Coronavirus: Stuart Farr on the industry’s biggest issues

Stuart Farr takes on not one, but two of the hottest topics in shooting – Coronavirus and lead shot.

We work hard to contain the spread of coronavirus but are less proactive when it comes to toxic lead shot 

I’m not a religious person by any means but the global events over the last few months do seem to hark back to the old testament tales of the ten plagues; droughts and fires in Australia; plagues of locusts in Africa; flooding in the UK and pestilence spreading from the Far East. Whatever next? 

If there isn’t a greater force at play here then one would certainly be forgiven (I hope) for suggesting that these disasters are of biblical proportions not least because of the human tragedy left behind in their wake.

The Coronavirus is particularly peculiar, it seems to me, because of the manner in which it seeks to break down our social interactions and conventions. Self-isolation; bans on larger communal gatherings; and panic buying (which, at the present time, seems to be focussed mainly on hand soaps and gels, toilet rolls and, oddly, pasta).

Not to mention, of course, the “No Handshaking” policies which are proliferating across our business communities in particular – although ironically I have found no-one seems to have any qualm about not shaking hands with a lawyer!

Life will go on in the best way that it can. EU trade talks will continue (with more fist pumping and elbow touching than usual I suspect) and discussions in the shooting industry over the decision to transition from lead to steel based shotgun ammunition for game will no doubt persist for many months to come.

The shooting industry is a broad church as we know. It not only includes the gun trade (manufacturers, retailers and the like) but also a multitude of suppliers and traders who work within and around its periphery (landowners, game butchers, animal feed manufacturers to name but a few). Whether directly or indirectly, many livelihoods depend on shooting and therefore it is crucial for it to remain sustainable.

Sustainability is claimed to be at the heart of the new proposals and those who rear, handle and supply game into our food chain have advanced the argument that, in order for it to be considered truly “healthy”, the eradication of lead is a necessity. 

No-one disputes the fact that lead is a toxic substance. It harms other wildlife and, importantly, it shouldn’t be present in our food. Consumers looking for a healthy option don’t want it there and if, as has been suggested, we ignore that fact then the signs are that no-one will buy it. When it all boils down what we are left with is an issue of pure economics, not just about the ethical approach.

The argument isn’t a new one by any means. The fishing industry, in the past, has seen similar arguments over so-called contamination of produce with heavy metals and the damage caused by it.

It’s a global concern. Contamination of shell fish with mercury made a lot of people in the Far East very poorly and it nearly even killed a friend of mine who had a severe reaction to it when he made a business trip abroad several years back.

Other industries have removed lead from their manufacturing processes so if we are to attest to a strict food regulation regime in the UK, it begs the question why shooting and game productions should command an exception. 

Public opinion seems to be against a threatened influx of chlorinated chicken from the USA and it is the very same public which now demands such high food standards in the UK. So, maybe it’s a case of whether if you can’t beat them, do you have any realistic choice but to join them.

All it would take to drive the game business into a downward spiral would be to specifically legislate in the context of food regulation. It wouldn’t require a targeted ban on lead shot in ammunition to have the same effect.

Thankfully, advancements in manufacturing make this less of an issue than it would have been even, say, 10 years ago but the question in my mind is whether pressure will now be exerted on those non-live quarry shooting activities to transition from lead to something different. The answer to that, it seems to me, once again lies in practicality and economics. 

From an economic point of view, I doubt much difference will occur if, for example, airgunners make the change to lead-free. This issue for them as I see it is largely practical. Unlike other forms of shooting, the “power” comes from the gun itself and not the ammunition.

In the UK, the gun laws restrict that power unless the air gun is modified and goes FAC. For manufacturers, these in-built legal restrictions require careful thought in design. 

It’s a fine balancing act between gun power and pellet to achieve best performance in the field and if one alters one factor it can throw things out of kilter.

There are lead-free pellets available but presently they are generally more costly to produce. The main practical issue for an alternative material for pellets is weight. Lead is heavy. Non-lead materials are not so heavy and this potentially causes problems if shooting at a distance. I have confidence this issue will be overcome but at what cost for the manufacturers? 

Of course, it is noteworthy that the financial consequences of these changes do not rest with the actual decision makers.

So what about clay shooting? Presently the transition to lead-free doesn’t affect participants in that sport and the nine organisations which signed up to the transition programme have indicated that, in the absence of a suitable alternative and provided the shooting activities remain within a contained range, then lead use should continue.

For now? Indefinitely? That’s not clear; one can see the same arguments regarding land contamination might be applied. 

Despite its toxicity, lead is a useful material and not just in shooting. However, unlike many other metals it has one major disadvantage – it’s not magnetic therefore rendering collection and recycling tonnes of tiny shot very difficult indeed (I hesitate to say impossible however!). 

As a raw material can we afford to continue throwing it away like this? My prediction is that over the next decade the price of lead is going to rise disproportionately higher than it has done in the past. Industries involved in battery production and electricity storage will fuel that increased demand and, ultimately, the cost.

So maybe better to start the research into a suitable replacement now alongside the game-based ammunition? The ranges might welcome a practical solution which enables them to collect spent shot (“catch it”); store and recycle (“bin it”) and sell it at a welcome profit (“nailed it!”).

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