Tuesday, 4 December 2007

In the Bleak Midwinter!

This is the time of year when we try to visit all the countries – and battle with them over next year’s budget, and what we ought to try and achieve. And it really is a battle – blood in the snow. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, North Africa and the Middle East is often freezing cold at this time of the year. Literally, snow.

A couple of years ago, in the week before Christmas, we were working with Bedouin sheep flocks in the hills above the Jordan valley. The ‘leader’ of the flock is always a donkey, and the ewes follow him devotedly from grazing to grazing. We were worming rural donkeys and vaccinating the sheep-dogs. We came across this flock and its donkey, with three shepherds in traditional gear, two of them holding new-born lambs, with the snow-covered hills behind stretching away to Beith-el- heim across the valley. All it needed was a big, bright star.

Hardly a whisper of change in two thousand years.

The shepherds were gentle, kind and welcoming - it was probably the most moving ‘Christmas Card’ I’ve ever seen.

Last week we were in Morocco, our biggest project – we’ve got nine vet. hospitals there, to try and cope with the two and a half million working animals – not to count the dogs and cats – many of them abandoned – that find their way into our centres. We spend nearly a million pounds a year there, so there is a lot of work to do to ensure that we get best value for money. It takes a whole day, arguing over what price fodder will be next year (will there be a drought?), will fuel still go up at twenty per cent per year, and can we make that pick-up truck last out another year?

But at least it provides a little spare time. Time to go and visit Sidi Boughaba, - the coastal bird sanctuary we run. We ship urban kids in by bus, (over 120,000 so far), where they get an intensive day of ‘nature’ in the raw. From pond-dipping and identifying bugs down a microscope, to woodland walks spotting fungi and butterflies, to standing watching spellbound as the Marsh Harriers swoop and dive above their heads.

I always think these fabulous birds are the stars of the reserve – in December the twenty eight or so individuals are already sparring, to secure a mate and a breeding site. But in spring, if you’re really lucky, you can sometimes watch the males ‘tumbling’, calling up their mates from their nests in the reed-beds and throwing a nice tasty rat or something at them, which is caught in mid-air, then mum drops back down onto the nest. Not every girl’s idea of romantic courtship I suppose, but for Marsh harriers it works a treat.

It’s also a big deal that we have in the winter about a quarter of the entire world population of Marbled Teal – about twelve hundred individuals. It’s great to see them just sitting out on the lake kipping quietly.

Which was not what happened to us when we went to Mauritania.

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