Guillemots affected by oil spill being released back to sea

Even a small amount of oil means a bird loses its ability to retain heat, which can lead to hypothermia

Guillemot birds rescued after being soiled by an oil slick in the Irish Sea earlier his month have been released back into the wild.

Kildare Wildlife Rescue collected about 90 of them from Six Mile Point near Newcastle, Co Wicklow, after oiled birds were sighted along the coast from Rockabill in north Co Dublin to Carnsore Point in Co Wexford.

Pearse Stokes, who works with Kildare Wildlife Rescue, said the organisation had taken the remains of a further 30 guillemots from the beach at Newcastle at the height of the crisis, which was reported by a beach walker on May 11th.

Minister for State for Heritage Malcolm Noonan, who took part in the release of three guillemots on Tuesday, said an investigation into the exact cause of the pollution is ongoing. The evidence suggests that an area of the Irish Sea, likely far from the shoreline, was polluted by a discharge of oil in the days before the oily birds were spotted.


Guillemots sit on the water and are particularly vulnerable to an approaching slick. Becoming coated in even a small amount of oil means a bird loses its ability to retain heat, which can lead to hypothermia. On making it to land, birds preen themselves in an attempt to remove the oil but then ingest it, making them sick.

Mr Stokes said about 20 of the birds rescued by the charity had to be euthanised.

“An oil slick like this is devastating,” he said.

Brian Burke, scientific officer with Birdwatch Ireland, said the birds found at Newcastle were likely part of a colony based at Wicklow Head. He said this was particularly unfortunate for the colony as it had suffered badly from bird flu in recent years.

He said guillemots can live for 20 to 30 years and survive an occasional bad breeding season, but the loss of so many adults at once would be difficult for the wider group to withstand.

A small crowd gathered for the release of three of the guillemots by Kildare Wildlife Rescue manager Dan Donoher, Mr Noonan and Wicklow Green Party TD Steven Matthews. The charity said five other birds were released last Saturday and a further 65 would be returned to sea over the coming weeks.

Newcastle resident Laurel Storey, who reported the oily birds after seeing them while out walking earlier his month, said: “I could see groups of them preening themselves, trying to get the oil off. When you walk the beach often you notice anything out of the ordinary, so I reported it.”

Events involving oil contamination to seabirds and other wildlife are “thankfully rare”, said Mr Noonan.

The Minister said Kildare Wildlife Rescue, which is funded largely by voluntary donations, had been given €50,000 to assist with the guillemot rescue operation. He said it was appropriate that such work was done by county councils and volunteer groups as it encouraged community participation.

He said the work he said was done in partnership with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and that “the State is meeting its obligations”.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist