Lead is a highly toxic metal known to be an important cause of morbidity and mortality in waterbirds and terrestrial birds worldwide. The risk to birds of poisoning from lead has resulted in the introduction of legislation in many countries, such as UK restrictions on the use of lead in angling weights and lead gunshot. In this study, we examined data on current and historical trends in lead poisoning in British waterbirds and related these to the introduction of legislation restricting the use of lead. Our results indicate that lead poisoning has continued to affect a wide range of British waterbirds long after legal restrictions were introduced. Elevated levels of lead (i.e. >20.0 μg/dL) were found in the blood of 34 % (n = 285) of waterbirds tested at four sites in Britain during the 2010/2011 winter and accounted for the deaths of at least 10.6 % (n = 2,365) of waterbirds recovered across Britain between 1971 and 2010 and 8.1 % (n = 1,051) between 2000 and 2010, with lead gunshot being the most likely source of poisoning. The proportion of birds dying from lead poisoning in England did not vary significantly after the introduction of legislation, accounting for 13.7 % of non-infectious causes of death between 1971 and 1987 (n = 204), 20.8 % (n = 360) between 1988 and 1999 and 11.8 % (n = 423) between 2000 and 2010, despite a significant change in lead-related mortality in mute swans found during the same time period, 25 % (n = 12) between 1971 and 1987, 4.6 % (n = 65) between 1988 and 1999 and 2 % (n = 100) between 2000 and 2010. Existing legislation needs review and extension to ensure the delivery of international commitments and a broad-scale transition to the use of non-toxic shot and angling materials in all environments.