SEABIRDS blighted by a mystery pollutant are being cared for at a Teignmouth rescue centre.
Jean Bradford, who was honoured with an MBE in the New Year's Honours List for her work, is caring for more than 20 birds which have been washed up along the South Devon coastline.
Reports suggest 21 birds have been found in Brixham and Berry Head, 15 in Teignmouth, 12 at Coryton Cove near Dawlish and one in Torquay.
Teignmouth fishing boat Girl Rhona has supplied thousands of sprats to the South Devon Seabird Trust, operated from Jean's home.
She said: "We still have no idea what this substance is, but on one of the birds it was so thick I had to scrape it off using my fingernail."
She said the birds in her rescue centre and others at West Hatch in Dorset were the 'lucky ones', but many more are still at sea or on inaccessible rocky outlets and are unlikely to survive without help.
The Environment Agency has concluded the substance is a type of refined mineral oil which is not vegetable or animal-based.
It is trying to further establish the chemical make-up of the substance to locate the source.
The RSPB has said the scale of the pollution suggests the source is way out to sea.
Jean said she was sent an email suggesting a marine engine lubricant, which does not break down in seawater, may be responsible.
There are also theories the substance could have been discharged from a vessel or may have been a lost cargo.
Jean said: "The truth is we may never know what caused this."
She is cleaning the dry birds with shower gel and washing up liquid.
Noel Hughes, Berry Head countryside officer, said rangers started to recover affected seabirds last Thursday.
They found 16 from a rock ledge at Berry Head quarry on Thursday, two on Friday and two dead birds on Saturday.
A further 11 were seen, but could not be reached.
Mr Hughes said guillemots usually return to breeding grounds in January.
Berry Head hosts a colony all year.
Mr Hughes said: "I think we are seeing the stronger ones who are making it back because of their breeding instinct or because they know they are in dire straits and have to make it back to rest.
"There could be many more out there that, because the substance has destroyed their ability to preen and replenish their natural oils, they are unable to waterproof themselves, unable to stay dry and are therefore unable to fish."
Mr Hughes said guillemot numbers at Berry Head were within a 'gnat's whisker' of the January average and slightly up on last year's figures.
He said: "Things are not looking desperate at the moment, but until we are way into the breeding season it is hard to tell."
Dart Vale Vets have treated four guillemots at their practice in Brixham.
Vets Kevin Davidson and Chris Bamford have been tube feeding the sick birds with special re-hydration fluids before they are taken to the RSPCA cleaning centres in Exeter and Taunton.
The birds have been brought in by concerned members of the public and the local RSPCA animal collection officer.