Seals poisoned in tanker disaster find a sanctuary: Raw herring soup is helping victims of the 'Braer' spill to recover. Oliver Gillie reports

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FIVE seals poisoned by oil from the wrecked tanker Braer are being nursed back to life at the Hillswick seal sanctuary in the north of Shetland. The animals are slowly recovering with the help of raw herring soup and vitamins fed to them through a stomach tube.

A team from a Dutch seal sanctuary has come to Hillswick to help. They search the shore for seals using an old landing craft, brought up from Kent by an enthusiast, to reach the less accessible parts of the shore.

Manuel Hartmann, the Dutch veterinary with the group, said: 'One of the seals, an 18-month-old, is in critical condition. She has oil damage to the lungs with bacterial pneumonia on top.'

The other four seals, all under six months old, are also suffering from the effects of oil droplet inhalation and bleeding into the stomach and gut as a result of oil ingestion, Mr Hartmann said. 'When we first get them we rehydrate them with oral fluids put into the stomach through a tube. Then we feed them the raw herring soup with added starch and give them antibiotic injections.'

A Dutch nurse, Anita Dijkens, sat astride a young seal holding its head while Mr Hartmann put in the stomach tube. As he poured the soup into a funnel, Ms Dijkens talked to the animal in her own language, calming it.

The seal sanctuary at Hillswick was started by Jan Morgan, who runs the Booth public house in the town. Seven years ago she found a sick seal on the shore outside her pub and was able to rescue it. Since then she has rescued many more.

'Our aim is to restore the seals to their natural habitat after they have been rehabilitated,' she said. 'When they get a certain look in their eyes I know it's time for them to go back to the sea. The eyes say everything.

'Usually it is not a problem. But one seal, Michelle, was with us for more than six months and became very tame. When she recovered we released her three miles away but she came back here. We then released her 15 miles away, and eight days later she was back again. She came up the steps to the house and knocked on the front door with a flipper and howled. So we had to feed her - then gradually she learnt to fend for herself.'

The seal sanctuary was almost washed away last week when an exceptionally high wave came over the sea wall and washed into their shed. Although fishermen and salmon farmers shoot seals, which they generally see as a pest, the Shetland Islands Council is supporting the sanctuary with funds. Mrs Morgan has sunk six old baths into her front garden to make seal pens that will replace ships' containers.

Nearby, a 19-bed otter hospital is being built, with help from Shetland Islands Council and charities, in an old barn and stable belonging to the manse. Les and Sue Stocker from Aylesbury, the founders of St Tiggywinkle's animal hospital, came up with equipment for rescuing oiled otters. So far one cub is being treated and is recovering well.

(Photograph omitted)