A PLACARD held up by an animal rights campaigner outside the Bernard Matthews turkey farm at the heart of the avian flu outbreak warns: End Factory Farming Before It Ends Us.

The alarm is well-founded. You need to be in denial about the nature of much modern food not to recognise that with such scares as salmonella, BSE and foot-and-mouth we have already sailed dangerously close to the wind. We need to change our ways before we awake one day to find that virtually nothing is safe to eat, and some food-induced epidemic is ravaging populations across the globe.

And yet - and it's a strange slip-up for the animal rights movement - that placard misses the main point.

If we choose to infect ourselves with rubbish food that's our affair. The most appalling aspect of the events at the Bernard Matthews operation is the ruthless exploitation of animals exposed by the crisis.

Far from promotional images, here is a farming Auschwitz. The very fact that each morning workers need to wade in among the densely-crowded birds to pick out the overnight dead speaks volumes for the horrors suffered by those hapless turkeys.

OK - many of the non-farmers among us take a too-sentimental view of farm animals. But I can't imagine that most farmers aren't as horrified as the rest of us by the shocking scenes from the Bernard Matthews turkey sheds.

One who certainly is is Paul Talling, who runs a flock of free-range poultry, including turkeys, near Helmsley.

"What goes on at these big plants isn't farming,'' he says. "They're factories - and pretty horrible, depressing factories at that.'' Paul says that if the order comes to confine his birds indoors he would prefer to cull them as "the far more humane option... It would be against all my principles to lock them up. The welfare of the bird is paramount.'' Paul's last sentence says it all. We have a duty to respect the dignity of all living creatures, short of the worst vermin. The existence of "farms" like Bernard Matthews' reflects badly on the society that condones them. More bluntly, they are an indictment against us all. They should be shut down tomorrow.

Yes, meat would be dearer. We either want a better world or we don't.

A S a footnote - here's proof that things can improve. A century ago, in his book, Rambles by the River Tees, Michael Heavisides reported an otter hunt at Hurworth. Spectators greeted the death of the otter with "cheer upon cheer'', and clamoured for scraps of the pelt. On March 4 this year, a bus will take people on an otter-spotting trip up the Tees.