FRANKLY, it'is enough to make Megan Pickford want to bury her head in the sand. Trying to unravel the bureaucratic knot that threatens to choke her weird enterprise - air-freighting 78 randy wing-fanning ostriches from Zimbabwe to Qingdao in China's Shangdong province - is testing, to say the least. But she has good reason to be patient. Countries like South Africa, New Zealand and Britain are already riding the crest of a speculative boom in the farming of these neurotic, periscope-necked birds. Pickford, not one to shy away from a challenge, is midwifing the birth of a project that she believes will stimulate similar interest in the big bird's earning potential within the largest and most untried marketplace of all: China. With her leonine mane of blonde hair, hazel eyes and porcelain complexion, she appears an unlikely candidate for this boisterous mission. But her finely featured good looks sheathe a pragmatic resolve. Drawing deeply on a Marlboro cigarette, she explains that although'ostriches have been farmed for 150 years for their feathers, they are now the least economically viable part of the bird. 'Our concern is the meat and hides. Ostrich meat is the closest of any animal to beef but with 90 per cent less fat. The market price for ostrich leather is currently around US$48 [$370] per square foot. We slaughter the birds at 12 months; the meat's tender, like lamb as opposed to mutton, plus they've each got a good 15 square feet of hide. They're very viable livestock.'' Pickford works for a southeast African ostrich-farming company, Big Bird Zimbabwe, which is currently setting up seven strategically located joint farming ventures on the mainland. It retains a 35 per cent share in each with local Chinese investment providing the remaining capital. For the next year, Pickford will be based in Qingdao, overseeing the development of the pilot farm. She exhales a nimbus of smoke with apparent relief; despite a threatening jungle of red tape, she has successfully imported her first flock of three-year-old pedigree Blue Neck breeding adults and installed them on the four-hectare farm. It marks the end of two years of negotiations with the Zimbabwean and Chinese governments securing the requisite migraine of documents: export, import and veterinary permits, quarantine approval ('Bio-security is very important') and, naturally, money. 'We transport the birds aboard a specially equipped DC8 freighter costing about US$180,000, which we pay up-front 14 days before the departure date,' she says. 'We can be right down to the wire with the birds crated on the tarmac ready to be loaded and we discover that there's been a hitch finding the foreign exchange in China and the letter of credit isn't ready. There's a lot of bureaucracy.'' With each ostrich in transit worth $9,000, the birds are high-maintenance passengers, requiring blacked-out windows, a consistent cabin temperature of 15 degrees Celsius, four tonnes of feed and $15,000-worth of medical supplies. 'We need an air-freight operation that really knows what it's doing,' says Pickford. 'The last shipment got overheated in the Maldives, where we land to refuel. As soon as he took off, this Zairean pilot flew up to 10,000 feet [3,000 metres] and opened the back of the plane to circulate some cold air. It was the quickest way of cooling them down. If the birds are hot, they get stressed and start stepping on each other; it's bad news, particularly when the hens are in lay. If an egg breaks inside a hen, you have to do surgery to get the bits out.'' After landing in Qingdao, the ostriches are released like a troupe of crazed ballerinas into a large paddock where they spend one month frolicking within the privacy of quarantine. The farm's incubation facility is ready to receive the large, 1.78-kilogram eggs that the hens push out with the regularity of a conveyor belt. Since one adult female can produce as many as 60 of these leathery spheres a year during her 25-year breeding career, large incubators which can accurately simulate the behaviour of the hen, turning the eggs 12 times a day, carefully adjusting temperature and humidity, are a crucial investment for the farm. The Qingdao project has imported three, 225-egg-capacity incubators from Australia, costing $20,000 each. At 42 days, the eggs hatch. Since an ostrich egg can cheerfully support up to 20 kg, it'is not surprising that, in the absence of their mothers, staff have to be on hand to help the chicks break out of their ceramic-strength prisons. Then their little umbilical cords are swabbed with gentian violet and they are transferred to a hatcher, a large heated, sterile barn designed and built by Pickford's construction team, where the 12-month rearing process begins. 'Our aim obviously is to get the chicks strong and healthy as quickly as possible,' says Pickford. 'We don't believe in selling shonky birds so we cull the ones that can't be slaughtered at one year or don't have breeding potential.'' Training is a key area of investment for Pickford, albeit of time rather than dollars. Because there is little documentation on ostrich management, Pickford and her associates are writing their own. 'It's not our aim to have expat staff in China forever,' she says. 'The best way to run these farms is to have well-trained Chinese staff in place but, at the moment, they don't have the technical skills. We've got 26 local Chinese working on the Qingdao farm and we're teaching them, step by step, how to look after the birds. It takes twice as long as normal, of course, because everything has to be interpreted but, I'll tell you what, my English-Mandarin dictionary has been a godsend!'' After it has been translated, her illustrated manual will become the definitive document on ostrich husbandry for all seven farms. In tandem with a series of instructional videos her construction manager is filming, it shows staff everything from how to examine a growing ostrich embryo inside its egg to sinking fence posts. 'Ostriches are big birds,' says Pickford. 'They'll kick down bad fences; it could hurt them and, in the long run, damage the hides.'' Clearly, it'is all about maintaining happy, healthy livestock able to engender lusty progeny and yield a high-quality end product for export. Pickford, for one, isn't worried that she could be sticking her neck out on a risky venture. 'These farms will eventually begin importing first-generation African birds to sell to other traders within China. In time, they'll sell eggs, too. There's no doubt the potential is here to develop a locally sustainable industry in ostrich products.'' And what of an ostrich rodeo? Riding the big birds bareback might be the main attraction on the South African veldt these days but is it ever likely to take off on the sunny seaside esplanades of Qingdao? Probably not. Megan Pickford and her crew are too busy hatching something big; they'll leave the rough stuff to the cowboys.