To the Environment Agency


Although your reporting of this study is reasonably balanced and is to be welcomed, as is the study itself, I feel I must call into question the finger pointing at anglers for the lead poisoning issue.

There was no definable proof that anglers lead shot was responsible for the swan poisonings and angling took it upon itself to ban the use of all lead that was of a size to be attractive(?) to swans.

I cannot believe that almost 20 years later we are still being blamed for something that I still feel we are not solely responsible for.

As this poisoning is mostly on navigable waterways, has lead through petrol or paint been investigated? What about lead from shotgun cartridges?

I feel these issues should be investigated before taking the easy option of beating angling with the same old stick.

Your views or those of your colleagues would be appreciated.

Rik Belenger

Reply from the Environment Agency

Dear Rik,

Many thanks for your enquiry.

I agree that there was no definite proof that anglers’ shot was responsible for the lead poisoning issue, but there is strong circumstantial evidence. The report points out that lead poisoning in swans now accounts for just 3.6% of rescued birds – whereas in the ’80s more than 50% of swans were suffering from acute lead poisoning at some sites. Also, swan numbers have doubled in the same period.

Anglers are not still being blamed. Indeed the reduction in lead poisoning is very good news and anglers should be given credit for this. However, part of the study involved the analysis of tackle actually removed from rescued swans. Dr Bruno Broughton, a highly respected angling/fisheries consultant examined 847 sets/part sets of tackle retrieved from swans. Among other things he found that 34 sets of tackle included illegal lead weights – 96 illegal weights in total. These were confirmed as being lead by independent analysis. Sadly, this shows that some anglers are still using illegal lead. I have to say that I found this both surprising and puzzling, since our bailiffs rarely find illegal lead in use by anglers.

From Bruno’s analysis it was clear that novices/beginners were responsiblefor much of the retrieved tackle, and the most likely explanation is that these novices are perhaps using old tackle handed down from fathers etc.

The report mentions that lead poisoning is still a problem in some localised areas. The reason for this is not clear, and the report does not attribute it to use of illegal lead by anglers. In order to understand the cause of these lead hotspots blood lead analysis of numerous swans from many locations are being carried out. This is only covered briefly in the report since the work is now ongoing. There is also emerging evidence that shows that many swans have “elevated lead levels” – not to the point of acute poisoning, but higher than would be expected in the wild.

The possibility of lead originating from boat fuel or paint has been considered – and ruled out. If lead from these sources was the cause, then the problems would be much more widespread than just in swans. Most boat fuel is now unleaded and in any event the amount present in leaded fuel or paint is both very small and not in a form that is easily available to swans.

Lead from shotguns is a possibility and has been considered. I believe that the use of lead gunshot is now prohibited over water. We have not attributed the continued lead problem to anglers, nor have other sources of lead been ruled out. We are continuing to work with the swan rescue groups, veterinary experts, angling bodies and others to establish the extent of the problem and the source/cause. This will include close examination of any lead found in dead swans – including whether it is angling lead or gunshot. We will release information on this study as soon as it is available.

For information I have attached a Technical Summary of the report.

Yours sincerely

Adrian Taylor, Project Manager



1. This report presents findings from a study to establish the extent andcauses of the problem of tackle-related injuries to mute swans. The analyses are based on data collected during 1996 – 2000 by a number of swan rescue groups. Most data were collated by Peter Martin and Ellen Kershaw on behalf of the National Convention for the Welfare of Swans and Wildlife, while the RSPCA supplied other data from their extensive records. This project also examined fishing tackle retrieved from rescued birds and draws some conclusions about the causes of fishing tackle related incidents and the extent to which illegal lead continues to be used.

2. Other sources of information have been used to determine changes in themute swan population and the incidence of lead poisoning.

3. There are significant uncertainties and assumptions in interpreting theavailable data. Nevertheless, the following broad conclusions are based on large samples and can be made with confidence:

  • the mute swan population nationally has increased significantly since 1987;
  • at 29.7% of all reported incidents, fishing tackle related injuries are the biggest single cause of swan rescues;
  • the biggest proportion of angling related rescues occur between July and September, coincident with the school holidays and a surge in swan numbers due to the appearance of young, inexperienced cygnets;
  • the survival rate of rescued swans is very high, underlining the effectiveness of swan rescue groups;
  • nationally, it is estimated that there are about 3,000 tackle related swan rescues per year, including those carried out by the RSPCA. The annual cost to the voluntary swan rescue groups (an estimated 1148 of the rescues), excluding labour is estimated to be £ 94,940. This figure rises to an estimated £ 202,863 excluding labour if data for RSPCA rescues is taken into account.
  • experimental voluntary segregation of anglers and swan-feeding areas at problem sites has been shown to be effective in reducing tackle related injuries.
  • analysis of tackle removed from swans suggests that the majority of the problems occur with tackle used by anglers of average or low expertise

4. Lead poisoning accounted for 3.6% of swan rescues over the period 1996-1999. In the national context lead poisoning in mute swans has declined since the restriction on lead weights was introduced in 1987. However, the data provide evidence of continued lead poisoning in some localised areas and further investigations to establish the source of the lead are needed.

5. Analysis of fishing tackle retrieved from 847 rescued birds revealed 34 sets (4%) of tackle that included a total of 97 illegal lead weights. This represents 13.7% of the fishing weights retrieved. (This should not be interpreted as being representative of all fishing tackle in use, since the sample is heavily biased towards inexperienced anglers and problem sites).

6. As a result of this project, a standard recording form has been developed and continues to be improved for more consistent recording of swan rescues. In addition, a computerised database of swan rescue incidents has now been established.

Project Manager: Adrian Taylor

Research Contractor: Professor Chris Perrins, Edward Grey Institute ofField Ornithology, Oxford University. Dr Bruno Broughton, Fisheries Consultant.

Copies of these documents are available from the Regional Libraries or the National Information Centre in Bristol, and externally from the Environment Agency’s R&D Dissemination Centre, c/o WRc, Frankland Road, Blagrove, Swindon, Wiltshire SN5 8YF, Tel: 01793 865138, Fax: 01793 514562 Website URL:

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