Shooting birds using lead shot will be banned in all wetlands in the European Union from this week.
The law will apply to all 27 EU countries, as well as Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. An estimated one million waterbirds die of lead poisoning in the EU every year.
Under the ban adopted by the European Commission from 16 February, shooters will have to use non-toxic ammunition such as steel, bismuth or other non-toxic metals in or within 100 metres of wetlands.
The move has been welcomed by campaigners. “This is huge,” said Barbara Herrero, senior EU nature policy officer at BirdLife Europe. “Despite banning lead from paint, pencils and virtually everything else several decades ago, it was still allowed to poison our shared environment – even when alternatives exist.
“With this ban, the EU has addressed a significant part of the problem. We now call on EU countries to make sure the ban is enforced.”
In the EU, 44,000 tonnes of lead ends up in the environment every year; 57% from sports shooting, 32% from hunting, and 11% from fishing.
Waterbirds are believed to eat the shot, mistaking it for food or grit, which they need to help digest food. Scavengers and predatory birds are poisoned by eating lead shot in their prey. Birds that have ingested lead are often weakened due to the release of dangerous toxins and are more likely to be targeted by predators, which in turn spreads the contamination through the ecosystem.
“It’s such a huge milestone,” said Dr Julia Newth, from the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT). “Lead shot has been contaminating wetlands for more than a century; finally, this law is coming into force. It’s something to be celebrated, but there is more work to be done, with wider restrictions currently being considered in the European Union.”
The UK, where up to 100,000 waterbirds die of lead poisoning each year, is considering introducing wider restrictions on lead ammunition across all habitats, with a decision pushed back to next year.
Newth supports a complete ban on lead ammunition in all British habitats. “Many species of waterbirds, such as Bewick’s swans, feed outside wetlands in areas where it is currently legal to shoot with lead and become poisoned,” she said. “We know current restrictions aren’t working.”
In England and Wales, using lead shot to kill wildfowl on foreshores and listed wetlands is banned, but researchers say there is poor compliance. Lead shot is already banned in wetlands in Northern Ireland and Scotland, but according to the WWT, the number of birds eating it has not gone down. This could be because shooters are continuing to use it or because the birds have been eating lead shot in fields where it can still be used.
Game killed with lead shot is also a risk to people, potentially harming the developing brain and nervous system, with children and pregnant women most vulnerable. Waitrose – Britain’s largest retailer of game – has banned the sale of game shot with lead due to these health concerns.
Using lead shot over any land is already banned in Denmark, the Netherlands and the Flanders region of Belgium, with steel a popular alternative. France, Greece, Sweden, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta have bans in place in wetlands. Other countries have partial bans in place, either on specific wetlands or for use on waterfowl. Poland, Romania and Ireland have no restrictions at all.
“This EU-wide restriction harmonises the national legislation already in place in various forms,” says the EU’s European Chemicals Agency, which is pushing for more extensive bans across the union, including bullets used in hunting and outdoor sports shooting, as well as lead used as weights and in lures for angling.
Wetlands, which make up 11% of the EU, include many wildlife-rich habitats including estuaries, deltas, rivers, floodplains, lakes, freshwater marshes, peatlands and artificial wetlands. Enforcement officers, which could be national police or protected area rangers, will be monitoring whether people are using lead shot.