Is Chistmas the only time we see the bird be seen on the dinner table?

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Turkey Facts:

Approximately 10 million turkeys are eaten in the UK at Christmas while 60 million are eaten in the US at Thanksgiving.

Female turkeys are called hens and don’t gobble. It is the males, known as a tom, which gobble – usually used to attract females. Hens make clucking and chirping noises.

Wonder why you fall asleep after that meal? Eating turkey can often make you feel tired because the meat contains tryptophan, an amino acid the body uses to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps regulate sleep.

Turkeys have periscopic vision, which allows it to see objects that are not in its direct line of sight. By rotating its head, the turkey has a 360-degree field of vision.

A baby turkey is known as a poult.

When a turkey becomes frightened, agitated, excited or ill, the exposed skin on its head and neck can change from its usual pale pink or bluish gray color to red, white, or blue.

A turkey’s stomach, called the gizzard, contains tiny stones that the bird has previously swallowed to help in the breakdown of food for digestion as birds do not have teeth.

Domesticated turkeys cannot fly, but wild ones can go a short distance at a speed of 55mph, while they can run 20mph.

The flap of skin that hangs over the turkey’s beak is called its snood.

LOOK around any supermarket or farm shop at this time of year and around the freezer compartments will be a sea of heads, bobbing up and down; shoppers trying to find the perfect centrepiece to their family Christmas dinner.

Look around certain fields across the county right now and you’ll see an ocean of heads, bobbing up and down; the creatures likely to end up in those shoppers’ baskets.

Because while the county is bracing itself for a period of over-indulgence and parties, December is not a good time to be a turkey.

Not, of course, that they’ll be aware of that. They won’t have ever seen a Christmas before – nor a December for that matter.

Turkey farmers will have received their hatchlings around mid-June – and come Christmas time they are at the right weight and ready for the chop… closely followed by the pot.

With each bird commanding in excess of £50, they can be a profitable business.

But competition at this time of year is fierce; not only from rival farmers, but from rival meats.

While turkey remains the traditional dish of choice, there is an increasing demand for alternatives for the Christmas dinner table – whether that is conventional alternatives such as beef, chicken or pork, to a rising appetite for game, duck or goose.

Not that any are likely to knock turkey from its platform just yet.

“There’s not a chance”, said Clive Wreathall, owner of Appledore Turkeys.

“Turkey is still the most popular meat at Christmas by a long, long way.

“Families still have turkey because it is different. Everyone can eat beef, chicken or pork all-year-round; the turkey is for Christmas – and long may that continue.”

The farmer rears 20,000 of the birds every year.

He is convinced that not only does it trump rivals on tradition and taste, but is also a healthier option too.

“Although we produce them solely for the Christmas market,” he explains, “turkey meat is one of the fastest growing meats being consumed in the UK today. Its market share – in terms of percentage and volume – grows every year.

“It’s the healthiest low-fat meat you can buy. If you take a skinless breast of turkey, it is a lot less fatty than chicken. It’s a good, solid, white meat and people are starting to have it more throughout the year.”

Certainly there is no sign of our appetite for turkey waning quite yet.

Bernard Matthews – the famous Norfolk turkey producer – ramps up production at its base by slaughtering an eye-watering 50,000 birds a day in the run-up to Christmas, for mass market distribution.

In total, some 10 million are eaten in the UK at Christmas time while 60 million are eaten in the US for Thanksgiving – the festival where turkey is once again the bird of popular choice. The question for many is whether turkey can ever make inroads when the tinsel is packed away and the sun is out.

So far, the answer is not convincing.

Chris Rook is owner of popular Kent family butchers Rook and Sons.

He believes while the turkey remains dominant at this time of the year, its impact outside of the season is minimal.

Rooks will sell more than 5,000 turkeys this month from its high street shops across the county.

Mr Rook said: “We will most probably sell more turkeys this Christmas than we have in previous years.

“It is still very strong and is still a traditional Christmas food.

“I think lots of people, including me, want to have turkey just once a year to keep it as something special.

“Although we do sell it 52 weeks of the year, it is in very small amounts. We only sell about 40 birds per week across the county. That’s not a lot.”

One farm keen to shake off the idea turkey is only for Christmas, is Coombe Farm in Sutton Valence.

Owner Anthony Fleck has been in the business for more than 30 years and rears 1,200 turkeys on his fruit farm every year.

He said: “Being a fruit farmer in the summer it fits in quite well for the winter. But we actually sell a reasonable amount now at Easter too.

“A lot of our customers will come to us asking if we have anything in the freezer for the Easter and spring period.

“That’s good news from our point of view and I would say more people are beginning to eat it year-round rather than just Christmas – especially if the meat is of good quality.”

While turkey may appear to be a quintessentially British bird, they originated in Mexico. It is believed they first came to Britain in 1526, thanks to Yorkshireman William Strickland who bought six birds from American Indian traders.

And despite Henry VIII being the first English king to enjoy a turkey meal, Edward VII is given credit for turning it in a mainstream, fashionable choice. Quite why, however, seems to have been lost in the mists of time.

Like all food industries, however, many suppliers have struggled to meet the demands of the major retailers – and the supermarket giants who occupy its top table.

With supermarkets desperate to drive the best possible deals, the squeeze on profit margins becomes intense. All too often quality comes as a cost.

The pressure from supermarkets is one reason Coombe Farm won’t deal with chain stores, instead only sellsing direct to customers or local farm shops.

Anthony Fleck has been running Coombe Farm since 1980, having taken over from his father.

“There is a reasonable margin on turkeys from the cost raising them to the money they sell for,” he explains, “but the margins being forced down on farmers is the reason we don’t deal with supermarkets.

“They will push the price down to the bare minimum.

“We do sell soft fruit to supermarkets and we do make some money at it, but we wouldn’t if we sold our turkeys to them.”

Coombe Farm rears Kelly Bronze turkeys as part of a franchise which was set up by farmer and businessman Derek Kelly, who brought the species over from Oregon in the US.

Most of the turkeys are sold for £60 to £70 depending on weight.

Mr Fleck added: “There is still the same number of people going for turkey at Christmas, although there is probably a bit more interest in goose.

“But even though ours are free range, and fetch a bit more money, comparing the price of beef or lamb with turkey you will be paying far more for the same weight.”

Mr Fleck allows the windfall of his fruit stock to be gobbled up by the turkeys, which he says helps to make a more natural and organic product.

He adds: “That’s the point about a lot of turkey that has been produced in the past – if it is force-fed, the quality of the meat is not very good.

“More people are switched onto the fact they want a quality piece of meat, and you will get that with a bronze turkey that has been raised free range.

“We use no drugs in the food or anything like that.

“If top chefs like Delia Smith are recommending Kelly Bronzes, then hopefully it will go a long way to making sure more turkeys are raised this way.”

The hatchlings arrive at the farm in mid-June less than a day old, before being nurtured indoors for five weeks then released onto the farm to live free range.

Not that it’s a particularly long life.

Mr Fleck adds: “Bronze turkeys take a little longer to get their weight so they are slightly slower growing than other types of turkey.

“We get them in mid-June and by the time we get to the end of November or beginning of December they will have reached their target weight.

“The turkeys are reared to the highest best practice standards and they have the most natural life possible. They love pecking the remains of the soft fruit, especially the blackberries.”

Turkeys are the ideal weight for slaughter after about 26 weeks.

But the short lifespan of the bird has been called into question by a number of animal protection groups who believe it is cruel to kill them at such a young age.

Tonbridge-based charity Animal Aid is opposed to all forms of animal slaughter and fights against the intensive breeding of birds.

A spokesman said: “Having secretly filmed inside nine randomly-selected British slaughterhouses in recent years, we found illegal cruelty taking place in eight of them.

“Most British turkeys are raised in filthy, crowded conditions and slaughtered at just a few months old, so live a short and miserable life before meeting a bloody end.

“Animal Aid encourages everyone to spare a turkey’s life this Christmas and consider a delicious meat-free alternative instead.”

Not that Coombe Farm falls into that bracket. It prides itself on being open to its customers.

Mr Fleck, who studied fruit farming at nearby Hadlow College, said: “In the past people didn’t want to know about that sort of thing, but they now ask how we kill them and how they are raised. That’s fair comment and we welcome it.

“It’s all about doing it properly and improving customer relationships so they know how the turkey has been brought up and looked after properly before being humanely dispatched.”

He also stressed that hygiene standards were immensely important to raising turkeys.

He said: “We only use top-quality feed and straw, and the water must be kept fresh and clean.

“I am sure there are still farms that don’t treat turkeys properly, but we invite any of our customers to come down to the farm and see the way we raise them free range.

“We have nothing to hide – and that is how it should be.”

Appledore Turkeys is another large farm in the county which specialise in rearing and selling the bird for the Christmas market.

From their 1,000-hectare farm, the Wreathall family produce turkeys for more than 150 independent butchers across the south east.

Clive Wreathall and brother Andrew are the latest to run the farm which has been in the family for 70 years.

“We do sell directly from the farm because a lot of people still like coming to the farm to pick their turkey up,” he says.

“It is a traditional thing to do.”

Though the farm is free range and the birds are treated well, Mr Wreathall is clear that turkey rearing is still very much a business.

He said: “The object of the exercise is to make money out of the business, and as long as we make money we will keep doing it.

“The market gets tougher every year. All our competitors improve every year, so we have to maintain and improve our product and the service to our customers.

“It’s a competitive market, and if you are good enough to survive you will and if you aren’t you go.

“Every industry is competitive and tough at the moment. And that is how it should be.”

At its peak, Appledore Turkeys employs 150 people to rear, pluck and oven-ready some 20,000 birds each year.

The Appledore birds are fed on a cereal-based diet of 70 per cent wheat, mixed with soya, maize, vitamins and minerals.

Mr Wreathall added: “We have been doing this for a number of years now, and although I wouldn’t say we have it perfected, we are very close.

“I live on the farm where the turkeys are reared and we really look after them.

“We love the business, it’s what we do, and we try to improve as we can.”

It may not be a great time of year for the turkey, but it certainly is for those looking forward to their traditional festive meal this season.



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