EU Bans Lead Shot in Wetlands

This updated article was first published on the AEWA website on 15 June 2021 and is being reposted on the occasion of the entry into force of EU Commission Regulation 2021/57 on 15th February 2023 which affects all EU and EEA states and bans the use of lead shot in or within 100 metres of wetlands as defined by the Ramsar Convention.

The 15 February 2023 represents the transpiring of the 24 month transition period from the original 25th January 2021 which has allowed shooting stakeholders to adapt their practices for example by changing to non-toxic steel shot. It also further mandates all AEWA Parties of the EU and EEA to fulfil their obligations under the Agreement and brings harmonisation of restrictions across the regions to protect waterbirds from lead poisoning in wetlands. 

Bonn, 15 February 2023 - Little over thirty years ago, on 13 June 1991, a major international meeting convened to address how to eliminate the poisoning of waterbirds with toxic lead gunshot.  Shot is deposited on the ground whenever it is used and subsequently kills when it is consumed by waterbirds. 

The conference was organised by the International Waterbirds and Wetlands Research Bureau (now Wetlands International) and its aim was to review the extent of the problems of lead poisoning throughout the world and identify possible solutions.  It “concluded that the only effective solution to this problem, other than the cessation of hunting, was the replacement of lead shot with non-toxic alternatives.”  The outcome was “the unanimous commitment of all groups represented [governments, the non-government hunting and conservation organisations], to overcome what was perceived as a serious problem for waterfowl.”i

That outcome– to phase out the use of lead gunshot to prevent waterfowl poisoning – has stimulated much conservation both internationally and nationally in the three decades since.

In fact, the issue was already so much on the radar that the founders of the African Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA) included the phasing out of lead shot in wetlands as one of the legally binding obligations for AEWA Parties in the AEWA Agreement text from the outset.

In 1995, AEWA adopted as one of its goals that its signatories “shall endeavour to phase out the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands by the year 2000.”

Since then, the topic has also influenced a number of other international conservation treaties as well.

In 2014, the Convention on Migratory Species resolved to “Phase-out the use of lead ammunition across all habitats (wetland and terrestrial) with non-toxic alternatives within the next three years …” a decision endorsed more widely by the government and non-government members of IUCN in 2016 at the World Conservation Congress.  In 2017, the Environment Assembly of the United Nations Environment Programme – the world’s most senior decision-making body on environmental issues, also recognised the risk of lead ammunition and the need for solutions.




Some countries have made a successful transition to non-toxic hunting.   For example, in the Netherlands the use of lead gunshot was prohibited in 1993, and similarly in Denmark in 1996.  Such complete phase outs have been effective.  Of those countries’ signatory to AEWA, in 2021, 34% of those Contracting Parties which submitted a national report, reported they had fully phased out lead shot from use in wetlands, with another 15% of those reporting having partially achieved this.ii

In early 2021, the European Parliament adopted recommendations from the EU Chemicals Agency to prohibit the use and carrying of lead gunshot in wetlands – a ban that enters into force on 15 February 2023.  

The AEWA Secretariat has been actively contributing to and following the process which led to the decision by European Union Member States under REACH, the EU’s framework regulation for chemicals in the past years. The historic decision by the EU is in line with the provisions of AEWA and marks one of the greatest conservation achievements in the 25-year history of the Agreement.

A second process under REACH is underway which proposes to phase out lead shot in terrestrial areas (where many waterbirds feed), other lead ammunition types as well as lead fishing weights. The latter will ensure protection of waterbirds including swans and divers which are particularly susceptible to ingestion of poisonous lead fishing weights.

The routes by which toxic lead shot poisons wildlife and exposes humans in their food. The complete transition to non-toxic shot was recommended over 32 years ago. © WWT


But lead ammunition is a continued risk

Our understanding of the extent of the problem and risks have grown over these last 32 years since 1991:

  • Whilst the historical focus was on the threat arising from lead gunshot deposition in wetlands, it is now known that birds inadvertently consume, and are poisoned by, shot deposited away from wetlands;
  • Birds of prey and scavengers have been found secondarily poisoned following their consumption of poisoned waterbirds with population-level impacts for some threatened species;
  • There is now better understanding of the fate of the thousands of tonnes of lead released annually to the soil, with awareness of its uptake into plants and domestic animals, and leaching into surface waters; and
  • There is now clearer understanding of the human health impacts from the regular consumption of animals shot with lead ammunition – a particular concern for the health of children and pregnant women due to the neurotoxic effects of lead.



The solution pioneered in Europe by Denmark and the Netherlands is simple and has been shown to be successful: a ban of all uses of toxic lead gunshot all along the flyways. 

“As a government representative to this meeting, I was really glad to see all groups agreed to overcome this serious problem for waterbird conservation and human health. It was an important step in a long story and the AEWA treaty adopted in 1995 made it clear that lead shot should be banned from wetlands as a first priority for conservation. Many Parties to AEWA have already banned the use of lead-shot ammunition on wetlands. Let us collectively achieve this objective and implement it all along the African-Eurasian flyway” says Jacques Trouvilliez, Executive Secretary of AEWA.

For further information, please see the AEWA thematic page on lead, the Lead Ammunition Hub or contact Sergey Dereliev, Head of the Science Implementation and Compliance Unit at the AEWA Secretariat.  


Notes for Editors:

  1. How lead gunshot poisons birds:  As waterbirds such as ducks do not have teeth to grind down their plant food, they eat grit which stays in their stomachs acting as a sort of ‘sand-paper’. When spent lead gunshot is ingested it is ground down and poisons the bird.  Other scavenging or predatory birds such as eagles, can eat waterbirds that have lead gunshot in their tissues – the result of their being hit but not killed by lead shot.  This also kills these birds – many of which already have small populations.
  2. Why this wetland restriction? To date restrictions on lead shot in wetlands have been disparate and sometimes lacking. This restriction seeks to harmonise controls of lead shot in wetlands across the EU and represents the first of two restrictions being undertaken at the behest of the European Commission under the chemicals framework REACH.
  3. Why a wider restriction on lead ammunition and fishing weights? The wider restriction on all lead ammunition and fishing weights being worked on currently by the European Chemicals Agency, seeks to permanently ban release of these toxic products into the environment and food chains. The transition to non-toxic versions of these products will reduce heavy metal pollution and protect the health of people, wildlife and livestock. Normalising the use of non-toxic ammunition and fishing weights in the EU should have knock on benefits across the AEWA region.
  4. The objective of the IWRB Conference:  The 1991 workshop brought together more than 100 participants from 21 countries, representing experts in the field of lead poisoning, government agencies, conservation and hunting organisations, and arms and ammunition manufacturers. For more information please see: Proceedings of an IWRB Workshop: Lead Poisoning in Waterfowl (Brussels, Belgium, 13-15 June 1991).
  5. IWRB: The International Waterbird and Wetlands Research Bureau was founded in 1954 as an independent non-governmental organisation promoting the conservation and sustainable use of waterbirds and wetlands.  It played an instrumental role in the creation of the Ramsar Convention on wetlands and in 1996 it became part of the newly established Wetlands International

i Pain, D.J. (ed.)  1992.  Lead poisoning in waterfowl.  Proceedings of an IWRB Workshop, Brussels, Belgium, 13-15 June 1991.  IWRB Special Publication No. 16.  105 pp.

ii UNEP-WCMC, 2021. Analysis of the AEWA National Reports for the triennium 2018 -2020. UNEP-WCMC, Cambridge.


Last updated on 15 February 2023

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