Lead-shot ban: The impact on rifle shooting

The lead-shot debate will soon impact rifle ammo – Byron Pace suggests informed research to get ahead of the game.

Without question, the most hotly debated topic in the last couple of weeks has been the use of lead ammunition in the UK. It has aroused much social media debate, made the Inside Science podcast with Adam Rutherford on the BBC, split a community of shooters, and left an industry reeling from the implications of the proposed phasing out.

Please forgive the temporary side-track looking at lead shotgun cartridges – I need to set the scene before we pull the article back to have greater relevance for the title of this publication.

Now, I chose my words carefully here, because it is not a lead ban which has been put forward in a joint statement from the major organisations, it was a recommended, and encouraged phasing out within five years. I, along with the more progressive of the community, applauded the move – only wondering why it had taken so long.

I very quickly tweeted on the back of this that “for the first time, we are being pro-active,” and it’s true, as a community we spend the vast majority of our time reacting to new challenges placed on our doorstep, because we would rather hold the status quo than adapt and evolve, before we are pushed into a corner with no room to manoeuvre. It feels like the last two decades – the period of time I have really been engaged and aware – the hunting community has always been on the back foot.

Granted, there seems to have been some underlying issues with regard to the industry consultation of the announcement, but without question it is the environmentally responsible move. The science around the effects of lead in birds, be that waterfowl or indeed raptors, has become very clear.

One only has to speak to a falconer to understand the meticulous concern of lead in the food they feed their beloved birds and to realise that this is not smoke and mirrors. Even without an understanding of the biochemical issues with toxicity, the anecdotal evidence alone should make one sit up and consider the implications.

Maybe one of the issues with the current narrative round the UK shooting scene, is a severe lack of understanding that the implications for wildlife and the environment are of far greater concern than effects in the human food chain.

For me, this is by far the biggest consideration and benefit from the announcement to phase out lead. This would have been my focus instead of the trade of game meat. It has been astounding as to how poorly this is understood.

With regard to plastic cups, I have long found it a rather uncomfortable truth that most shooters didn’t care enough to even concern themselves with the issue. I have shot fibre as a result for as long as I can remember, having to grit my teeth on the foreshore, where until very recently there was no alternative when it came to using steel.

Maybe that makes me a hypocrite, but I would also try and make-up for it by picking plastic wads on the tide line on my way back from a morning out. In reality the impact of lead is exponentially more serious than the littering of plastic wads.

The biggest noises against the recommendations seem to be from grumpy old men, so stuck in their ways, they are blind to the necessity to be adaptable, forward thinking, progressive and responsible.

We cry so loud about being the conservationists and environmental stewards. If that is the case, then we act with the science at hand, not bury it until it is more convenient for commercial interests.

I care not for the background politics, and that makes me somewhat unpopular in some quarters. I position myself on a very precarious fence; trying my best to form opinions based on facts, prepared to change those opinions as new evidence is presented.

I do this with a deep-seated knowledge of the need to be culturally aware of community engagement around the world. That can be a lonely place to sit. So, why do I bring this up in a publication dedicated to rifle shooting. Well, first of all, I would guess many of you also partake in bird shooting of some sort.

But, it is reasonable to suggest, this debate will spill over into the world of rifle shooting, and indeed the discussion of non-lead rifle ammunition is not a new one. The Forestry Commission have been utilising non-lead rifle ammo for deer control over a number of years, as is also true on RSPB reserves.

However, it has been highlighted again, much more recently, in the Management for Wild Deer Report of the Deer Working Group. That document itself deserves an entire article, and I have already undertaken a couple of podcast interviews to pull together a more concise view as to the future of deer in Scotland, but in the meantime it’s worth noting in the context of this article, that the recommendations are to move away from lead.

When it comes to rifle shooting, I have a softer stance on it. I have long written about ballistics here in SR, and undertook considerable terminal ballistics testing some years ago, publishing 13 months’ worth of detailed data comparing projectile performance under various conditions, pulling the science available to help the understanding of what is a very difficult topic.

I was also lucky enough to test new non-lead alternatives from Norma in Namibia before they came to market across a variety of game and distances.

Here is the major difference in my eyes. My full-blown support for removing lead shot from shotgun cartridges, lies not in the potential effects on humans consuming these very small amounts of lead – which in reality is rarely swallowed. The evidence with regard to the long-term effect of people who eat game, even a high frequency, has mostly pointed to requiring more research.

My concern lies with how we are impacting the environment, eco-systems and wildlife around us. When we look at deer, most shots taken will be in the engine room; which, with a well-constructed cup and core projectile, will have around 30 per cent weight loss (very dependent on the make and design).

Shooters should use the science available to help shape the future

If the base and expanded shaft passes through, it will fall to the ground where it is very unlikely to be consumed by anything. It is not a small seed-sized pellet which can be ground up in the gizzards of birds, and nor is it embedded in an animal which may either die and be scavenged, or directly predated on having survived.

The remaining lost weight of copper and lead remains within the carcase, concentrated through the chest cavity (i.e. heart and lungs). On the hill this is rarely removed, being disposed of at the larder, and any ‘shot meat’ won’t make the food chain.

The issue which has arisen in other countries, is full gralloch piles, which have been scavenged causing secondary lead toxicity build up. This is legitimate, and is something we can mitigate with a simple line in our best practice guidance. If the heart and lungs are to be removed from the field, they must disposed of in an appropriate manner where scavengers cannot access them.

Some non-lead alternatives work extremely well. Some are utterly terrible. I am yet to see any which work in smaller calibres, and irrespective of calibre, the capabilities should be fully understood. There is a reason that most non-lead ammo is available in lighter weights with faster loads. That is the formula to make them work.

To paraphrase Patrick Laurie, when we look at the death certificate of the shooting community, it will simply say suicide. We must be ahead of the game – in all senses.

We have to make changes to how we hunt, using the science we have at hand. We must act with a steadfast vision and make our changes for the benefit of the wildlife we proclaim to have as our primary concern. 

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