Seabird rescue: Gently does it

The pitiful sight of a seabird covered in oil is all too familiar. But rescuers at the scene of the Devon spill are giving such stricken creatures hope. Genevieve Roberts reports

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The mile upon mile of shingle on Chesil Beach, shaped into steps by the tide, is covered in black-stained debris. Birds shelter among the rocks, their feathers coated in oil leaked from the MSC Napoli. Up the coast in Devon, businesses count the cost and looters try their luck among the spilled containers. Here, in Dorset, dozens of animal experts and volunteers have gathered in the hope that some of the stricken birds can be saved.

On Monday morning, those living on the Dorset coast awoke to the ominous smell of diesel. One woman, whose home borders Chesil Beach, got up at dawn. By 8am, when she called the RSPB, she had collected two dozen guillemots in boxes. But hundreds more of them "were everywhere you looked".

This is the first oil spill in British waters since the Sea Empress went down in 1996, and environmentalists believe that up to 3,000 seabirds may die. All this week, teams from the RSPCA and RSPB, along with some 100 volunteers, have constantly patrolled England's beaches from Plymouth to Poole, rescuing guillemots and gulls. More than 400 guillemots are being rehabilitated at the RSPCA wildlife centre at West Hatch, in Taunton, Somerset, and more birds are being transferred to another centre in Hastings.

For those birds left to fend for themselves, the prognosis is not hopeful. Nick Tomlinson, Weymouth RSPB nature reserve site manager, says the first thing the oil does is clog the wings of birds so they cannot fly. Then it removes the waterproofing from their feathers, and starts to burn their skin. As they try to clean it off with their beaks, the birds swallow the oil and it burns their insides. "It is the slow death of a burning, cold, shivering wreck. That's the brutal truth of an oil spill," he says.

But Tomlinson says the response from the public has been heartening; birdwatchers, dog-walkers, regular volunteers with nature charities and elderly residents have all devoted their time to helping the professionals, patrolling the beaches. Catching the guillemots requires patience. "They feel vulnerable on the beach and if they feel scared, they try to get back to the water. So you have to creep up on them. We have been catching them by hand, using long-reach nets, and by throwing pillowcases or blankets over them."

Adrianna Hawczak, 22, lives in Portland and is a volunteer with the RSPB. When she heard of the disaster on Chesil Beach, she came to help. "On Monday the beach was a shocking, devastating sight, with birds everywhere," she says. "By Tuesday, there were fewer birds, but they were in a worse state."

Armed with plastic carrier bags and thick gloves - "the birds try to nip you constantly" - she works in a team to catch the oil-soaked guillemots. "When we see one, we form a line and walk, very slowly, towards it," she says. "We slow down even further if it senses us heading towards it, but some are so badly damaged that they cannot run into the sea." Once caught, the birds are carried in a plastic bag up to the impromptu base camp, where staff from the RSPCA transfer the birds into towel-lined boxes.

They are given a rehydration formula of warm water, bismuth (to help line the bird's gut), charcoal (which draws the oil away from the stomach and helps it pass through the body) and kaolin (which helps to repair the bird's intestines).

Veterinary examinations follow and, after 48 hours, birds are washed by trained members of staff with hot water and Fairy washing-up liquid (found to be the most effective brand for rinsing out the birds' plumage). After a month of rehabilitation, the 35 to 40 per cent of birds that survive will be released into the wild. Of those, only 1 per cent of guillemots will be alive a year later.

The 200 gulls that have been found drenched in oil stand a better chance of survival, though only a small percentage of them are expected to be successfully reintroduced into the wild.

Tim Thomas, who has been helping to coordinate the rescue for the RSPCA, says that the 100 staff involved with the birds are working long, emotionally distressing hours trying to rehabilitate the birds while being pecked at constantly, but it is a "losing battle". "We were aware of the potential of this happening last Thursday when the vessel was run aground near Sidmouth, in Devon," he says. "The first birds came ashore on Sunday afternoon, and we have been rescuing between 150 and 180 birds each day since then."

Hundreds of dead fish, including pollack, whiting and conger eels, have been discovered along the shore of Lyme Bay. The Marine Coastguard Agency has put protective booms across the rivers. Thomas warns that other wildlife may be harmed, including the foxes and crows eating contaminated biscuits washed ashore from the vessel.

The 200 tons of oil that leaked out of the engine of the MSC Napoli are a serious threat to the long-term future of the guillemot population in Dorset. Nick Tomlinson says that for every bird found on shore, five will die out at sea.

"On a local scale this is catastrophic for the breeding population of the guillemot," he says. "And not all the birds are local. Yesterday we rescued a bird that had been ringed on Skomer, off the coast of Pembrokeshire. The RSPB will organise a summer breeding survey for the guillemot, as we cannot predict the long-term impact of this spill. And there is still a long way to go until the MSC Napoli is made safe again."

How to help

Do not risk your safety by looking for or collecting birds from dangerous locations. Be aware of the tides and weather conditions.

If you do find a bird covered in oil and it is safe to pick it up, wear gloves because the oil could be hazardous to your health. The birds may bite too.

Collected birds should be placed on their own in cardboard boxes with newspaper or a towel inside. Do not use hay or straw.

Call the RSPCA 24-hour helpline 08705 555 999 which can arrange collection or inform you of a nearby collection point. Alternatively, you can bring the birds directly to the RSPCA West Hatch Wildlife Centre, near Tiverton, Devon.

Do not attempt to wash or feed the birds - leave that to the experts.

What happens after a slick

At the scene

Guillemots rescued are placed in towel-lined boxes and given a rehydration formula of warm water, bismuth, charcoal and kaolin. They are taken to a wildlife centre for rehabilitation.

First 48 hours

Birds are given a formal veterinary check, both internal and external, at an RSPCA wildlife centre. Two per cent of birds will be humanely destroyed at this stage, as the oil damage leaves them no prospect of survival. The remainder receive more rehydration treatment and are offered sprats (small herrings) to eat. Within two days, they are given a quick initial wash, which removes the bulk of oil from their beaks and feathers. Specialists use hot water and Fairy washing-up liquid, which is easy to rinse off the plumage afterwards.

First fortnight

Guillemots are fed sprats three or four times a day and are constantly checked by vets. Half of all birds rescued will die during this period. After they have been in the wildlife centre between 10 days and a fortnight, they will be given a 10-minute, very detailed wash by a skilled RSPCA member of staff, from the beak tip to the tail tip. This uses high pressure, 37C (or hotter) water, and Fairy. All contaminants will then be rinsed out of the birds' plumage. They will stay in a warm room overnight, and then slowly acclimatise to an outside pool.

Weeks three and four

Birds are placed in an exercise pool to build up their physical fitness. They are fed all the time, while they regain their former fitness and re-learn how to dive, and are regularly checked by vets.

Between one month and 40 days

Thirty-five to 40 per cent of guillemots will be released into the wild. They are released into an already-formed group of guillemots; and they are ringed and monitored. Only 1 per cent will be alive a year later. Anecdotal evidence suggests the survival rate for gulls is higher.

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