Country Matters: Mrs Furry Feet is sitting tight

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I AM GLAD to report a strong entry in the South West Regional Decorated Easter Egg competition, run by the National Farmers' Union. Judging took place at the Crealy Country Park, near Exeter, on Thursday; the winners carried off prizes of up to pounds 25, and the exhibits will remain on show until 11 April.

By then, some of them may be on the high side, for although the rules laid down that most eggs had to be blown, a special dispensation was made for four- to six-year- old children, who were allowed to submit specimens that had been boiled. 'Please ensure that these eggs are very well hard boiled for at least 15 minutes]' said the instructions - but as everybody who has smelt one knows, a vintage boiled egg can turn even more noisome than a raw one.

As in other years, many of the 1994 entries have taken the form of animals. There is a reindeer with body of egg and head of ping-pong ball, a barn owl wreathed in cotton wool, a spider armed with spindly pipe-cleaner legs, and (inevitably) several dinosaurs, with dorsal ridges of Plasticene stuck on to shells.

As more than 4,000 children took part in the contest, it is clear that an immense amount of effort went into it, and that a good deal of fun has been had: the eggsercise (as organisers insist on calling it) effortlessly spawns puns about eggciting events, eggstravaganzas and cracking successes.

Yet the object of the event is not just to create entertainment over Easter: rather, it is to promote the general consumption of eggs, which has still not recovered from the body-blow dealt it by Edwina Currie and the salmonella scare in 1989. After that spectacular collapse of public confidence, the number of laying hens had to be reduced from 52 million to under 42 million, and it has remained near that depressed level ever since - for the average Brit now eats only 170 eggs a year, compared with the 230 that he once put away.

The British Egg Industry Council has done everything it can to rebuild confidence, not least with its Lion logo, which confirms that the contents of boxes 'have been produced and distributed to higher standards of hygiene than those required by UK and EC law'. Collection, grading, packing and distribution are now so efficient that eggs are often in big supermarkets within 24 hours of being laid.

None of this seems to be making much impression on consumers. Yet this week a new factor entered the equation - British Telecom's rallying-cry 'Wake Up to BT's Daytime Rate', jet-sprayed on to 13.5 million shells for Asda and Tesco supermarkets. Although at first sight this looks like nothing more than an advertisement for BT, it is also the opening shot in a test campaign by Eggvert International, a firm charged with the task of exploring, over the next two years, whether or not this sort of promotion can offer egg producers a useful means of supplementing income.

I am all for decorated Easter eggs, and egg-hunts in the garden on Easter Sunday, but I have an innate suspicion of eggs with commercial information written on them. I know that the BT slogan is nothing more sinister than red vegetable dye blown on to the shell at high pressure by a device called a Jetpen, which can deal with eight eggs a second: nevertheless, the mere fact that an egg bears any inscription suggests to me that it has been around the place too long.

The slogan stirs uneasy memories of the Western Brothers, ace radio-comedians in the days of post-war rationing, and of their patter-song 'Play the Game'. I think especially of the verse that ended: 'Don't look at the date on your one Polish egg . . . Play the game, chaps, play the game.'

But then, as I never buy eggs anyway, I cannot be considered a normal customer. At home, we find we can dispose of our own free-range eggs faster than the hens can lay them: we seldom have any to sell, but the odd dozen given away elicit enthusiasm out of all proportion to their worth.

For us, the main Easter event on the egg front is the fact that our veteran Brahma hen - she of the furry feet - has gone down on a clutch of eight and is sitting hard. Every spring for the past six years she has hatched out a small family, and we are hoping that she will do so again - for foxes keep taking their toll, and the flock needs new recruits.

The connection between poultry and pine martens may not be immediately apparent; but it is all too clear to anyone whose birds have been wiped out by these incredibly lithe and agile carnivores, which resemble outsize, chestnut- brown ferrets. Once they have zeroed in on a chicken-house, it is exceedingly difficult to keep them out, for they climb like squirrels and worm their way through the tiniest openings. Worst of all, they are liable to massacre every inmate - for, like foxes, they seem to derive pleasure from the act of murder, and kill far more than they can eat or drag away.

Poultry-keepers are therefore viewing with some apprehension the report recently published by English Nature on the possible reintroduction of the pine marten to selected areas of Britain. A survey conducted by Dr Peter Bright and Dr Stephen Harris of Bristol University concluded that although martens are still thriving in Scotland, they are probably extinct in England and Wales.

Essentially woodland creatures, living principally on voles, they were once common in England; but as forest cover diminished and intensive gamekeeping spread, survivors withdrew northwards and eventually died out. Now that our woods are expanding again under more enlightened management, the English Nature report suggests several areas in which reintroductions might be attempted: the Weald of Sussex, the New Forest, the Forest of Dean, central Wales, Sherwood Forest and Thetford Chase among them.

Clearly, the wilder the area, the greater the chances of success. Roads and gamekeepers are identified as the marten's principal enemies - so the fewer of either, the better. But the crucial question is whether ordinary citizens would welcome the experiment.

The authors of the report draw interesting comparisons between attitudes to wild carnivores in various countries. In continental Europe, for instance, pine martens are still widespread, and therefore accepted with equanimity as part of the natural scene. Here, by contrast, they are generally regarded as vermin - so that any reintroduction would have to be preceded by a careful public-relations campaign.

The authors stress that their report is no more than a preliminary study, and they give no details of how reintroductions might be carried out. The idea of restoring part of our natural heritage is certainly attractive - 'lynxes for Scotland' is another suggestion now in vogue - but would such schemes work?

The reality is that our island is small and overcrowded, and that extra killers are not welcome - witness the long-running campaign to exterminate mink, which escaped from farms and established themselves in the wild. We may be able to manage machines that print slogans on eight eggs a second; but, with so many humans and cars, we simply do not have the space in which to deploy powerful predators.