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Out of America: Big bird holds out a promise of big bucks

CLEBURNE, TEXAS - His name is Sir Lawrence. He stands somewhere over 6ft 6in tall and weighs in at around 300lb, hardly an ounce of it fat. But what astonished me most were his eyes: great pools of liquid hazel, framed by long soft lashes which women would die for.

Thus described he might be a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys with matinee idol potential. In fact Sir Larry, as I prefer to call him, is a living emblem of one of the hottest growth industries in Texas. He is a breeding male ostrich.

To inspect him in person you must go to the Rocking A Ostrich Ranch here, owned by Ron and Joan Ashcraft, roughly 55 miles south-west of Dallas. Sir Larry spends his days on the prairie with two concubines, a pair of even taller South African bluenecks called Prissie and Rosie.

'Last year he was a bit overcome by the presence of two females,' Ms Ashcraft told me, 'but this year he's just done wonderfully.' As of last Thursday the menage a trois had already produced 99 eggs.

It must be said at once that 1993 has not been kind to the Ashcrafts. Despite its soaring popularity, ostrich-rearing is still largely uncharted scientific territory, and in the first weeks of life the birds have very weak immune systems. Out of the first 38 chicks hatched at the Rocking A this season, 37 have died of a mysterious virus.

'There's nothing you can do for the poor little things,' Ms Ashcraft said as she watched anxiously over two six-day-old chicks, each almost as large as a rooster. 'They just keel over. The vets still aren't sure what causes it. But we've cloroxed everything and, touch wood, the worst of it is over.'

If that optimism is correct, then some simple financial calculations explain why in middle age the Ashcrafts turned to this exotic form of livestock raising. One day the market for ostriches will go bust, but for the time being they look like gold with feathers on. In truth those feathers, which a century ago made the bird the darling of the fashion industry, are now the least of it. Today they are harvested mainly for dusters, said to be the finest in the world.

Ostrich meat, though, is another matter. Boasting the taste of beef but with only a fraction of the cholesterol, it fetches dollars 40 ( pounds 26) a pound. Then there is the hide, so prized that a pair of 'full quill' Texan ostrich boots can sell for dollars 800 a pair.

Small wonder that membership of the American Ostrich Association, based in Fort Worth, has rocketed from 200 to 2,500 in three years. A third of them are to be found in Texas alone. But ranches have sprung up the length and breadth of the country, even in Canada, along with half a dozen specialist magazines.

Best of all, demand far outstrips supply. The precise size of the ostrich population in the US is something of a mystery. It is estimated at anywhere between 15,000 and 100,000. But even at the upper end of that range, not until near the end of the century will it be large enough to satisfy the slaughter market for meat and hides. Fashions, of course, can change. Right now, however, with care you can't go wrong. After hearing what I heard in Fort Worth, a less obsessively cautious investor than myself would probably have poured a few thousand dollars into the industry on the spot.

Susan Adkins, the association's executive director, told me the story of a man in Oklahoma, one of life's drifters who started as an electrician and then became a fishing instructor. Someone suggested he went into ostriches. 'He set up a ranch and got lucky. The pair of birds he bought produced 100 eggs. They virtually all survived and he made over dollars 300,000.' Given that ostriches can probably breed for 40 years ('though we haven't been doing this for long enough to be sure'), this Oklahoman could one day be very rich indeed.

Texas is the industry's heartland, and somehow rightly so. Only at first glance is it odd that this land of machismo should be devoting a rapidly growing portion of its energies to rearing flightless birds. In fact, ostrich-farming is a perfect fit for the Lone Star state. It offers exoticism, the promise of new riches and also danger. Not only are ostriches reared; they are smuggled, even rustled like cattle.

Which helps explain the enthusiasm of small-scale ranchers like Ms Ashcraft, despite her misfortunes this year. These days, a healthy breeding pair can fetch more than dollars 65,000 - she reckons her threesome is worth around dollars 100,000. For a fledgling of three months (by then 3ft tall) you must pay dollars 3,000 to dollars 4,000, while an unhatched fertile egg will cost up to dollars 2,000.

Thanks to the Stakhanovite labours of Prissie and Rosie, Ms Ashcraft has some 50 of the latter, a treasure trove worth dollars 100,000 which she keeps in incubators in the spare bedroom of her bungalow, at a constant temperature of 97 degrees Fahrenheit. If the plague were to strike again, there's always Sir Larry and those trusting tender eyes. And oh yes, I forgot to to mention it. She has half a dozen emus as well.