THE Australian bush fires have produced one of the most tragic and shocking statistics of the year so far: a billion animals have perished in the flames.

And, watching the horror unfold from her home in the North-East of England, Joanne Mills felt helpless. What could she do to help from more than 9,000 miles away?

The answer came in posts that began popping up on her computer. Joanne is a member of a couple of Facebook groups for “crafters” and followers were being asked to use their skills to help injured and orphaned animals in Australia.

The Animal Rescue Craft Guild was providing knitting patterns for a range of products, including joey pouches, bird and rodent nests, mittens for koalas with burned paws, animal beds, sweaters, and blankets.

The appeal led to the formation of the UK Crafters For Australia Animal Rescue Effort and, within days, the number of crafty helpers had rocketed to 17,000.

Joanne, raised in Billingham and now living in Hartlepool, is just one of them. She’s also roped in seven-year-old grand-daughter Eva, who lives in Darlington.

“Crafting is my hobby and it’s been wonderful to be able to use those skills in a practical way to help the terrible situation in Australia,” said Joanne, who is Head of Special Needs for Stockton Borough Council.

“I learned from my Nanna and now Eva’s learning from her Nanna, and we’re doing what we can together.”

Joanne, wife of Darlington Football Club Community and Operations Consultant Dave Mills, started by crocheting nests for adult kangaroos and wallabies, and she and Eva have also been making pouches for joeys, as well as larger marsupials.

“It’s amazing how something so small has become so big and it’s a lovely feeling working together with like-minded people for such a good cause,” said Joanne.

Over the weekend, Joanne and Eva were among those who delivered their woolly creations to Panico’s arts and craft store in Stockton, which has become a central hub for donations bound for Australia.

It might be thousands of miles away but grandma and grand-daughter are doing their bit – sew far, sew good.

AS much as I admire everything Joanne Mills is doing with her sewing needles, she can’t quite match the contribution of Los Angeles-based glamour model Kaylen Ward.

Kaylen pledged to send a nude snap to anyone who donated at least $10 to organisations supporting the victims of the Australian bushfire crisis. So far, she’s raised an estimated $1m.

Over to you, Joanne. It could always be a raffle – £5 a strip.

MY thoughts this week are also with my old friend Lyndon Longhorne who’s been having a tough time over Christmas.

A month ago, Lyndon was named the champion of champions at the 20th anniversary of our Local Heroes Awards.

Lyndon, from Crook, lost both legs and an arm when meningitis struck as a toddler but, through the most amazing courage and dedication, he somehow became a record-breaking swimmer.

Over the festive period, he became ill. It began with a cold, then flu-like symptoms, leading to an ear and chest infection, then a severe headache. After seeing a doctor, he ended up in hospital, and was sent for tests.

“I knew what was coming,” he told me.

Sure enough, the “m-word” was back.  He was given a diagnosis of viral meningitis.

Given his past medical history, it’s easy to see why it was terrifying. “I couldn’t bear to think it was back,” he said.

Mercifully, it was not the more dangerous bacterial strain of the infection.

Lyndon is slowly getting better but it’s typical of him to be thinking of others from his sickbed. He’s asked me to urge people to get vaccinated and publicise the symptoms of meningitis.

Here they are: fever, cold hands and feet; drowsy, difficult to wake up; severe muscle pain; severe headache; dislike bright lights; vomiting; confusion and irritability; pale, blotchy skin, spots or rash; stiff neck; convulsions or seizures.

“Carry the symptoms round with you and seek medical advice as soon as possible. It could save your life,” he said.

Get well soon, mate.

IT’S always gratifying to see one of your stories find its way to the nationals.

On Christmas Eve, I wrote a front page story for The Northern Echo about the “Phantom Poo Dumper of Bishopton” – a mystery surrounding “mountains” of horse manure being dumped around the County Durham village.

Developments are awaited but I hear whispers that the culprit is close to being identified.

In the meantime, I’m grateful to the anonymous reader who was moved by the story to send me a copy of “perhaps the greatest headline of all time” from the Dundee Evening Telegraph.

The Northern Echo:

FINALLY, I was interested to read that a sculpture featuring a giant swirl of whipped cream, with a cherry on top, is going to be the latest attraction to be erected in Trafalgar Square.

I suggest they call it the Trifle Tower.