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Oil slick a 'major disaster' for birds

PUBLISHED: 06:05 17 February 2003 | UPDATED: 16:17 24 February 2010

AN ANIMAL charity last night declared an oil slick on the East Anglian coast as a "major disaster" for bird life.

Dozens of oiled swans have been rescued and many are still trapped following an oil spill of up to 2,000 gallons at Harwich harbour.

AN ANIMAL charity last night declared an oil slick on the East Anglian coast as a "major disaster" for bird life.

Dozens of oiled swans have been rescued and many are still trapped following an oil spill of up to 2,000 gallons at Harwich harbour.

RSPCA inspectors have mounted a huge operation to recover the severely polluted birds – some of which were dead – and it is expected to last up to four weeks, it emerged last night.

Their efforts, which continued throughout the weekend, have been hampered by thick mud that is making it too dangerous for inspectors to rescue birds further away from the shore.

The oil spill, which happened on Thursday, affected the entrance to the internationally important Stour and Orwell estuaries – winter feeding grounds for thousands of wading birds and wildfowl.

So far, RSPCA inspectors have rescued 38 live oiled swans from a long stretch of coast from Mistley Quay in Manningtree to Dovercourt, while one has been found in Ipswich. A further two have died.

A major clean-up operation by the harbour authority has ensured the oil is now contained.

But inspectors warn efforts to recover all of the oiled birds could take up to four weeks, with more expected to die in the coming days.

Andy Mitchell, chief inspector of the RSPCA, said: "We have removed 38 swans that are badly oiled since Friday.

"We're expecting more birds to die. It's a major disaster as far as birds are concerned. They are so polluted.

"It's going to take a number of weeks. There are birds out there that we know nothing about. We know from experience that there will be a number of birds out there still oiled. It will be quite a few weeks until we can put a figure on it."

The animals are being taken to the RSPCA Rescue Centre at East Winch, Norfolk, but Mr Mitchell said the centre is already inundated with seals brought in after last year's outbreak of the distemper virus.

The spill was caused by a fractured pipe at Felixstowe Oil Jetty and the alarm was raised on Thursday morning.

It comes just a few months after hundreds of seabirds were trapped by an oil slick off the east coast of Suffolk mainly around Southwold, and parts of the Norfolk coast.

Initial reports estimated the recent oil slick consisted of up to 600 gallons of mixed oils, but on Friday the official figure was up to 2,000 gallons.

The Haven Hornbill, a specialist vessel equipped for oil pollution incidents, was at the centre of operations co-ordinated by the Harwich Haven Authority and involving personnel from all the haven ports.

Last night, Harwich Port duty officer Peter Utterbridge said the last of the oil had been contained on Saturday afternoon, and all that would remain would be a sheen that would move backwards and forwards with the tide.

"It's the first time we have had a major big spill like that for a few years now," he said.

"There will probably be a review of the operation to clean it up and any lessons to be learnt will be noted and hopefully learned. But it went very well," he added.

Mr Mitchell said the RSPCA had temporarily scaled down the rescue to allow the birds to come ashore.

"The ones we've seen are so distressed they're not coming ashore. We're giving them a chance to settle down again," he said.

"All the swans are very flighty now and as soon as we try to catch them, they fly off. It's impossible to catch them at this stage as they are far out in the mudflats. The mud around that area is dangerous for us.

"We won't stop until we're sure we have got every one we can get," he added.


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