Rescue for birds covered in 'wax' in the south west

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Media captionThe BBC visits the West Hatch Animal Centre where margarine is being used to help remove the wax

Hundreds of seabirds - some dead - have been washed up on England's south west coast, covered in a waxy substance.

The RSPCA said it had rescued more than 100 birds, which had been taken to the West Hatch Animal Centre in Taunton.

Earlier reports suggested the white substance was palm oil, but scientists were unable to confirm this, though they believe it is vegetable-based.

Many birds were found at Chesil Cove near Weymouth but others are appearing up to 200 miles away in Cornwall.

There are also reports of some washing up in Hampshire and Sussex.

At least two of the rescued birds, which are mainly guillemots, have died but rescuers are trying to save others.

Martin Cade, warden of Portland Bird Observatory, said it looked like "hundreds of birds" were being washed up, covered in a "PVA glue-type" substance, while even more could be seen out at sea.

He said: "Most of them aren't dead, and if they get cleaned up by the RSPCA, they have a have a chance of survival."

Steve Trewhella, a naturalist based in Dorset, spent much of Thursday at Chesil beach.

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Media captionWildlife Centre Supervisor Paul Oaten takes a close-up look at how the substance has covered the feathers

Matted feathers

He said: "They're covered in this sticky resin. It's not oil, we don't really know what it is, it's clear.

"At first glance they just look wet, but when you touch them, their feathers are completely matted with [the oil], which means they can't clean themselves, they can't waterproof themselves, and consequently they'll freeze and die on the beach tonight if they're not taken away."

BBC wildlife presenter Chris Packham said: "What's particularly frightening is that if you're picking up a hundred on the beach, there could be very many more which have died and been lost at sea. So this could be a tip of an iceberg as it stands at the moment.

"If this is a substance which is toxic and then gets into the food chain it can persist there for many years and have an influence over many other types of animal."

The RSPCA said the rescued birds did initially "not respond well" to the cleaning techniques normally used to remove oil.

It has now begun using other products, such as vegetable oil and margarine, to clean the birds with some success.

The charity said a majority of the birds were found around Portland, Dorset, covered in a "greasy film" and suffering from very sore legs.

Image caption The RSPCA is expecting to pick up even more birds on Friday

Inspector John Pollock, from the RSPCA, said he had never come across the substance.

"We think it might be some sort of palm oil, maybe the way it reacts with the salt in the water and it gets churned up, and it sticks to the birds feathers," he said.

"But I've never dealt with it, 22 years I've been dealing with spills, and I've never dealt with a contaminant like this. It's sort of, like, fuel based."

A spokeswoman for Dorset Wildlife Trust urged people not to attempt to rescue any washed up birds but to alert the RSPCA.

She said: "Just picking up the birds from the sea is dangerous, then when you add the weather conditions and waves it becomes very dangerous."

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