Wetland birds win battle against lead-based hunting

Bewick’s Swan (Cygnus bewickii) ©Yves Adams, Vilda

By Wim van den Bossche, Senior Flyway Conservation Officer for Europe & Central Asia

In Europe, every year, 20,000 tons of lead hunting ammunition is shot into our natural environment, and more than one million waterbirds die from ingesting it. Lead shot is toxic for plants, soil, water; and even for the animals and humans who eat contaminated birds. Lead shot is toxic for life.

On the 3rd of September, a critical milestone was reached to put an end to this horror: a European Commission committee, made up of representatives from all EU Member States, put forward a proposal to completely ban lead shot in wetlands. No less than eighteen countries, representing 90% of the EU’s population, voted in favour of the proposal. That’s amazing news for Europe’s swans, flamingos and spoonbills; however, they have only won one battle: following the EU’s legislative procedure, this proposal now needs to be approved by the European Parliament and Council.

Still: this vote is a fantastic, life-saving decision, and follows years of constant struggle. Today, wetland-dwelling birds, such as the lesser white-fronted goose – a globally threatened species with a decreasing population trend – have reason to celebrate! A nice moss and seed dinner for the occasion, perhaps?

It’s important to note that banning lead shot in wetlands doesn’t mean banning hunting: safer alternatives to lead shot are readily available to hunters. The point of the lead shot ban is to create a safer, healthier and more sustainable environment for everyone, hunters included. To learn more, have a look at Dead by lead, a short documentary we produced on the issue. https://www.youtube.com/embed/YIIwjE_usQ8 

You may ask: why focus on banning lead shot in wetlands, specifically?

Because water birds are the most vulnerable. They often mistake the small lead shot pellets for grit: small stones they ingest to grind their food. As wetlands are stone-poor environments, waterbirds are more affected by this phenomenon than those in other habitats. Nonetheless, lead isn’t just toxic for wetlands. It’s still poisoning other natural habitats. But there’s hope: as I write these lines, the European Chemicals Agency is assessing a potential ban of lead in terrestrial habitats other than wetlands, as well as in fishing weights. We look forward to reading their conclusions later this year.

BirdLife and its partners been campaigning to ban lead shot for years. It is only thanks to the broad support of conservation NGOs, policymakers, the European Commission, scientists and many other people that we were able to achieve this great milestone.

Annex XV Restriction Report of ECHA European Chemical agency, 2017Report of Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) and Committee for Socio-economic Analysis (SEAC), ECHA European Chemical agency, 2018Open Letters From The European Scientists On The Risks Of Lead Ammunition, 2020

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