Until earlier this week, when the Ostrich Farming Corporation collapsed into receivership, I had high hopes that you were going to be my financial salvation. Now I am beginning to think that you were never more than an expensive figment of my imagination ...
I first took an interest in ostriches in 1994: the farming of these huge, flightless birds was clearly on the up, and in the course of research for an article I was directed to Vince Tyack, owner of Brookfield Farm, a 120-acre property near Stow-on-the-Wold, in Gloucestershire, with whom the corporation was then working.
Vince, who until 1990 had farmed cattle, had about 100 ostriches in his steeply sloping grass paddocks, and as we walked round, with the residents craning over their high fences to tweak at our hair and ears with their beaks, he confirmed much of what I had been hearing. Demand for breeding birds was so strong that prices had shot up to pounds 8,000 for a single breeding female. The meat, which is red as beef and remarkably free of cholesterol, was beginning to sell at pounds 10 per pound, and the hides yielded valuable leather.
I came away impressed, and wrote an article for the Independent, but at that stage I had no plan to buy a bird of my own. Then I received a report from my stockbroker, beginning: "Dear Sir, I am sorry to say that, due to a combination of unfortunate circumstances, the value of your portfolio has declined by 6 per cent over the past year." Suddenly, I thought: "To hell with this."
Ever since the appearance of my article, the corporation had been bombarding me with seductive advertising. Demand for ostriches was far outstripping supply, it said. Prices were rocketing. An investment made now should produce extremely high returns. The following birds were available for sale ...
At the beginning of 1995 I succumbed and bought - or thought I bought - a young female, 18 months old, for pounds 3,525. I understood that the bird was at Brookfield Farm, where it would continue to live, and I agreed to pay pounds 30 a month for its upkeep. It is true that I never set eyes on the creature, but I was assured that it could be positively identified by a microchip that had been injected into a muscle at the back of its head soon after hatching, and in due course I received a certificate, dated 28 February, 1995, with the "Bird Identification Number" typed on it.
I knew that the debutante was still too young to breed, but I sat back with the comfortable feeling that in about 18 months' time she should start to do me proud. A captive female normally begins to lay when she is three, and in her first year may produce between 15 and 40 eggs. Thereafter, when she really gets going, she should lay between 50 and 100 a year, and carry on for at least 40 years.
Since eggs were worth pounds 100 apiece, it sounded like money for jam. Supposing that in her first season she laid 20: even granted that I was to share proceeds 50-50 with the corporation, my minimum return would be pounds 1,000, less the pounds 350-odd livery charges - say pounds 650 net, or nearly 20 per cent on capital. If 10 chicks were hatched from her eggs, and five of them survived to three months, they would be worth pounds 6,250 - more like a 90 per cent return to me. At least she was insured against accident and disease.
No doubt I was naive - but somehow the set-up at Brookfield Farm had reassured me. The birds certainly existed. The husbandry looked good, as did the brand-new incubator and other installations. I harboured agreeable notions of visiting my protege from time to time, and getting to know her.
I realised, of course, that I was entirely in the hands of the operators. Unless I went back to the farm, positively identified my bird, and then lurked about all summer watching to see if she laid, how would I know whether she had produced any eggs or not? If, at the end of the season, a report came, saying, "Dear Sir, I am sorry to say that ..." how could I be certain that she had laid only two or three?
Deciding that I was powerless to influence events, I relaxed and waited hopefully. From time to time the corporation sent out news bulletins, as jaunty as they were illiterate. Demand for breeding birds was insatiable: prices were still leaping up - a mature female was now fetching pounds 10,000 or more. Without paying too much attention, I noticed that the corporation had moved its head office from one part of Nottinghamshire to another, in Derbyshire, and that it was extending its operations into Belgium. All seemed auspicious.
Then, on Wednesday, the bombshell: the corporation had collapsed, and the Serious Fraud Office was about to launch an investigation into its affairs. At least, I thought, my bird exists: even if the firm has gone under, my ostrich must still be around. To make certain, I sped across to Brookfield Farm.
Sure enough, the paddocks were pullulating with ostriches, some travelling at high speed as the mating urge took hold. Vince looked very much himself in a smart blue overall. But when I said that I would like to see my bird, consternation took over.
Oh, no: he had fallen out with the corporation more than a year ago. "They used me like a rag," he said, "and I wasn't having it. They removed all their birds and took them to Belgium." He was amazed that I had never been informed.
So was I. I tried to phone the corporation's office in Mansfield, but found that calls were being referred to the official receiver in London. A recorded announcement said that anyone who had bought birds should write to the office in Bloomsbury with details of payments and evidence of ownership. This I have done, and I await results.
I still dearly hope that 011523353 may be alive and well. If she does exist, she must now be three-and-a-bit, and starting her first productive season. She should be laying 4lb eggs in a sandpit in some corner of a foreign field. I suppose she is now officially une autriche.
Vince remains confident that ostriches are, and will be, an excellent investment, especially after all the scares about beef. (Indeed, on the day before the collapse, five other ostrich firms advertised on a single page of one daily newspaper.) He also confirmed that my bird can be identified by a microchip reader: he reckoned that she is worth at least pounds 5,000, and said that if I find her and bring her back, he will be happy to board her in the Cotswolds. Owners, unite! What price a raid across the Channel?