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The BBC's Paul Welsh
Oiled birds are kept in boxes that are stacked in rows
 real 28k

BBC's Gavin Hewitt reports
"Facing an ecological disaster"
 real 28k

Friday, 7 January, 2000, 13:41 GMT
UK birds hit by French oil spill

dead bird One victim of the spill: But many more will never be found

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

The consequences of the oil spill on the north-west coast of France look set to affect bird species in the United Kingdom for years to come.

The spill occurred after the tanker Erika broke apart on 12 December and spilt more than 10 million litres of oil into the Bay of Biscay.

The UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) says that so far almost 22,000 dead seabirds have been found, with another 12,000 affected, but still alive.

Some of the survivors have been flown out of France for treatment in the UK. But survival rates for oiled birds are normally very low.

Huge numbers

An RSPB spokesman told BBC News Online the number of casualties would probably be very much higher, as only about a quarter of affected birds were normally found after a spill.

"We could see from 100,000 to 300,000 birds affected. We understand there are up to 50 different species being found, although guillemots account for 75% of all the birds recovered.

dead bird Up to 50 bird species have been affected
"There will be a visible impact on breeding colonies around the Welsh coast, especially in Pembrokeshire, and elsewhere in the Irish Sea.

"The birds there were just getting over the Sea Empress spill four years ago. The problem is that the juveniles tend to overwinter in the Bay of Biscay, exactly where the Erika was lost.

"Normally they would be further out to sea, out of harm's way. But the very severe weather forced them inshore, along with the oil.

"So there will be fewer young birds returning to the nesting ledges, and the breeding stock will be reduced."

Widespread impact

The severity of the weather last month helps to explain why the relatively small amount of oil lost has caused such a disproportionate effect.

box The birds are sent to cleaning centres in boxes
The RSPB says this incident is "far worse than the Amoco Cadiz spill" of 1978, which involved more than 230,000 tonnes of oil off north Brittany.

The World Wide Fund for Nature, which wants a comprehensive risk assessment of the European coastline carried out as a way of trying to prevent further spills, sent an expert to Brittany to assess the impact of the latest accident.

Dr Sian Pullen of WWF told BBC News Online: "The use of the word 'disaster' to describe what has happened is justified".

"The impact on seabirds is horrendous. But most of the species affected - guillemots, razorbills, gannets, cormorants, and some wading birds - have fairly stable populations.

"One day we'll hit a struggling bird population, and it won't be able to recover.

"But apart from birds, we're concerned about the coastal habitats that have been affected, and the species that live in them, things like crustaceans and invertebrates.

"They're near the base of the marine food chain, which means that fish and birds depend on them. But we're afraid there may not even be any monitoring of what is happening to them.

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See also:
05 Jan 00 |  Europe
Oil spill damage worsens
17 Dec 99 |  Europe
Clean-up crews battle 'thick' oil slick

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