A GROUP of 28 guillemots were yesterday (Thursday) returned to the wild after being covered in oil spilled from the grounded ship MSC Napoli.

The birds were set free on the coast near an active guillemot colony just west of Lynton, in Devon.

They had been cleaned and cared for at the RSPCA West Hatch Wildlife Centre - the Somerset County Gazette ran a successful appeal for blankets and sheets to help in the operation.

Manager Rupert Griffiths said: "It's obviously a very emotional day for all the staff who have put so much time and effort into collecting and caring for these guillemots.

"For the past month we have done everything we can to look after them, help them to recover and give them the best possible chance of survival."

The guillemots were covered in a mixture of heavy fuel oil and diesel which leaked from the storm-damaged container ship grounded a mile from Sidmouth January 18.

The RSPCA collected a total of 995 guillemots from the coastline.

Previous research shows as few as 1% of guillemots survive more than a year following release.

To give the best possible chance of survival, each of the birds was hand-washed; had their stomachs flushed with a charcoal solution; fed about 300g of fish a day; weighed and had their blood tested; and put in deep-water tank for a week to build up their strength.

Mr Griffiths added: "We're trying many ways to help them survive.

"The deep-water tanks are a way of checking that the birds are strong and healthy enough to cope with being on the water for a week.

"We're hopeful these birds will have a much better chance of survival when released."