Feathers fly as oily birds lose their woolly coats

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The Independent Online
KINDLY villagers at Washford, in Somerset, sprang to their needles when an appeal went out to make woolly coats for the puffins and guillemots recovering in Inverkeithing bird sanctuary in Fife after the Braer Shetland oil spill.

Teams of women, supported by local Brownies, toiled for weeks to knit the gaily-coloured 'birdigans', each complete with 'arm' holes for oily wings. Alas, they toiled in vain. Officials at the sanctuary, which is operated by the Scottish Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, have rejected the 100 miniature body warmers.

'We don't approve of these little jackets and just had to dispose of them, I'm afraid,' said Sandra Hogben, the sanctuary manager. 'They overheat the birds and they start preening them and ingesting the material. They also unbalance them because they're not used to wearing coats and they fall over.'

The Scottish RSPCA's attitude brought a sharp response from the birdigan's inventor, Jim Ward, a veteran seagull rescuer in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Only last year, after an oil spill off the South African coast, wildlife experts asked Mr Ward for a knitting pattern and put hundreds of Zulus to work making dwarf jumpers for their own oil-slicked birds.

'It's a load of rubbish,' Mr Ward said. 'To be quite honest I'm getting a bit browned off about this with the RSPCA and, unfortunately, with respect, the media. We went into the business of overheating and we're saying pure wool, rib knit, gives birds control of their body temperature by raising and lowering their feathers.

'It's quite successful as far as I'm concerned and what the RSPCA wants to say about it is entirely up to them.'

In Washford they are putting it down, rather sadly, to experience. John Whithouse, husband of the village post mistress, said: 'Someone sent us a knitting pattern, we can't remember who now, and the good ladies, supported by the schoolchildren, started producing these things.

'Then someone told us it was a silly idea in the first place and I think some of them are still here under the post office counter.'