Britain Steels Itself for Change

Britain Steels Itself for Change | Shooting Sportsman Mgazine
Beginning in July, shooters may have to start using non-lead cartridges on many British shoots. Photo by Terry Allen

Following an announcement by the UK’s National Game Dealers Association (NGDA) this past March, shooters may have to use non-lead cartridges on many British shoots starting in July 2022.

A resolution passed at the NGDA’s annual general meeting commits its members “to sourcing all feather and fur game as well as venison and wild boar from lead-free supply chains from the 1st of July 2022. This was agreed in order to future proof the sale of game meat in their customers’ businesses and to ensure continued consumer growth from those people seeking to enjoy our healthy, delicious game products.”

This move against lead ammunition follows a press release issued by the executive bodies of nine of the UK’s major shooting and countryside organizations on February 24, 2021, that stated: “In consideration of wildlife, the environment and to ensure a market for the healthiest game products, at home and abroad, we wish to see an end to both lead and single-use plastics in ammunition used by those taking all live quarry with shotguns within five years. The shooting community must maintain its place at the forefront of wildlife conservation and protection.”

That position was reinforced by the UK government a month later, when the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced: “The government is considering a ban of lead ammunition to protect wildlife and nature as part of new plans under UK REACH [UK Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation & restriction of Chemicals]. Evidence shows lead ammunition harms the environment, wildlife and people.”

The pace of the proposed transition away from lead ammunition has taken many by surprise. Like many countries, Britain banned the use of lead shot on waterfowl decades ago, and as recently as 2016 the DEFRA secretary of state, Liz Truss MP (Member of Parliament), rejected a report from the Lead Ammunition Group proposing a ban on lead shot, stating, “In both instances—human health and wildlife—the report did not show that the impacts of lead ammunition were significant enough to justify changing current policy; we therefore do not accept your recommendation to ban the use of lead ammunition.”

So what’s changed? The government’s hue certainly. The current Conservative government is anxious to stress its green credentials, the prime minister having announced an “industrial green revolution” in November 2020. But the real shift has been in the attitude of the British shooting organizations. For decades they robustly have defended their members’ right to use lead ammunition against attack by campaigners fundamentally opposed to game shooting. Now they are pushing hard for the transition to steel. Partly, this is in reaction to possible European legislation against lead, but they also are deeply worried by Britain’s massive surplus of dead game.

During the past 15 years the average bag size on many British driven-game shoots has grown steadily. In 2004 it was estimated that estates released 35 million pheasants and 6.3 million red-legged partridge for shooting. The latest data (2016) shows that number having risen to 47 million pheasants and 10 million redlegs—and current figures are probably higher. The average return on reared game—birds actually bagged—is 40 percent, which means that there now are some 23 million pheasants and redlegs that need to be eaten annually.

In the UK, persuading the general public to eat any game is difficult; but it’s much harder to sell a bird when its supermarket label warns “may contain lead” and the Food Standards Agency has advised: “Consuming lead is harmful; health experts advise to minimise lead consumption as much as possible.” That did not matter much when Britain could export most of its game to Europe; but the Continent is also moving away from lead ammunition, and lead’s use already is banned in Denmark, the Netherlands and parts of Germany.

British shoots, therefore, need to expand domestic game consumption, but that’s difficult when the public perceives lead as toxic; when a major supermarket, Waitrose, already has stated that it will take only game shot with non-lead shot; and when ready-meal makers and suppliers have made it plain that they far prefer game killed with steel shot, which can be detected and removed easily with magnets.

So British shooting organizations have bitten the bullet and pushed for change. And a great many of their members are very unhappy about it.

They argue that they have shot and eaten game with lead shot all their lives . . . that they don’t know—and cannot find evidence of—anyone in the UK who has suffered lead poisoning from eating game . . . that the real problem lies in too many people wanting to shoot large bags of game, which has produced this glut . . . and that people who shoot and eat their own game should be allowed to continue to do so.

And, indeed, that still might be possible. Lead shot has not been banned in Britain. The National Game Dealers Association does not have a monopoly on game collection, distribution and selling. British shoots could use others or market privately. And, tellingly, the UK’s Clay Pigeon Shooting Association did not join the other shooting bodies in the call for a phase-out of lead. Trap and skeet shooting are Olympic disciplines, and it’s difficult to envisage how competitors could train and compete in separate countries without using the same type of ammunition.

Nonetheless, the tide is turning against lead shot in the UK and forcing some awkward questions. Those lucky enough to own classic British-made guns are now wondering how they would cope with steel, and the answer is always, “Well, it depends . . . .”

Most agree with the following: that steel cannot be used through any barrel with more than Half (Modified) choke, as steel does not compress during its passage through the chokes; that the length of a steel-shot cartridge must tally exactly with the chamber length (e.g., a 2½" cartridge should not be used in a 3" chamber); that the gun must be in sound overall condition (and if there are any doubts, it should be checked by a qualified gunsmith); and, most importantly, that shooters must use the correct types of steel cartridges. To the latter, “standard steel” cartridges might be fine in a nitro-proofed game gun, but 12-bore “high performance” steel cartridges must be used in guns stamped with the fleur-de-lis mark.

Some are bullish about using steel through heritage guns. But others, understandably nervous, have decided that if push comes to shove, they’ll use bismuth—currently $1,630 for 1,000 rounds in the UK.

Whatever type of shot is chosen, shooters want it to kill their quarry instantly and humanely—and that’s where the real doubt lies. Britain is famous for its high-bird shoots, where pheasants are routinely taken cleanly at 45 to 50 yards up. Will steel manage that? “Oh, yes,” said a keen duck-shooting friend, “so long as you use 1¼-ounce Number 3s, preferably through a gas-operated semi-auto.”

Which is fine, except that I’m not sure that will match my impeccably cut Purdey shooting suit.

Jonathan Young was the editor of the British publications Shooting Times (1986 to 1991) and The Field (1991 to 2020) and now owns Young and Game Media.

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