It is feared several thousand birds, mainly Guillemots, have become virtually paralysed after swimming into the ‘waxy’ substance in the Channel
One of the injured seabirds
A rogue cargo ship is the likely cause of an environmental disaster that has left hundreds of birds dead after it flushed a glue-like pollutant into the sea, it was claimed today.
Officials from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency are awaiting the results of urgent tests to establish what the mystery substance is before launching a hunt for an offending vessel.
The MCA meanwhile launched a pollution surveillance aircraft to survey the English Channel while the Royal Navy and RAF were on standby to help.
Experts said the leading theory for the cause of the pollution is that an oil residue was illegally flushed from a ship’s cargo tanks out at sea to save the time or costs of emptying it in port.
It was feared several thousand birds, mainly Guillemots, have become virtually paralysed after swimming into the ‘waxy’ substance in the Channel.
The substance, believed to be palm oil, has glued the birds’ feathers and wings together, preventing them from flying.
There are also mounting fears that a 25,000-strong population of Auks off the Dorset coast may perish in the ‘ecocide’.
Over the last 48 hours hundreds of seabirds have been washed ashore on beaches in West Sussex, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall.
Wildlife experts have so far rescued more than 250 birds alive but as time goes by it is feared the majority of birds now found will be dead.
Because they are unable to take off or preen themselves, the creatures are at grave risk of freezing to death as they are washed onto the windswept beaches.
One of the injured seabirds
Chris Packham, presenter of BBC’s Springwatch and Autumnwatch, said: “What’s particularly frightening is that hundreds have been picked up on the beach, there could be very many more which have died and been lost at sea.
“The birds that have been found up until now are probably the tip if the iceberg. There could be thousands out there that have died in this.”
Dr Simon Boxall, an oceanographer at the University of Southampton, said: “The substance has the right characteristics to be palm oil.
“We move a lot of it around the world and transport it in tens of thousands of tonnes at a time.
“The fact this has affected such a wide area implies there is a reasonably large amount in the sea which is moving up the Channel and implies there has been a spill.
“It is likely a ship has delivered some palm oil but needed to deposit residue from the tanks.
“It takes time to do so and costs money so a few rogue ships have been known to flush out its tanks in the open sea, which can be several hundred tonnes.
“Each ship has identification saying where it is has come from, going to, and what cargo it is carrying, so the authorities could narrow this down to half a dozen ships.”
Although the majority of the birds affected are guillemots as they spend most of their life on the surface of the sea, other species that have been coated in the substance have been razorbills, kittiwakes, egrets and a baby puffin.
Most of the rescued birds have been recovered along a 25 mile section of coast at Chesil Beach and the Isle of Portland in Dorset.
More than 120 of them have been taken to an RSPCA centre to be cleaned using a mixture of water and margarine but at least 50 were found dead.
Nearly 100 birds have been rescued from beaches in Torquay, Brixham, Teignmouth and Salcombe in Devon.
Mark Smith, of the Dorset Wildlife Trust, has been leading an army of 18 staff in the search for birds along Chesil Beach.
He said: “There are 25,000 auks off Dorset so the potential number of birds involved in this could be huge.
“This is potentially quite a big environmental disaster.
“Unfortunately as time goes by the proportion of birds that we are find are dead than alive.
“Whatever the substance is, it feels like a very sticky glue that has clumped the feathers together.
“The birds are left almost paralysed. They can’t fly or preen themselves and just go along with the tide and winds until they hit the shore.
“We have found many birds stuck to the pebbles on the beach while others have pebbles stuck to their feathers.
“Most of the dead ones have frozen to death from where they have been unable to dry their feathers and then exposed to cold winds while stranded on the beach.”
The Environment Agency is currently testing a sample of the substance in order to confirm exactly what it is and, potentially, where it came from.
Fred Caygill, spokesman for the MCA, said: ”Ships do clean their tanks at sea.
“In some cases it can be done legitimately and in other cases it can breach the maritime pollution regulations.
“We will continue to monitor this situation and await the results of the analysis of the product before we respond.”