By Barry Kent-McKay, Director
BBC news recently reported that, as the headline put it, “most pheasants sold for food ‘contain lead shot’” (https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-56158777). In the UK, it is legal to sell Ring-necked Pheasants shot by hunters. This is the same species of pheasant found throughout much of temperate North America, where it is widely hunted. But so far as I know, it is illegal in any part of Canada for a licensed hunter to sell the meat of his victims. The birds are non-migratory and are managed at the provincial level.
Ring-necked pheasants were “introduced” to the UK around the 11th century and to North America late in the 19th century, with many re-introductions to both regions and other parts of the world since then. In Canada, the birds are captive-bred and sold in stores.
The wild Ring-necked Pheasant is mostly a central Asian species that occurred naturally as far west as eastern Europe and Asia Minor, before people started moving them into other parts of Europe and the world.
With COVID 19 workplace restrictions in place, some British scientists turned home kitchens into labs where they dissected the meat of store-bought, wild-shot birds. They found that of 180 shot birds purchased, from which the pellets were extracted for analysis, all but one had been shot with lead.
This illustrates the absurdity of hunters’ claims that hunting is a humane method of meat procurement and that hunters are conservationists.
Hunting is cruel and toxic
Shotguns fire out small, round pellets that form a “pattern” striking the fleeing bird, rabbit or other animal. Pellets range from small, which form a denser pattern with less penetrating power to each pellet, to large, meaning fewer pellets that are heavier and more penetrating.
Pellet size is inverse to the assigned shot number. Number nine shotgun pellets are quite small, and might bring down a woodcock, snipe, small dove or squirrel, but would only wound, possibly not even penetrate the skin, of a duck, goose or hare, for which number four shot is more deadly. Shot sizes four to six would normally be used for pheasants, and it is assumed that a bird struck by six or more pellets is likely to drop dead or be mortally wounded. The farther away the target, the wider the pattern, thus easier to hit, but with less penetrating power and fewer pellets per square unit of measurement. Result: a greater wounding rate and a less likely clean kill. (http://articles.lovecanadageese.com/myths.html).
While its weight and malleability have made lead the favourite material for pellet shot, it is one of the most toxic substances in existence (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4961898/). Therefore, last year the UK introduced a five-year transition to non-toxic shotgun ammunition. Lead shot there, as in North America, had already been banned for use in shooting birds over water. A main reason for this was that ducks, geese, swans, and other birds swallow grit – small stones – and sand to aid their gizzards in grinding down and digesting seeds. In doing so they were also ingesting lead pellets and dying horribly from the toxicity. They still are, two decades later (https://abcbirds.org/article/trumpeter-swans-dying-from-lead-poisoning-in-northwest-u-s-and-canada/).
Although being phased out in the UK over a five year period, lead shot is still legal for “upland” game in Canada.
In the UK, British hunters could have voluntarily switched to the non-toxic alternative. The value in doing so is not just to human consumers, who should know enough to remove pellets (if found) from their roast pheasant, but to the natural predators and scavengers who lack that option and die from secondary poisoning, given that not all shot birds are retrieved. Even traces of lead in prey or carrion can be deadly (https://abcbirds.org/article/new-study-over-two-thirds-of-fatalities-of-endangered-california-condors-caused-by-lead-poisoning/).
Had hunters chosen the non-lead shot they would have eliminated a major cause in the poisoning of natural predators and scavengers. But, of course, they did not, choosing the more cruel, more wasteful, use of lead. Hardly an example of the conscientious stewardship hunters so often claim to exercise.