Lead has been used as ammunition for shotguns and rifles for centuries. It has properties such as density and malleability that make it ideal for the purpose. But it can also be toxic, which is why it has been banned in petrol and paint decades ago. Now it is likely to be banned in shotgun cartridges and rifle bullets too.
The regulations surrounding lead ammunition stem from the African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement, which came into force in 1999 and calls for a ban on the use of lead shot over wetland. However, the English regulations simply ban the use of lead shot over foreshore, in those wetland Sites of Special Scientific Interest listed in Schedule 1 and against those species of bird listed in Schedule 2, mainly ducks and geese. Although it is strongly recommended in the Code of Shooting Practice that lead shot should not be used over any wetland, it is not specifically outlawed and, as such, the regulations do not comply with the African Eurasian Waterbird Agreement.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust has carried out research ever since and claims that these regulations are being flouted. Examining birds for sale at game dealers, the Trust finds that shooters are regularly using lead shot against waterfowl and that this non-compliance warrants an outright ban. The threat to waterfowl comes from both the use of lead shot aimed at the birds and the ingestion of spent shot on the ground. However, waterfowl may ingest lead when feeding, for example many stick their long beaks into wet soil to retrieve their food. In other cases, birds may inadvertently ingest lead pellets thinking they are grit necessary for the grinding of food in the gizzard to aid digestion. Predators eating birds with lead shot in them can also be poisoned, an effect that is cumulative.
The evidence that game shot with lead poses a threat to human health is weak, as the Food Standards Agency found, suggesting that consumption of gamebirds shot with lead would have to exceed two whole birds per week throughout the year to give rise to any concern. Nevertheless, the European Union is heading towards a ban and pressure is building in this country too. A large proportion of gamebirds shot here are exported to the continent, especially France, so a ban there would have a significant knock-on effect.
Recognising the inevitable, shooting organisations in this country came together in a proactive move in February 2020 to suggest a voluntary phasing out of lead shot in five years. Many thought this unrealistic and the announcement came in for significant criticism. Almost a year was lost to the chaos caused by the Covid pandemic, making the deadline even tighter. Nevertheless it has been overtaken by some supermarkets, led by Waitrose, announcing that all game sold should be lead free from next season, if available. Recently the National Game Dealers Association has said that its members will not buy game, fur or feather, shot with lead from July 2022.
Whilst it might seem simple, it is, in fact, a complex issue. For a start, what does lead free mean? A shoot may insist that all guns use steel or other alternative cartridges but a bird may have been pricked by a lead pellet or two on a neighbouring shoot. The only way to guarantee lead free game is a total ban.
Then there are the cartridges themselves. Steel is not as effective as lead, with a density of 7.8 compared to 11 gm/cm3, and the only way to improve the efficacy is to increase the muzzle velocity and using larger shot. This is limited by law and we have a lower limit than other countries, the United States for example. Consideration must be given to increasing the limit. Lead pellets are made in this country, whilst steel pellets are imported from China. The manufacture is very polluting, requiring very high temperature which, coupled with the freight, is hardly the way to save the planet. The plants in China are under threat due to clean air targets, threatening supply.
Almost as important as the shot is the wad. There has been a concerted move away from plastic to biodegradable fibre in recent years. However, steel is more abrasive than lead and the barrels need to be protected by having a wad that wraps around the shot like an open-ended tube. Despite intensive research and development, no one has yet come up with a biodegradable material capable of doing that to the same efficacy as plastic. So, we can have lead shot with fibre wads or steel with plastic wads.
It is said that steel shot cannot be used in old guns, but that is not entirely true. It can be used provided that there is limited choke in the barrels, so some guns may need to be bored out to reduce the choke. Notwithstanding, all guns should be checked by a gunsmith before steel shot is used. However, high performance steel cartridges, shot size 3 or bigger, cannot be used meaning that those used in old guns will be less effective with potential animal welfare issues.
There are several calibres of shotgun and numerous cartridges with different loads of shot and powder. Steel cartridges need a different powder to lead. The smaller the calibre the more difficult it is to develop an effective steel cartridge; it is probable that none will be available for .410 or 28 bore guns for example. The logistical issues are immense and it is unlikely that a broad range of cartridges will be available by the end of the five year timescale. That makes it the more disappointing that supermarkets and game dealers have jumped the gun (forgive the pun), raising the prospect of an admirable project becoming confused and fragmented.