An oasis of calm in a poultry crisis

The signs are now in place on the borders of the restricted zone. Local newspapers have moved on to emergency footing and bear headlines which read “The crisis – what YOU can do”. Meanwhile, within the zone, we are doing our best to keep calm. We try to keep our chickens from fraternising with wild birds. We scan the horizon for any shovelers, swans or geese who might, addled by disease, perhaps, have overshot the east coast and flown inland.

Outside the zone, the mood seems to be rather more twitchy. Friends have called to ask whether I might not be getting rather too close to my little flock of bantams while feeding them. Perhaps, they suggest, the health risk involved in poultry keeping has become unacceptably high. There are anxious enquiries as to whether I have been in close contact with the birds.

That is a slightly tricky one. A disastrous hatching season last year meant there were far too many cockerels. As they became adults, they had begun to fight with one another, upsetting the dynamic which makes for a contented bunch of hens. Something had to be done. One night last week, I stole out to the hen-house, gently removed three sleepy cockerels one after another, apologised to each of them, and then wrung their necks.

Such are the small pains and dramas of keeping chickens. It is said that there are more smallholders than ever before in this country, and frankly that is no surprise. Hens may not be perfect pets – they lack personality and are bad at showing affection – but their presence adds a level of contentment to a field or garden difficult to explain.

Away from the smallholdings, avian flu will influence attitudes to the way we produce food, and perhaps not for the better. There has been significantly less concern at the outbreak in a factory this week than when, last year, a single dead swan was found. Bernard Matthews has already been praised for the high level of bio-security which enabled him to prevent the spread of disease outside his turkey farms.

Wildness strikes fear into the modern soul. The sight of poultry mixing with wild birds agitates people, weirdly, more than the idea of their being packed close together in vast industrial units and fattened at a chemically accelerated rate. In death, as in life, the animals remain out of sight behind large metal doors.

Yet it must be the case that the more intensive the methods of meat production, the greater the potential danger to health. The lesson of Holton is not that sophisticated bio-security will keep us safe, but that humane, and probably more expensive, ways of producing meat should be encouraged. The already powerful case for buying locally, if possible avoiding supermarkets, has been strengthened by the events of the past few days.

Meanwhile, there are encouraging signs that some of the hysteria with which this subject was discussed last year has abated. There are no panic requests for Tamiflu jabs, sales of poultry have not slumped.

Within the restricted zone, there has been discussion about what should happen at Chicken Roundabout, a spot on the A143 where unwanted chickens are left to wander and be fed by a local bird-lover. It is one of those mad East Anglian sights: a main road surrounded by different breeds of chicken, roaming free. Will they be culled? Sensibly, the local council has announced that, for the purpose of this crisis, the chickens are to be classified as wild birds.

Where are the portly presenters?

For a feature celebrating female power, the upmarket Harper’s Bazaar has included a photograph of Martha Kearney, Emily Maitlis and Kirsty Wark, posing attractively in party frocks on a staircase.

It is tempting to comment that they make a glamorous, sexy trio, because they do, but Kirsty Wark has pre-empted such thoughts by talking of the “male fantasy” that surrounds Newsnight’s female presenters and their alleged rivalry.

The context is odd, but it is a fair comment. The problem with television is not that it is sexist but that looks, male or female, are everything. Where is the bald Newsnight presenter, or the fat one? And that, remember, is on a news programme of impeccable seriousness.

* National Marriage Week starts today and will end on Valentine’s Day. At its launch, the Archbishop of Canterbury complained that “the commentating classes of north London”, having made a mess of their own marriages, wilfully fail to recognise the wider social damage that marital breakdown can cause.

Apparently they – or, rather, “we” – are trading off the inherited capital of previous generations, whose “prosaic heroism” has provided the “moral geography” from which we benefit.

It is a fascinating, but irritating, argument. Is it really so laudable, the prosaic heroism that in the past kept couples locked miserably together in marriage? Surely the morality which it offered, often based on compromise, deception and unkindness, was no better than that provided by today’s commentating classes.

There is an argument to be had about men and women, but neither side has quite the nerve or the energy to pursue it – rather as if they were in a marriage.