A major oil spill off the Pentland Firth could affect thousands of seabirds, rescue organisations said yesterday.
During searches of a stretch of coastline between Thurso and Duncansby Head, volunteers found another 60 oiled birds yesterday, adding to the 70 found over the previous two days.
They are concerned that the birds already found will only be a small proportion of the number that eventually come into potentially fatal contact with the oil slick.
Richard Bradley, area coordinator for the British Divers Marine Life Rescue, which is leading the search, said: “At this time of year, the birds will be ‘rafting’ together on the surface and diving for food to last them through the winter”.
“They stick together to provide protection but because they are on or under the water they come into contact with the oil. What we have found so far could be just a small proportion of the number of birds eventually affected.”
Among the stricken seabirds were guillemots, eider ducks, gulls, razorbills, red-throated divers and geese.
The source of the slick has not yet been identified. Environment officials are working on two theories; that the slick was caused by an illegal discharge of oil from a passing ship, or it has escaped from one of the many wrecks on the bottom of the Firth.
Initial tests are believed to have found that the source is not the local Talisman Beatrice oilfield.
So far, there has been little oil pollution of the shoreline where the birds have been found, a 40-mile stretch between Thurso and Duncansby Head. In three areas, tarballs – formed when oil emulsifies – have been found but only in small quantities.
Aberdeen Coastguard, which covers the Pentland Firth, said yesterday that although it had dispatched staff to help search for oil pockets in the Duncansby Head area, nothing had been found.
Oil discharges at sea are illegal. RSPB Scotland is now calling on the Scottish and UK governments to step up enforcement of regulations governing the marine environment. Stuart Housden, the Scotland director, said: “This is the third oil spill in just six months and it demonstrates the urgent need for better measures to reduce the chance and impact of such incidents.
“Those who permit oil spills should be brought to account. This would then encourage others to take more responsibility for their actions.”
The Scottish Government is currently consulting on whether to set up a new agency, Marine Scotland, to help to protect the country’s coastline