Used cartridges
Used cartridges

A soluble solution?

BASC’s head of wildfowling, James Green, tests the performance of the latest ‘eco-wad’ cartridges in the field.

Since the ban on using lead shot except in certain circumstances, the only feasible alternative for many wildfowlers in the UK has been steel shot cartridges with plastic wads – the latter necessary to protect barrel walls from wear caused by the former.

Modern steel cartridges have proven to be more than capable of humanely dispatching our quarry in an effective and consistent manner. But spreading small pieces of plastic on flightponds and the foreshore does not sit well with a community that takes great pride in its custodianship of our natural environment.

A new era of cartridges

Recently, biowad or ecowad cartridges have arrived on the market and have been hailed as the answer to the problem. Their gel-type shot cups are designed to break down harmlessly in the environment within a few weeks. Intrigued by their claims, a few of us at BASC were eager to learn more about their performance and arranged some pattern plate testing.

Putting the product to the test

We tried the 32g Eley VIP Steel Pro Eco Wad loads in both no. 3 and no. 5 shot and Gamebore’s 32g no. 4 Silver Steel cartridges.

Eco shells with shotgun

For reference, we also patterned a popular plastic wad load from Lyalvale Express – their ‘Hunting Steel’ in 32g no. 4.

I think we were all pleasantly surprised by the uniformity and consistency of the patterns from each of the cartridges; additionally, there was very little perceived difference in recoil. Confident in how they patterned through my gun, I was eager to try the Eley Eco Wads in the field at the next possible opportunity.

Testing on the foreshore

I got my chance by invitation of the Gloucestershire Wildfowling and Conservation Association to the Severn estuary where I downed my first duck of the season.

Of course, bagging three out of four chances in the half-light doesn’t really tell the full story about the performance of a cartridge – there are far too many variables involved in a successful shot – but combined with the results on the pattern paper, I am encouraged and will be using these cartridges for more of my shooting during the rest of this season.  

As the heaviest ‘eco wad’ load on the market is 32g no.3, I will primarily be using them for the occasional duck over a pond, a few days on my small syndicate shoot, some pigeon and crow decoying. I hope as more people give them a try, and demand stimulates investment, the range of available loads will improve.

Testing on the foreshore

I spoke to D’Arcy Wyvill, owner of the Constable Burton estate in Yorkshire, who trialled the Eley VIP Steel Pro Eco Wads with guests on his pheasant and partridge shoot last season with a view to going completely lead-free next season.

“We have been using steel for many years on the wildfowl anyway – and it’s effective, that’s for sure. The worst thing about it is the plastic cup.

 “Then there is the case for selling game into the food market. If the supermarkets won’t buy game shot with lead, then we have to make a decision at our end. 

“All of our guests so far have been overwhelmingly supportive of the trial. They agree that we should be taking a proactive approach to improving the environmental credentials of our sport and helping our game dealers sell the end product.

“None of the Guns described any issue with recoil. The cartridges killed cleanly and on balance, we didn’t notice any more wounding than we would normally encounter. There was minimal residue left in the chambers and barrels of the guns – something we checked after every drive as this had been flagged as a concern.

“Afterwards on one drive we observed some small discs in the grass which were the cups breaking down. It was a wet week, but the rate of breakdown is still impressive.”

According to D’Arcy, there is still quite a lot of confusion over shot sizes and whether steel can be used in all guns.

“We spent a lot of time prior to the shoot days checking with our clients that their guns were compatible with steel shot,” he admitted. “All of them shot with modern over-and-unders with chokes of half or less.

Curious to try one of the new breed of cartridges? Why not get a variety and see which you prefer, both at the pattern plate and out in the field?

The Results

Useful links

For advice on shot sizes here.

For advice on checking of your gun is compatible with steel shot here.