The Braer - Live Birds and Mammals

From the start of any oil spill incident, of whatever size, the WRCC had decided that every effort should be made to try and save the lives of any oiled birds and mammals found, through cleaning and rehabilitation, It was recognised that the justification for this was largely on humanitarian (and to some extent public relations) grounds and that even successful rehabilitation and release would probably involve too few individuals to offset the impact of an oil spill on the populations of species affected. It was also realised that the logistics of attempting to save live victims would be infinitely more complicated than the humane destruction on beaches that was carried out during the Esso Bernicia oil spill in 1979, the only other recent occasion when large numbers of live oiled birds have come ashore in Shetland.

Oiled Shag being cleaned at the Holmsgarth SSPCA centre.
Photo by SSPCA


The care of oiled birds was to be the responsibility of the SSPCA. A small-scale cleaning centre in Shetland, capable of handling 20-30 birds, had been planned for some time and although it has now been built, it was not operational at the time of the Braer and due to the large numbers of birds expected from the spill, the plan was to hold live birds in Shetland for as short a time as possible, give them some initial medication and then air-freight them to Edinburgh for cleaning at the SSPCA's centre at Middlebank in Fife. There was a large SSPCA presence at the Boddam WRC and with the co-operation of Shell and their charter flights south, this plan initially worked well. However, the mortality rate among Shags taken to Middlebank became worryingly high and it was apparent that they were suffering from stress from their temporary confinement at the crowded, noisy WRC and their subsequent journey south.

With the northward spread of oil during the second week of January, it was anticipated that there would be a continuing, steady trickle of live birds brought in from the Burra, Scalloway, Whiteness and Weisdale areas. In view of the problems Shags were facing under the existing procedure, the decision was taken to build an emergency cleaning centre in part of a warehouse in Shell's Holmsgarth base at Lerwick. This proved very successful, with the birds taken there responding much better in the quiet isolated conditions. As things turned out, many fewer live birds than anticipated were found once the Holmsgarth centre had been built, but had there been more birds it would have proved a very effective rehabilitation centre.

The question of where to release cleaned birds caused problems earlier than expected. Ideally, they should have been released in Shetland, especially resident species like Black Guillemot or those such as Shag and Eider whose populations have been declining in Shetland, By the time the first Eider at Middlebank were ready to be released however, there was still considerable pollution around the south-west Mainland and the question of whether or not bunker oil remained aboard the Braer had not been resolved. For the majority of species, it was felt that if released in Shetland they would tend to move back to the area where they had become oiled in the first place and it was therefore initially decided that Shag would be released into the Firth of Forth and everything else let go in the Moray Firth. What actually happened was much more haphazard than this, partly because of the blizzards which brought road chaos to mainland Scotland, and by the last week of January birds were being air-freighted back to Shetland for release into the sheltered, clean waters of Yell Sound.

In total, 207 birds were received by the SSPCA's Middlebank cleaning centre. These comprised 116 Shag, 46 Eider, 23 Long-tailed Duck, 12 Black Guillemot, 5 Guillemot, 2 Kittiwake, 2 Great Northern Diver, and 1 Herring Gull. By the 17th January, 113 of these had died, most of these Shags. Twenty-three birds were held in the emergency cleaning centre at Holmsgarth, comprising 12 Shag, 4 Black Guillemot, 4 Eider, 2 Herring Gull and 1 Kittiwake. Of these 9 Shag, all the Black Guillemots and Eiders and the Kittiwake were successfully rehabilitated.

Oiled male Eider being cleaned and fed at the Holmsgarth SSPCA centre.
Photo by SSPCA

Number of live birds taken into care

Great Northern Diver		2
Shag			118
Eider			52
Long-tailed Duck		29
Herring Gull		3
Kittiwake			3
Guillemot			5
Black Guillemot		16
Little Auk			2

		Total	230


Under WRCC plans, live oiled seals and otters were to be cared for at Jan Morgan's Hillswick Wildlife Centre, where facilities were to be developed using grants from SOTEAG and other sources, Little work had been done on this development when the Braer grounded and to make matters worse, January's storms and floods severely damaged what had been achieved. Although an estimated 500 seals, mostly greys, remained in the Sumburgh/Quendale area throughout January, few were found distressed on beaches during the first week of the spill. A large number of people from a range of different animal welfare organisations had come to Shetland to help with the care of oiled seals and this initial lull when few sick animals were found gave time for a small army of volunteers to put together temporary facilities for the animals which were eventually taken there.

The great majority of the seals dealt with at the Wildlife Centre were young animals, less than a year old. On admission they showed a variety of symptoms affecting the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal tract, eyes, nose, skin, including internal bleeding and anaemia. Due to the lack of facilities at the centre at the time the animals had to be released before they were fully fit but it is a credit to those involved that 31 of the 34 animals were successfully rehabilitated.

Number of live mammals taken into care

Grey Seal		31
Common Seal	3

	       Total  34

The following account of live seals in the vicinity of the wreck is a summary of the report produced by a team of scientists from the Sea Mammal Research Unit/Aberdeen University (SMRU).

Grey Seals were often seen in the water or hauled out on Lady's and Little Holms in Quendale Bay; a maximum of 417 were recorded on the 19th January. The animals were observed and individuals scored for the presence/absence of oil on the pelt, inflammation of the eyes and secretion of blood/pus, and the presence and degree of mucus secretion from the mouth and nose and blood staining. Up to 27% of hauled out seals observed exhibited respiratory/occular symptoms associated with exposure to hydrocarbons, however this figure may be biased if animals with symptoms spend more time hauled out than unaffected animals, Comparison of these observations with seals at a haul-out site which had not been exposed to the oil confirmed that the symptoms observed in Quendale Bay were probably a result of exposure to oil. Most common seals were hauled out on the east coast, away from the most heavily contaminated areas.

Live otters were regularly seen by beach survey teams who did not normally possess the expertise to assess their health, Sightings ranged from Boddam Voe, around Sumburgh Head to Scatness and Quendale Bay, up to West and East Burra, Trondra, Clift Sound, Wester Quarff, Scalloway and the Scalloway Islands to Weisdale Voe, Reawick and Tresta.


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