Wildlife fears spark frantic clean up of Poole Harbour oil leak

A crew of 100 people supported by drones, helicopters and boats were deployed as part of an emergency clean up of Poole Harbour in Dorset following the spill of oil from a Wytch Farm pipeline.

Serious concerns are now being raised about the long term health effects on wading birds and sea creatures, with the charity Birds of Poole Harbour calling the incident “incredibly worrying”. It fears that the oil will settle on the mud and could upset the whole ecobalance of Poole Harbour, a globally important site for rare wildlife.

A boom was put up at the source of the leak to stop oil spilling out into the main harbour

A boom was put up across the mouth of the inlet at Ower Bay to stop the oil spreading

5,000 birds feed in the spill area

An underground pipe operated by the oil company Perenco UK from its Wytch Farm oil field near Corfe Castle released an estimated 200 barrels of reservoir fluid, a mixture of 85 percent water and 15 percent crude oil, before the incident was spotted on Sunday 26th March 2023.

Perenco UK said that the pipeline has been shut down and that booms, to help prevent the spread of the oil, had been deployed on either side of the leak at Ower Bay near Arne on the south side of Poole Harbour.

The underground pipe that leaked, which takes oil from Wytch Farm to Southampton, is located in a very sensitive, marshy area and the effects were made worse by high tide currents carrying the spill into the main harbour.

Just two weeks before the incident at least 5,000 birds were recorded feeding in the oil spill area. RSPB Arne nature reserve and the National Trust owned Studland peninsula and Brownsea Island are all located close to the pipeline leak.

Poole Harbour Commissioners offixce

Poole Harbour Commissioners is leading the emergency clear up response

Swimmers told to stay out of the water

Poole Harbour Commissioners which manages Poole Harbour is coordinating the response to the major incident.

Harbour commissioner Jim Stewart said that the spill was not as serious as it was first feared, however swimmers have still been advised to stay out of the water in Poole Harbour for the next few days.

Jim Stewart said:

“Over 100 people have been involved in operations with helicopters drones, vessels and shore patrols are out gathering data and feeding it back to our emergency response centre.

“Aerial footage suggests that there is a 60 to 70 percent reduction in oil sightings on the water (compared to yesterday), but as a precaution the public should still avoid using the water for recreation and continue to avoid bathing at beaches within Poole Harbour until further updates become available.

“We ask that members of the public do not try to help with the clean up of Poole Harbour as specially trained teams are working hard on the ground.”

Dog walkers have been advised to take extra care on the beaches around Poole Harbour, and the harbour itself was empty of paddleboarder, kayakers and sailboarders.

An oily film was still in evidence on a lot of the water

An oily film was still in evidence on a lot of the water in the harbour

“The oil spill is incredibly worrying”

Paul Morton, of the charity Birds of Poole Harbour, emphasised how incredibly important the harbour area is environmentally. It’s a site of special scientific interest and an internationally important wetland because of the important range of habitats and species. He said:

“Although we don’t know the full extent of the spill yet, the fact it’s happened right in the middle of such an environmentally important area is incredibly worrying.

“Poole Harbour hosts nationally and internationally important numbers of wetland birds each winter and equally important numbers of other species including sandwich and common terns which nest on Brownsea each summer.

“Right now we’re in that important transition period where our winter birds are leaving, and our summer birds are arriving, many of which use the southern shore of the harbour for feeding, nesting and hunting.”

Birds of Poole Harbour

An osprey returned to Poole Harbour just hours before the oil spill

Elation at osprey’s safe return was dashed

Poole Harbour’s male osprey arrived back in the area from West Africa just hours before the spill and is expected to be joined by his mate in early April, with hopes that the pair will breed again as they did in 2022.

Paul Morton added:

“The elation of the male’s safe return home yesterday morning was soon dashed by late afternoon when news of the oil spill was announced.

“Ospreys exclusively eat fish, and our pair hunt in the harbour about 95 percent of the time during the spring and summer season, feeding on grey mullet, flounder and bass.”

Poole Harbour is home to countless rare birds like this oystercatcher

“Ingest the hazardous liquid”

The fear is that the oil in the water will have a longterm effect on the whole ecosystem. Paul Morton said:

“When it comes to an issue like this there are several areas of concern. One is that any birds that come into physical contact with this substance can see their feathers damaged and become less water resistant.

“The substance will also encourage any effected birds to preen constantly, meaning they could ingest the hazardous liquid.

“The other unknown is how much of the oil will settle on the mud and harbour shorelines and what impact will that have on marine invertebrates.”

A risk to the birds which fish in the harbour

Peter Robertson, senior site manager at RSPB Arne, said:

“We are monitoring the situation closely. The area is home to numerous bird species such as black-headed gull, Mediterranean gull, redshank and oystercatcher which breed on the coastline, and many other waterbirds which rely on the harbour mudflats for food.

“There are wintering avocet, black-tailed godwit and curlew still present in the harbour and there may also be a risk to the many birds that fish in the harbour, such as sandwich terns and ospreys.”

Members of the public are being urged to report any birds that look in distress to local wildlife rescue centres, and email Birds of Poole Harbour to help them understand the scale of the impact and support any affected birds.

Angela Pooley, from Friends of the Earth in East Dorset, said:

“It’s devastating for the harbour, but it just shows another reason why we shouldn’t be expanding oil development. This is absolutely horrendous and the impact will be long term, particularly on wildlife around Studland Bay with the seahorses.”


South Dorset MP Richard Drax tabled an emergency question

MP demands assurances from Perenco

The situation is so serious that South Dorset MP Richard Drax was allowed to raise concerns in the House of Commons on Monday 27th March 2023 with an emergency question to ministers.

Richard Drax said:

“This unfortunate incident has occurred in one of the most beautiful and fragile ecosystems in my constituency.

“Having spent many, many years near, in or under the water in Poole Harbour, I am acutely aware of the area’s sensitive environment, both on land and under the sea.

“I am very concerned about this spill, which is potentially catastrophic, and let us not forget the many thousands of humans who enjoy the harbour, especially in the summer.

“I have been assured that the spill is not as serious as was first thought, but a thin sheen of oil did escape the booms that were put in place, and today a handful of birds have been found covered in oil. Mercifully, that number remains low. The effect on the marine environment is unknown.”

He called for a full investigation into why the leak occurred and for any repairs to be carried out to the highest standard. He also demanded assurances from Perenco that the rest of its network was being properly maintained and checked.

Poole Harbour has never looked so empty as paddle boarders heeded advice and stayed away

Poole Harbour was almost deserted as paddle boarders and other watersport enthusiasts heeded advice and stayed away

Concern for resident seals and seahorses

Brian Bleese, chief executive of Dorset Wildlife Trust, said:

“The impact on other marine species is also of great concern. Poole Harbour is a bass fish nursery and an important area for molluscs which feed by filtering seawater and may be particularly badly affected, as well as resident seals and two species of seahorse that breed in the harbour.

“Our wardens are closely monitoring the Brownsea lagoon where common and sandwich terns are gathering to nest and the northern shoreline to assess any impacts on wildlife there.

“We are liaising with Poole Harbour Commission on appropriate actions that need to be taken over the coming days and weeks.”

Dog walkers told to be extra careful

Long term Poole Harbour resident Sarah Fry said:

“It is an appalling thing to happen – the harbour is life blood to the communities all around it. It has never been so quiet here, there is absolutely nobody on the water and that never happened even through lockdown.

“Dog walkers have been told to be extra careful – my friend’s pet came out of the water with a thin film of oil over him, and of course everyone is worried about the effects on the local wildlife.”

Joanna Bury leads the Extinction Rebellion protest against Perenco at Poole Harbour

Joanna Bury led the Extinction Rebellion protest at Poole Harbour

Extinction Rebellion protestors at Poole Harbour

Protestors called for Perenco to be shut down and fossil fuels banned

Extinction Rebellion protest

A protest of 60 people from Extinction Rebellion led by a samba band made their feelings known on the harbourside and called on the UK Government to end the use of fossil fuels.

Spokesperson Joanna Bury said:

“I was devastated to hear the terrible news that there had been huge amounts of oil leaked into Poole Harbour, an internationally recognised area of importance for wildlife.

“It is extraordinary that this pipe is even allowed to go anywhere near the harbour when we are supposed to be protecting wildlife in this country, not destroying it.

“We have an ecological disaster at the moment, our nature is in crisis and yet we continue to use the fossil fuels we should be transitioning away from. I don’t think people realise how rare and precious Poole Harbour is and how much is at stake.”

Channel 5 News were among many crews filming at Poole Harbour yesterday

Dozens of TV crews reported on the oil spill live from Poole Harbour

“Serious questions need to be answered”

Leader of Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council, Philip Broadhead said:

“I am clearly angry and disappointed about the leak, this is the second largest natural harbour in the world, with award-winning beaches and a very delicate ecosystem.

“The natural reaction is to be very worried, it is quite unacceptable. The operator has already said there will be an investigation, but some serious questions need to be answered.”

Further information

  • If anyone find birds in or near Poole Harbour that appear to be distressed, they should report them to local wildlife rescue centres, and contact Birds of Poole Harbour to help the charity understand the scale of the impact

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