The Mesopotamian Marshes of Iraq might seem a long way from the serenity of the north Norfolk coast.

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Middle East support for Norfolk appeal

As well as the support from Iraq, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes appeal has also secured an £815 donation from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The donation from the Emirates Bird Records Committee (EBRC), will go towards the planned new Simon Aspinall Wildlife Education Centre, named after the late conservationist.

EBRC chairman Oscar Campbell said: “Simon Aspinall spent over half of his working life in the UAE, making an enormous contribution to knowledge of the UAE’s bird life through his books, through his many years as a shrewd, diplomatic and meticulous chairman of the EBRC and through his painstaking collection of information on bird life and other fauna and flora of the Emirates. His contribution was greatly valued and he is much missed.”

But although these two marshland nature havens are worlds apart, they share a common bond – forged between those who have dedicated themselves to caring for the contrasting wildlife.

After a recent visit to Cley Marshes, the president of Nature Iraq, Azzam Alwash, agreed to make a donation of $1,000 (about £615) towards the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s £1m appeal to purchase 143 acres of land to extend the existing reserve.

The gesture was to acknowledge the help which the fledgling Iraqi nature organisation has received from colleagues in Norfolk as it strives to revive habitats which suffered under the cruel regime of Saddam Hussein.

During his visit to Norfolk, Mr Alwash stayed at the Cley home of Richard Porter, who is a conservation advisor for Nature Iraq, having spent 40 years working with the RSPB and Birdlife International on wildlife projects across the Middle East.

Mr Porter said: “We organised an exhibition at Cley on the work of Nature Iraq, and when Azzam Alwash came over he stayed with me. I took him around the marshes and we agreed it would be a good idea to make that small donation.

“The size of it doesn’t matter, it was an act of friendship to show there was a brotherhood between these important areas of wildlife and people.

“He told me on his visits to Britain that he has seen how organisations like the NWT and the RSPB manage their reserves and their education programmes and he would like to see that repeating in Iraq. He has learned from us, and we have learned from him, so we have this mutual understanding and friendship.”

Although the marshes of Iraq are home to exotic birds like the Egyptian vulture and the sacred ibis, there are many species which will appear familiar to Norfolk bird-watchers.

“In Cley we have reed warblers, but in Iraq we have got Basra reed warblers, which is one of the world’s endangered species,” said Mr Porter. “It only breeds in the marshes of Iraq and is vulnerable to changes in the water flows from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

“If you’re talking about ducks, we have mallard and shoveler ducks nesting at Cley whereas in Iraq the number one duck is the marbled duck which is an internationally-vulnerable Red Data List species – and Iraq has the highest population of them in the world.

“These are both very, very rich reed beds and Iraq has the same species of reed as we have at Cley, so there are a few comparisons. “We have got otters at both, although there is a lot of discussion about the species in that occurs in Iraq, which we think is the smooth-coated otter. But we don’t have wild boar at Cley, which are common throughout the marshes of Iraq.”

Mr Porter said one of the great successes of Iraqi conservation was the re-flooding of the Mesopotamian Marshes, which were drained by Saddam Hussein’s government – destroying the centuries-old way of life of the persecuted Marsh Arabs .

In the process, this internationally-important wetland habitat was reduced to an arid wasteland.

“They were effectively drained by Saddam Hussein, who built two huge canals to take the water off this land,” said Mr Porter.

“When Saddam fell, a lot of people, including the fathers of Nature Iraq, got together to break the dams and the walls of these canals to re-flood the marshes. A considerable population of bird life is returning, and the Marsh Arabs are returning too.”

Since it was founded in 2004, Nature Iraq has also surveyed more than 220 sites to identify Iraq’s Key Biodiversity Areas. The KBA inventory to be published next year will be the country’s first step towards establishing a network of protected sites for wildlife.

Mr Porter said: “Nature Iraq is an upcoming organisation. I have been involved in wildlife conservation in the Middle East since 1966 and this is the best team of people I have come across in terms of their dedication, their survey techniques and the trustworthiness of their data in producing this inventory of their key biodiversity areas.”

Mr Porter has also written a book about the birds of the Middle East, the second edition of which was co-written with Simon Aspinall, the late naturalist who will be honoured by the naming of a new education centre planned at Cley.

To donate to NWT’s land purchase appeal, call 01603 625540 or visit www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/appeal.

To learn more about Nature Iraq or to make a donation towards its work, visit www.natureiraq.org or www.facebook.com/groups/natureiraq/

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