New study shows pheasants still full of poisonous lead shot three years after start of ‘voluntary transition’ to non-toxic shot

Three years ago in February 2020, nine UK game-shooting organisations made a massive U-turn after years and years and years of defending the use of toxic lead ammunition, and said they wanted to drag the industry into the 21st Century by making a five-year voluntary transition away from lead ammunition (see here).

A lot of us were sceptical because (a) we rarely trust anything the industry tells us; (b) previous ‘voluntary bans’ by the industry on a number of issues have been spectacularly unsuccessful (e.g. see herehere and here); (c) the ongoing failure of the shooting industry to comply with current regulations on many issues, including the use of lead ammunition over wetlands (here), means there should be absolutely zero confidence in its ability and/or willingness to stick to any notional voluntary ban; (d) the Scottish Gamekeepers Association refused to sign up to the proposed five-year transition period because they believe there is insufficient evidence to support the claim that lead can have damaging impacts on humans, wildlife and the environment (here); and (e) in the very same year that nine shooting organisations committed to the five-year transition, BASC announced it was set to fight a proposed EU ban on the use of lead ammunition on wetlands (see here).

Fortunately for us, a new, independent project was established, led by experts at Cambridge University, to monitor the professed voluntary five-year transition from toxic lead to non-lead ammunition in the UK. Called SHOT-SWITCH, the project intends to test wild-shot pheasants offered for sale across Britain each year and determine if they have been killed using toxic lead or non-lead shotgun ammunition. Interestingly, the project is supported by funds from the RSPB and from Waitrose, who you’ll recall were the first supermarket to be heading towards a ban on selling game meat shot with lead ammunition (see here, but who seem to have been duped by the shooting industry last season – here).

To find out more about the SHOT-SWITCH project please visit the webpage here

Lead shot pellets removed from a pheasant carcass. Photo: Rhys Green

For the last two years, Shot Switch has published peer-reviewed scientific papers to demonstrate that 99.5% of the pheasants they tested contained toxic lead shot (see here and here).

This year, year three of the study, the scientists have published another peer-reviewed paper, and guess what? Well, you can read it for yourselves:

They’ve also issued a press release, which reads as follows:


Three years into a five-year pledge to completely phase out lead shot in UK game hunting, a Cambridge study finds that 94% of pheasants on sale for human consumption were killed using lead.

The pledge, made in 2020 by nine major UK game shooting and rural organisations, aims to protect the natural environment and ensure a safer supply of game meat for consumers. Lead is toxic even in very small concentrations, and discarded shot from hunting poisons and kills tens of thousands of the UK’s wild birds each year.

A Cambridge-led team of 17 volunteers bought whole pheasants from butchers, game dealers and supermarkets across the UK in 2022-23. They dissected the birds at home and recovered embedded shotgun pellets from 235 of the 356 pheasant carcasses.

The main metal present in each shotgun pellet was revealed through laboratory analysis – conducted at the Environmental Research Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands, UK. Lead was the main element in 94% of the recovered shot pellets; the remaining 6% were predominantly composed of steel or a metal called bismuth.

The results are published today in the Conservation Evidence Journal.

At the request of the Defra Secretary of State, the UK Health & Safety Executive assessed the risks to the environment and human health posed by lead in shots and bullets. Their report proposes that the use of lead ammunition be banned, and this is currently under review. While remaining committed to phasing out lead shot voluntarily, many shooting organisations do not support the proposed regulatory restrictions.

If UK game hunters are going to phase out lead shot voluntarily, they’re not doing very well so far,” said Professor Rhys Green in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, first author of the study.

He added: “The small decrease in the proportion of birds shot with lead in the latest UK shooting season is nowhere near on track to achieve a complete transition to non-toxic ammunition in the next two years.”

This is the third consecutive year the team has conducted the analysis. Their latest study shows a small improvement on the 2021/22 and 2021/20 shooting seasons, when over 99% of the pheasants studied were shot using lead ammunition.

In separate initiatives, some suppliers of game meat for human consumption – including Waitrose & Partners – have voluntarily announced their intention to stop selling game killed using lead shot. An assurance scheme has also been launched to encourage suppliers and retailers to facilitate the transition.

The team did not find any pheasant on sale in Waitrose in 2022/23 despite repeated visits to 15 different stores. Waitrose staff reported that the company had not been sufficiently assured by any supplier in 2022/23 that all pheasants had been killed using non-lead ammunition.

Waitrose is the only retailer we know of fully complying with the pledge not to supply pheasant killed using lead, but it’s only managing this by not selling any pheasant at all,” said Green.

Pheasant was marked as being ‘temporarily unavailable’ at Waitrose stores this winter. Photo: Ruth Tingay

Steel shotgun pellets are a practical alternative to lead, and the vast majority of shotguns can use them or other safe lead-free alternatives. Shooting magazines and UK shooting organisations have communicated positive messages for three years about the effectiveness and practicality of non-lead shotgun ammunition.

Shooting and rural organisations – including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust – have consistently provided information and detailed guidance to encourage the transition from lead to non-lead ammunition since 2020.

Denmark banned lead shotgun ammunition in 1996, and a successful transition was made to steel and bismuth. It’s safer for the environment and gives game shooting a better image,” said Green.

A previous study led by Green found that pheasants killed by lead shot contain many fragments of lead too small to detect by eye or touch, and too distant from the shot to be removed without throwing away a large proportion of otherwise useable meat. This means that eating pheasant killed using lead shot is likely to expose consumers to raised levels of lead in their diet, even if the meat is carefully prepared to remove whole shotgun pellets and the most damaged tissue.

Lead has been banned from use in paint and petrol for decades. It is toxic to humans when absorbed by the body and there is no known safe level of exposure. Lead accumulates in the body over time and can cause long-term harm, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease and kidney disease in adults. Lead is known to lower IQ in young children, and affect the neurological development of unborn babies.

Funding from the RSPB and Waitrose supported this work.


UPDATE 7th March 2023: Question tabled in House of Lords on gamebird-shooting industry’s failure to stop using toxic lead ammunition (here)

6 thoughts on “New study shows pheasants still full of poisonous lead shot three years after start of ‘voluntary transition’ to non-toxic shot”

  1. Given that wildfowlers are still using lead shot despite it being made illegal back at the turn of the century, nobody should be surprised.

  2. This also demonstrates a gross dereliction of duty by the Food Standards Agency (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and presumably Food Standards Scotland.

    Our MPs (devolved and otherwise) are badly letting us down…

    1. I quite agree. It seems incredible that some supermarkets and retailers are able to sell meat contaminated with lead shot, which is known to be highly toxic, when a restaurant owner was imprisoned for manslaughter following the death of a customer who suffered an allergic reaction after eating a takeaway which contained peanuts.

      I also understand that the financial penalties for breaching food information and food safety laws are also significant, and for a conviction under the Food Safety Act 1990 in the magistrates’ court, the level of fine is now unlimited.

      So one has to ask why it is still permissible to sell game contaminated with toxic lead shot?

      Is this an example of dual standards, and politicians don’t want to legislate against the sale of game killed by lead shot as this could potentially undermine shooting industry claims that game is killed to provide a valuable source of food, and isn’t just a recreational pastime for those who enjoy shooting wildlife?

      The other major point to come out of what is reported is that yet again despite the shooting industry umbrella organisations “consistently providing information and detailed guidance to encourage the transition from lead to non-lead ammunition”, this seems to be having little impact on the behaviour of many shooters.
      Something which again undermines the shooting industry’s claims about there being no requirement to regulate the industry as it can be managed through self regulation.

      1. “Is this an example of dual standards…”

        Bear in mind that BBC’s Radio 4 “Farming Today” programme claimed that ‘game’ was the ‘healthiest food on the planet’, and when I complained they even refused to accept my submission as a complaint.

  3. Given they use banned poisons with abandon in the countryside, the use of lead shot is just another blatant failure to consider human life. After all they delight in blood sports, so life means nothing to them.

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