Rescue for birds covered in ‘wax’

January 31, 2013
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RSCPA worker cleans a seabird

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Peter Venn, West Hatch Animal Centre: ”What’s working at the moment to act as a solvent is margarine”

Hundreds of seabirds – some dead – have been washed up on England’s south west coast, covered in a waxy substance.

The RSPCA said it had rescued more than 100 birds, which had been taken to the West Hatch Animal Centre in Taunton.

Earlier reports suggested the white substance was palm oil, but scientists were unable to confirm this, though they believe it is vegetable-based.

Many birds were found at Chesil Cove near Weymouth but others are appearing up to 200 miles away in Cornwall.

There are also reports of some washing up in Hampshire.

At least two of the rescued birds, which are mainly guillemots, have died but rescuers are trying to save others.

Martin Case, warden of Portland Bird Observatory, said it looked like “hundreds of birds” were being washed up, covered in a “PVA glue-type” substance, while even more could be seen out at sea.

He said: “Most of them aren’t dead, and if they get cleaned up by the RSPCA, they have a have a chance of survival.”

Steve Trewhella, a naturalist based in Dorset, spent the day at Chesil beach.

‘Slick in channel’

He said: “They’re covered in this sticky resin. It’s not oil, we don’t really know what it is, it’s clear.

“At first glance they just look wet, but when you touch them, their feathers are completely matted with [the oil], which means they can’t clean themselves, they can’t waterproof themselves, and consequently they’ll freeze and die on the beach tonight if they’re not taken away.”

The RSPCA said the rescued birds did initially “not respond well” to the cleaning techniques normally used to remove oil.

Dead bird at Portland - Jason HoadMost of the dead birds were found on beaches around Portland

It has now begun using other products, such as vegetable oil and margarine, to clean the birds with some success.

The charity said a majority of the birds were found around Portland, Dorset, covered in a “greasy film” and suffering from very sore legs.

More birds are expected to be washed up overnight and officers will resume work on Friday to rescue more animals.

Peter Venn, manager at West Hatch, said there was probably “a slick out there in the Channel” affecting the birds.

He said: “The numbers of birds arriving in to our centre are growing and we are doing all we can to help them – but it is too early to tell how successful these attempts will be.

“We do not know what this substance is or where it has come from yet but we do know it is not fuel.

“It may be by-product from manufacture, but at this stage we just do not know.

“There are also reports of the sticky substance washing up on the beach, so we would urge people walking their dogs in the area to also be careful.”

Bird still aliveThe RSPCA is expecting to pick up even more birds on Friday

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) said it had received reports of seabirds being washed ashore covered in the white waxy substance, from Cornwall to Portland, Dorset.

A spokeswoman said: “We are liaising with the RSPB, RSPCA and Natural England to find out the extent of the problem, and if at all possible, to determine the source.”

Tony Whitehead, from the RSPB, said: “We’re not just dealing with a bird rescue operation here, it’s also a pollution incident.

“We have had a few dead birds washed up over the past few weeks, but not this many.

“More being washed up could be a result of a change in wind directions.”

A spokeswoman for Dorset Wildlife Trust urged people not to attempt to rescue any washed up birds but to alert the RSPCA.

She said: “Just picking up the birds from the sea is dangerous, then when you add the weather conditions and waves it becomes very dangerous.”

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