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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 January 2007, 13:48 GMT
The real victims of Napoli's loss
By Jon Kelly
BBC News

The beaching of the cargo ship MSC Napoli off the Devon coast may have given human scavengers a field day, but it has been disastrous for the local wildlife.

Animal welfare workers are battling to save as many creatures as possible from the devastating effects of the incident.

RSPCA worker cleaning oil-covered bird
RSPCA workers clean oil-covered birds with washing-up liquid

After the carnival has died down around the MSC Napoli, these are the stricken ship's real victims.

As the human scavengers of the beach at Branscombe congratulate themselves on the booty they have plundered, the prospects for many of the coast's native sea birds are grim.

Coated in oil from the slick surrounding the stricken MSC Napoli off the Devon coast, most of the affected creatures face permanent injury or death.

Animal rescue teams are battling to help save as many as possible at the RSPCA Wildlife Centre at West Hatch, Somerset, where 420 birds had been taken by Wednesday morning.

The centre's 18 staff and 12 volunteers are working from 0700 to 2300 to clean the oil from the birds' feathers and try to minimise internal injuries.

'Distressing sight'

Manager Rupert Griffiths admitted it was a demoralising task.

"Their chances for survival are not brilliant. If we can aim for releasing 40 to 50 I think we'll be doing well," he said.

"It's obviously a very distressing sight. Some of the birds will collapse with the stress.

"We've seen as many cases in 48 hours as we normally would in three of four months."

Most of the birds brought to the centre are guillemots, although there are also a handful of razorbills on the site.

All we can do now is knuckle down and get on with the job of helping as many birds as possible
Paul Oaten
RSPCA Supervisor

The main concentration has come from the area around Portland and Weymouth, a few miles eastwards along the coast.

Oil is deadly for the birds - not only because it burns their skin and damages their internal organs.

By damaging their feathers it stops them floating, and reduces the thermal insulation which keeps them warm.

The process of treating the animals is a complicated one which can take two or three weeks in each case.

First the birds have their stomachs cleaned with a solution.

Their feathers are then washed in washing-up liquid - "not the perfumed stuff", says Rupert.

They are dried out in a room kept heated to 35 degrees Celsius, then put together in pens.

After a few days of feeding they are allowed into a pond to acclimatise, the lucky ones are released.

Tagging birds

RSPCA vet nurse Natalie Stahl was having a tough time washing the feathers of one guillemot with warm water and washing up liquid.

Oil-covered birds at RSPCA centre
Birds are being cared for at an RSPCA centre in Somerset

"Some of them behave themselves, but this one's quite feisty," she said.

"He's flapping about because he doesn't know what's going on. It's understandable but it makes my job more difficult."

Supervisor Paul Oaten spent the morning tagging birds, pumping liquid into their stomachs and washing them.

"It's quite frustrating doing this, because you wonder if it was all necessary in the first place," he said.

"I understand the vessel was in trouble but you do have to wonder if ditching it in such an environmentally sensitive area was wise. At least it was a container ship rather than an oil tanker.

"All we can do now is knuckle down and get on with the job of helping as many birds as possible."

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