Turners game birds

Source: British Game Assurance

The game sector has been reluctant to switch to steel-based alternatives despite major retailers having imposed bans on birds shot with lead ammo

Supermarkets face a potentially critical shortage of pheasant and partridge this Christmas due to continued use of banned lead ammunition.

The sector has been reluctant to switch to steel-based alternatives, despite major retailers – such as leading game stockist Waitrose plus Sainsbury’s – having imposed bans on birds shot with lead ammo, according to Liam Stokes, the outgoing CEO of accreditation body British Game Assurance.

Other retailers plan to introduce similar bans over the next year or so due to mounting concerns over the environmental and health impacts of lead shot use, he said.

But despite most shooting organisations committing to shift to lead-free ammunition back in 2020, the sector had not fulfilled its pledges, Stokes added.

This was down to a combination of the sector’s natural resistance to change, bird flu, inflationary pressures and a market for birds with no shot restrictions in Europe, he suggested. And these factors subsequently led to a domino effect last summer, where processors and dealers backed out of commitments and “the impetus for change was sucked out of the industry overnight”.

As a result of this “massively short-sighted” decision from the sector’s major players, many supermarkets and other retailers faced shortages of game birds in the run-up to the crucial Christmas season last year, he said.

Supply outstripped demand and supermarkets were unable to restock once they had sold out of game – due to the scarcity of non-lead-shot birds, with Stokes citing a recent industry ‘Shot-Switch’ report that revealed 94% of all game sold last season was still lead-shot.

The situation has already led to a slump in sales of game birds in the mults, with the BGA pointing to Kantar data that showed retail Christmas game sales fell from a peak of £16m in 2020 to £13m in 2021, while early intelligence on the festive season in 2022 showed there were shortages on shelves well in advance of Christmas.

This helped drive a 10% drop in total sales during 2022, from £45m in 2021 to £40.5m. 

Unless a resolution was found, these shortages would accelerate further in 2023 and 2024, Stokes argued.

He said the sector’s problems stemmed from game birds essentially being a by-product of a sport, rather than part of a traditional food production system based on supply and demand.

“What’s missing is any kind of market,” he said, noting the amount of shoots and game dealers which did not see themselves as food producers, and therefore were less inclined to change due to the comparative low return for game meat compared to that of an actual shoot. 

These “completely deranged economics of shooting” meant a bird was worth up to £90 in the air but just “pennies” once it had been shot, Stokes added.

And the threat to the sector now was that without any resolution, the game category could be replaced by ‘farmed game’ such as duck, goose and guinea fowl “and things that look a bit like game but aren’t really”.

Such a loss of shelf space in the major supermarkets could reverse the sector’s gains in improving standards and increasing market share in recent years, Stokes warned.