Farming: The great ostrich saga continues, in Belgium

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The Independent Online
The great ostrich hunt is hotting up - but my chances of recovering either my money or the bird I thought I had bought still seem extremely poor.

Let me recapitulate. Back in April it was suddenly announced that the Ostrich Farming Corporation (OFC) had gone into receivership - bad news for me and other punters who had put money into a venture that promised high financial returns. I myself had paid pounds 3,000, plus pounds 525 VAT, for what the company described as an 18-month-old female, and I had signed a banker's order contributing pounds 30 a month for the bird's maintenance. Like everyone else, I had been issued with a certificate bearing the number of a microchip allegedly inserted into the back of the creature's neck for identification.

The crash came as a shock to all concerned, but particularly to me because I had assumed that my bird was alive and well on a farm in Oxfordshire, where I had seen ostriches flourishing before I made my investment. For a day or so I hoped she might still be there - but no such luck: it soon transpired that early in 1995 all the OFC's birds had been transferred to farms in Belgium.

At a High Court hearing in June, Mr Justice Lightman dismissed the Corporation's sales brochures as "a comprehensive bunch of lies and half truths", and revealed that the organisation had siphoned off pounds 7m of investors' money. Nevertheless, after two visits to Belgium, the Official Receiver has confirmed that 3,500 ostriches do exist there. So the main concern of us owners is to recover our birds, or at least safeguard them.

Disquieting rumours abound: that several hundred young ostriches died, as well as some adults; that after a while the OFC ceased to differentiate between male and female birds when allocating microchip numbers; that at the end the Corporation was selling numbers rather than ostriches. One certain fact which has emerged is that the birds were never insured - even though we were told categorically that insurance had been arranged, and that any ostrich lost would be replaced by one of identical value.

Leading the hunt for a solution is the recently formed Ostrich Owners' Protection Group. Already this has 1,600 members, but John Lee, the former police chief superintendent who is acting as the group's secretary and administrator, believes there are at least another 1,000 owners around.

The surviving ostriches are now in the care of Eddie Nachtergaele, a Belgian farmer. Some are at two establishments of his own: Zooparc Amo Safari and the E & A Ranch. Other are at four satellite stations. Tests have shown that some of them, at least, do carry microchips, either in their necks or in their rumps. When a special reader is pointed at the right spot, a nine-figure number comes up on an LCD screen.

For the time being, negotiations are bogged down in Belgian court proceedings, because Mr Nachtergaele has taken out a formal lien over the birds. With maintenance payments cut off, and feeding costs amounting to pounds 50,000 a month, he has threatened to start slaughtering some of the stock unless the present impasse can be resolved.

In its most recent newsletter to owners, the OOPG described the situation as "extremely disappointing", and warned that even if the identities of particular ostriches are established, legal issues will probably prevent the owners removing them "for months to come". All the same, Mr Lee, who has visited Zooparc twice, is impressed by the efficiency and cleanliness of the farm, and reports that he has discussed "the shell of an idea" with Mr Nachtergaele. This is that the owners should form a cooperative and exchange their rights to individual birds for shares in the new company, which would then carry on farming the birds in a professional fashion.

I dare say this is the only plan with a reasonable chance of success, and I myself have joined the owners' group. Yet it is galling to think that my bird - supposing she exists - is now three years old and worth pounds 6,000. Moreover, this summer, for the first time, she should be laying four-pound eggs, worth more than pounds 100 apiece. And if all goes well, her productive life will last at least 30 years.

I am haunted by the feeling that if I cued her number - 001 523 353 - into the right point on the Internet, I might suddenly get straight through to her, and send her coded instructions for escaping to England. In the meantime, I can only will her to hang on in there until the Official Receiver and the owners' group have sorted out the mess - one might call it the gigantic omelette - that the fraudsters of the OFC created.