Brian Viner: Country Life

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The Independent Online

While he was staying with us over Christmas, my brother-in-law Tony floated a theory to which, as a professional newspaperman, I should probably have taken exception. And yet I had to agree. "Newspapers are never more interesting", he said, "than when you're using them to make a fire."

He was referring to the near-impossibility of scrunching up even a week-old paper without an article suddenly catching your eye. It is invariably one that you glanced at a week earlier and decided not to read because the subject matter didn't interest you, but now, sitting cross-legged on the floor with coal dust all over your hands, it seems imperative to read every word.

The accuracy of Tony's theory struck me again yesterday, albeit in slightly different circumstances. I was mucking out the chickens, a task that requires the removal of a layer of poo-encrusted newspaper, when, beneath the collective doings of our four Warrens, two Marans and two Cream Legbars, I spotted an interview with George Clooney that I simply had to read. Only after I'd enjoyed it from beginning to end - and guessed at the few words obliterated by particularly adhesive bits of chickenshit - did it occur to me how ridiculous it was to have stood in the bitter cold, trying to read a newspaper that had passed through my hands several days earlier in pristine condition but that had since been deployed as a lavatory for poultry. And we call chickens stupid!

Now, speaking of stupidity and chickens, I saw a lovely cartoon the other day of one simple-looking man asking another if he is worried about bird flu. "No," comes the reply. "'Cos I'm a bloke, aren't I?"

The prevailing opinion on avian flu in these parts, a region of England containing rather more chickens than humans, appears to be that the doom-mongers are about as ignorant as that bloke in the cartoon. My friend Stuart, who lives about 20 fields away and can thus be classed as practically our next-door neighbour, runs Springfield Farm, one of the country's most reputable organic, free-range poultry farms. When people ask me what I think about avian flu, I say that when Stuart starts to get worried, so will I. At the moment, he is more worried about his golf handicap.

Nor are they panicking at the Wernlas Collection, the rare-breeds centre in Shropshire, which sells upward of 8,000 birds a year, and from where we bought our Buff Rocks, Cuckoo Silkies and White Silkies. Shaun, the owner, told me last week that they have not yet had any cancelled orders, and that this February's turnover was about the same as last February's. He is taking the threat seriously, but at the moment the only risk to his health is that he might damage his back when lifting up the European Union directive on controlling avian influenza. Apparently, it's a formidably hefty document.

Shaun insists that things need to be kept in perspective, and that the 90-odd human deaths from bird flu since 1988, while very bad news for the 90-odd, hardly suggest that we're about to be hit by a 21st-century version of the Black Death. "But it's obviously of some concern," he said, adding that March is normally the month in which they start hatching weekly, but they're going to stick to a fortnightly regime until they have a clearer idea of how their sales will be affected by growing public anxiety.

All of which brings me back to newspapers. I think it's safe to say (although I'm not sure whether it's safe for me to say, and if this column is missing next week, then you'll know it isn't) that all papers are inclined, from time to time, to overegg the health-scare pudding. I know that's a clumsy metaphor, by the way, but it was the only one I could think of involving eggs, and it's good to get egg metaphors into a discussion of bird flu. Whether this particular pudding has been overegged remains to be seen. But as a small gesture of solidarity with my birds, I am trying not to line the henhouse with any front-page stories about a disease that may yet wipe them out. Besides, as females given to occasional bouts of broodiness, they'd rather sit, I'm sure, on George Clooney.