usage is creating some big risks to humans, our nature and our environment. 

Across the UK, over 6000 tonnes (or the equivalent to 1500 Asian elephants) worth of lead shot and ammunition is released into the environment each year and a recent report and scientific publication  by the Environmental Research Institute by the Environmental Research Institute and academics from the University of Cambridge has shown that 99.5% of pheasants from which shotgun pellets were recovered contained traces of the metal. This is despite a well-publicised commitment made by the shooting industry in 2020 to the voluntary phasing out of lead by 2025. At present the use of lead shot is partially banned, it cannot be used in wetland areas, predominantly due to well-known negative impacts on the health of swans, geese and ducks. 

24 billion individual shotgun pellets are fired each year in the UK and many of them end up in our countryside. These pellets can take hundreds of years to degrade and over that time each one can potentially contaminate the surrounding soil, plant life and water. On farmed land this can lead to a contamination of crops and animal feed causing losses to farmers.  


What does this mean for wildlife?  

Evidence  also shows that scavenging birds who feed on the bodies and organs of larger game are frequently exposed to small lead fragments, caused by the lead pellets and bullets breaking apart when they hit the animal. A 2010 RSPB study found that, on average, a deer killed using a lead bullet contained 356 bullet fragments. The digestive organs, which are usually thrown away by hunters for scavengers to feed on, contained an average of 180 fragments. 

At present the use of lead shot is partially banned, it cannot be used in wetland areas, predominantly due to well-known negative impacts on the health of swans, geese and ducks.  

These species require grit in their gizzards to digest their food and can often pick up lead shot fragments as a result. It is estimated that 75,000 waterbirds, plus predatory and scavenging birds such as white-tailed eagles, red kites and marsh harriers die each year in the UK as a direct result of lead poisoning and many more are impacted by the other affects including reduced fertility and weakened immune systems.  

This issue is particularly concerning for the populations of red-listed birds of conservation concern, such as the common pochard, and whose decline has been attributed in part to lead poisoning. 


What can we do to stop the spread of lead in our countryside?  

Effective, safe and reasonably-priced non-toxic alternatives to lead shotgun pellets and lead bullets are widely available and already being used in the UK and across Europe. 

Copper is the primary alternative to lead for bullets used in rifle ammunition for the control of deer and rabbit and for shotgun pellets used for wildfowling, grouse, pheasant and other small game shooting, steel is the most widely used alternative  

Some European countries and American states have already introduced a ban and the European Chemicals Agency is now investigating this matter and may also introduce a ban in the near future through the European REACH process (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals).

Meanwhile under the UK’s new REACH chemicals regulation process, the Westminster Government has initiated a process to consider a ban of lead ammunition to protect wildlife and nature.


Only a complete ban on the sale and use of lead, backed up by effective monitoring and enforcement will ensure the provision of game free of lead ammunition and protect wildlife and human health.

We are not alone in calling for this change. Health professionals, nature charities, wild game retailers and shooting organisations across the country want to see the UK shooters move away from using this harmful toxin and believe that a ban is the best way to achieve this goal.