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Lead poisoning: the long goodbye

By Gui-Xi Young

1 million birds are fatally poisoned in Europe each year by ingesting lead shot from expended cartridges. The EU’s European Chemicals Agency is currently considering an EU-wide ban on the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands. It is running an online public consultation on the issue until 21st December. Join BirdLife Europe and TAKE ACTION!

TAKE ACTION NOW at www.birdlife.org/banlead

First it attacks their digestive system, and then they slowly and painfully starve to death – this is what happens when birds ingest lead…this is the ‘long goodbye’. But the only thing we should say goodbye to is lead.

Many wild bird species rely on small stones known as ‘grit’ to aid digestion; they ingest the grit into their gizzard so they can grind their food more easily. And while evolution knew what it was doing when it adapted a bird’s anatomy to its environment, it was ill-prepared for what happens when a toxic substance enters the scene in a form easily mistakable for grit by birds – lead pellets from shotgun ammunition.

Lead shot © Shutterstock
Lead shot © Shutterstock

Lead shotgun pellets are often the same size as grit; and in many wetland habitats, where hunting has been prevalent for years, they can be found in abundance, embedded into the sediment fatally beckoning its victims. It is estimated that between 1,400-7,800 tons of lead is released into EU wetlands (including peatlands) each year due to hunting activities.[1]

 

Nothing says goodbye like lead…

There are very severe knock-on effects for countless iconic wetland species – from the graceful Tundra swan Cygnus columbianus (already Endangered in Europe) to the much beloved Greater flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus. Ducks are the worst affected, with tragic consequences for species such as Northern pintail Anas acuta, Goldeneye Bucephala Clangula and Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula. Paying the highest price is the Common pochard Aythya fuligula – this diving duck whose bright red head caught the attention of Aristotle himself has been found to have the highest prevalence of ingested lead gunshot. But this is not a price it can afford to pay – its rapid decline across its large global range has seen it Red listed by the IUCN as globally Vulnerable.

Tundra Swan © Shutterstock
Tundra Swan © Shutterstock

TAKE ACTION NOW at www.birdlife.org/banlead

 

One million birds…and more

One million birds are poisoned after ingesting lead shot in Europe each year – this was the grim finding of a scientific study on ‘Lead Poisoning in Wild Birds in Europe and the Regulations Adopted by Different Countries’[2]. The author, Spanish ecotoxicologist Rafael Mateo, assessed the impact of lead shot ingestion on 17 species of European waterfowl based on data collated from across the continent over five decades.

 

© BirdLife Europe & Central Asia
© BirdLife Europe & Central Asia

 

TAKE ACTION NOW at www.birdlife.org/banlead

Worse still, this shocking figure does not include predators and scavengers (such as owls and eagles) that are killed as a result of secondary poisoning. When these species eat wounded or dead animals carrying lead shot, they are susceptible to its toxic effects. Even if the lead levels are not enough to kill the predator outright, it is often enough to weaken and disorient it, leaving it more vulnerable in the wild. Raptors that commonly prey upon waterfowl are particularly at risk: Marsh harriers Circus aeruginosus, White-tailed eagles Haliaeetus albicilla and peregrine falcons Falco peregrinus.

White-tailed eagle © M. Brown
White-tailed eagle © M. Brown

 

Lead – a thing of the past?

Everyone knows lead is poisonous to all living things. Historically it was prevalent in our daily lives, used in water pipes, car fuel, pencils, paint and children’s toys. Then it became widely known that lead poisoning – be it through ingestion, inhalation or skin exposure – had grave consequences for people, ranging from brain and kidney damage, and potential miscarriage to impeded neural development in children. It’s a scandal that endangered birds are threatened by lead when we’ve had the good sense to ban it from our own everyday lives.

Lead shot has been banned in Denmark since 1996, so we already have over two decades of evidence to prove that such measures are effective. In more recent years, other countries such as the Netherlands have followed. It now lies on the shoulders of the EU to take us forward and make lead shot a thing of the past.

 

Have your say – Tell the EU to #BanLead

The EU’s European Chemical’s Agency is currently considering a ban on the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands. It is running an online public consultation on the issue until 21st December. BirdLife Europe has been leading the call to ban lead shot for many years. It now calls on all nature lovers to seize this moment to save one million birds by filling in the public consultation and tweeting your support for our #BanLead Campaign.

TAKE ACTION and find out more at our campaign webpage: www.birdlife.org/banlead


[1] European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) ‘Information Note’ for the Public Consultation

[2] Mateo, Rafael & de Toledo, Ronda. (2009). Lead Poisoning in Wild Birds in Europe and the Regulations Adopted by Different Countries. Ingestion of Lead from Spent Ammunition: Implications for Wildlife and Humans.

 


Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe.

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