HUNDREDS of blackened seabird, fish and dolphin corpses are littering the Lyme Bay coastline after oil spilled from a stricken container ship.

The tidemark of death stretched from Lyme Regis to Portland after more than 200 tonnes of oil escaped from the 62,000-tonne Napoli, which was run aground off Devon after a storm.

More than a thousand birds are known to have been affected by the oil. At Portland's Chesil Cove there were more than 40 corpses.

Five dolphins may have fallen victim to the spill, with two found at Chesil as well as two conger eels, trigger fish, bass, pollack, whiting, wrasse and many other sea creatures.

Portland Coastguard warned that oil and debris from the ship was now moving east towards the Dorset coast with the main affected area near Lyme Regis and Bridport.

Desperate RSPCA and RSPB staff and helpers and members of the public battled bitter conditions yesterday to rescue more than 200 oil-soaked guillemots, razorbills and gulls from a variety of sites, including Chesil Cove and Portland Bill, Ferrybridge in Weymouth, Abbotsbury and Lyme.

The scale of Dorset's natural disaster grew hour by hour with RSPCA South West senior animal collection officer Roy Blackburn warning that for every seabird they caught there were four or five which escaped by scrambling back into the sea or diving.

Mr Blackburn said that birds were being taken to the RSPCA facility at West Hatch near Taunton with overflow facilities available at other centres.

He added: "The bulk of the birds had been in contact with oil from the ship, without a doubt.

"The sad thing was that for every bird we caught there were four or five which scrambled back into the sea away from us. This rescue will be going on all week."

Oily gulls were spotted at the RSPB's Radipole reserve in Weymouth where manager Nick Tomlinson said: "There appear to be oiled birds coming in all the time along Chesil Beach. We're helping the RSPCA attempt to deal with the incident."

Staff at Abbotsbury Swannery have pitched in to help the rescue operation and spokesman John Houston said: "So far we have found more than 30 oiled seabirds on the beach near us.

"We are very concerned about the wildlife and birds along Chesil Beach, including our swans, which are fortunately protected by the buffer of the beach.

"Our staff are helping to recover oiled birds which have been found on the seaward side of the beach and we are holding guillemots, razorbills and gulls for collection by the RSPCA. We are also collecting oiled birds at Ferrybridge, Weymouth."

RSPB marine policy officer Kate Tanner said they were increasingly concerned at the threat to Lyme Bay wildlife in what is a World Heritage Site area.

She added: "Our initial fears surround the leaking of the vessel's fuel oil which poses an immediate threat to seabirds, but we are very concerned about the ship's potentially hazardous cargo, including agricultural poisons."

Coastguards confirmed that 200 tonnes of oil had leaked from Napoli but that no major tanks, containing up to 3,500 tonnes of fuel oil, had been breached. A week-long operation to pump this clear into other vessels has now started.

One of 63 containers washed off Napoli has already washed up on the Dorset coast at Seatown Beach west of Bridport.

Staff from the nearby Golden Cap Holiday Park say that dog feed was among items in the container.

Other flotsam found along the Dorset coast includes thousands of packets of biscuits.

Weymouth and Portland management committee chairman, Coun Brian Ellis, said: "The whole of the Dorset coast and, indeed, the Jurassic Coast is at risk from this disaster."

South West MEP Neil Parish said he had asked the European Commission if it would be prepared to make a grant from its natural disaster budget cash if the UK were to apply.

He added: "The local economy relies on wildlife and the beauty of the coastline for tourism and we must do all we can to ensure there is not a knock-on effect on local businesses."