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Europe moves closer to a total ban on lead

A law banning the use of lead ammunition on wetlands came into force in February, while a further restriction is also being worked on

Wildfowlers in the UK

Wildfowlers in the UK have been using steel shot for years

In a move that looks likely to lead to a Europe-wide ban on lead ammunition, the EU has made the use of lead shot on wetlands illegal. This means that in all 27 EU countries, anyone hunting wildfowl will have to use non-lead alternatives; Iceland, Norway, and Lichtenstein will also do the same.

The new law came into force on 15 February, following a two-year period given to all the EU countries to prepare for the change. Whether this is really the beginning of the end for lead shot in the EU is debatable, but this legislation does look likely to hasten the move to non-toxic alternatives.

The ban has been justified by the claim that one million birds are killed by lead poisoning annually. It has been estimated that more than 4,000 tonnes of lead shot are deposited every year on Europe’s wetlands.

Lead shot is a major problem for wildfowl, as the birds ingest the toxic pellets in mistake for grit, which they use in their gizzard for grinding up food. This has always been a particular problem on Mediterranean wetlands, where the impermeable nature of the soil means that the shot is less likely to sink. Once a duck or goose has lead shot in its gizzard, death is inevitable.

Using lead shot over any land is already banned in Denmark, the Netherlands and the Flanders region of Belgium. France, Greece, Sweden, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta have bans in place in wetlands, as does, of course, the UK. Other countries have partial bans in place, either on specific wetlands or for use when wildfowling.

Legislation is one thing, but enforcing the ban is another, especially in those Mediterranean countries where the EU Birds Directive, the oldest piece of EU legislation on the environment, is regularly ignored. However, the European Chemicals Agency is working hard on a second restriction which proposes a complete ban on the use of lead for all shooting away from wetlands, and also for weights used in fishing sinkers and lures.