The Braer - Coverage of Beaches


The various local organisations that are involved in the wildlife aspects of a large oil spill in Shetland had for some time planned how to cope with such events. Immediately after the Braer grounded, these organisations (under the umbrella of the WRCC), representing the SIC, Sullom Voe Terminal (SVT), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group (SOTEAG), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA), and the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary, came together to initiate a response at the Boddam Scout hut (it having been identified as a suitable Wildlife Response Centre (WRC) 'command centre'). From there they directed all activities relating to wildlife affected by the spill; which was channelled into three categories:

1) organising teams of people to walk beaches and collect oiled birds and animals

2) deal with live oiled birds and mammals

3) record and store dead ones


The volunteer response from the people of Shetland to walk beaches was excellent, especially considering the appalling weather conditions during much of January. From outwith Shetland came several 'walk-in' helpers, a team of five from the Scottish Wildlife Trust and two from British Gas, while some staff members from organisations such as the RSPB came north and helped out both on beaches and in key duties at the WRC. Volunteers were organised into teams of at least two and collected all dead and any live birds and animals from accessible beaches. Where possible, beaches were checked at least twice per day.


Volunteer collecting oiled corpses from Quendale beach
Photo by RSPB

During the first few days of the spill, efforts were concentrated in the south-west Mainland, from Sandwick round to Maywick, but the northward spread of the oil up the west side, meant that by the 12th January surveys had been extended to cover the longer stretches of accessible coastline in the Burra, Scalloway, Whiteness and Weisdale areas, and westwards as far as Culswick. In total, all the accessible beaches from Leebitten (east Mainland) round Sumburgh to the Dale of Walls (west Mainland) were checked during the course of the spill, which prompted the setting up of a forward 'command post' at Holmsgarth, Lerwick from where surveys of the 'northern' coasts were co-ordinated.

The total number of bird corpses recovered from beaches during January was 1538. Of these 805 (52%) were found between Sumburgh Head and Garths Ness. Only 60 corpses (3.8%) were collected from beaches along the east coast. with the remainder scattered fairly evenly along the west coast between Spiggie and Sandsound, with smaller numbers further north and west to Dale. During the first week of the spill (6-12th January) very few corpses were found away from the area between Scatness and St. Ninian's Isle, and even in this area the majority were collected from the West Voe of Sumburgh, Scatness and Quendale. In the second week (13-19th January) fewer corpses were collected close to the Braer and there was a corresponding increase in the number collected from further north on the west coast. This trend continued into the third week (20-26th January), but by the fourth week (27-31st January) very few birds were found anywhere and there was no obvious tendency for more to be found in one area than another.


In any oil spill it is difficult to estimate the proportion of the actual mortality found on beach surveys, and several factors made that even harder in the case of the Braer. The almost constant storms made it difficult to search shorelines as thoroughly as could have been done in calmer weather and also made it much more difficult to catch live birds, some of which were driven inland by the wind. The weather also prevented systematic searches of the islands in Quendale Bay and further north, where birds were likely to have come ashore and died, while the exceptionally high tides at the time also compounded the problem, especially if they occurred in the middle of the day. For several days beaches were completely underwater for the 6-7 hours of daylight available for surveys, with unreachable corpses simply moving back and forth in the surf. When tides did drop, many beaches had been completely rearranged or buried in tonnes of kelp by the heavy seas.

At Scatness, dead Shags had been driven deep into cracks and crevices in the rocks or buried beneath the kelp, and sometimes just parts of a bird were found. In addition, the many small boulder beaches along the south-west coast could not be checked at all due to their inaccessibility, several corpses were likely to have been scavenged by the larger gulls, and an unknown but almost certainly significant proportion will have been swept out to sea, never to be found.


In addition to birds and mammals, large numbers of fish were found dead on beaches.
Photo by RSPB


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