Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

Whatever happened to bird flu? This time last year, we were battening down the hatches, preparing for the worst pandemic since the Black Death. There weren't enough vaccines to go round! Up to 50,000 Britons were likely to die! Those of us with chickens were beginning to look at our Cream Legbars as the enemy, rather like the people at the start of the Second World War who became suspicious of any neighbours with a German-sounding surname.

Our Legbars were the Schmidts, our Warrens the Brandts, and our Marans the Fassbinders - probably not a real danger to us, and we carried on being polite to them, but we couldn't really be sure. We kept a watchful eye for any behaviour out of the ordinary, and wondered what it was that they were all endlessly clucking about, bearing in mind that Careless Squawks Cost Lives.

I joke, but of course it's a serious issue. My friend the chicken farmer thinks that bird flu, while not exactly a flight of fanciful journalism, was covered irresponsibly by the media. I prefer to think of the coverage as alarming rather than alarmist. It may even have been a factor in the apparent containment of the disease.

On the other hand, I can see where my friend is coming from. There's nothing the press likes more than a collective prophesy of doom, if only because it sells papers. I can quite see why people might think, with the dire warnings and terrifying predictions having simply petered out, that bird flu was just the media's plat du jour for a few weeks until a better story came along, like the war in Iraq, or the state of David and Victoria Beckham's marriage, say.

The scientists who predicted the catastrophe, meanwhile, are sticking to their guns. They say that bird flu is still spreading dangerously through South-east Asia, and that there will be more cases in Europe this winter. Happily, the lethal H5N1 strain has not mutated so that it can be transmitted between humans, the development that we were told, a year ago, was only a matter of time. Perhaps it still is only a matter of time...

A couple of weeks ago, my eight-year-old son Jacob, while walking through a car park in Hereford with his mum, tripped over a trailing shoelace and bashed his face on a low wall. (You might wonder what this has to do with bird flu, but bear with me.) There was a lot of blood and a suspected broken nose. Jane whisked him straight off to Hereford County Hospital, where there was nobody in the waiting-room and he was seen straight away. It is one of the pleasures of having moved out of north London that, when these things happen, we no longer have to endure the Dante-esque A&E department at the Whittington or the Royal Free Hospital.

Anyway, the nurse who saw Jacob was marvellous. She tested his responses and said that she could tell he wasn't a smoker, which made him laugh, and kept remarking what a big boy he was for three. She was a right old hoot, and best of all, she fixed butterfly stitches over the wound, which made him a celebrity at school the next day.

But the point is that he fell over his laces. We have been telling both him and his older brother for years that, if they wander around with their shoelaces undone, then one day, they will trip over them and hurt themselves badly, but, of course, they just dismissed the warning as one of those boringly doom-laden things that parents say, like the other one about catching pneumonia if they go out without a coat on.

Except that, on this particular day, it happened exactly as we'd been predicting. So, if I cast government scientists as Jane and me, and bird flu as Jacob's undone shoelace, I can see that there might still be something to worry about. Sometimes, the only way to imagine something unimaginable is to put it into a personal, domestic context.

Whatever happens on the bird-flu front, a biologist called Dr Evans has recently discovered that chickens are far more intelligent than was previously thought. If bird flu does hit the papers again, I think I'll be careful not to line the henhouse with the offending front pages. Keep Mum, She's Not So Dumb.

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