A little over 10 years ago, the shooting community in Britain experienced momentous change to its long traditions with the introduction of legislation that would eventually see the prohibition of lead shot for waterfowl shooting throughout the UK. Perhaps some shooters thought that this would be the end of the matter and that pressure on the use of lead in shooting would cease. If so, they were mistaken. However, it could be that the next area to come under the spotlight will not be lead in shotgun cartridges, but the use of lead bullets by deerstalkers.

The Deer Initiative’s recent two-day conference, titled Deer Management 2010 and held on 12-13 March, saw the first public debate on the use of lead in rifle ammunition. In the final session, representatives of the RSPB, the shooting associations and the Government set out the agenda for a process which has barely crossed the consciousness of most UK stalkers but which has the potential to affect them all.

It was another conference, almost two years ago in Idaho, USA, that set the ball rolling, explained BASC’s Dr John Harradine. The conference was organised by the Peregrine Fund, an international group which promotes raptor conservation. It made public documentation suggesting that bullet fragmentation leaves significant amounts of lead in venison, which can be absorbed by humans who eat it and wildlife which scavenges grallochs and other discarded carcase remains.

John Harradine outlined the issue, but it was left to the RSPB’s Dr Rhys Green to explain some of the detail. He said that though X-rays of shot deer show obvious bullet fragments, close examination will reveal literally hundreds of tiny particles, many of them so small as to be microscopic. Red deer shot on the RSPB’s Abernethy estate, in Inverness-shire, each had an average of 350 lead particles of 0.1mg or more in them, and because the particles were so small, the surface area and thus the presence of the lead was considerable.

Research from the Idaho conference showed that levels of lead in the blood of pigs which had been fed venison containing lead bullet fragments rose considerably after two to three days. Though the levels reduced again by day nine, the lead was not excreted from the pigs’ bodies but was stored long-term in their bones and internal organs.

Dr Green suggested that the same could be true for humans and that regular venison eaters could find themselves ingesting amounts of lead which would cause their blood lead level to exceed the EU’s maximum safe level of 9μg/dl (micrograms per decilitre).

Furthermore, Dr Green explained that 15 per cent of a batch of samples of UK wild venison analysed by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate had exceeded the approved lead level for ordinary meat of 100μg/kg (micrograms per kilogram).

Perhaps more significant from the RSPB’s perspective was research from Arizona and Utah which suggested that scavenging birds, notably the Californian condor, were absorbings ignificant amounts of lead as a result of eating “gutpiles” from deer shot by US hunters. Despite a programme of lead bullet replacement and encouragement for hunters to remove deer guts from the environment, the annual mortality of condors was still five per cent. Dr Green concluded from this that the negative implications for UK species such as buzzards and golden eagles were obvious.

It should come as no surprise that the US research quickly led the RSPB to reconsider deer management policy over its own reserves. The society’s Jeff Knott explained to the conference that after an assessment had been made of the legality, toxicity, accuracy and safety of non-lead ammunition, copper bullets were used in trials on RSPB properties at Abernethy and the Arne peninsula in Dorset.

Between August 2008 and March 2009, 96 red, roe and sika were shot with copper and a further 54 with lead. Each shot was scored by the stalker for accuracy and outcome. The accuracy of lead and copper was identical and the difference in effectiveness was reckoned to be marginal. “One of our stalkers has now shot 500 deer with copper bullets. He is very happy with them,” said Jeff.

As a result, from November 2010, all those carrying out deer control on the RSPB’s properties will be using copper bullets. “There will be a phased withdrawal of the use of lead ammunition on RSPB reserves, starting with deer control next season,” said Jeff.

“We will contribute our experience to a Government-led process to look at a proportionate response at the national level.”

It was this question of proportionality which vexed the next speaker, leading deer vet and the British Deer Society’s Veterinary Adviser, Peter Green. Lead fragments in prepared venison could be avoided, he said, simply by discarding the bloody tissue from around the wound tract and not using it for human consumption. He also highlighted the fact that even those communities which ate large quantities of game did not exceed safety limits: Greenlanders eating up to 30 lead-killed ducks a month still had mean blood lead levels of only 8.2μg/dl. Peter went on to point out that the venison used in the US blood lead trials was poor quality minced meat, some of which contained several grams of lead.

Furthermore, the average venison eater from North Dakota had a blood lead level of 1.17μg/dl as against 0.80μg/dl for North Dakotan non-venison eaters. A blood lead level of 1.17μg/dl is less than the average for the US adult male population and still only a fraction of the approved US “safe” limit of 10μg/dl.

Children in industrial cities in the third world have levels of 30-40μg/dl and even in the remotest parts of the Amazon rainforest, some Indian populations have levels between 9 and 22μg/dl from eating out of lead-glazed cooking pots. Peter made the point that several ruminants tended to have much higher lead levels in their internal organs than the levels typically found in venison: “We should think about banning steak and kidney pies before we ban lead in bullets,” he said.

Finally, the Deer Commission for Scotland’s Alastair McGugan offered a viewpoint from the Government. While stating at the outset that public health is non-negotiable, he pointed out that any change must be both risk-assessed and proportionate to the threat to deer welfare from the reduced lethality of non-lead ammunition. His request for clarity and objectivity suggested that there will need to be a much more detailed investigation of both the problem and any potential solution before Scottish Ministers will be prompted to take action.

But is the genie already out of the bottle? Is a change to non-lead bullets already inevitable? Peter Green certainly thought so. “We’re too far down the road now. We’re going to go to copper and it’s happening as an ill-advised response to bad science,” he said. Meanwhile the CLA’s Mike Seville warned about the consequences for the public perception of deerstalking if we lose the ability to put carcases into the food chain. “Venison is marketed as a healthy food and we must guard against anything which conflicts with that,” he said.

But we must also guard against anything which conflicts with our ability to manage deer humanely. This was a question which I pondered while I sat in my high seat when culling roe does a few days before the conference. Over a period of an hour as the sun sank below the horizon, I fired four lead bullets each of which dropped a deer instantly and directly into the stubble field in which it stood. There was no fuss, no follow-up and no need for me to climb down from my seat and alert animals still waiting to step out of the forest. There were simply four clean carcases delivered that evening to the larder. It is the ability to do these things consistently and reliably that the stalker demands from his ammunition and which he gets from lead.

Will he get the same results from copper? I really don’t know, but perhaps it will not be very long before we all find out.