Nail-biting problem for the nation's ostrich farmers

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The Independent Online
PLANS to put ostrich meat on the British menu have struck a problem: ostrich farmers have discovered that the birds have an unhealthy and almost unquenchable appetite for nails and other metal objects.

A bird from one of Britain's biggest ostrich farms was found with 71 nails in its gizzard. Six other ostriches monitored with a metal detector were found at post-mortem to have swallowed a total of nearly 200 nails and other pieces of metal, as well as large stones and pieces of wood.

Scientists are so concerned about the strange tastes of Britain's latest farmyard animal that they have issued a warning in the Veterinary Record telling prospective ostrich farmers to take ''extreme care'' in preparing pastures ''to ensure that all potential foreign objects are removed'' .

They cite one extreme case of an ostrich which died after swallowing 2.5 metres of barbed wire. Even young ostriches seem to have no problem swallowing nails up to 4in long. Other items found inside the birds include hinges, mower blades and solidified molten aluminium from an old fire.

Ostriches that eat nails usually become ill and die, although at least one was saved by force-feeding and the nails seemed to disappear by rusting away.

Charles Deeming, an ostrich researcher at the University of Manchester who also works at the Hangland ostrich farm near Banbury, said that the animal's habit of eating nails and other metal objects may have been picked up in Africa, where most of the adult birds come from.

The design and make of some of the nails indicated that some birds had been imported into the UK with the foreign objects inside them.

Ostriches were becoming more common on farms around the world, Dr Deeming said. Since 1990 there had been a steady increase in ostrich farms in Britain. He estimated that there were now about 200 ostrich farms in the country, ranging from small setups with a few birds to Hangland with a population of 500.

Britain's farmyard ostriches derive from a stock that was domesticated in South Africa more than 100 years ago. Farmers are interested in the birds because they produce relatively large amounts of high-quality meat.

''It looks like steak but is low in cholesterol," Dr Deeming said. "It's really quite acceptable with a lot of flavour but not gamey."

The nail-eating habit of ostriches could be a reaction to living in stressful conditions and might be overcome by understanding what made an ostrich happy and content, Dr Deeming said. He has begun a research programme into ostrich behaviour to understand more about what makes them eat strange objects.